Witches and Russian Dolls:The Crisis in Respect

Gorgeous George, and Ugly Rumours

To the bemusement of many observers, the British radical left-wing coalition, Respect, has undergone a bitter crisis after a period of remarkable successes.  This crystallised on 17 November with two separate gatherings — one the scheduled national conference with 350 elected delegates and observers from branches across the country held in the University of Westminster, and the other a rally for ‘Renewal Respect’ held in Bishopsgate without delegates or motions, but with between 200 and 300 people present.  The confusion about all this is compounded by the fact that neither side of the dispute recognises the other’s terms.  On one side are those who argue that the split is based on a left-right dispute within the organisation; on the other are those who argue that it is based on the Socialist Workers’ Party’s alleged attempts to control the organisation.  The current effective split was precipitated by a letter from George Galloway, Respect MP for Bethnal Green & Bow, addressed to National Council members.  Leaked swiftly through the blogosphere, the document soon found its ways into local newspapers and was the basis of a chuckling feature by the right-wing journalist Michael Crick on BBC Newsnight.

The letter, a scattergun attack on various organisational problems in Respect, with the implicit target being leading SWP member and Respect National Secretary John Rees, was taken by the SWP as a manifestation of a developing left-right division in the organisation and an attack on the largest far left party in the coalition.  The basis of this claim will be explored a little later, but it is worth pointing out that many of the charges, regarding lack of accountability for example, were rather hypocritical coming from the maverick MP.  George Galloway’s current supporters described it as an overdue vindication of criticisms they themselves had been making, though their criticisms had been mainly directed at the author of the letter in the past.  Although the letter was reported in some press as an attack on the SWP, George Galloway initially disavowed any such intent.  Both SWP and non-SWP activists in Respect, such as Glyn Robbins1, suggest that a top-level meeting arranged to discuss the letter’s implications resulted in several veiled demands for the National Secretary to resign — an effort to remove the party from a key leadership role in the coalition.  Yet, the sole concrete organisational proposal that was made publicly resulted in a unanimous vote in favour of a new National Organiser position to work alongside the National Secretary, at an emergency National Council meeting.  It looked, briefly — especially as a potential general election loomed — as if unity was breaking out.

It was not to be so.  In Tower Hamlets Respect, shortly after it became clear that there would be no general election, the old divisions emerged much more strongly.  Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the United Kingdom, one of the most ethnically diverse, and one of the strongholds of Respect, with one MP and twelve councillors in the borough.  What happens there is crucial to the project as a whole.  As in other parts of Respect, the local branch had become subject to clientelism and careerism.  On various occasions, notable members attempted to purchase memberships at concessionary rates for a number of people before meetings, with the presumed intention of affecting votes on crucial matters.  One such vote would be on the delegates for the national conference that has recently taken place — a technique refined by the mainstream parties and known as “pocket members”.  In another, a handwritten list of delegates, including non-members of the branch (one nominated entirely because they worked George Galloway’s office) was presented out of the blue, 90 minutes into the meeting.  Following objections from the floor, the chair, who supported the handwritten list, abruptly walked out with a number of members in tow.  Those remaining at the meeting mandated a list of delegates from the branch that had been drawn up and submitted before the meeting.

At a subsequent committee meeting, George Galloway MP arrived and denounced the SWP.  He argued that they were “Leninists”, “Russian dolls” who had no business being in the leadership of Respect.  The implication was that the party was an outside element, its membership composed of Manchurian Candidate-style foils, trying to control the Respect coalition, a claim that has since been made explicit, despite its patent absurdity.  To put it moderately, the SWP has always comprised a minority in both the membership of Respect and in its leadership positions and could therefore not possibly ‘control’ Respect.  More importantly, the attempted removal of the “Leninists” from all leadership positions would have constituted a drastic overhaul of the coalition, calling into question its viability.  The SWP maintained that the conduct of George Galloway’s supporters in Tower Hamlets Respect constituted a witch-hunt, and also that the attempt to subordinate the party within Respect was a broader attack on the socialist Left within the coalition.2  The charge of a witch-hunt from an organisation that has defended George Galloway against several attacks on him by the establishment and mainstream press has a particular sting to it.  The retort has been that many socialists in the organisation, such as the ISG, support George Galloway’s position, and therefore it could not be an attack on the socialist left.  If you take this argument seriously, then it follows that there was no left-right split over the war on Iraq, since a number of people who place themselves on the Left supported it.  A moment’s exercise of the imagination suggests that the weakening or removal of the largest socialist organisation within the coalition would substantially weaken the influence of other socialists in the coalition.

One of George Galloway’s problems with the SWP’s strategy in Respect was the decision to support the young left-wing radical Sultana Begum as a candidate for Shadwell council, rather than the local businessman Harun Miah.  A bye-election had emerged, resulting from the decision of one councillor to resign, itself arguably a result of pressures on the local organisation by the Labour Party machine.  To avoid these pressures causing further problems, members of the Tower Hamlets branch argued that only a candidate with a fighting spirit could adequately defend Respect’s principles and spare the organisation future departures of this kind.  In the event, the SWP did not win this argument, and when Harun Miah was selected as the candidate, its members campaigned for him and helped him win the seat under difficult circumstances.  The very fact of the decision to back an alternative selection was a cause of concern.  Galloway disputed the idea that there was much difference between Miah and Begum as candidates, but more importantly took issue with the idea that one should even make such an argument or back an alternative candidate.

At any rate, following a period of sustained in-fighting in the local organisation, four Bengali councillors decided that the battles at committee meetings and the nature of the leadership of the Respect council group, meant that they had to resign the whip.  They would remain members of the organisation, but not accept the discipline of the council group leader, Abjol Miah.  One leading member of the local organisation declared that this meant that they had expelled themselves.  The National Secretary defended the four councillors publicly and insisted that they remained members of the coalition.  At this point, an e-mail sent out from the national office of Respect maintained that the Socialist Workers’ Party had split from the organisation — only to be closely followed by a further e-mail from the same office, pointing out that this was not the case.  At the same time, a press release from George Galloway’s spokesperson sacked the elected candidate from standing as the London mayoral candidate.  The final act was the declaration that there would be an alternative rally on the day of the official Respect conference, headed by George Galloway MP and his supporters.  A new website, entitled ‘Respect Renewal’, was set up.3  The doors of the Respect office, sublet to the organisation by George Galloway MP, were locked, with staff barred from entering.  It was therefore abundantly clear that the two separate events would lead to the formation of separate organisations.  On the night before the events, BBC Newsnight took salacious glee in reporting on the worsening divisions — and worse, a number of supporters of George Galloway took part in the programme to ram the divisions home.

Before I come to the conferences on 17 November, there is a pressing point of interpretation.  A number of people have described this split as one over Islam, or one between the SWP and non-SWP components of Respect.  Both interpretations rely on an unsustainable demonology.  In the first instance, both conferences contained Muslims and non-Muslims, black and white people, men and women.  Muslims as the number one oppressed group in British society today have always been an essential part of Respect, and often the most radical members of it.  The second interpretation overlooks the fact that the overwhelming majority of branches of Respect sent delegates to the national conference and voted overwhelmingly for the position supported by the SWP, while most of the speakers in the conference were non-SWP members.  As will become clearer, the schism lies much deeper than misleading red-baiting or Islamophobic rhetoric would have one believe.

Left, Right.

The official Respect conference was the one I attended, and it was over-booked.  Westminster University was unable to provide an overflow facility, and so 90 of the would-be observers from across the country were unable to attend.  The capacity of the hall, usually full during the sessions, was 350.  The guest speakers included Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition; Sami Ramadani of Iraq Occupation Focus; François Duval of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire; Jane Loftus, president of the CWU (postal workers’ union);  Derek Wall of the Green Party; recently sacked trade-unionist Karen Reissmann; and Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS (the civil servants’ union).4  They were there to, among other things, provide the big picture against which this crisis was unfolding.  The members were there in a variety of spirits but one of them was a feeling of solidarity, and shared indignation at the way Respect had been practically torn apart without any reference to the membership, through leaks on the blogosphere and in the media.  This was a point that frequently came up on the floor during the debate, especially since those responsible had simply evaded the members by declaring the scheduled conference ‘unconstitutional’ and calling a separate rally.

The chief analytical framework was supplied by National Secretary John Rees, whose report to the conference argued that the dispute was one produced by success.  Four years ago, we had no record, we had to hunt for candidates to stand for us, and we had to persuade hundreds of people to fight for a left-of-Labour candidate simply on the basis of the political arguments — probably not even expecting to win, but believing in the principle of it.  Now, it is no longer the case that people are only coming to Respect because of principle — now, people are coming because the best way to be elected is through Respect.  Partially as a result of such pressures, we lost two councillors.  One of them crossed the floor to become part of New Labour, and the other resigned, causing the bye-election in Shadwell.  There has been enormous pressure from the Labour machine — several people have been approached to leave Respect and join Labour, not only to be councillors for them, but they have been told that the sitting could be deselected and they could become parliamentary candidates.  Preston councillor Michael Lavalette was told that if he would go for Labour, they would work to de-select Mark Hendrick MP.   Sometimes, Rees argued, George Galloway has resisted those pressures, but at other times he hasn’t.  It makes no sense to select a candidate who could, six or nine months later, undermine the project and make us look like any other party.  After all, the most damaging thing that New Labour has done is to take the politics out of politics — you know what they say, it is no longer about ideology, but about delivery.  If you take the ideology away, what’s left is careerism, avarice and opportunism. 

We know from Labour Party history that you can pass great resolutions and be committed to the best policies, but if you don’t elect the people who can fight for them, the resolutions don’t make a difference.  Part of the problem has come from our strategy — in a first-past-the-post system, we sought to maximise our advantage in the strongest areas, in the hope that other places could follow.  But this does create problems, and we needed to be broader.  At the 2006 conference, we therefore committed to support the Organising for Fighting Unions (OFFU) conference and get involved directly in the labour movement.  It’s been a lie, but a constant theme of our critics, that Respect doesn’t stand for gay rights.  So, we put this specific emphasis on the Gay Pride parade.  The other side of this debate, Rees argued, is pessimistic about where we can go, and want to concentrate on a few areas of strength.  If a former NUM miners’ union official like Ray Holmes can be elected as a Respect councillor in Bolsover, there are no no-go areas for Respect.

The speakers from the floor corroborated some of this analysis with anecdotes from local branches.  For example, Jackie Turner from Tower Hamlets Respect spoke of the opportunism that had poisoned Respect’s successes.  The former Labour councillor Mortuza had signed up with Respect, apparently hoping to be the leader of the group.  He left when it didn’t work out to stand for Labour (he lost to a Respect candidate).  Others tried the same, and left for the Liberals when they didn’t get their way.  Kumar Murshid, a former Labour councillor and adviser to London mayor Ken Livingstone, said on the topic of ‘pocket membership’:  “you can’t have a democratic party that allows last-minute mass membership in the ownership of one or two individuals . . . Many of the people in the other rally are people we have tried to work with, but who don’t believe in open democracy.  And I have seen this in Tower Hamlets, and we had to take a stand against that.”  Rania Khan, one of the four Tower Hamlets councillors who had resigned the whip, explained that, encouraged by the National Secretary to remain in the Respect councillors’ group, “we tried our best, but the struggles became too hard, and we couldn’t continue.  The real principles of Respect were being forgotten because the committee meetings were lost to infighting.”  Student delegate Noreen Fatima argued against the idea that the split was something to do with Islam being incompatible with left-wing politics.  Instead, she argued that the principles of Respect — peace, equality and justice — had always been those of Islam.  But one abiding principle, she said, was democracy.  And that was not being upheld by those who abandoned the highest national decision-making body in the country to convoke a ‘Renewal’ rally.

The two speakers from the antiwar movement, Sami Ramadani and Andrew Murray, appealed for unity to be preserved at the level of the Stop the War Coalition, especially in light of the imminent danger of an unprovoked attack on the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Sami pointed out that a case is being built against that country, accusing it not only of seeking nuclear weapons and threatening genocide, but of contributing to the killings of US soldiers in Iraq.  These are all the hot buttons that usually stimulate Congress into military action.  The overriding priority in this situation has to be one of unity.  Andrew Murray argued: “The truth is, we have a responsibility to the British people, and to the people around the world — however big the difference between Westminster and Bishopsgate looks here, it is invisible in Beirut and Baghdad.  We have to recall that we are a small margin between life and death for thousands of people.”  But he also took the time to applaud the SWP’s role in the antiwar movement, and in particular to pay tribute to John Rees, who “has been a real pleasure to work with as a comrade . . . And I must say I don’t recognise the man in some of the things that are now being said about him.”

The best-received speech was from Mark Serwotka, who brought to bear an acute analysis of the dilemmas faced by the British Left — the labour movement’s leader in tow to a party that it essentially hostile to its needs; a neoliberal consensus regnant in the mainstream parties; a crisis of representation in parliament and elsewhere; and a desperate need for a party to the left of Labour to challenge all this.  Serwotka is not a member of Respect, but he has supported all parties that have tried to formulate this, and he remains convinced that any future organisation must be much broader than either of the two emerging organisations, which is surely correct.  Yet, he said that he had declined the invitation to speak at the ‘Renewal Respect’ rally, for the following reason: “I have always believed in unity.  Who is the happiest when some people split from Respect?  Gordon Brown.  He sees this as an opportunity.  My appeal is for unity, but there can never be unity in a left-wing organisation when people attack and witch hunt other socialists.”  He urged the conference to take the one essential step to avoid splits like these consuming the organisation or driving it to the right in future: root it in the organised labour movement.

One, Two, Three, Many Renewals. . . ?

It is clear from the reports and video recordings online that the ‘Renewal’ rally left many present feeling very optimistic.   Between 200 and 300 people attended, and there were some members of Respect present.  Several of the speakers at the national conference also spoke at the ‘Renewal’ rally, including Andrew Murray, Sami Ramadani, and Derek Wall.  The Socialist Unity blog reports that the rally announced an intention of recruiting 10,000 people, and raising £100,000 to fight in the election.5  There was even an element of relief detectible.  Abjol Miah remarked that all that had happened was that the organisation had shaken off some “leeches”, and now things could really get started.  Nick Wrack described a “feeling of liberation”.  George Galloway, in a venomous oratory, spent much time denouncing the party that he had been allied to.6  Only a couple of months before the split began, he was at the SWP’s annual Marxism event, commending it for bringing together all “the tribes of the British Left” for a matchless intellectual event.  Now he wore his spleen very much on his sleeve.  The SWP did not, he said, ever want to see Respect become a mass organisation, because they had only ever wanted to control the organisation.  He attacked the claim that there was a witch-hunt, or a left-right split, by suggesting that he himself was neither a right-winger or a witch-hunter.  He pointed out that several of the people with him — such as former trade unionist Linda Smith, and Trotskyist figurehead Alan Thornett — were not right-wingers, and that too is assuredly the case.  The least that could be said about this is that did not meet the argument on its own level.  No one has accused George Galloway MP of being a ‘right-winger’ in any conventional sense.  The argument is that in the context of arguments over Respect’s strategy, George Galloway and his supporters are taking the coalition to the right.  At any rate, having foresworn personal attacks, Galloway went on to accuse the John Rees of “driving away members” and attacked the SWP’s allies in Respect as “juvenile dwarves”.  He then pleaded for an end to anathematism, and for democracy and pluralism.

George was evidently adept at making the audience feel wonderful and complimenting his supporters on the platform.  Although he had told one person that the dispute was a war against “Trotskyism”, he took particular pains to flatter one of the Trotskyists on the platform.  Yet, I regret to say that we have seen this before.  Not long ago, he would pile such praise on John Rees that I expected the pair of them to tango off together to the sound of Habanera.  His book, I’m Not the Only One, contains high praise for leading SWP members.  It is difficult to resist the thought that his current allies, too, may find themselves on the wrong side of the pugnacious pugilist from Dundee.  There are reasons for this.  It is reasonably well known in Respect that both Salma Yaqoob and Alan Thornett, leading members of Respect, had been in favour of disciplining George Galloway and forcing a public apology in light of his catastrophic appearance on Big Brother.  It would have been the effective end of his political career.  They are now his leading allies, but on no more solid political basis than that they had to get away from an alliance with the SWP.  The ISG, an almost moribund organisation which Alan Thornett leads, announced that it was ready to wind up its only newspaper Socialist Resistance, and it appears to be ready to give itself almost completely to the new organisation.  I tentatively suggest that the ISG may not win in the ensuing ideological battle.  Those who suppose that they are about to come by a wealth of accountability in the new organisation are also those who complained about George Galloway’s lack of accountability in the original one.  Even then, it was a strange criticism to make — George’s maverick sensibility, and his reliance on an insular clique of advisers and doers, is arguably one of the things that protected him from the domesticating trends within New Labour.  He is no more about to abandon this modus operandi now than he was in 2004.

There does not, on the whole, seem to have been a great deal of analysis of the nature of the problems faced by the British Left in the ‘Renewal’ rally, or indeed much acknowledgment that the split is itself a huge problem — quite the contrary, in fact.  The reports and video recordings cut the impression of a Pop Idol concert without a Simon Cowell to put things in perspective.  A number of Socialist Workers’ Party members did turn up at the rally to put the case for unity, but received short shrift.  I fear that while the ‘Renewal Respect’ rally floated many lofty ambitions and expressed much resentment at the way the split had been characterised by the SWP, it did not demonstrate any possible basis for unity in the future.  And this is to be lamented.  Neither side of this dispute should entertain any illusions about the uphill struggle that awaits us.  Respect has lots its best-known figurehead and a number of councillors.  Galloway was never going to be around forever, but the circumstances of his departure have clearly been regrettable.  ‘Renewal Respect’ is not quite an organisation, and it consists of a number of former leading members in Respect, without the membership base or the pool of activists it once had.  Only the most hubristic assessment would seriously end with an imaginary 10,000 members and a hundred grand in the post.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

The split has been agonizing enough, but it has been made worse by sadistic commentators who insist on peppering their insights with entirely banal and fruitless Monty Python jokes.  The “Judean People’s Front” is not necessarily, or even usually, a witty reference — but it does characterise a certain liberal conception of left-wing politics as a quasi-religious affair riddled with comical fall-outs, spats, sectarianism and so on.  Such an apolitical analysis invites despair and withdrawal from activity.  The reality is that the split emerges from different conceptions of Respect.  I would argue that those who insist that there was no left-right basis to the argument implicitly accept the Life of Brian depiction, as long as they can place all the blame on someone else.  They also simplistically gloss over the facts of the case when they refuse to engage with the deeper structural problems that have afflicted Respect, which are not reducible to the malign influence of one component.

Yet, there are reasons to be optimistic beyond the soothing bromides.  For one thing, the British antiwar movement remains the place where differences are set aside, and where people work effectively together.  Far from being on the downswing, as some claim, last year was its most active year in its history, and the one in which its pressure brought Tony Blair to an early retirement.  It has had a massive boost in recruitment on colleges, and its activity will be extraordinarily important in the coming months and years.  Secondly, the labour movement is not quite as dead as Gordon Brown would wish.  Whether it is postal workers, civil servants, tube drivers, teachers or nurses, organised labour is in ferment.  Trade unionists are increasingly wondering why they fund a party that consistently attacks them and are pressuring for democratised political funds.  Thirdly, the crisis of the Labour Party is undiminished.  Gordon Brown’s nosedive in the polls comes as he re-affirms his commitment to Third Way cynosures and Bush’s Drang nach Osten.  Party allegiance in British politics is in decline, and the heartlands of Labourism are potentially open to challenge from the Left.  Mark Serwotka’s argument that the organised working class is the best and surest basis for future left-wing unity is crucial.  The alternative is ego politics and careerism.


1  Glyn Robbins, ‘Here I Stand’, 25 October 2007, reproduced on former Respect activist Liam MacUaid’s blog: <liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2007/10/25/here-i-stand/>.

2  See, ‘The Record: the SWP and Respect’, 3 November 2007: <swp.org.uk/respect_cc.php>.

3  <www.respectrenewal.org/>.

4  Most of their speeches can be accessed at: <youtube.com/profile_videos?user=adycousins>.

5  ‘Respect Renewed’, Socialst Unity, 19 November 2007: <www.socialistunity.com/?p=1080>.

6  Video recordings of all speeches  at the ‘Renewal’ rally can be found here.

Originally from Northern Ireland, Richard Seymour is a political activist who lives, works, studies, and writes in London.  He maintains a weblog known as Lenin’s Tomb: <http://leninology.blogspot.com>.

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