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What happened to Respect?

December 7, 2007 | Page 4

CLIVE SEARLE, a member of the national council of Britain's Respect coalition, explains why the left-wing party recently suffered a split.

THE BRITISH left-wing Respect coalition has recently been plunged into crisis. For many people, this will be seen as a further sign of the fratricidal nature of left-wing politics. Why, when capitalism has never been less able to meet that needs of the world's people and the environment, has the left not been able to meet the challenge and step up to the plate?

Respect, formed out of the antiwar movement in the UK in early 2004, seemed to many to answer that need for a broad left-wing formation that could represent the millions abandoned by Tony Blair's embracing of neoliberalism and war-mongering. Respect brought together key sections of the antiwar movement--socialists, peace activists, trade unionists and, significantly, sections of the Muslim community radicalized by the peace movement, but suffering the post-9/11 backlash of Islamophobia.

It was potentially a powerful combination. Within three months, we had garnered 250,000 votes in elections to the European parliament, and just 12 months later, secured the victory of George Galloway as the member of parliament (MP) in the east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow.

Galloway, the firebrand left-wing MP, had been expelled from the Labour Party for opposition to the Iraq war. His oration in front of Norm Coleman and the U.S. Senate, where he lambasted the neo-cons for their lies, stands as one of the high points of the global antiwar movement.

What else to read

Respect Renewal has launched a Web site with news and information about upcoming activities. Clive Searle's writing can be found at the home page for Respect North West, which publishes a quarterly newspaper.


That Galloway could win in this solidly Labour seat--ousting a pro-war MP--made Respect the most successful left party in Britain in over 60 years. One year later, and we had extended our electoral reach in local government polls, becoming the official opposition in Tower Hamlets (where George has his parliamentary seat) and establishing a base in Birmingham and elsewhere.

How then, just 18 months later, have we effectively split in two? The answer lies in the historic disease of the left--sectarianism: that habit of placing small differences of tactic and theory above the needs of the movement and interests of working people as a whole.

It had become clear to many people that Respect, despite its successes, was not as successful as we could have been. Despite electoral success, we were losing members, nearly bankrupt and facing a possible general election with no candidates selected. It was in these circumstances that George Galloway wrote a paper to Respect's National Council (NC) suggesting action needed to rectify the situation. For most of the members of the NC, this was seen as an opportunity to correct mistakes and move forward.

Sadly, for one section of the Respect coalition--the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)--the implied criticism was too great to handle, and they "went nuclear." Their leadership--who also controlled the national office of Respect--organized internal meetings and published documents filled with the most disgraceful political slander on George Galloway. One of our brightest stars--the Birmingham councillor Salma Yacoob--was denounced as a "communalist."

Within a few weeks, the SWP leadership had managed to unite nearly all the non-SWP members of the NC in opposition to their increasingly bizarre and sectarian behavior.

Then, in the most cynical act I have witnessed in 25 years of involvement in socialist politics, the SWP leadership declared themselves to be the victim of a "witch-hunt of socialists" within Respect. They then used the Respect national office as a tool to promulgate this lie--a device designed to dragoon their own members into line whilst deepening existing divisions and driving them deep into the local branches.

To cap it all, it became clear in early November that the SWP was attempting to systematically undermine the democracy of the forthcoming Respect annual conference by accepting delegations from fictitious "student branches," while packing other delegations with their own members--many of whom had not been previously involved in Respect activity.

It was in these circumstances that 19 members of the NC--including the national chair, vice chair, our MP George Galloway and most of the councilors--called for an alternative conference on the same day to start a "renewal"' process for Respect.

Thankfully, that day was a great success, with over 370 attending from across the country to discuss the crisis and map out a new way forward, where we can rebuild Respect on the basis of plurality, openness and democracy.

Ironically, as Respect's own crisis has deepened, so the new premiership of Gordon Brown has been buffeted by its own series of deepening problems. The need for a left alternative has never been greater--and the possibility for building it never greater. Those of us involved in the Respect renewal process have not given up the idea of building broader unity on the left--and reaching out to those groups and individuals who previously didn't join us.

But our renewed project must learn the lessons of the past few months. We will welcome all those from many and varied traditions who wish to join together, including many former members of the SWP who are leaving, disgusted by the party's antics. Socialist ideas and theory will be central to the renewed Respect, but they must be won by patient explanation and joint activity--not bureaucratic maneuvers and dishonest denunciations of those who disagree.

Sectarianism has been the bane of the left in both Britain and further afield. It cannot be allowed to further hinder the movement for a better world.

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