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Why Socialists Should Support Respect

Ian Donovan

IN THE General Election, socialists should support the candidates of Respect – the Unity Coalition, which at this point is the only viable working class, left-of-Labour project that has the coherence to offer working people a political alternative that stands for their own interests as a class against the neo-liberal, imperialist war-making Blair government. Of course, Respect’s are not the only candidates standing on a working class platform in these elections. Where other broad-based left-wing/socialist candidates are standing, they also deserve the support of class conscious workers, as indeed do principled opponents of the war on the Labour left. But Respect is the most credible and coherent leftist coalition/proto-party standing in this election by far.

This is most obvious in East London where Respect is standing four candidates. Particularly in the constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow; there George Galloway is challenging the pro-war Blairite stooge MP Oona King. Respect has a real chance of winning and thereby striking a very serious blow indeed against the Blair project. There are also real possibilities of a breakthrough elsewhere, notably in Birmingham’s Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency where left-wing Muslim anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob is challenging Labour’s pro-war, anti-immigrant reactionary Roger Godsiff, in a constituency where Labour has been deeply implicated in electoral fraud to try and marginalise anti-war votes among Muslim immigrants in last summer’s Euro elections.

An electoral victory of a pro-working class, anti-war, left-wing organisation such as Respect in a Westminster seat would be a major breach in the whole strategy of Blairism, which aims at the complete extirpation of working class influence from British politics, exploiting the lack of "anywhere to go" for Labour’s traditional working class supporters. At the moment the Labour leadership believe they have the ability to blackmail the working class into accepting ever more overtly right-wing politics, as Blair chases after the Tories’ traditional bourgeois support and reactionary middle-class electoral base with the aim of making Labour the hegemonic bourgeois political force in Britain. And indeed a popular version of this conception contributes a lot to the disillusionment of many working class people with "politics". However, this belief that the working class has no choice but to take such reactionary attacks on the chin will suffer a real blow if Respect wins a Westminster seat on May 5th. Such a victory could lay the basis for many more victories.

In the June European/London elections, Respect came first in the number of votes cast in this constituency. In the months after the elections, Oliur Rahman was elected for Respect in a council by-election in St Dunstan’s and Stepney Green ward of Tower Hamlets, and Paul McGarr beat Labour into third place in another by-election, this time in the same Millwall ward that Derek Beacon won for the BNP in the early 1990s.

In the words of George Galloway: "I make no apology for saying that in the East End of London a new party of labour, with a small L, is being born. And I am proud to be involved in it." (Interview with BBC, 13 August 2004.) And as comrade Galloway said in Respect’s videoed General Election message: "We stand for working people ... we stand for those who have nothing to sell except their work." Along with Respect’s policies on questions like repeal of anti-union laws, opposition to privatisation and PFI, demanding the nationalisation of Rover, defence of asylum seekers, opposition to all forms of discrimination, support for gay marriage rights, and overarching all these its clearly expressed, firm position of intransigent opposition to the war and occupation of Iraq, support for Iraqi resistance and the immediate withdrawal of troops, there is a clear choice for working people in these elections where Respect is able to stand.

Some important questions of electoral strategy, a real dilemma for any putative working class party attempting to confront the bosses’ parties in front of the working class in elections, have made significant steps towards being resolved in the election campaign as seen so far. The dilemma for the left has always been whether to stand a large number of often "paper" candidates in order to advance a national profile and obtain the right to an election broadcast or conversely to stand in much fewer, "targeted" seats where one has a chance of obtaining respectable results. The latter strategy means forfeiting the chance of an election broadcast, which in the eyes of many on the left was a defining feature of a "serious" election campaign.

Respect’s election campaign so far has, despite the fewer number of seats, far exceeded both that of the Socialist Alliance in 2001 and the Socialist Labour Party in 1997 in terms of the resonance it has achieved nationally, and as a result, in the waves it has made in the media. In large measure, this is a result of the more fertile political conditions – the popular resonance of Respect’s anti-war message and history – large numbers of people actually know of comrade Galloway’s expulsion from Labour for his courageous stand against the "illegal" war and calls on soldiers to refuse to fight in it – as a recent, burning question. This gives Respect a qualitatively higher profile than the relatively unknown SA in 2001, or the SLP in 1997, the latter viewed by many as led by an ageing working class fighter who belonged to another era.

To some on the left, whether they are habitual and incorrigibly sectarian fragments of the ultra-Trotskyist fringe on the one hand, or right-wing and cowardly Islamophobes such as the AWL and CPGB on the other, Respect represents some kind of major retreat from the Socialist Alliance. Indeed, for some on the left, Respect and Galloway represent something like the devil incarnate. More on that later.

Yet Respect’s actual propaganda is, in its actual political thrust, remarkably similar to that of the SA in 2001 – albeit with the added factor of George Galloway’s considerable political presence, and a layer of left-leaning Muslim activists whose presence – and adherence to the basically left-reformist platform of Respect, has allowed the left to gain an audience among sections of immigrant workers and lower petty-bourgeois that were previously very difficult to reach. The Respect list of candidates is now the most integrated and multi-racial set of candidates of any such left slate in British history – it really does reflect the changed, multi-racial nature of the working class in many of Britain’s big cities in a way that the left has never remotely managed before.

This achievement of a base for the left among Muslim and other immigrants whose religious traditions are traditionally socially conservative has some level of complexity and ambiguity about it – Respect’s position on abortion, for instance, though principled, is minimalist and merely defends the existing gains of the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised the procedure, not yet calling for the extension of abortion rights as is objectively necessary. Conservatism on such questions is something that has to be overcome not just in the case of left-Muslims, but also left-Catholics such as comrade Galloway himself, who personally disapproves of abortion and euthanasia, while at the same time being among the most principled left-reformist opponents of imperialism.

Any step forward in building a real movement involves dealing with the partial consciousness of people who come from a variety of backgrounds. A phobia of making any, even temporary concessions to the consciousness of sympathetic Muslims, is what is behind many of the vicious denunciations of Respect that have come from some on the "left". Some of its most vehement critics have historically had no similar qualms about making political concessions to white workers who are hostile to immigrants, or to pro-war liberals who they court and ally themselves with over some key issues. But any concession to Muslim sensibilities, for whatever reason, is for these "left" Islamophobic critics of Respect utterly unconscionable.

There have, of course, been a number of in my view some unnecessary compromises also in the platform of Respect – which really need to be resolved in the future. Among them is the lack of a clear position on the need to abolish the monarchy – a real own goal in my view. As well as that there is the question of immigration controls – while Respect is opposed to all deportations and victimisation of asylum-seekers and immigrants, it has pointedly not adopted a position of opposition in principle to all immigration controls. George Galloway himself is on record as favouring the traditional left-Labour position of being in favour of "non-racist" immigration controls. This is in my view an argument that has to be won in the future – though some of the criticisms directed at Respect on this are a little hypocritical – since there is not agreement even among Respect’s critics and opponents about the "open borders" demand.

In any case such reservations should not be a barrier to building a project that has the real, palpable potential to generate a working class political movement, in which further gains in terms of political development and policy will be eminently possible in the future. Some on the left are so blinded by reactionary fear of engagement with Muslim immigrants that they either blindly sneer at Respect and stew in their own reactionary juices, or in one case, engage in disloyal "intervention" in Respect while maintaining a fundamental hostility to the entire project.

A continual stream of poisonous allegations and innuendos against Galloway and others in Respect emanates from this motley crew. Much of this "critical" material resembles, in its political content, the rantings of "laptop bombardiers" such as Nick Cohen, as well as pro-war left-liberal covens like the denizens of the "Harry’s Place" weblog, or even left-liberals like Peter Tatchell and OutRage that are increasingly soft and supportive of imperialist troops intervening in the Muslim world in particular (in the name of "gay rights" and "human rights").

Thus leading members of the Alliance for Workers Liberty hang around "Harry’s Place" egging on the laptop bombers to ever greater hysteria against the SWP, Respect, Muslims and all their works. Meanwhile the Communist Party of Great Britain (Weekly Worker) pointedly allies itself with Outrage and Peter Tatchell, reprinting a range of their material in their paper denouncing elements on the left (including Ken Livingstone, the SWP and by implication Respect) for making alliances in defence of the democratic rights of Muslims with prominent Muslim opponents of Islamist extremism such as Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. What these opportunists did not print, however, or even mention or criticise, was Peter Tatchell’s public call for Iraq-style sanctions against Sudan, and for a blue-helmeted, United Nations imperialist armed force to invade that country and "sort out" the communal conflict and ethnic cleaning that is going on in Darfur. As everyone knows, this would mean the US and its allies under another flag, as in the Korean and 1991 Gulf Wars.

The CPGB has the very odd (and perniciously chauvinist) position of "critically supporting" those elements of Respect they claim to be in some way connected to the working class and have a history of involvement in working class organisations, while at the same rejecting support for those candidates in Respect who allegedly do not have such a history and involvement. The real target of this is Muslims. They put forward the bizarre theory that Respect represents a "popular front", and that thereby it has a working class component and a non-working class component that in some way negates the working class nature of Respect itself. Hence, they claim to be in favour of splitting Respect along class lines.

This is pure poppycock, of course. Anyone with any knowledge of the history of the popular fronts of the 1930s, will know that the thing that characterised these class collaborationist coalitions is that they were alliances between working class (mainly, though not exclusively, Stalinist) parties and parties of the ruling class, parties like the Liberal Democrats, for example, that stand for the rule of capital and the rule of imperialism. In some ways the prototype of a popular front government was the 1917 Russian Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky, a coalition of the Mensheviks (a left-reformist working class party), Trudoviks and Right-SRs (peasant-based populist parties) and some Kadets (openly bourgeois party). The thing that bound them together was defence of Russian "national interest" in the imperialist world war, as well as a purported defence of "democracy" against both the working class and the overt Tsarist counterrevolution.

Later popular fronts included those initiated by the French and Spanish Communist Parties in the lead up to World War II. Their poorer British relations also had a go, though less successfully, at doing this. In each case, the whole thrust of the popular front was support for the imperialist wars of its own ruling class. The idea that a popular front could, for instance, give open support to an uprising of a colonial people against its own ruling class is unthinkable. In order to do take such a position, which has a revolutionary logic irrespectively of the partial consciousness of some who may hold such a position, the working class parties involved in it would have to break politically and organisationally with their bourgeois allies.

For such parties to support anti-imperialist struggles, the popular front would have to cease to exist. Thus the pre-WWII French popular front savagely repressed independence struggles in North Africa and Indochina; its post-war counterpart sent French troops to crush the Saigon workers uprising of 1945. The Spanish popular front government in Spain in the period of the 1936-9 Civil War was so loyal to Spanish colonial interests that it refused to call for Morocco to rise up against Franco for independence during the civil war, even though such an uprising could have crushed Franco right at the very start (Franco started his attack on the Spanish republic from Morocco). During the period of its agitation for a popular front in Britain, the CP here actually opposed Indian independence. There are many other examples.

Yet one of the CPGB (and AWL’s) main lines of attack against Respect is for its support for armed resistance by Iraqis against British and American troops. According to our polemicists, socialists should only support resistance by Iraqis they deem "progressive" – i.e left-wing secular democrats and organised workers.

Whatever one thinks of this position, it is utterly incompatible with the characterisation of Respect as a popular front. No popular front in history has ever, or could ever, have Respect’s position on the Iraq war. In fact, if you want to know what position the most left-wing, "progressive" popular front would take on a war like this, you need look no further than the policies of the Liberal Democrats, the AWL, the likes of Peter Tatchell, etc. i.e. a tepid "opposition" to the war itself, combined with tactic support for the occupation until Iraq is "stabilised" supposedly for the benefit of the working class. In other words, a genuine popular front in today’s conditions would have the positions on the Iraq war of many of the CPGB’s allies, not Respect.

The explanation for this paradox is simple – Respect is not a popular front, not a class-collaborationist bloc at all, but an incipient working class political formation that has also gathered support from a section of radicalised working class and progressive middle class elements from an oppressed immigrant population as part of a real mass struggle, with all its weakness, against imperialist war. The fact that the CPGB falsifies social reality to define these workers and immigrants as class enemies is illustrative of a deep, morbid chauvinist disdain for Muslims – and political regression in a direction that logically ultimately leads to renunciation of communism and support for imperialist war.

This is only a brief sketch of some of the issues and controversies that surround Respect. There is much more than can be written and hammered out. But in the context of the General Election it is essential that a theorised Marxist case for Respect be put forward as against all the reactionary crap that masquerades as "Marxism" in some left circles today.