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Why We Should Join Respect – or Not?

John Nicholson


After the election, what should the left be doing? Do we need to build (another) national organisation of socialists to fight elections? Or should we all be joining Respect? Can we only succeed with a fairer electoral system? Or should socialists not be involved in elections at all?


"People not Profits", the group of Greater Manchester socialist activists who believe it is time to make a stand against privatisation and have drafted a “Charter for Public Services”, recently held a discussion on the outcome of the election - and what this means for public services. Invited participants included Green Party and Respect candidates, plus the Socialist Party and Merseyside Socialist Alliance who had also stood, and the independent candidate against PFI in Manchester Withington (where the useless Labour MP lost his seat to the Lib Dems). Members of the “provisional” Socialist Alliance emphasised their view of a need for a national umbrella for all the left to work under.


Although Respect did not attend – and the above questions were largely unanswered by any consensus at the meeting – the discussion was a start, and should not be confined to a brief post-election period.


Election Results: 

While Labour has returned to office, on policies of privatisation, EU militarisation, increased nuclear weapons (and power), further restrictions of civil liberties, continued occupation of Iraq, its majority has been dented and the Labour left may feel they have strengthened their position within Parliament. The Lib Dems seem to have benefited from opposition to the war, and seats in Greater Manchester have been lost by Labour as a result. Respect has succeeded dramatically in East London, and also gained good results in seats in Birmingham, Tottenham and Leicester. In the North West, Respect in Preston maintained the earlier success of the Socialist Alliance (2000 by-election, deposit saved; 2003, Councillor elected) and saved its deposit, and it gained 2.5% in the other seat it stood in, Stretford. 


Socialists and progressive independents mostly got a few hundred votes - across the spectrum of greens, socialist organisations, other Respect seats and so on - the Green Party did get 4.5% in both Manchester Central and Withington constituencies and the Community Action Party saved two deposits in the Wigan and Leigh areas, as Dave Nellist did for the Socialist Party in Coventry; and anti-war independents such as Reg Keys performed very visibly in Sedgefield and as Craig Murray (former Uzbekistan candidate) did against the odious Jack Straw in Blackburn.


The fascists didn't break through anywhere, but saved many deposits, as did UKIP, sometimes both fighting in the same seats to this effect. With Labour and Tories having laid the groundwork for racism, the far right has found it easy to capitalise on this - the danger still remains that if Labour isn't challenged from the left, it will be the fascists who fill any vacuum arising politically.


On the other hand, the present election system does not work in our favour. First past the post, in constituencies not representing natural communities, with non-registration of many poorer and migrant populations, and postal vote systems that work against face-to-face campaigning, add strength to the argument for a fairer electoral system. Not only was Labour elected to a parliamentary majority with barely one fifth of the possible electorate, but also more people did not vote for both Howard and Blair combined than did do so.


But can any system, under capitalism, favour socialists and democratic socialist organisation? Should we be campaigning, and not electioneering? 


Rhetorical Resistance:

In the light of its electoral successes, the answer to the above questions has in some places been turned into a simple question of joining and progressing Respect. Surprisingly, for example,  Socialist Resistance has seemed quite dismissive of socialists outside of Respect


Now, Socialist Resistance has a worthy pedigree – formed to progress the Socialist Alliance and to publicise it, with a wide range of activists, some of whom are still listed as sponsors, such as Lesley Mahmood from Merseyside Socialist Alliance. The International Socialist Group (ISG), who forms the main component, similarly has a non-sectarian and involving track record, both in and out of the Labour Party. Their members have also consistently urged the importance of having a newspaper for whichever project they are in at the time.


However, SR/ISG now perform a largely uncritical loyalist role within Respect, even criticising the rest of the left for making futile gestures in standing in the election, when they could have saved their time and money. This analysis seems to ignore the similar results that most Respect candidates achieved.


It was not always so. The ISG were, rightly, never uncritical while they were on the left of the Labour Party. Nor did they welcome the Socialist Labour Party with the same monotheism that Scargill demanded. So what has changed this time?


Leaving Labour – Third Time Lucky?

I must confess my own personal prejudices here. Despite continuing, and arguing for, Labour Party membership until the mid 1990s, I believed for most of that time that the left should have left it – en masse – at some earlier point.


The first time was after the defeat of the miners, and of left local government, both of which were trashed by Kinnock at the 1985 Labour Party Conference. Probably it was only Derek Hatton who publicly suggested that the left should all leave Labour – but the fact that he had become a self-publicist (and that he and the other Militant leaders were all about to be expelled anyway) does not mean that the analysis was necessarily wrong. The Labour left was stronger then than at any time since. The best time to form a new alternative might well have been from a position of strength, and with a recent history of activism, especially demonstrated in the support for the miners.


Instead, what happened was that Labour did expel many individuals, and almost entire local parties, where they had challenged local government cuts or the imposition of right-wing candidates to their local selection processes. There was not a “choice” about staying or leaving for these people; they were just thrown out and mostly into a void. Support for them from within the party did not amount to very much – especially when much of the Labour left was arguing for staying and fighting. (*This is the phrase with which Socialist Resistance launched its recent edition – “here to stay, here to fight” – a phrase that comes primarily from fighting anti-deportation campaigns and reads oddly for encouraging support for a political organisation, when it has only just been formed.)


The second time was after the abolition of Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution. Scargill’s analysis was, I believe, absolutely spot on. Not only was there an abandonment of any pretence of socialism but also any ways of challenging the “new” direction from within the party were removed as well.


Yet it was immediately obvious, both to the Scottish Socialist Alliance who wanted to be able to be part of the SLP, and to supporters of the emerging Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance, that there was not going to be the mass departure of the Labour left that logically should take place. Indeed, the Campaign Group supporters (in which both the AWL and ISG were prominent) overwhelmingly voted to ask Scargill to reconsider. It was left up to individuals and local groups to make a move – sometimes once again these were groups already persecuted by the Labour leadership, such as had happened in 1992 around Dave Nellist’s explusion in Coventry and then took place in 1996 to Dave Church and the Labour councillors in Walsall. But, even for those who did leave Labour in the mid 1990s, it was not automatically obvious what else there was to join. The SLP ceased to offer a democratic structure almost as soon as its constitution was found to have been agreed in advance of the potential membership having a chance to look at it. A number of local Socialist Alliances or similar groups developed, but it took another few years of local activity before these could come together in a Socialist Alliance nationally.


So is Respect the third time lucky?


“Wait and See”?:

Do we just have to “Wait and See”? - a slogan that is a lot less interesting than “Stay and Fight”.


But what is going on here? On the one hand, it could be argued that the Respect should not welcome defecting Labour “left” members into their ranks, precisely because these people should have left ages ago. Anyone who stayed through all of Blair’s bombings and privatisations and all the attacks on civil liberties, including his seeming paranoia of young people, and the feeding of racism and the maintenance of nuclear weapons and and and…. surely hasn’t got much to recommend them.


On the other hand, there is a core of members, in the somewhat over-stated “Labour Representation Committee” (reiterating the founding of the Labour Party a century ago), which includes Campaign Group MPs such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, together with trade unionists and local activists. These are arguing that the Labour Party is once again capable of moving to the left. Politically Blairism is finished (what, like Brown is any better?) – but more interestingly, organisationally, the structure is so weak, the constituency parties hardly have enough members to organise meetings, that the Party is easily susceptible to local take-over (much as it was in the late 1970s, when the Healey/Callaghan IMF cuts had discouraged membership and the Militant, followed by the IMG, began to make headway).


Such an argument for (re-)joining Labour sounds even odder, when it comes from those who have left a long time ago (even those who left correctly, at the earliest stages). But, electorally, it must be possible that there is a plateau for any socialist organisation to attain, beyond which the votes simply don’t materialise. How many campaigns over the years (including some of the local Respect campaigns) have won on the streets, out-performed the opposition in argument and debate, even gained prominence in the media, only to find that the national electoral trends deliver them a few hundred votes? – and indeed that they simply increase the Labour vote (raising consciousness that an election is taking place but receiving the wrong conclusion from the electors once they have reached the polling station). Evidence for this may come from local elections (such as Leeds) as well as across Scotland (for the Scottish Socialist Party).


This however may take the left’s desire for electoral success too far away from its more important campaigning roots. The same is true for the different but parallel argument that could be made for joining the Green Party. Admittedly, the Network of Socialist Alliances worked very closely with the left members of the Green Party in the mid-late 1990s, even so far as co-writing the constitution (which has largely descended through the Socialist Alliance even as far as Respect); but the competition within the current electoral system always prevented further progress. But now, many socialists may have supported and/or voted Green. Given their small local membership, and a possibility of electoral success, especially in councils, there is an argument that the left could influence both the Green Party disproportionately – and even win local seats.


The point in both these suggestions is that if the left is going to join anything, purely for electoral reasons, it is not even necessarily Respect.


Analysis and Action:

A better argument is to be involved in action, but at the same time to be prepared to analyse what else is going on. Inevitably this means doing different things in different places. We are faced with continuing illegal and inhumane occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq and the prospect of Bush/Blair attacks elsewhere, combined with commitments to nuclear missiles and in all probability nuclear power stations too. We are living through the de-regulation and deprivation of essential public services and a still widening gap between the richest and poorest in society, in this country and world-wide. We may not have a campaign for progressive opposition to the EU Constitution in view; but we may be facing almost irretrievable environmental destruction and climate change may only be as far away as the day after tomorrow. What we do to mobilise – ourselves and with others – against all these threats is important here and now.


This may mean some comrades in some areas joining in electoral work with other parties, including with Respect, and in doing so, no doubt this will involve arguing for democratic debates and decision-making structures. This may mean setting up broad campaigns for fairer voting systems – and for engaging with the left in other European countries, given that the next national election may be the European election of 2009. This may still mean trying to create an umbrella organisation for socialists throughout this country, to link in with local groups – and for individuals where local activity is limited – and certainly it means continuing to provide the left with information and space for debate, such as the Socialist Unity Network website is attempting to offer. But also it means activity, by socialists, as far as possible on a united basis with others, on the essential campaigning issues – such as fighting against privatisation in all its forms and for public services, as the People Not Profits group in Greater Manchester has started to do.


So although I feel that we are – still – only at the start of a discussion about the future of left organisation in this country, and although the demise of the Socialist Alliance has set us back rather than taken us forward, it does not mean that we just wait and see. The SWP may want to build Respect without the presence of the existing left – as we are “not fit” for their purposes – but this simply means that the rest of us have no choice about taking up actions for ourselves here and now. At the same time, and despite everything that has happened over the past two years, I do not think that we can build a successful party, along the lines of the SSP, without involving the SWP.


It is not about sitting and waiting, inactively. And it is still about seeing a process through – not just about one election result. Gaining socialist unity, in practice, in action, is still the long term aim.



June 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism