Workers' Power on the "RESPECT" coalition victory
Respect: rise of a new populist party?Workers Power 296 - May 2005
One big story of the election night was Respect's victory in Bethnal green and Bow and strong polling in East London and Birmingham. This was a powerful indication of both the strength of anti-war feeling and the real potential that exists to channel this into a radical alternative to Labour. The problem with Respect is that it is not channelling this anger in the direction of independent working class political representation.Respect does not identify itself as a working class party, despite the fact that George Galloway was a long-time Labour MP and the organisational core of Respect is the membership of the Socialist Workers Party. In fact Respect it is an alliance between the SWP and a series of religiously based organisations - local mosques and sections of the Muslim Association of Britain. The constituencies where it has made its breakthrough are all strongly Muslim areas.Of course revolutionaries should not turn their back on Muslim areas. The Muslim population, the majority of whom are working class, is one of the most discriminated against and racially abused in Britain. Revolutionaries always side with the most oppressed and seek to draw them into the workers movement and into its vanguard.The error that the SWP made was to seek out an alliance with Muslim people not on the basis of class politics but on a less than working class, less than socialist platform. In Lindsey German's words at its foundation conference, Respect set out to be "less socialist" than the left reformist Socialist Alliance had been. Respect's political programme was trimmed to win middle class support within the Muslim community. When it comes to the question of the alternative society Respect is fighting for, it dodges the fundamental question: private property or socialised property? The expropriation of the capitalist class as a whole is not and cannot be raised.Respect's manifesto does have a single paragraph aimed at attracting Old Labour supporters. It talks about the "organisation of society in the most open, democratic, participative, and accountable way practicable based on common ownership and democratic control" But ownership of and control over what? This is evasive. At least the famous Labour Party Clause Four called for "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". Mosques, just like churches and synagogues, contain a mixture of working class and middle class people. The SWP talks of how many worshipers in the mosque are workers. This is beside the point. In all religious communities, business people (small or large scale), doctors and lawyers call the shots. For many decades Jewish and Irish immigrants were overwhelmingly working class too. But no revolutionaries ever thought that they could form an electoral alliance, a proto-party with the synagogues or the catholic churches.Socialists must be for secular education and women's liberation. All religions embody undemocratic teachings on these issues. Respect was downplaying women's rights from the outset. When it used the slogan "a woman's right to choose" it meant to choose to wear the hijab but not to choose to have an abortion. The Respect election manifesto had "Respect for..." sections for every sector of the population. But no "Respect for women"!Galloway stressed whenever he could his profound religious faith and his opposition to abortion. Respect supporters in the mosques advertised these positions as reasons to vote for him. The SWP never uttered a single word of criticism of their allies' socially reactionary views. The best they could be made to do was to claim they were only his personal views. However, Lindsey German hastened to clarify that, when issues like that came up in the House of Commons, Respect was in favour of a free vote, allowing George to follow his conscience.The fall in support for Labour in key sections of the working class presents massive opportunities for socialists to rally the most progressive sections to a new working class party. Respect's high vote is clear evidence of this. But by channelling this discontent into a cross-class populist vehicle, the SWP and Galloway are frittering away the chance to build a mass working class alternative to Blair.That's why this paper was absolutely right to oppose the formation of Respect, and to refuse to advocate a vote for Respect candidates. We will continue instead to fight for the foundation of a new working class party, and for a revolutionary socialist programme.How Galloway wonGeorge Galloway had come under ferocious attack from pro-war apologists in the Independent, Observer and Times. Allegations of anti-Semitism, intimidation and misogyny flew thick and fast. Pro-war Blairite loyalist, Oona King, was depicted as a victim of hard left and Muslim bully boys. Although there was the odd egg-throwing incident and unproven accusations of physical attack, they had bearing on the outcome.In fact the most serious incident had nothing to do with the contest between Respect and Labour, but was due to a small fundamentalist group, the self-styled Saviour Sect. Several of their members tried to intimidate Galloway, enraged at his attempt to win votes from Muslims.Respect quite openly targeted Muslims - and Sikhs and Catholics - as faith groups. At their 350-strong East Ham rally, the line-up of 12 speakers included three Muslim representatives, as well as one from the Sikh community. The audience was reminded that Galloway was a "man of faith" and "devout Catholic".There was not a single trade unionist speaker on this platform, aside from Unison's Michael Gavan in the chair. The meeting broke for prayers - men only, of course. There was hardly a mention of socialism, while the SWP's Lindsey German devoted much of her speech to denouncing Islamophobia.Clearly the Muslim community at the heart of Bethnal Green & Bow were voting for the candidate who best expressed their vehement hostility towards the war. There was also a widespread desire to get rid of Oona King, who had already faced a tough reselection fight within the local Labour Party.However, Respect's success cannot be put down solely to the "Muslim vote". Its local branches have started to put down roots and are attracting a small but significant layer of working class activists beyond the ranks of the SWP. PCS activist Oliur Rahman became the coalition's first elected councillor last summer and has swiftly developed a high profile as a tenants' champion. A few weeks later SWP member Paul McGarr gained nearly 27 per cent of the poll in the still mainly white Millwall ward.Galloway has also supported the local FBU in resisting cuts and met with Unison members in the local authority incensed over attacks on their pensions.Respect is hoping for major gains in council elections in Tower Hamlets and Newham next May. The East London results have certainly whetted the SWP's appetite for populist electioneering. Given its success it will not spontaneously move on from this faith-oriented populism. Nevertheless a revival of struggles, by trade unionists, tenants, anti-racists from all "communities" will open up the social contradictions within the multi-class block that Respect is trying to build. Such struggles can bring closer a successful fight for an independent working class party and the winning of it to revolutionary socialist politics.