Britain: Socialist Party and the Respect Convention

LAST SUNDAY, 25 January, the founding convention of Respect took place and agreed to launch an electoral campaign across England and Wales, headed by George Galloway MP, for the June European and Greater London Authority elections.

Letter from the Socialist Party (cwi in England and Wales) to the Respect Convention held in London.

Socialist Party and the Respect Convention

The Socialist Party attended and contributed to the convention. We also met representatives of Respect’s executive (George Galloway MP and John Rees of the Socialist Workers Party) two days before the convention. They made clear that they were keen for us to join Respect and to take places on its executive.

However, we explained that, while we are keen to collaborate, and are following the development of Respect with interest, we do not feel able to join at this stage. Nonetheless, we would like to support Respect in the European Elections and hope they will also support us in the elections we contest.

We explained the reasons for our attitude in a letter we distributed to the Respect Convention, an abridged version of which is below. The full version is at (new window).

To the Respect Founding Convention

Dear comrades,

The need for a mass left alternative to New Labour has never been more striking. In the Socialist Party we have long argued that New Labour has ceased in any sense to represent the interests of the working class and that what is needed is a new, genuine workers’ party.

We have a record of supporting any serious initiatives towards the formation of such a party including more limited electoral alliances and pacts. For that reason we are following developments around Respect with great interest. However, it is not clear to us that, at this stage, Respect represents a step towards the formation of a new workers’ party.

Democracy – lessons of the Socialist Labour Party and the Socialist Alliance

In general it is not possible to build support for a new mass left formation without a high-level of openness and democracy. The people we want to attract from the anti-war and the anti-capitalist movement, and above all from the trade unions, will not join a top-down organisation with a pre-determined programme and constitution.

In England and Wales this has been proved in the negative by the experience of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) led Socialist Alliance (SA). The over-centralised nature of their formal structures, neither of which allowed any room for organisations and campaigns to affiliate, was part of the problem.

However, it was also the arrogant approach of the leadership of these organisations that alienated potential support. The SWP-led SA, for example, took the position that they were the left electoral alternative to New Labour.

This was at a time when the SA had1,690 members and had won an average of 1.72% of the vote in the 92 seats it had contested in the general election.

Unfortunately, what flowed from such an overestimation of the SA’s strength was a refusal to work alongside, or even to seriously discuss with, other left forces, including trade-union anti-cuts candidates who wanted to stand in elections, unless they were prepared to join the SA.

Respect’s approach to date

While it is still early days, Respect, in which the SWP also play a leading role, does not seem to have learnt these lessons. Even for an electoral coalition, openness and democracy are important. But prior to today’s founding convention there has not been any real attempt to discuss with rank and file trade unionists, anti-war activists and community campaigns.

Instead we have had a series of rallies addressed by the founders of Respect, in some cases without debate from the floor.

While we do not judge the issue of democracy simply in relation to ourselves we are concerned that the way we have been dealt with may be an indication of Respect’s approach.

While the Socialist Party’s achievements are modest, the Socialist Party has nonetheless had the most electoral success on the socialist left, with five councillors, the largest number of any socialist organisation in Britain. We won our second councillor in Lewisham just last month. Our councillors also have a record of successfully defending their seats.

We also have a significant base in the trade unions, including 17 members of trade union executives. Yet we were not asked to take part in any of the initial discussions on the formation of Respect. The meetings that we requested were cancelled by the SA.

After writing to Respect in December a meeting has taken place this week between ourselves and John Rees of the SWP and George Galloway. While this was very welcome, it would have been far better for us to be involved at an earlier stage.

Perhaps even more regrettably Respect called a rally in Coventry without discussing with the Socialist Party or asking us to speak. This is a city where we have three Socialist Party councillors including Dave Nellist, who was previously chair of the Socialist Alliance.

Beyond June?

At the moment Respect is, in reality, an electoral coalition for the European elections. Of course, a coalition for one election can play a positive role on the road to a new workers’ party, but this is not guaranteed. If, as we all hope, Respect has success in the European elections, we have no clear idea what is planned for the next stage.

For example, George Galloway MP has raised the prospect of Respect possibly playing a part in a process of "reclaiming" the Labour Party and has called for the trade unions to play a "central role" in this process.

We regard this is a mistake and will give credence to those trade union leaders who are desperately trying to convince their members to keep funding New Labour. While Respect should obviously take a friendly approach to those socialists who remain within the Labour Party, it should nonetheless use any success it has to make a clear call for a new mass workers’ party.

A socialist programme

Respect’s central slogan is opposition to the occupation of Iraq and "any further imperialist wars". This, and many of its other demands, are very good – for an end to privatisation, the return of the railways and other former public services to democratic public ownership, opposition to tuition fees, and so on.

They fall short, however, of a socialist programme that provides a real alternative to the capitalist system that is responsible for attacks on education, the health service, etc – and, of course, imperialist wars.

We believe this is mistaken. In Britain today it would be possible to win the support of broad sections of the working class on the basis of at least the main outlines of an explicitly socialist programme.

A workers’ MEP on a worker’s wage

One particularly important task for a new formation today, when the working class is deeply cynical about capitalist politicians, is to prove that its representatives are completely different from the money-grubbing ’career’ politicians.

So it is unfortunate that Respect is not committed to a policy of its elected representatives taking only the average weekly income of a skilled worker (the exact figure could of course be determined through democratic discussion).

In the past Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall, three Marxist Labour MPs who supported the Militant Tendency (predecessor to the Socialist Party), all took the average wage of a skilled worker. This meant they remained in touch with the working-class communities they represented, and that it was also clear that their ’hands were clean’. Joe Higgins, currently a Socialist Party MP in Ireland, does the same.

In conclusion, notwithstanding our criticisms of Respect, we hope to work together both now and in the future to build a socialist alternative in England and Wales.

Where now for Respect?

In our discussion with George Galloway he accepted that Respect’s democratic structures are ’imperfect’. He argued that this is because Respect has been formed on the run and that a democratic, federal structure would be put in place after June.

We welcomed this intent. However, we emphasised the need for consultation and dialogue even before formal structures are set up. Unfortunately, Sunday’s convention demonstrated some of the potential problems for democracy in Respect.

Of the 1,400 people present well over half were members of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). Not only did this mean that the position adopted by the SWP was the one passed in every instance, they also attempted to heckle anyone they disagreed with in a hostile fashion.

If it is to succeed future Respect meetings and conferences will need to take a different approach.

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January 2004