Some parts of the left have greeted Respect’s success in Bradford West with what can properly be described as religious enthusiasm. Writing over the Easter weekend on Britain’s most widely read socialist blog, one long-time activist even described the spectacular by-election overturn as “the second coming”.
What George Galloway — a politician who frequently plays on his Catholic devotion — makes of such implicit comparisons between him and Christ, I cannot guess. But while his victory may not be quite the equivalent of walking on water, the sheer scale of what was achieved is beyond dispute.
Many have been quick to make hard and fast pronouncements about the implications for the future of leftwing politics in this country. In particular, leading lights in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition insist that Galloway’s triumph augurs well for their London assembly campaign.
Good luck, guys. The 5% threshold needed to gain a seat is not beyond reach, at least in principle.
In fact, were TUSC to ditch its incomprehensible acronym and stand under a simple designation that gave the voters some hint of what it stands for, its chances of surmounting the hurdle would probably be improved.
But there are a number of ways this one could go, and in the longer term, some comrades are discussing the possibilities of wider left regroupment around Respect. The most obvious response from those sceptical on this score is to note that this has been tried in the past, with results of which we are well aware. Why should anything be any different this time round?
Back in 2004, the Socialist Workers’ Party effectively smashed up a framework within which the bulk of the far left was able to co-operate, in order to throw itself wholeheartedly into Respect mark one.
The liaison was brief. Just three years later, the first incarnation of that party fell to pieces, with Galloway famously branding the SWP as Leninist “Russian dolls”, in the process famously telling his erstwhile allies to “fuck off, fuck off the lot of you”.
None of this has been deemed worthy of mention in the gushing assessments of Bradford West published by the SWP. Galloway is even speaking its Marxism 2012 event, so bygones are presumably bygones. One leading SWPer has chided me as a sectarian for even mentioning the earlier episode.
But there is a lasting record of the SWP’s position at the time on the split, written by the late Chris Harman and published in the quarterly International Socialism Journal. It is still available online, at least for now, here.
Much of the article is palpably self-serving obfuscation. Particularly laughable is the insistence that the SWP and a handful of its supporters in the project constituted “the main body of Respect”, in contrast to “the breakaway of the Galloway group”, which briefly traded as Respect Renewal.
Renewal is even accused of lying about the attendance at one of its rallies, an underhand ploy of which the SWP would surely never dream.
But underneath Harman’s manifold stupidities is a critique of some weight. Most importantly, there is an acknowledgement of Galloway’s ties to rightwing Islamists implicated in the attempted bloody suppression of Bengali independence.
Yet although this observation is relegated to a mere footnote, this is probably the only time they saw daylight in the SWP press, even though they were widely known at the time Respect was established.
Harman also has words of warning for those revolutionaries who signed up with Respect Renewal: “They will face a choice between having to avoid speaking on a whole range of issues or saying things that upset one or other of its component parts.
“They will be faced on a daily basis by Galloway, with his disdain for what ordinary supporters think about his media performance and his opinions of issues such as crime, by those Tower Hamlets councillors whose main concern is their own careers, by those who mistakenly believe the only way to win the votes of Muslim workers is to keep quiet in the face of male chauvinist attitudes, and by those who despite their denials have tried to play the communal card in the past and will do so again in future.”
In those matters, Harman was not wrong. The same issues will face revolutionaries who sign up for the second coming, too.
It’s worth adding the footnote here that among the minority of councillors who demonstrated their imperviousness to careerism by siding with the Russian dolls was an SWP member who not long afterwards went over to the Conservatives, in what must be the only straight Trot to Tory defection in British local government history.
Perhaps the present leadership of the SWP now believes that Harman’s arguments are incorrect? An honest political organisation would at least publish some sort of clarification, spelling out where they now think they went wrong.
The exercise would undoubtedly be instructive, not least for SWP cadre forced to adopt any new tactical turn in the months ahead. But don’t hold your breath.