What the election means
Those of us on the left
who are not enamoured of the Respect project must resist the temptation to damn
with only faint praise. Instead we should recognise that the victory of George
Galloway in Bethnal Green, and the almost as good results for Salma Yaqoob,
Lindsay German and Oli Rahman, is of historic importance.
New Labour has been
punished for the crimes of the Iraq war, and the authority of Blair as the war
leader who can deliver British military support for George Bush has been
crushed. Although Labour won the election, Blair stands personally defeated in
the eyes of his party, of his country and of the whole world. As George Galloway
says: "Within minutes the voicemail and
text memory of my mobile phone were full with messages of congratulation from
Fallujah, Baghdad, Lebanon and many other places that have so much reason to
detest what Blair has done in our name."
The victory is all the sweeter because Blair has been humbled by those beneath
his consideration, the poor of London's most deprived borough, the families of
immigrants and those of us who Blair describes as the "forces of conservatism",
we who believe that the solidarity of organised labour is still the hope of the
Writing in the
Independent last week, Mo Mowlem commented that with a dramatically reduced
parliamentary majority, Blair must now negotiate with his back-benchers, and his
weakened authority may increase the preparedness of backbench Labour MPs to
resist the neo-labourist agenda. Mowlem points out that Blair probably lacks the
personal parliamentary skill, and background in the traditions of his Party, to
accomplish this. Whether he survives or not, the abiding image of Blair will now
always be of his haunted eyes, hiding behind an impassive mask, as he stood just
feet behind Reg Keys, the man whose son Blair has killed, as Keys in a dignified
and moving speech stripped any comfort away from Blair's pyrrhic triumph.
But in order to
understand the implications of the election, we must also look at the bigger
picture. I was very surprised to read the following in the SWP's internal
mailing, Party Notes: "Some comrades are
asking why party notes on Friday didn't concentrate more on the poorer Respect
results. The answer is simple. Galloway's election victory means that all bets
are off. Even if your local result was disappointing, the Bethnal Green and Bow
result means that we can build a whole new Respect in your area in short order.
Of course we have to learn many lessons from each local campaign. Of course we
have to ask if we were able to tap into the networks that Respect keyed into in
East London and Birmingham. But it would be crazy to generalise from a poor vote
when we have just had an MP elected. Votes in Birmingham, Tottenham and Preston
show that this was not East End exceptionalism. The main lesson to learn is that
Respect is now in a completely different league from anything else the left has
produced in this country for 60 years."
Respect's good votes
predominantly came in about 10 constituencies, where there was no prospect of a
Tory victory, and where there were large Moslem populations. Some of the poorer
Respect votes, in safe Labour seats like Luton South, or Bradford North probably
do reflect weaker campaigns, and the SWP's argument is correct here that the
positive energy gained by Galloway's victory may be able to correct any such
This is a very important consideration, that most class conscious workers still
have loyalty, however reluctantly, to the electoral party of organised Labour.
Where the opposite prevailed, and the contest became a close Tory/Labour
marginal then Respect's vote suffered badly - this is particularly clear in
Respect's results in Hove and Dorset South, as with the Socialist Green Unity
Coalition results in North Swindon and Crawley. We must understand this if we
are to explain how excellent candidates like Tony Staunton in Plymouth, or
Heather Falconer in Neath, who will have fought energetic and imaginative
campaigns, performed so poorly.
So there are three
questions to be answered: i) is the political context behind Respect's victory
going to continue sufficiently to sustain it, ii) do the community and faith
networks that sustained Respect's campaign in Birmingham and East London even
exist in other parts of the country; iii) can Respect attract wider support,
particularly from trade unionists breaking from New Labour?
Galloway's article in
response to his victory makes an interesting argument. "Not
since 1945 has a party to the left of Labour in England won a seat in
parliament. Then it was Phil Piratin, Communist hero of the Jewish East End.
Today it is Respect, standing in his old constituency. Sixty years ago Piratin's
victory came as the Labour Party was cementing its hegemony over the British
working class. Today it comes as New Labour is shredding those bonds, leaving in
its wake the bitter tears of those it has taken for granted for far too long.
The meaning of our victory is that those people can no longer be taken for
I don't think it is
nit-picking to point out that in 1945 there were 4 left of Labour MPs elected.
In addition to the Communist, Phil Piratin, in Stepney, Willie Gallagher
retained his Fife seat for the CP,
Naomi Mitchison won Chelmsford for
the left wing Common Wealth party; and Independent Labour candidate, D N Pritt
(the Galloway of his age?) was also returned to parliament. Piratin and
Gallagher both built their success on years of solid campaigning in their
communities, and in particular Phil Piratin had built his reputation fighting
over housing issues. In contrast, Pritt was elected as Labour MP for Hammersmith
North in 1935, but was expelled from the Labour Party for supporting the Soviet
invasion of Finland. He fought the seat again in 1945 and beat the official
Labour candidate in a bad tempered, acrimonious battle.
the far-left MPs elected in 1945 were elected on the back of resentment over the
issue of the delayed second front. There was a widespread perception in the
Labour movement that the US and British governments had deliberately delayed the
invasion of France in order to allow the Soviet Union to endure the brunt of the
fighting. This was particularly true of the Common Wealth party, who had won a
series of spectacular by-elections during the war. But the high point of their
electoral success was also a catharsis over the issue upon which it was
very real questions for Respect are whether its electoral success is solely
based upon opposition to the Iraq war, and the degree to which Labour has "shed
its bonds" as Galloway puts it with the working class. One lesson that may be
drawn in Millbank from this election is that by playing a big scare card about
the Tories they have got way with it, and under our current electoral system,
they can indeed take the working class vote for granted.
If Blair goes and is replaced
by Brown, and particularly if British troops are withdrawn from Iraq over the
next 12 months, under whatever terms, then the electorate may consider the task
of electorally removing Blair as "mission accomplished". Like in 1945 the
protest vote may itself have given catharsis, and allow the Labour Party to move
on, under a new leader.
Although Respect's achievements are great in forging an alliance with Islamic
leaders and community activists over the question of the war, it is not a recipe
that can easily be used
areas with only small Moslem faith communities. The Iraq war is unlikely to
dominate the British political agenda indefinitely, and once the issue becomes
less important then unless Respect can present itself as a national organisation
with aspirations to real influence, then it will struggle to maintain relevance
for its Islamic component. Another very real danger is that the backbone of
Respect in many parts of the country is the SWP, but they will only prioritise
Respect work in elections, in the same way they did in the Socialist Alliance.
Even where there are good intentions, the "party building" imperative will push
them on to building for G8, then Marxism, then an autumn Stop the War demo, etc.
For each of these (in themselves commendable) activities their activists will
work wearing their SWP hats, not through Respect.
strategic opportunity for the left resides in the conflict between the Labour
Party's neo-liberal agenda, and its own base in the trade unions, particularly
in the public sector. The structural and constitutional changes in the Labour
party symbolised by the removal of Clause Four also marginalise the left, and it
is hard to see how the Labour Party will ever again attract and retain lay union
and community activists. To a certain degree our opportunities to build
something out of this have been severely compromised by Arthur Scargill's
authoritarianism in the SLP, and by the behaviour of the SWP in destroying the
Nevertheless, Respect seems poorly placed to engage with this constituency. It
should be remembered that leading members of the Socialist Alliance from a
Labour Party background were hounded out of Respect at last year's conference.
The organisation is profoundly undemocratic, as we have seen from the bully boy
tactics used in Birmingham and Cambridge Respect to exclude any non-SWP
socialist voices. Similar murky goings on were reported from Luton. What is
more, there is a disregard for conference decisions, last year's conference
voted that there would be a national publication in the lead up to the general
election, but this has not appeared. Even though this decision was hailed as an
important gain by the International Socialist
Group (ISG), as a stepping
stone for Respect becoming a broad party, their members of the national steering
committee seem to have been unable to ensure that it was enacted. Nor is
Galloway an uncomplicated figure, or one who will draw support from the trade
victory of Labour for a third term will be of historic significance. New Labour
seems set for an early confrontation with the public sector over pensions. The
limited concessions given to the unions at Warwick will need to be enacted by
Labour in full; and rebellions by left Labour
MP's may have an effect on the government's legislative programme not seen since
the Callaghan government. This is a far better situation than we would have been
in had Blair enjoyed a landslide victory or had the Tories won. But we should
also be clear that the result is not the product of the popular will, but of our
peculiar and undemocratic electoral system, where governments are won or lost by
a few thousand, undecided, swing voters in a handful of marginal constituencies.
This means that the Labour government is still out of step with the electorate,
and we can expect battles where the left inside and outside the Labour Party
must support each other.
recent victory of Matt Wrack, a socialist with an impeccable record of struggle
and respect for democracy, as the leader of the Fire-brigades union; combined
with the current position of the railworkers' union the RMT, whose general
secretary Bob Crow recently called for a new workers' party, may also create
exciting possibilities in the medium term; although the composition of the
national executives of each union will also prove influential.
have made a significant advance, but for the workers' movement to capitalise
upon that gain requires that Respect resists hubris. Overall the Greens did
better than Respect, and are a more mature organisation with less precarious
electoral base. What is more the Greens
continue to evolve in a leftwards direction.
There remain many thousands of
socialist activists without a home, most of whom do not find themselves
attracted by Respect, for many reasons, but not least due to its undemocratic
internal structure. Many thousands of others will remain in the Labour Party
believing that they can recapture it from the neo-labourites.
we must work together. But this will only be done by practical collaboration
over immediate issues. There will be no shortage of campaigns to unite over,
from ID cards, to the No campaign for the European constitution, in defence of
the public sector pensions, over the environment, and in opposition to George
Bush's imperial ambitions. The leadership of Respect must take their
responsibilities seriously and work to ensure
that their organisation becomes inclusive and democratic,
and a sea-change is required in the activities and behaviour of those members of
the SWP who regard Respect as their personal property.