Britain - The Respect coalition - balance sheet and future

Jul/Aug 2004

In the 10 June European election, the presence of "Respect - the unity coalition", whose driving force was the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), was a first for Britain. Up to then, the far left had not stood more than a handful of candidates in any election, although it put forward a full slate in the 2000 London Assembly election. But never before had the whole electorate in England and Wales had the opportunity of voting for far left candidates. For this reason it is worth drawing a separate balance sheet of Respect's election campaign.

Respect presented itself as an anti-war front, which was also opposed to a whole range of Blair's other policies. But although the SWP provided most of the militant and material resources for the election campaign, Respect did not present itself as a far left party. It merely asked people to turn the election into a "referendum on Blair and his war", to quote the election material. In fact the choice of the name "Respect" - previously associated with officially sponsored "right-on" anti-racist initiatives aimed at youth - already suggested a soft-left rainbow alliance of do-gooders rather than the class-based politics which the far left is suppose to stand for.

Respect could therefore not appear very different politically from the Greens. If there was a difference between the two, it was only one of emphasis, with Respect focusing primarily on an anti-war stance. But differentiating themselves from the petty-bourgeois Greens was not even an objective for Respect. Quite the opposite. They desperately tried to get the Green Party to join the coalition, and called it a "tragedy that the Green party and Respect were not in a united campaign". On the other hand, the Greens were quite sure they did not want to taint themselves by having anything to do with the far left. The well-known writer and anti-corporatist activist George Monbiot, similarly decided to abandon Respect after initially agreeing to support it, because in the final analysis he no doubt felt his reputation might be damaged by an association with the SWP.

A motley crowd of dubious allies

In other words, the SWP's choice to leave class politics out of its campaign was not just a matter of electoral tactics. It was a prerequisite to keep its allies on board, because if there was anything they were unlikely to stomach, it was certainly explicit working class politics.

George Galloway, the maverick ex-Labour MP who had been chosen as the figurehead of the coalition and who led its European list in London, was never known to be a left-winger during his years on Labour's back benches. His stance against Blair's war in Iraq, which led to his expulsion from Labour, had more to do with his own past relationships with Middle Eastern regimes - including that of Saddam Hussein - than with a principled opposition to the criminal policies of British capital abroad and at home. In fact he summarised his own outlook in an interview with the Independent on Sunday in which he came across as a bigoted Catholic, actively opposed to abortion - and therefore the rights of women. No, Galloway was highly unlikely to campaign on the basis of class politics. However, regardless of this, because of his vocal challenges to Blair over the Iraq war, the Respect European campaign was called "Respect the Unity Coalition (George Galloway)", no doubt in the hope that tacking his name on would bring in more anti-war votes.

As to the Islamic activists who were the other main component of the coalition, they are just as hostile to class-based politics as Galloway is. By its very nature, political Islam denies the existence of social classes with antagonistic interests. Indeed, it seeks to split the working class, as well as the whole of society, between Muslims - who it claims to represent - and non-Muslims, who it considers, at best, as contemptible non-believers to be tolerated reluctantly, or at worst, as the enemy.

Even from the point of view of Respect's claim to defend the interests of the Iraqi people against the imperialist military occupation, the SWP's choice of forming an alliance with these representatives of political Islam is sadly ironical. Respect's main Islamic backer, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) is a British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic current which was for a long time used as an instrument by British imperialism to fight Arab nationalism. In Iraq today, the counterpart of the MAB is one of the fundamentalist factions which are vying for power and trying to capitalise on the population's anger against the occupiers to promote an Islamic dictatorship as the only alternative. Is this what the SWP means by defending the interests of the Iraqi people?

The fact that a section of this brand of religious activism decided to join in a coalition with the revolutionary socialist SWP, probably says more about how far the SWP was prepared to go in their direction, rather than the opposite. For instance, while in most of England and Wales the MAB called for a vote for Respect, in London it supported Livingstone in the mayoral election rather than Respect's candidate Lindsey German, on the grounds that he had been an "excellent" mayor for London and a "great supporter of Muslims" and in the South East Euro election, it called its supporters to vote for the Green list led by Caroline Lucas, rather than for Respect's list.

A class-blind campaign

Anyway, with such allies, the SWP's Lindsey German, who stood as Respect's candidate for London Mayor, could not, in reality, be very credible in the claim she made that Respect was providing "a voice for the working class". To be such a voice Respect would have needed to do a lot more than just put forward a list of demands on public services, the minimum wage, pensions, etc.

And to give the SWP's Islamic allies - Salma Yaqoob and the former president of the MAB - the task of expressing these demands in Respect's party political broadcast on TV, may have been a clever electoral trick. But it changed nothing to the fact that the aim of these particular allies is to represent the allegedly separate interests of Muslims, whether they be businessmen, shopkeepers, or wage workers, as opposed to the interests of the working class as a whole.

In fact, a leaflet distributed throughout London to advertise George Galloway's Respect list for the European election exposed the fallacy of Respect's double-speak - by presenting Respect as a "party for Muslims". A "party for Muslims"? For all Muslims? Including the Bengali sweatshop owners in Tower Hamlets or wealthy Middle Eastern or Asian businessmen in the City? Respect's leaflet stopped short of distancing itself from the Muslim petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. There was a social choice to be made and Respect chose not to make it.

The different language used in Lindsey German's and George Galloway's election literature was not accidental, however. There was an obvious division of labour between them and an electoral reason for it. While Lindsey German did not have the slightest chance of being elected, there was a remote possibility of Respect gaining the very minimum 8% required to guarantee Galloway a seat in Strasbourg. Or so they calculated. So, no amount of demagogy was spared in Galloway's campaign, which turned Respect into a "party for Muslims". And Respect was careful to avoid using any social references which might have put off Muslim religious leaders from encouraging their mosques-goers to vote for him.

It is worth saying something about the content of Respect's election manifestos. Of course, given the absence of any class content, these had no reference to the one and only way forward today - that is the need for a working class counter offensive. Instead they featured the same catalogue of demands used by the SWP in the past, when it stood under the Socialist Alliance umbrella. So on Europe, there was the "old Labour" Eurosceptic line - against the Euro, the constitution and so on, repeating the tired scare stories about the "EU" in and of itself, and not the national governments who make it up, being somehow responsible for the threats against jobs, social security, etc., in Britain or in other member states.

The London election material attempted to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, with an emphasis on the environment, re-nationalisation of transport, and added a policy (shared, ironically with the Liberal Democrats) for a progressive local income tax to replace council tax. One was encouraged to vote for Lindsey German for mayor because she is "someone who led two million people demonstrating against the war and has fought all her life to defend public services"! Although Respect did not call specifically for the Mayoral second preference vote to go to Livingstone - i.e. Blair's candidate - one could understand that this was implied by the following: "you have two votes, and votes transfer between your first and second choices. That means you can vote for Respect candidate Lindsey German first choice, but because votes transfer to your second choice you can also ensure no Tory or Liberal can sneak in."

Ambiguous results

It would seem that Respect had high hopes in this election, encouraged by the fact that all the pre-election polls predicted that Labour was going to do badly. Their reasoning had, of course, been based on the size of last year's anti-war demonstrations. It was with this in mind that they had adapted their campaign to incorporate as much support as possible from this milieu, and, more importantly, to avoid alienating anyone by taking an overtly class line. Hence, the wooing of the so-called "Muslim" vote.

So how did Respect fare? Was it able to capitalise on the anti-Blair and anti-war vote in this election, compared to the other parties - the Greens and Liberal Democrats, in particular - who, rightly or wrongly, were also perceived as having made a stand against Blair and the war?

Judging from the overall European Election result (turnout just under 38%), where Respect achieved only 1.7% (252,212 votes), the answer to this question is that it was not able to do so.

It did, however appear to succeed in getting a proportion at least, of the "Muslim" vote, in some areas, if one looks at the results of both the London Assembly election and Euro election in London. Respect's highest score in the Euro poll was in Newham, with 21.41%, coming second after Labour's 32.8%, followed by Tower Hamlets with 20.36%, where it actually came first, beating Labour which got 19.4%. Both these boroughs have a large Asian population, with Tower Hamlets being home to a large Bangladeshi community. However, Respect's overall London vote in the Euro election was 4.8%, far short of the minimum requirement of 8% to get one MEP. It got 4.57% of the vote for the London Assembly. Lindsey German received 3.3% in the first preference vote for mayor of London, coming fifth.

In Birmingham, part of the West Midlands region, where the SWP's John Rees headed Respect's Euro list, its score was 7%. But in Bordesley Green and Springfield wards - predominantly Asian - Respect beat all the other parties. Now what does Rees himself say about this result? "Our vote was not just a Muslim vote. There is a massive political battle going on among Muslims, just as there is in the trade unions and other groups. Muslims have a class identity as well as a religious identity. Now we have to build on the success we've had to generalise from it. Activists should ask, can I go to my workplace, the local mosque or Sikh temple, the community centre, and set up a political meeting? The doors are open to us but we have to take the small steps necessary."

Whether Rees likes it or not, the figures are there to prove that Respect's showing in these two wards was mostly due to Asian voters. This being said, it is true that Muslims have a "class identity", like anyone else. It is also true that in general, black peoples of all origins have a much higher proportion of wage workers - and unemployed - in their ranks. But given that Respect did not have a clear class identity, how could voters, Muslim or otherwise, choose to vote for Respect on this basis?

As to Rees' intimation to SWP activists that they now have an "open door" to mosques and temples in order to set up political meetings, this is no more than wishful thinking. Should these activists opt for agitation around the bread and butter issues concerning poor working class people, and in so doing need to stray back onto the territory of class politics where there is no room for religion, nor "fate", nor the will of Allah, nor God, but only collective struggle, they will find the doors of the mosques slammed in their faces. The same "religious leaders" who have been a factor in Respect's local electoral successes, because Imams told prayer-goers to vote for it, would rapidly turn against SWP activists if they took off their Clarke Kent disguises and revealed that they are really revolutionary Marxists with an agenda which can only lead to the dumping of all religions in the dustbin of history where they belong.

Overall, it is therefore impossible to draw a clear balance sheet of Respect's results from the point of view of the working class. Some of its local successes are certainly impressive and they demonstrate the effectiveness of Muslim activists and "religious leaders" in rallying votes, but they say nothing about the nature of the support won by Respect in these areas. As to Respect's results on a national scale, they indicate the existence of a small but not insignificant layer of voters willing to vote for a so far unknown party. But the ambiguity of Respect's campaign does not allow one to say why they made this choice, on what social basis nor what opinion they wanted to express - even if the odds are that this was largely an anti-war vote.

The problem of the workers' party

One can therefore only be left wondering what the purpose of the Respect campaign was for the SWP?

Since Respect was launched, there has been on-going talk about its transformation into a party in its own right after the election. But what would be the cement for such a party? The anti-war movement was the cement that brought together the SWP, Galloway, the MAB and other supporters of political Islam. There was a certain logic to this, even if this logic was questionable from the point of view of class politics.

But what will happen when the issue of the war begins to fade away? Galloway may have found it expedient to use Respect for the election campaign, because he had no other platform on which to stand. But why would he stick with a party which has failed to satisfy his ambitions? As to the Islamic activists, who were given a national platform by Respect which they would never have had otherwise, do they have enough in common with revolutionary socialists to remain in the same party, when their political agenda is radically opposed to class politics? And how much would revolutionary socialists have to water down their ideas in order to make such a party acceptable to their present allies - a lot, judging from the concessions they had to make for the election.

With its anti-war campaign and the Respect coalition, the SWP seems to have fallen once again for the age-old mirage of single-issue campaigns. And yet the long (and sorry) experience of the revolutionary left in this respect is there to show what sort of trap this is. How many people have been brought into such campaigns by the left? These newcomers were not convinced of the need for the revolutionary transformation of society, nor were they prepared to throw their lot in with the far left on a permanent basis, for as long as it takes, through thick and thin. But because the left was far too afraid to alienate these new recruits to take the risk of trying to win them over politically, when the campaign lost impetus, these supporters disappeared once more into the woodwork, and the left was left with empty hands once more.

If a revolutionary organisation does not put up its own flag unambiguously, how is it ever going to gain the recognition of workers for its perspective, win committed activists and have a realistic assessment of its strengths or weaknesses so that it can construct a way forward?

Not only is the Respect project doomed to failure in this regard, but it has gone much further down the old failed road than the SWP, or anyone on the British left, ever went during the past decades. This time they chose allies purely on the basis of a calculation to maximise votes, throwing all caution and principles to the wind. Everything hinged on demonstrating an electoral success.

But did the SWP comrades wonder what meaning an electoral success (that is maybe an MEP and a seat on the London Assembly at most, since they could not expect more) for their awkward coalition, if achieved, would have had? A small slap in the face for Blair? When he has been experiencing electoral defeats in similar elections ever since 1997, and without Respect's help, achieved a historic defeat in the local elections on 10 June. When he faced up the biggest demonstration in British history and invaded Iraq anyway? As if Blair's policy was not entirely determined by the greed (and fears) of the capitalist class. And what difference would it have made for the working class? Could it feel politically reinforced in its struggles by such a "success", even symbolically, when it had no means of identifying Respect's campaign with the defence of its class interests?

Yet the SWP comrades made the choice of putting all their efforts into this electoral flash-in-the-pan. They paid lip-service to the working class by claiming (in the small print) that the "s" in Respect stood for "socialism" and the "t" for trade unions. But in fact, they served mostly as errand boys for both an adventurer like Galloway and reactionary Islamic fundamentalists.

One can only hope that, having gone through this disappointing experience, the SWP comrades will come back to the real world of class politics; that they will face up to the need to build solid roots, under their own flag, unambiguously, inside the British working class, without fear of frightening workers off with such (unfashionable?) ideas like having no truck with religion, or the need for workers to bypass the bureaucratic machineries of the unions in organising their own collective fights. These comrades could then save all that energy spent looking for bandwagons and short-cuts and instead use it productively to help build the foundation of a revolutionary workers' party that knows its own class and is proud of it.