British militant left : Beyond Fake Unity

Mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2007

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 ?

THORNETT Alan, LISTER John

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.

* From International Viewpoint Online maga­zine : IV number 394 – November 2007.

* John Lister is a long-time leader of the ISG in England and Wales, and an editor of Socialist Resistance. He is also an expert in the poli­tics of heal­th­care and the Director of London Health Emergency. His book of the world­wide neo­li­be­ra­li­sa­tion of heal­th­care, “Health Policy Reform – ­ Driving the Wrong Way?” was publi­shed by Middlesex University Press in 2005.

* Alan Thornett is a lea­ding member of the International Socialist Group, British Section of the Fourth International, and sits on the National Council of Respect.

4 November 2007

Source : Europe soli­daire

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