Socialists debate the Galloway coalition

By Martin Thomas

The Socialist Alliance Executive on 3 January voted to support the "Respect" electoral coalition launched in Socialist Worker of 13 December, mainly by the SWP and George Galloway MP. It "regard[ed] the statement [published in December] as a good basis for the public launch of 'Respect'".

Two Executive members, Steve Godward (unaffiliated) and myself, voted against. Three abstained: John Fisher (close to SWP), Lesley Mahmood (ex-Militant), and Marcus Strom (Weekly Worker). 13 voted for.

The "all aboard" trumpet-call, however, was not quite at perfect pitch.

Supporters of "Respect" were at odds about whether they considered its political statement "absolutely socialist" (Rob Hoveman, SA secretary and SWP), only "implicitly socialist" (Nick Wrack, SA chair, close to SWP), or not socialist but sufficiently "left-wing" to go with (Will McMahon, SA office worker, close to SWP).

Although the new coalition is sure to gather some momentum, so far it has not got the support its advocates had claimed for it. Neither Bob Crow (RMT rail union general secretary) nor Mark Serwotka (PCS civil service union general secretary) has signed up for it.

Supporters of "Respect" had different views on the future of the Socialist Alliance. According to McMahon, the SA should be a socialist current within the non-socialist coalition. SWP members like Jeanie Robinson and Rob Hoveman saw it differently. The SA should not intervene collectively, but remain in reserve. "The SA has to stay together because it [the new coalition] may all fall down around our ears".

Lesley Mahmood and Steve Godward were concerned that, while the SWP and other organised groups will find ways to have political leverage, this perspective leaves the unaffiliated socialists in the SA with none at all. Godward also criticised plans to focus on the Euro-elections and Greater London Assembly this June, neglecting or minimising the council elections the same day. "It means surrendering the streets to the BNP".

Some political votes at the Exec were close. A motion for "workers' representatives on a worker's wage", the most hotly debated of the day, fell narrowly, with nine against (all SWP or close), two abstentions (Jim Jepps, close to SWP, and Heather Cox, SWP), and seven for: Mandy Baker (close to SSP), John Fisher, Steve Godward, Lesley Mahmood, Glyn Robbins (SWP), Marcus Strom, and myself.

Lesley Mahmood's motion that the SA argue in "Respect" for open borders fell on a tied vote, with the same seven voting for, and four abstentions.

A motion for the coalition's candidate lists to be decided by Euro-constituency members' meetings fell on another tied vote, 7-7-3.

My motion, that the SA should argue for "Respect" to be relocated politically on the lines of independent working-class political representation got two votes (Steve Godward and myself), with four abstentions (Baker, Fisher, Mahmood, Strom).

Some supporters of "Respect" wanted the SA to move to add items to the "Respect" platform on the minimum wage and taxing the rich to rebuild the welfare state (Jeanie Robinson) or the 35 hour week (Alan Thornett, Resistance). Those proposals failed to reach a vote for procedural reasons.

The argument from the SWP and co-thinkers against all the controversial motions was that the role of the SA in "Respect" must be "building it and winning esteem". We must "not pick a fight on the first day". The most important thing is to "get it off the ground". If we do that, the coalition can reach "tens and hundreds of thousands of people" who just won't join the left directly, however hard we try.

I had moved a motion at the previous Executive (in November) opposing the link with Galloway, who has a record of close links with Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq, and has said that he can't operate politically on any less than £150,000 a year. It was defeated then, and will not return for debate until the 17 January meeting of the Socialist Alliance council (a broader body, including delegates from local Alliances).

John Fisher, however, while broadly supporting "Respect", warned the meeting that "lots of good trade unionists are very iffy about Galloway. What does he represent? Everything seems to be done top-down".

He asked Nick Wrack to specify how he would measure success for the coalition. What level of achievement will he reckon as "doing well"? Wrack's reply was telling. "There are never any guarantees in politics. But we could get George Galloway elected to the European Parliament from London".