Why RESPECT Renewal?

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This article was first published in Socialist Worker USA

What happened to Respect?

CLIVE SEARLE, a member of the national council of Britain’s Respect coalition, explains why the left-wing party recently suffered a split.

THE BRITISH left-wing Respect coalition has recently been plunged into crisis. For many people, this will be seen as a further sign of the fratricidal nature of left-wing politics. Why, when capitalism has never been less able to meet that needs of the world’s people and the environment, has the left not been able to meet the challenge and step up to the plate?

Respect, formed out of the antiwar movement in the UK in early 2004, seemed to many to answer that need for a broad left-wing formation that could represent the millions abandoned by Tony Blair’s embracing of neoliberalism and war-mongering. Respect brought together key sections of the antiwar movement–socialists, peace activists, trade unionists and, significantly, sections of the Muslim community radicalized by the peace movement, but suffering the post-9/11 backlash of Islamophobia.

It was potentially a powerful combination. Within three months, we had garnered 250,000 votes in elections to the European parliament, and just 12 months later, secured the victory of George Galloway as the member of parliament (MP) in the east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow.

Galloway, the firebrand left-wing MP, had been expelled from the Labour Party for opposition to the Iraq war. His oration in front of Norm Coleman and the U.S. Senate, where he lambasted the neo-cons for their lies, stands as one of the high points of the global antiwar movement.

That Galloway could win in this solidly Labour seat–ousting a pro-war MP–made Respect the most successful left party in Britain in over 60 years. One year later, and we had extended our electoral reach in local government polls, becoming the official opposition in Tower Hamlets (where George has his parliamentary seat) and establishing a base in Birmingham and elsewhere.

How then, just 18 months later, have we effectively split in two? The answer lies in the historic disease of the left–sectarianism: that habit of placing small differences of tactic and theory above the needs of the movement and interests of working people as a whole.

It had become clear to many people that Respect, despite its successes, was not as successful as we could have been. Despite electoral success, we were losing members, nearly bankrupt and facing a possible general election with no candidates selected. It was in these circumstances that George Galloway wrote a paper to Respect’s National Council (NC) suggesting action needed to rectify the situation. For most of the members of the NC, this was seen as an opportunity to correct mistakes and move forward.

Sadly, for one section of the Respect coalition–the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)–the implied criticism was too great to handle, and they “went nuclear.” Their leadership–who also controlled the national office of Respect–organized internal meetings and published documents filled with the most disgraceful political slander on George Galloway. One of our brightest stars–the Birmingham councillor Salma Yacoob–was denounced as a “communalist.”

Within a few weeks, the SWP leadership had managed to unite nearly all the non-SWP members of the NC in opposition to their increasingly bizarre and sectarian behavior.

Then, in the most cynical act I have witnessed in 25 years of involvement in socialist politics, the SWP leadership declared themselves to be the victim of a “witch-hunt of socialists” within Respect. They then used the Respect national office as a tool to promulgate this lie–a device designed to dragoon their own members into line whilst deepening existing divisions and driving them deep into the local branches.

To cap it all, it became clear in early November that the SWP was attempting to systematically undermine the democracy of the forthcoming Respect annual conference by accepting delegations from fictitious “student branches,” while packing other delegations with their own members–many of whom had not been previously involved in Respect activity.

It was in these circumstances that 19 members of the NC–including the national chair, vice chair, our MP George Galloway and most of the councilors–called for an alternative conference on the same day to start a “renewal”’ process for Respect.

Thankfully, that day was a great success, with over 370 attending from across the country to discuss the crisis and map out a new way forward, where we can rebuild Respect on the basis of plurality, openness and democracy.

Ironically, as Respect’s own crisis has deepened, so the new premiership of Gordon Brown has been buffeted by its own series of deepening problems. The need for a left alternative has never been greater–and the possibility for building it never greater. Those of us involved in the Respect renewal process have not given up the idea of building broader unity on the left–and reaching out to those groups and individuals who previously didn’t join us.

But our renewed project must learn the lessons of the past few months. We will welcome all those from many and varied traditions who wish to join together, including many former members of the SWP who are leaving, disgusted by the party’s antics. Socialist ideas and theory will be central to the renewed Respect, but they must be won by patient explanation and joint activity–not bureaucratic maneuvers and dishonest denunciations of those who disagree.

Sectarianism has been the bane of the left in both Britain and further afield. It cannot be allowed to further hinder the movement for a better world.

MORE 

From the monthly RESPECT Newspaper: “How one critical letter triggered a crisis”:

When George Galloway’s letter to the Respect National Council, containing criticisms (very mild in retrospect) about the administration and organisation of Respect, was sent out on August 23, no-one could have predicted that we would end up, just twelve weeks later, with two conferences being held on the same day.

No-one could have predicted, and no-one surely wanted, the split in Respect that has taken place. However, the way in which the dispute was conducted by the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party meant that this split became inevitable. This was recognised by the SWP leadership itself and they entered into negotiations to separate.

It was an irony that the Respect Renewal Conference was taking place in the Bishopsgate Institute. This was the venue where the four breakaway councillors who had resigned the Respect whip in Tower Hamlets held their press conference on Monday 29 October.

That press conference was organised and attended by John Rees, SWP Central Committee member and National Secretary of Respect. This was one of the key events in the developing division, with the SWP leadership condoning and encouraging a split in the Respect group on Tower Hamlets council.

It’s been a pretty unpleasant three months for most of us (this is written in December 2007), as we have watched Respect split asunder. This split could havebeen avoided, if only the SWP leadership had been prepared todiscuss criticisms and implement agreed compromises.

Instead, at each stage it has increased the temperature of the debate, refusing to implement compromise decisions of the Respect National Council, illegitimately ruling out valid delegations to conference while ruling in other invaliddelegates and vilifying those who disagreed with it.

Ludicrous claims of a “witch-hunt against the SWP” are still being made, despite the involvement of many prominent socialists in the Renewal conference. Criticism, even were it unwarranted, does not make a witch-hunt.

The political justification for this by the SWP leadership is that there is a “left-right split” taking place. Again, this will come as a surprise to those at the Respect Renewal conference, who will all identify themselves as being on the left.

A political split on the left is seldom good for either side. It can reinforce the idea that the left cannot be unified, that minor differences always outweigh agreement on bigger issues. We recognise that this split is a set-back. However, there was a sense of liberation at the Renewal conference which reflected a feeling that we can now get on and do many of the things we should have been doing over the last three years – building branches across the country, linking up with others on the left and promoting our image and politics to a much wider audience.

Another very good article has just been published (4th January 2008) by Alan Thornett (Socialist Resistance/ Respect NC)

A Reply to Chris Harman on Respect

This piece by Alan Thornett is to be published in the French language magazine Inprecor alongside Chris Harman’s article which has been available for some time.

A Reply to Chris Harman on Respect: Alan Thornett (4.1.08)

Chris Harman claims that his article The Crisis in Respect is an attempt to locate the politics behind crisis in Respect. It is nothing of the sort. It is a continuation of the method the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) had employed in the debate around the issue from the outset, which has been to bury the politics behind an ever-increasing welter of allegations and distortions mostly, but not only, about George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob. To the extent that he does deal with the politics it is an attempt to defend the indefensible i.e. the ‘loose coalition’ model of organisation which the SWP insisted on for Respect and the way the SWP leadership reacted to George Galloway’s letter at the end of last August.

Harman claims that the crisis was precipitated by a series of attacks on the SWP. It was not. It was precipitated by the astonishing over-reaction of the SWP leadership to George Galloway’s letter, which called for some rather modest changes in the way Respect was organised and run. The letter did not imply a crisis or a split in Respect. It did, it is true, add up to a critique of the SWP and the way it ran Respect. But it was impossible to criticise any aspect of Respect without this being the case since the SWP were running it from top to bottom. Respect was, in effect, by then, a wholly owed subsidiary of the SWP. That was in fact the nub of the problem the letter was trying to address.

Harman also claims that the letter was designed to shift Respect to the right. It was not. There was absolutely nothing in the letter to suggest such a shift. The issues Harman singles out in an attempt to establish this is the questioning (in the context of financial administration) of the decision to spend £2,000 on the hiring of an expensive float for the 2007 Gay Pride at a time when Respect had no money, and the recourses put into the Organising Fighting Unions conference (OFU) and the subsequent £5,000 loss. There can be different views on these issues but they were both legitimate questions to raise and neither of them held any water at all as examples of a move to the right.

In fact Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trangender (LGBT) rights are an unfortunate subject for Harman to pick to attack the letter given the SWP’s dubious record on the subject inside Respect. There have indeed been clashes with George Galloway over this issue in Respect. Whilst Galloway supports LGBT rights, and has a record of doing so, he has controversially argued on several occasions for the issue to be given a lower profile in Respect material. The problem for Harman, however, is that the SWP have, on each occasion, supported Galloway over such proposals against Socialist Resistance (SR) supporters, and others, who have argued for a higher profile.

This was the case at the first two conferences of Respect where SR supporters were denounced by SWP leaders for raising resolutions highlighting LGBT rights. It was also the case with the first draft of the Respect manifesto, which I wrote, where George Galloway was also supported by SWP leaders when he argued for reducing the profile of this issue. Whether it was right or wrong to suddenly spend a lot of money on an intervention into the 2007 Gay Pride parade, when previously SR supporters had to campaign to get a leaflet produced for Pride, can be discussed. But it was not a shift to the right. It was what it was the questioning of particular expenditure at a time when Respect had no money for an election campaign or anything else.

There was always a legitimate question to be asked about the way the OFU conference was build and resourced through the Respect office and full-time staff. I was opposed to the way it was built from the start, and declined to be a part of the organising committee as a result. I had argued for a conference organised jointly with sections of the trade union left, and if possible with the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), with the aim of strengthening the links between Respect and the trade union left and other partners in the project. This approach was rejected on the Respect officers committee in favour of a conference called and organised by Respect itself – with the main aim of getting the maximum attendance. In the event the conference although quite big did nothing what-so-ever to strengthen the relationship between Respect and the trade union left. It was perfectly legitimate for George Galloway to criticise the resources put in by the Respect office and the £5,000 loss incurred. More ………….

To read the full detailed article click HERE

Now read on:

This report has been taken from the Socialist Resistance web site – the backgorund to the split with the Socialist Workers Party in Respect and the formation of RESPECT Renewal.

The end of Respect as a broad coalition
Respect as we have known it for the last four years ­ as an alliance principally between the SWP and George Galloway ­and others is over.

Following the decision of the SWP central committee that the Respect conference would go ahead (Nov 17th, 2007 ) as planned and unchanged ­ in other words on a completely undemocratic basis ­ nineteen members of the non-SWP part of the National Council (all non SWP NC members bar two) and a number of Respect councillors (the clear majority) have issued a call for an alternative conference that same day, November 17,on the theme of Renew Respect. Work is going ahead to build it on the broadest basis possible (see our report of the RESPECT Renewal conference on this web site).

It is a remarkable situation. The SWP leadership have managed to alienate themselves from virtually all of the active non-SWP members of the national council, including Linda Smith National Chair, Salma Yaqoob National Vice-Chair, Victoria Brittain, George Galloway, Jerry Hicks, Ken Loach, Abjol Miah the leader of Respect on Tower Hamlets Council, Yvonne Ridley, and Nick Wrack – the first national chair of Respect and a member of the SWP when this debate started.

The way the crisis escalated is clear enough. It was the SWP’s disastrous, and hysterical, reaction to George Galloway’s letter to the national council at the end of August which determined the course of events.

This raised some home truths about the development of Respect, which some of us had been raising for a long time, and made some modest proposals towards greater plurality. The letter was supportable but did not go far enough.

The letter certainly did not represent a crisis: in fact it was an opportunity. It could have opened up an over-due and fruitful discussion about the development of Respect as a more inclusive organisation with a greater national presence.

Read some of the key documents below (click the blue ‘link’ for the full article):

Beyond fake ‘unity’: thinking outside the box of a polarised Respect
As events in Respect have spiralled downwards into crisis, various calls for unity have been raised which have a certain superficial attraction. Wouldn’t it be better if the two sides of the National Council (basically the SWP and fellow travellers on one side, and everyone else, including recent expellees from the SWP, on the other) could just sort out their differences and work together?

But the idea has had less credibility by the hour: the actions of the SWP and its immediate supporters (in response to a crisis entirely of their own making) have been so damaging, so cynical and so reckless that it is now impossible to find a core of members of the National Council who would be willing to trust them to honour any agreement that might be proposed. We already have the experience to show that these fears are well founded. This is not the first time around for a unity drive: after the acrimony of the September 22 NC in which 13 out of 14 SWP speakers had personally attacked George Galloway, seemingly determined to force him out of Respect, the September 29 National Council carried a succession of unanimous votes for unity.

Respect at the crossroads
Linda Smith, National Chair, Respect and 26 NC members and councillors
The following document has been sent today (24 October) by National Chair of Respect, Linda Smith, to the Respect office in order for it to be circulated to all Respect National Council members. It has been widely circulated on left blogs and in the light of the editorial printed in Socialist Worker attacking George Galloway and others this week we believe that it is important that all Respect members understand what is at currently at stake for the future of Respect.

“…it has become clear over the last two months, and the last two weeks in particular, that the actions of the SWP leadership imperil the very existence of Respect as a broad, pluralistic and democratic left alternative to New Labour… We are appealing to members of Respect to support us in defending the coalition’s plurality. We can no longer allow Respect to be jeopardised by one section.”

Report from the National Council meetings
A new crisis or a new opportunity?
Alan Thornett reports from the latest Respect National Council meetings:
The jury is out on whether enough has been done to re-launch Respect on a broader and more inclusive basis. It is also out on whether the political will exists in the SWP leadership to positively implement the decisions adopted which could take the organisation forward. …both in terms of tasks and priorities and in terms of opening up Respect to the broader movement. In fact if fully implemented (what we proposed and was agreed) could re-launch Respect on a more open and attractive basis.

George Galloway’s letter, where we stand
George Galloway has initiated a debate inside Respect on how to stengthen its organisation and prepare for a general election. Preparing for a Respect National Council discussion Alan Thornett and John Lister, after consultling with the “Respect Party Platform”, have submitted this statement.

A wake up call for Respect
Alan Thornett outlines a series of necessary steps for Respect if it is to grow and present a serious challenge in any forthcoming general election (written prior to Brown’s decision not to hold an election).

For a full understanding in more depth of all the issues read this by Socialist Resistance:  Our successful pamphlet on the crisis in Respect (PDF doc)

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