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British militant left - Beyond Fake Unity

Sunday 4 November 2007, by Alan Thornett, John Lister

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 22nd NC in which 13 out of 14 SWP speakers had personally
attacked George Galloway, seemingly determined to force him out of Respect,
before moving on to pass, in his absence some of the key proposals from his
August letter to the National Council, peace appeared to break out. The
September 29 National Council carried a succession of unanimous votes for
unity. The NC:

- voted unanimously ­ on a motion proposed by an SWP member ­ to press
George Galloway to reconsider his resignation as parliamentary candidate and
to come back into a leading role in Respect

- voted unanimously for a formula which would allow the appointment of a
national organiser to work alongside John Rees

- voted unanimously to endorse a resolution to conference originally written
by Alan Thornett and John Lister, but moved at the meeting by Alan Thornett
jointly with John Rees. This included a number of proposals which for three
years had been points of contention, including agreement in principle to
launch a newspaper.

There was also an apparent consensus of the vast majority of delegates in
proposing that Nick Wrack, then still in the SWP, should be nominated to the
national organiser post.

It¹s worth recalling these slightly surreal discussions and decisions from
September 29th, because since then every one of the unanimous decisions has
been opposed and obstructed by the SWP leadership and its coterie who voted
for them at the time.

The frenzied, back-biting attacks on George Galloway have continued and
intensified in closed SWP meetings and in more public arenas. This same
process of polarisation has alienated more prominent members of the SWP.

Nick Wrack has been hauled before an SWP Star Chamber, instructed to decline
nomination for the job as national organiser of Respect (for which he was
the only candidate), and expelled when he refused. Rob Hoveman and Kevin
Ovenden, long-standing and experienced SWP members working in George
Galloway¹s office, were hauled before a similar SWP committee and instructed
to resign their jobs or be expelled: they too have now been expelled from
the party. Leading trade union militant Jerry Hicks did not wait to be
expelled: he drafted a devastating critique of his party¹s leadership and
resigned from the SWP.

The masquerade of unity was also promptly undermined by polarised meetings
in Tower Hamlets, and more recently in other towns and cities, in which the
SWP has battled to secure the lion¹s share of delegate positions for the
conference, and hyped up the rhetorical attacks on Galloway, Salma Yaqoob
and those who have supported them.

The conflict has not been accidental but deliberate: every clash, and every
angry, frustrated statement or expletive that has been provoked, has then in
turn been exploited to build up the fiction of a "left-right" clash in
Respect, a "witch-hunt" against the SWP ­ in which all of the various
currents and individuals which have criticised the way Respect has been run,
and identified with the points made by George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob,
have been branded as the "right" wing.

A "petition" against the non-existent witch-hunt has been whipped up as a
test of loyalty to hundreds of SWP members up and down the country, many of
whom have as a result signed as "Respect supporter", indicating that they
are not even members of the organisation.

At the top of the list are the names of four Tower Hamlets councillors, two
of them SWP members and two very close to the SWP, who have subsequently
held a press conference to publicise their resignation of the Respect whip
and the establishment of a new party grouping in Tower Hamlets ­ Respect
(Independent) which may run candidates against Respect. The press conference
was arranged by a full time worker in the Respect Office (an SWP member
clearly working under the direction of Central Committee member John Rees),
with the £300+ venue billed to Respect, and attended by Respect National
Secretary John Rees, who has yet to voice any criticism of this very public
and very damaging split in the organisation, which has given huge ammunition
to New Labour and relegated Respect from its position as the main opposition
party in Tower Hamlets.

The SWP leadership has resorted to ridiculous manoeuvres in their efforts to
manipulate an artificial majority behind their position at the Respect
conference, scheduled for November 17: large numbers of phantom members have
been claimed for "Student Respect", an organisation wholly owned and
controlled by the SWP, allowing the SWP to send along one delegate for every
ten claimed members, and potentially outvote genuine delegates from real
branches. When challenged to produce evidence that these students were
genuine members, the SWP leadership has responded by claiming this is
another part of the "witch hunt" and an attempt to exclude students.

Increasingly acrimonious Respect meetings in different cities are seeing
battles over delegations to conference, in several instances leading to more
SWP members resigning in disgust at their party’s sectarian antics, as well
as angry walk-outs by non-SWP members.

Looking over the period since Galloway penned his critical letter at the
back end of August, it is impossible to avoid concluding that the SWP
leadership’s tactics have been an absolute and unmitigated disaster not only
for Respect, which can never be restored, but also for the SWP itself.

From the prestige and credibility it gained by acting as the principal
organised political current in the most successful political regroupment to
the left of Labour since World War 2, the SWP leadership has now cemented
itself into the position of a rigidly centralist and dogmatically sectarian
current that would rather smash three years’ work and destroy hard-won
political alliances than tolerate any genuine pluralism or political
development in Respect.

All of the worst fears and reservations so widely held on the left about the
SWP and its methods have been confirmed: the Party¹s line has been so
appalling that its every tactic appears designed to demoralise its best
members, alienate non-SWP members and further isolate the party within
Respect.

Even their very worst enemies could not have hatched up a scheme half as
destructive as the one the SWP Central Committee has imposed upon itself.
It must be the first time such a large-scale left current effectively
launched a witch-hunt on itself, driving towards a split which ­ if they
were to go to a stitched-up Respect conference and win the vote ­ would be a
Pyrrhic victory, leaving only a downsized SWP and a wafer thin layer of
hangers-on in Respect.

Such a formation would never attract any broader forces ­ many of whom will
instinctively recoil from the SWP for years to come as the reality becomes
more widely known.

The SWP leadership have also broken from most of the well-known figures who
could draw a crowd for Respect ­ notably Galloway and Salma Yaqoob, but also
Victoria Brittain and Ken Loach.

In other words the SWP leaderships tactics have driven off virtually all of
the independent forces that made Respect a genuinely broad-based coalition.
After three years of work they now stand to walk away from the project
weaker and more discredited than they were before it launched: their track
record is one of politically hobbling Respect, under-selling it and failing
to tap its potential in a period uniquely favourable to building a left
alternative. And having failed to build it to its potential, rather than
face up to any of the errors that have been made, or correct them, they have
embarked on a suicidal policy of polarising Respect for and against the SWP.

However, for those of us who have not stopped looking to build a broad
left-wing party, the fact that the SWP leadership appears to have pressed
the self-destruct button opens up a far from a satisfying situation. They
are threatening to destroy something far more than the SWP itself.

The problem is that if the SWP leadership stick to their guns, reject the
proposals that we have made for postponement, and insist on convening the
conference on November 17 there is no viable basis for non-SWP members to
participate in it. There could only be a negative outcome.

We already know that there is no way we would be allowed to win any votes,
and that the process of checking credentials of delegations from Tower
Hamlets, Student Respect and other areas would be a nightmare, with a real
possibility of anger and frustration on both sides exploding into threats
and even violence.

But we also know that even if by some fluke we DID win a vote on a contested
issue, there is no chance of the policy being implemented as long as the SWP
leadership calls the shots.

Worse, we know from grim episodes in the history of the sectarian left, and
from the way the SWP has now drummed up signatures for its current
"petition" that it is possible for highly centralised groups such as the SWP
to march in squads of delegates who know what they are going to vote for
before they get there, who will be oblivious to the damage that they and
their antics do to the organisation.

We also know the impact a polarised, packed conference like this would have
on independent forces and those with no experience of the far left: they
would be profoundly shocked, alienated and demoralised: the result would be
that many valuable people would be lost to the project and quite possibly
lost to the left for years to come.

So we have a real problem: do we march whoever we can gather into a
stitched-up conference to be abused and reviled and voted down by SWPers
accusing us of witch-hunting them ­ and decide only afterwards how to
regroup and rebuild?

Do we participate in a conference that not only cannot solve the problems,
but which could make them many times worse and also parade them on the
national stage in front of the press and mass media, to the delight of the
real right wing and witch hunters?

Or do we decide that that is a not a useful expenditure of energy and that
the time has come to build something new and inclusive which can address the
problem of working class representation for which Respect was originally
launched to address?

Of course it would be a setback to accept that Respect as we have known it,
with all the effort involved in getting it off the ground had been destroyed
by the SWP leadership. But the fact is the political conditions which
created it are as relevant now as they were then, even more so. And it is
already clear that there are people all round the country who are ready to
join or rejoin a more inclusive organisation.

With the emergence of Brown the situation is far worse in the LP than it was
when Respect was founded. The possibly of reclaiming Labour for the left is
dead in the water. The defeat of the John McDonnell campaign saw the Labour
left at it lowest ebb for 60 years. The has to be a recomposition of the
left which goes far beyond what Respect has been able to do.

We need a new organisation as soon as possible which will start to address
these issues and create the condition to unite with those from the Labour
left, the trade union left and the activists of ecological and climate
change campaigns which can present a politic alternative to the betrayals of
new Labour.