Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Britain: Respect – a reply to the SWP

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A reply to the Socialist Workers Party, sister organisation of the Australian International Socialist Organisation (ISO)
The Socialist, the weekly paper of the Socialist Party in England and Wales recently carried an article in issue 439 by Judy Beishon on Respect?s election results. Some, particularly the Socialist Workers? Party (SWP), the backbone of Respect, objected to points made in that article. Below we publish a reply to those objections.
In particular the SWP objected to the following statement in the article:
“Respect declares that their twelve council seats in Tower Hamlets are ?one more than the BNP in Barking and Dagenham?. This would be a cause for great celebration by the left as a whole, if it had been achieved on a clear class-based programme. But instead, unfortunately, Respect could unconsciously further the beginnings of a polarisation based on racial division, by not countering the growing perception that it is a ?party for Muslims?.”

The SWP made its objection in its ?Party Notes?, which it distributes internally within their party. Why have they not publicly taken up the Socialist Party and others if they feel so strongly about our criticisms and, it seems, those of Bob Crow (of the railway workers? union RMT)? The increased number of councillors for Respect is an important political development. It is related, in our view, to the manifestation in this election of a certain racial polarisation. Socialists should do nothing, even inadvertently, to widen this divide, which is not wide or unbridgeable at present. This was the concern of the Socialist Party in raising the above criticisms of Respect and the SWP.

In their notes, the SWP wrote: “We have to take these arguments on and should not be defensive in the slightest. These people consciously ignore the excellent results of comrades like Jerry in Bristol, Maxine in Sheffield and Albert in Harlesden. Our candidates are not just Muslims ? Olli Rahman, one of our councillors is a PCS activist, Abdul Sheik a councillor in Newham is an ex-shop steward at Fords in Dagenham and two of our key candidates in Newham are RMT members (Bob Crow didn?t know this! That may be because he didn?t look beyond our candidate?s ethnic/religious origin)”.


Are the criticisms of Respect and, by definition, the SWP made by the Socialist Party and Bob Crow inaccurate and unfair? The simple aphorism, ?show me who your friends are and I?ll show you who you are? applies in politics. In the 2004 European and London Authority elections, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), as Clive Heemskerk pointed out in the July/August 2004 edition of Socialism Today, “gave selective support to Respect, claim[ing] that support for Respect amongst Muslims was higher ?in the five regions where MAB specifically recommended Respect candidates? endorsing the Muslim bloc phenomenon?. (MAB press release, First step in the right direction, 17 June 2004).”

Our article went on to state: “MAB?s aim is clear, to establish ?a Muslim bloc? to bargain for the ?best deal for Muslims? from any party, including pro-capitalist ones, rather than to join a drive for a new mass workers? party that could address the needs of all sections of the working class. Respect, by portraying itself as ?the party for Muslims?, unfortunately has not challenged this approach, which will advance neither the real interests of workers who are Muslims nor aid the development of working-class unity”.

We also pointed out that if Respect represented a turning away from Labour, now a capitalist party, by Asian workers towards a more developed class consciousness, this would indeed be a positive step. But, unfortunately, under the leadership of George Galloway and the SWP, Respect has so far not acted as this bridge to a new workers? party, but reinforced the idea of ?Muslim interests? completely separate from those of other sections of the working class. Neither the SWP nor George Galloway repudiated these criticisms at the time nor do they in their current statement.

Despite the protestations of the SWP it remains a fact that all the successful candidates for Respect were Asians. The SWP did not get a single member of its party elected in 2006 and now has just one councillor in Respect?s ranks, Michael Lavallette in Preston. He was elected in 2003 under the banner of the Socialist Alliance. The fact that some successful Respect council candidates were PCS activists, for instance Oliur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, does not, however, alter the political character of Respect.

Northern Ireland

During the ?Troubles? in Northern Ireland and now there were shop stewards in the ranks of Sinn Fein, some of whom were effective in the workplace, often representing workers from both sides of the religious divide. Some of these workers believed, no doubt, they could appeal to Protestant workers on a political level because of the industrial positions which they held. But the perception in the eyes of Protestant workers of Sinn Fein as an organisation based on one section of the Catholic community made it, and continues to make it, impossible for this organisation to reach over the religious divide to workers on the other side. That can only be done in Northern Ireland through a new mass workers? party, bringing together Catholic and Protestant workers, which rejects the sectarian policies of the main parties on both sides of the divide. The Socialist Party in Northern Ireland has tirelessly worked for this goal at a time, by the way, when the SWP at times acted as uncritical supporters of Sinn Fein.

The situation in Britain is nowhere near that of Northern Ireland at the present time. But the Northern Ireland of 35 years ago was not what it is today. Before the Troubles, Catholic and Protestant workers came together in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which managed to win 100,000 votes in the 1970 general election. Despite its limitations, this represented a bridgehead for the beginnings of a process for cementing class unity. Unfortunately, this prospect was shattered through the ?troubles? and the resulting sectarian polarisation which scars the lives of workers in Northern Ireland today.

The lessons of this conflict and how it began, as well as other examples from history of how the labour movement sought to overcome religious or sectarian divisions, is lost on the leadership of Respect and particularly the SWP. The fact that some non-Asian, SWP members, received reasonable votes in the circumstances, is to be welcomed. But this does not undermine the perception among broad layers of the working class, not just ourselves, that Respect is narrowly based on one section of the community, including the perception by many Asians, Muslims in particular, that it is ?their? party. Respect itself did nothing to refute this.

?Save the NHS? platform – a clear class issue

Contrast the approach of the SWP and Respect to the successful campaign of Jackie Grunsell in Huddersfield. She stood on a ?Save the NHS? platform, a clear class issue, which cut across communal divisions. We wish that Respect had positioned itself and campaigned in the same way because, as we explained in the socialist, if these electoral victories of Respect had been on a clear class programme and perspectives, the left would have welcomed this as a starting point for a discussion on a new mass workers? party. Of necessity, this would also involve a discussion on the need for a federal approach towards a new workers? party, something the SWP rejects.

However, despite our criticisms of Respect and George Galloway, we would still hope that, through a discussion ? which involves honestly dealing with political differences ? the basis could be laid for a common approach to assembling the forces of a new mass workers? party in Britain. Because of its origins, its appeal to one section of the community, as well as its limited programme and internal regime, Respect ? if it continues on its present trajectory ? will not be able to break out of its present political cul-de-sac.

To read Judy Beishon’s article on Respect?s election results Click here


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