Respect's chequered career in British politics

By Ben Reid

In four years of ups and downs, the Respect broad-left party has illustrated both the opportunities for and the obstacles to building a mass working-class party in Britain. Respect emerged in 2004 in opposition to the neoliberal and pro-war policies of PM Tony Blair’s Labour government. But it was not to be expected that the rightward course of “New” Labour would be enough to guarantee Respect an easy run.

Respect was formed in January 2004, almost a year after the massive protest demonstrations in Britain and around the world against the impending US-UK-Australian invasion of Iraq in March 2003, as an alliance of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, Britain’s largest socialist group), half a dozen smaller socialist organisations, expelled Dundee-born Labour MP George Galloway, and individual socialists and Muslims involved in the Stop the War Coalition. Shortly after its founding, Respect candidate Lindsey Germain came fifth in the 2004 London mayoral election. Respect received 1.7% of the UK vote in the 2004 European Parliament elections, with its highest vote — 4.8% — being in London.

Respect won its first election in July 2004, when its candidate won the east London borough of Tower Hamlets from Labour. The election was called after a Labour councillor was expelled for alleged corruption. In the 2005 UK general election Respect fielded candidates in 26 electorates, with Galloway winning the east London seat of Bethnal Bow and Green. Galloway is perhaps best known for his campaign to end the UN economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s and for his vigorous opposition to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In the 2006 local council elections Respect gained 15 new councillors including Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham. Yaqoob won 49% of the vote. In December 2006, Respect gained another councillor in Birmingham, Abdul Aziz, who had defected from the Liberal Democrats. In the days before the 2007 local council elections Respect lost one of its Tower Hamlets councillors, Waiseul Islam, who returned to the Labour Party. Respect stood a total of 48 candidates, with the total number of Respect councillors in the UK increasing to 18.

In August 2007 Galloway issued a letter strongly critical of the SWP. The contrast between successful campaigning in the Shadwell ward by-election in London’s East End in August and a very poor result (1.6%) in a by-election for the Ealing Southall parliamentary constituency the following month brought the differences in Respect to a head. Galloway argued: “Respect is not punching its weight in British politics and has not fulfilled its potential either in terms of votes consistently gained, members recruited or fighting funds raised. The primary reasons for this are not objective circumstances, but internal problems of our own making.” He attacked the SWP’s de facto control of Respect, claiming: “There is a custom of anathematisation in the organisation which is deeply unhealthy and has been the ruin of many a left-wing group before us.”

By October 2007, Respect had split between the SWP and most of the rest of the membership. Rival conferences were held in November. Galloway’s group eventually retained control of the name. All of the four councillors in Tower Hamlets who split from Respect in support of the SWP in 2007 have defected to other parties, with three joining Labour, and one even joining the Tories.

Labour on the skids

Since 2003, the UK Labour government’s popularity has sharply declined as a result of its support for the US-led war in Iraq and policies that favour big business at the expense of public services and adequate welfare for the majority. Labour has carried out unprecedented attacks on postal and other public sector workers, while factories continued to close. The “cash for honours” scandal, in which rich people who had loaned Labour large sums for the 2005 general election were given peerages, exposed it as a party reliant on donations from big business.

Blair relinquished the premiership to his arch-rival, Gordon Brown, in June 2007. This was just as the impact of fuel price rises and the international credit crisis (which forced the government to nationalise the failing Northern Rock bank in February this year) added to the government’s unpopularity. Conservative Party leader David Cameron’s “rebranding” of the Tories as a party in which “Social justice is a vital issue” (even though the Tories are committed to socially regressive policies) has contributed to a collapse in Labour’s support.

In the local elections this May, Labour’s vote fell across the UK to just 24%. Even London’s quasi-dissident and Labour “left” mayor, Ken Livingstone, narrowly lost to the Conservatives’ openly racist buffoon, Boris Johnson. The far-right British National Party also made gains, winning a seat for the first time in the Greater London Assembly. With Labour supporting racist policies against minority populations and war abroad, many white voters saw no reason not to vote for the right-wing Tories or the BNP. Now New Labour’s wealthy donors have turned their backs on the party — in the face of the resurgent Tories — leaving it with debts of over ₤24 million (A$49 million).

According to official figures released on June 9, 1.04 million working days were lost through strike action last year — almost 250,000 more than the previous 12 months. However, strike-days are still way below what they were in the 1970s, when an average of 12.9 million working days were lost annually, and in the 1980s, when 7.2 million working days were lost annually. In 2006, only 745,500 working days were lost in industrial disputes.

Retained support

Respect’s politics are left social-democratic, with strong anti-racist and anti-imperialist emphases. Its manifesto identifies it as a “democratic” and “campaigning party” that is “a crucial step towards the creation of a new radical working-class voice that will speak for millions who, through the betrayals of New Labour, have lost their political representation”. It is committed to “the organisation of society in the most open, democratic, participative, and accountable way practicable based on common ownership and democratic control”.

The ideas of Respect’s key leaders vary. Birmingham-based Salma Yaqoob draws on aspects of Sufist Islam emphasising “justice, equality and peace”. In 2005 she explained: “Seeing the centrality of the fight for justice to my faith was central to me becoming involved in broader political struggle. The more I read the Koran the more convinced I became that not only was this something I wanted to do politically but something as a Muslim I have to do ... The most important dividing line is those who stand up against oppression and those who endorse oppression, whether within our family, our community or society as a whole. You are either on one side of this line or the other.”

Galloway has had a long and controversial career as a Labour Party activist and MP with deep involvement in international solidarity with the Palestinian and other national liberation struggles in the Third World. His record of supporting the revolutionary leaderships in Cuba and Venezuela is much better than that of most socialist groups in Britain. Yet he has emphatically stated that his politics are “old Labour” rather than revolutionary socialist. It is a challenge, however, for Respect to make him accountable to the party’s policies. For example, Respect has a clear position “in support of a woman’s right to choose” abortion. Yet Galloway has expressed opposition to abortion rights and recently was not present in the House of Commons to vote on key legislation on this issue.

Regroupment call

The situation poses important challenges for socialists involved in Respect. Many of them met on June 29 and issued a statement calling for a “regroupment of Marxists”, calling it “a proposal made by members of the International Socialist Group, Socialist Resistance, a group of former members of the SWP and some independent Marxists not presently in any organisation”. They proposed “a regroupment, based on our common traditions as active revolutionary socialists. This proposal emerges from practical collaboration over the recent period in building Respect. We also appeal to independent revolutionaries and new militants to join us.”

Respect currently does not have an explicit position in favour of a revolutionary transformation of British society. It is limited to presenting itself as a leftwing anti-neoliberal alternative to the rightward course of the Labour Party, though the revival of the Tories’ electoral position is leading Galloway to shift back toward electoral support for Labour. He campaigned for Labour’s Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election, and has now called for a vote for Labour in an east Glasgow by-election, against candidates from the left.

[Ben Reid is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party resident in Britain. He is active in the Bristol and South-West branch of Respect and a supporter of Socialist Resistance.]