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Car crash on the left

The increasingly bitter division of Respect into two conflicting factions looks set to destroy the most effective electoral challenge to the left of Labour in many years. Alex Nunns spoke to the main protagonists on either side of the split

December 2, 2007
16 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


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‘A spectacular car crash’ is how George Galloway MP describes the split in the Respect coalition. An initiative that can boast more electoral success in England than any other left group outside Labour since the Communist Party in its heyday, has torn itself apart less than four years after its inception. The row exploded in late August when Galloway penned a letter critical of the Socialist Workers Party – by far the biggest group within Respect. In response, according to one member of Respect’s national council, the SWP leadership decided to ‘go nuclear’.

A brief period of compromise quickly gave way to escalation on both sides, ending in a complete breakdown. The balance of forces made for a fairly even split on the national council, and soon there were two groups claiming to be the legitimate Respect. In one corner stood the SWP and Respect national secretary John Rees (also of the SWP’s central committee), presiding over the apparatus. In the other was Galloway, Salma Yaqoob, Ken Loach and nearly all the non-SWP members of the national council. The SWP described it as a left-right split, saying that Galloway and his allies had moved right, chasing Muslim votes for the expected snap election, and had then attacked and witch-hunted the left. The other side dismissed this as fantasy, instead slamming the SWP leadership for its control freakery.

Genesis of the row

The genesis of the row lay in the manner of Respect’s formation. The coalition was hastily pulled together after the Iraq war to give electoral expression to the anti-war movement. The aim was to reach out to a wide constituency – peace activists, Muslims, socialists, disaffected Labour supporters and trade unionists. But due to a tight electoral timetable, some felt that the new formation came as a fait accompli that failed to capitalise on the breadth of the movement. Others from the Socialist Alliance, the previous electoral initiative which the SWP dumped in favour of Respect, saw the new coalition as opportunist and bound to fail.

There was also concern about an organisation based on an alliance between the SWP and a controversial charismatic figure. Galloway, one of the best orators in the country, has been central to Respect’s success. But he is regarded even by supporters as a maverick. For its part, the SWP has a habit of building spokespeople up, seemingly always to knock them down again. And sure enough, where once it defended him, the SWP can now be heard attacking Galloway over Big Brother and his earnings.

Whatever George Galloway is, he is not a control freak, and he has come to agree that the coalition was not broad enough at the outset. ‘The roots of this problem definitely are in the fact that not enough groups, trends, parties or individual personalities came into Respect,’ he told Red Pepper. ‘Therefore the perception was created that it was an organisation dominated by the SWP, who have form, or dominated by me, or, later, dominated by Muslims.’ In particular, Galloway and others regret that the Communist Party of Britain voted against joining, which they believe would have acted as a counter-balance to the SWP and influenced developments on the Labour left and in the unions – an area where Respect has not forged the alliances it had hoped.

Successes

Yet despite these factors Respect did well. At its high point it could boast 16 councillors, 12 of whom made up the official opposition on Tower Hamlets council. In Birmingham, Salma Yaqoob was elected with 49 per cent of the vote; in Preston, councillor Michael Lavalette increased his vote as a Respect candidate after initially being elected for the Socialist Alliance in 2003. And famously Galloway was elected MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. More than this, in Muslim areas Respect gave a political voice to some of the most disadvantaged and alienated people in society, bringing them into democratic politics and acting, in Galloway’s words, as ‘the antidote to fundamentalism’.

According to John Rees, these achievements brought an electoral pressure that ultimately led to the split. The SWP leadership does not accept that its conduct was the issue. ‘With success came problems,’ he says. ‘When we started we had to hunt around for people to stand as candidates. Now tens of people come forward for nomination in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham. Some of these people are there because they’ve been frustrated elsewhere, and not because they agree with the principles.’ ‘The key question is how do you respond to that electoral pressure?’ says Rees. ‘Do you select people who are community leaders no matter what, or do you say we want electoral success but not at any price?’

Communalism

This logic led to the most incendiary accusation levelled in the row: communalism, a word that in Respect circles is equivalent to saying poppadom on Big Brother. In March the SWP used the term in an internal publication, saying that in Birmingham ‘serious elements of Respect are pulled by communalist forces’. (Like all the key documents throughout the crisis, it found its way on to the internet. Blogs have been the battlefield in this war, making democratic centralism infinitely more problematic and forever changing the way left political groups fall apart.)

A later SWP release explained: ‘Promising favours to people who posed as the “community leaders” of particular ethnic or religious groupings if they would use their influence to deliver votes … is what is known as … “communal” politics’. In Birmingham, because Respect had in February this year selected seven Pakistani men to stand in its target seats, it was ‘doing what our opponents had always accused us falsely of doing – acting as a cross-class party whose horizons were limited to representing just one “community”‘. These events ‘could seem to confirm’ to others that Respect was a ‘communalist party’.

Salma Yaqoob, at whom these accusations were especially directed, rebutted them fiercely, saying she is the figure most closely associated with addressing ‘communal’ tensions between African-Caribbean and Asian communities in Birmingham. She believes the criticism stems from frustration at the low number of SWP members elected as councillors.

‘They should be working hard to build in weaker areas, like they have in Preston and Bristol,’ she says of the SWP. ‘But the leadership want to put their candidates into ‘safe seats’. To me it’s like leeching behaviour. When Muslims are their vote fodder, we’re the community. When they don’t get their way, we’re the communalists.’

The underlying factor is the uneven development of Respect across the country, and the tension between a predominantly socialist and SWP-influenced national organisation and a localised, not exclusively socialist support base largely centred in Muslim community groups. Partly this is down to the strategy of targeting areas with the best chance of success – a necessary response to the British electoral system. As John Rees says, ‘Under first past the post you have to do it to make a breakthrough and establish yourself as a serious player’.

The result was great success in east London, Birmingham and Preston, where a significant proportion of the voters are Muslim, as well as Bolsover, where there are no Muslims, but nothing in many other areas. Some Respect branches are moribund, while Tower Hamlets is huge, with around 570 members, entitling it to around a quarter of the delegates at the coalition’s annual conference.

Tower Hamlets

This has made the borough the centre of the strife. First, the selection of conference delegates was contested in a series of highly charged meetings, then four SWP-sympathising councillors resigned the whip, prompting the other side to declare that the SWP had split Respect.

The row centred around Abjol Miah, the leader of Respect’s Tower Hamlets councillors and close to Galloway, and councillor Oliur Rahman from the SWP camp, who led the breakaway group. Miah, tipped as a parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow when Galloway moves to neighbouring Poplar at the next election, believes the SWP was reacting to a loss of control.

‘They never forecast that the community would outgrow them in Tower Hamlets,’ he says. ‘To start with they had a majority in meetings of eight people, but now we have 570 members of which they are about 30. They can’t bully people. If anything the SWP were being communalist in the way they acted. When it was an advantage for them to use so-called Muslim “businessmen” they did. It was like a chess game for them. Now it’s not going their way they have a problem with it.’

According to one former leading SWP member, the turning point was May 2006, when John Rees stood for Tower Hamlets council but came 200 votes short of winning a seat. All 12 elected councillors were Bangladeshi. The SWP leadership started to fall out of love with Respect, believing it was increasingly controlled by ‘reformist’ forces and that the SWP was not getting its fair share of the spoils or growing its own membership. Nevertheless, according to the source, the leadership continued to compromise for the sake of getting SWP central committee member Lindsay German elected to the Greater London Assembly in 2008.

Even John Rees believes he made errors. ‘The mistake I made was not to raise the situation in Tower Hamlets nationally, because I didn’t want to make a local issue into a national argument. We [the SWP] gave away too much ground in Tower Hamlets and were too soft with George. But that’s the real world … We should have raised the issue of the accountability of our elected representatives after the 2006 local elections.’

Personal or political?

It can seem like the split in Respect is entirely down to organisational issues and personality clashes, and nothing to do with policy. But both sides in the dispute insist it is political. For Yaqoob, ‘the way the SWP works has become a point of principle, because that’s not how to build a pluralistic coalition. People can’t believe they are the sole repositories of the truth. We were trying to replicate the experience of the anti-war movement, where the SWP were good – to give credit and support to the broad movement without taking over.’

Galloway echoes this vision. ‘There are people who agree with us on quite a significant number of things, who definitely don’t describe themselves as radical left. However, if we’re to have a meaningful force, you have to have them on board. So it has to be pluralist, democratic, mutually respectful, and no one section or force can be allowed to dominate it. Now I thought the SWP agreed with that, but if you will the end you have to will the means.’

For Rees it is political in a different way. ‘In an electoral organisation it’s very important who gets selected,’ he says. ‘If you have candidates who rarely turn up on demos and don’t articulate policy effectively then the candidates become an issue as to whether the policies come off the paper. And the lack of a strong socialist spine allows us to be picked off – one of the Tower Hamlets councillors defected to Labour.’

Galloway wholly disagrees. ‘You cannot have a Leninist group micro-managing a Respect branch of 570 people,’ he says. ‘What does it matter if Mr A or Mrs B is the branch secretary of Respect? If you decide that not only do you prefer Mr A, you’re going to whip all your members along to a meeting and try to exclude other people on bureaucratic grounds, you will be suspected, in this case correctly, of control freakery for the sake of it. This is impossible.

‘In my concept these organisational issues first of all are not that important, and secondly if decisions are not made by negotiation it’s the beginning of the end if you start packing the meetings to decide them on a hands-up for dumpling basis. That’s fatal.’

Front organisation?

A further criticism of the way the SWP has operated is that it has treated Respect as something to be taken out of the drawer at election time, without allowing it to have an independent life. This allegation is made about Manchester, where there are two Respect branches, North and South.

The North branch has a core of members who have left the SWP, such as Clive Searle from Respect’s national council and his brother Richard. It has regular meetings and produces a 12-page newspaper. The South branch is largely made up of SWP members and, according to Richard Searle, did not meet for six months: ‘The difference is that SWP members see the SWP as their main thing whereas in North Manchester people are simply Respect members.’

Clive Searle believes the SWP has come to see Respect as the competition. ‘For the previous 10 years there’d been nothing in the space between the SWP and New Labour. But now they’ve created something that is becoming a route out of the SWP. They’ve lost a lot of people.’

In the SWP’s defence, John Rees points out that its members are highly active in a plethora of campaigns from council housing to the NHS, and can’t do everything. But he denies that SWP-dominated Respect branches are less active. ‘In branches where the SWP is influential there is lots of activity, like in Preston and Bristol. It’s got nothing to do with differential numbers of SWP members.’

Indeed, Preston is a success story, an example of the SWP at its best. There councillor Michael Lavalette has helped build just the kind of open movement that Respect was supposed to be, involving ex-Labour elements and Muslim community activists.

‘The aim is to work with as broad an alliance as possible,’ Lavalette says. ‘I have meetings with some left Labour councillors; we have a newsletter that goes out to local unions; we’ve been central to Preston Keep Our NHS Public; we’re carrying on with the anti-war movement. This is about new ways of working.’

On the ground Lavalette has put in the effort. ‘The first thing I did was have surgeries – no other councillors were doing that. At first no one came so I took it out to where people were meeting – the church, the mosque, the temple, trade union meetings, community events. I started to gather casework’. As a result his vote shot up in 2007.

The Preston coalition, in which the SWP is a minority, has run so smoothly that when the national crisis exploded Lavalette was ‘completely disorientated – it came out of the blue. I decided to try to find my own way through as best I could. In Preston we are united. We hope that long term we can get back to being a coalition.’

Critics point to an apparent discrepancy between the SWP on the ground and the central committee in London. Even Galloway and Yaqoob laud the work of local SWP activists. But Lavalette does not renounce his party’s leadership. He says that Unite Against Fascism and Stop the War have shown that the sectarian stereotype is out of date. And he has signed the SWP appeals and epistles that have defined the party’s position in the crisis.

John Rees’s analysis is revealing as to the thinking of the SWP leadership and its relationship with the coalition: ‘In Preston Michael Lavalette and Val Wise, who is ex-Labour not SWP, have shaped the project and others have come into that structure and it has worked very well. In Tower Hamlets it hasn’t been shaped in a way that enables the left to participate meaningfully.’

Left-right split?

The presentation of the crisis as a left-right split has been the SWP’s key line. In October an ‘Appeal against the witch hunt’ was launched, which claimed ‘there is a campaign of vilification of the left in Respect that can only result in Respect’s destruction as a serious left wing force’. John Lister, a member of Respect’s national council from the International Socialist Group, is scathing. ‘One hundred per cent bollocks,’ he says. ‘There is no left-right split. How could anyone believe that Alan Thornett and Ken Loach are engaged in a socialist witch-hunt?’

For Lister the tactics smack of desperation. ‘It’s hard to imagine how the SWP leadership could have played it worse. They’ll come out with no credibility having lost members. They’ll be faced with 20 years of oblivion and rebuilding. I never thought they would smash up something they’ve put so much into. That takes a special talent.’

Lister, Galloway and co now believe that the SWP is embarked on a scorched earth policy to ensure that no viable competitor is left behind. Rees denies that. But the sudden death of Respect is a real possibility. As Richard Searle says, ‘It could end up like the Scottish Socialist Party, and you don’t hear anything from Scotland.’

The SWP will carry on in the original organisation. But without the strongholds of Tower Hamlets and Birmingham and national figures like Galloway and Yaqoob, not to mention a distinct lack of coalition partners, it is difficult to see it going far. Meanwhile, the other side hopes to attract sections of the left that were initially put off by the SWP – trade unions, greens, communists – to their pluralist vision. But the fact remains that with the SWP gone they will have lost at least half the membership and a good number of key activists.

Ultimately there were two visions at the heart of Respect. The SWP saw it as a ‘united front of a special kind’, a catchy term for an electoral alliance that came second to the party’s interests, while the others regarded it as something more permanent and the primary focus of their activity.

But on one point they are agreed – there is still a yawning gap to the left of Labour. With the split in Respect, the British left has once again shown a particular skill in failing to fill it.

‘The roots of this problem are in the fact that not enough groups, trends, parties or individual personalities came into Respect’

George Galloway, Respect MP

‘The key question is do you select people who are community leaders no matter what, or do you say we want electoral success

but not at any price?’ John Rees, Respect national secretary

‘To me it’s like leeching behaviour. When Muslims are their vote fodder, we’re the community. When they don’t get their way, we’re the communalists’ Salma Yaqoob, Birmingham Respect councillor

‘I was completely disorientated – it came out of the blue. In Preston we are united. We hope that long term we can get back to being a coalition’ Michael Lavalette, Preston Respect councillor

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Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent @alexnunns


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