Britain: Respect and the June elections

Respect – the Unity Coalition was formed by George Galloway MP and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) at the beginning of the year. It stood for the first time on June 10.

The Socialist Party took part in discussions with Respect during the first three months of this year. However, in the event we concluded that we were unable to join Respect at that point as we had a number of disagreements with the approach Respect was taking, both on programme and democracy. However, we hoped that our concerns would prove unfounded and that Respect would develop positively.

Unfortunately, the European election campaign confirmed our worst fears about the political direction of Respect. The vote Respect received was good in some areas, particularly Galloway’s 91,175 votes (4.84%) in the London Euro seat. Nationally their vote in the European elections averaged 1.7%, or just over 250,000 votes. This undoubtedly disappointed the leadership of Respect, who exaggerated their electoral potential. For us, however, the issue is not the vote as much as the means by which Respect achieved it. For socialists the programme we put forward should always be aimed at raising the confidence and level of understanding of the working class. This means doing everything possible to encourage the unity of the working class. That is why our sister organisation in Northern Ireland has always fought for unity of the Catholic and Protestant working class. In Britain today, the reactionary policies of Blair and New Labour are fostering division. Respect’s intention may not have been to exacerbate those divisions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Respect’s average vote disguised low results in many parts of the country, which were combined with several notable votes in inner-city areas with large Muslim populations. In the City and East London constituency, an area with the highest concentration of Muslims in the country, Respect polled 15.03%. Across Birmingham the average vote was 7.4%. These votes were mainly based on large sections of the Muslim communities in those areas voting for Respect.

Working-class appeal

If this had been achieved by appealing to working-class Muslims on a class basis, it would be a very important positive achievement. There is no doubt that on this basis Respect could have won the support of significant section of Muslims who had been radicalised by the war on Iraq and the anti-war movement but also, as one of the poorest and most oppressed sections of the working class, by their conditions of life under the New Labour government. For example, according to the 2001 census, the unemployment rate of Muslims is more than three times that of the general population and is the highest of all faith groups. One in 7 of economically active Muslims are unemployed, compared with 1 in 20 for the wider population.

However, Respect made an opportunist, rather than a class, appeal to Muslims. A specific leaflet aimed at Muslims was produced which described Respect as "the party for Muslims". Under the headline ‘George Galloway – fighter for Muslims’ it said:

"Married to a Palestinian doctor, teetotal, he has strong religious principles about fighting injustice. He was expelled by Blair because he refused to apologise for his anti-war stance. Our Muslim MPs stayed silent or supported the war. Who do you want to be our voice?"

While it is right to advertise Galloway’s undoubted anti-war credentials and to attack Muslim MPs for failing to oppose the war (although he seems to have excused Mohammed Sawar, MP for Glasgow Govan, saying he won’t stand against him in the next election because he is a Muslim), the rest of this statement is a highly opportunist attempt to appeal to Muslims on the basis of their religion. While socialists defend the right of all to practise any religion they wish, or to practise none, without suffering discrimination or oppression, that does not mean we stand in political solidarity with all Muslims. Does Respect consider itself the party for 5,400 Muslim millionaires in Britain, many of whom made their money by exploiting other Muslims? Or for Mohammed Al Fayed, the billionaire owner of Harrods?

George Galloway himself compounded Respect’s mistakes when he stated his personal views on the question of abortion, saying that: "I’m strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception." And that because he believed "in God. [He had] to believe that the collection of cells has a soul." Immediately afterwards these comments were enthusiastically welcomed by the Muslim Association of Britain (which backed Respect in several areas of the country).

George Galloway has every right to a personal opinion on the question of abortion. However, given the lack of any Respect policy on the issue, and the failure of the SWP members who were Respect candidates to publicly put their own opinion on the issue (they claim to support, in our opinion correctly, a woman’s right to choose when and whether to have children) the effect of George Galloway expressing his personal opinion was to give the impression that Respect opposes abortion in all circumstances. While this may have increased Respect’s vote amongst a section of Muslim voters, it will have also repelled many women that Respect should have been aiming to attract.

Potentially dangerous

The vote-winning strategy adopted by Respect is potentially very dangerous. The Socialist Party has long argued that New Labour today is another party of big-business, no different in essence to the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. We campaign for the building of a new party – that brings together forces such as socialists, trade unionists and the anti-war movement – and puts forward a socialist programme. The recent decision of the FBU to stop funding New Labour shows the potential for trade unionists to begin building such a party. A formation led by George Galloway, particularly if it had been launched from the platform of 15 February, when two million marched against the war, could have been an important step in the direction of such a party.

However, Respect, formed after the high point of the anti-war movement, has so far not brought a new workers’ party any closer. At the founding convention of Respect, Lindsey German of the SWP argued that the Socialist Alliance had failed because it was too explicitly socialist and that Respect would succeed for the converse reason. This argument was mistaken, as the Socialist Party was able to demonstrate in the Euro election in Dublin, Ireland – where Joe Higgins received 5.5% of the first preference vote on a socialist programme. We were able to do the same in Coventry where we contested fourteen council seats and received an average of 16%.

In fact, far from broadening Respect’s appeal, its leadership’s approach narrowed it. A new mass left formation cannot be built on one issue, or by appealing to just one section of the population. While Respect’s formal programme did include demands against NHS privatisation, tuition fees and on other issues, the material they put out in the election concentrated almost exclusively on the occupation of Iraq.

Iraq was undoubtedly a key issue in this election, but for the majority of working-class voters it was not the only issue. Rather Blair’s lies to justify the brutal war on Iraq acted as a lightening rod for all the other crimes of New Labour. Important sections of working people, who could have been attracted to a new left alternative which both fought against the occupation of Iraq and on other issues like tuition fees, privatisation and cuts, were simply not touched by Respect’s approach. In most areas, outside of their increased support in some Muslim communities, their vote was even lower than the high water mark of Respect’s predecessor organisation, the Socialist Alliance.

If Respect follows the same strategy in future elections it could foster dangerous divisions within the working class between Muslim and other communities. If Respect gains by being seen as a Muslim party, which does not address the needs of other sections of the working class, it could push other sections of the working class away and reinforce racist and divisive ideas. By contrast a sizeable new workers’ party which both campaigned in a class way on both the general issues and against racism and Islamaphobia could begin to cut across racism and prejudice.

However, it is not clear what Respect’s future will be, or even if it’s leaders see it as a permanent formation. George Galloway has mistakenly 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, indicating that he may see Respect as a temporary means to try and push New Labour left.

’Not as left wing as you think’

And while George has undoubtedly taken a principled stand on the war, he is, on a whole number of issues, in his own words, "not as left wing as you think". This is demonstrated graphically in his recent autobiography where he describes both Tony Benn’s Labour leadership challenge in 1981 and the heroic struggle of Liverpool City council 1983 – 1987 as ‘ultra-left’. He also argues that MPs should be paid twice as much as their existing salaries of £47,000 per year, plus expenses. While we disagree with George on these and other issues, this does not mean we opposed taking part in an electoral formation with him. On the contrary, we would have been happy to do so in the case of Respect, provided it was based on appealing to broad layers of trade unionists, anti-capitalists and the anti-war movement, and had a democratic structure which allowed open and honest discussion with the freedom for ourselves and others to argue for our own programme. Unfortunately, this is not the road Respect seems to be on. Unless Respect changes direction, it will not play a positive role on the journey to a new workers’ party.

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June 2004