Inside the Crisis of Respect

Andy Newman is a former Socialist Alliance activist who has followed developments in Respect closely. Martin Thomas interviewed him.

Both sides of the row are saying that Respect is in a bad way, yet you've chosen this time to rejoin. Why?

I’m not sure that both sides are saying that it is in a bad way. The SWP’s line now is that it is business as usual.

One of the biggest problems we had in the early days of the Socialist Alliance, and the early days of Respect, is that both were dominated by the particular form of democratic centralism associated with the SWP and the Socialist Party, not participatory democracy.

What’s happening in Respect now is that it seems to be opening up. If all there was in Respect was George Galloway and the SWP, you could leave them to fight it out between them. But there are many independent socialists in Respect. With them you can fight for a better Respect, and even if you fail in that, assemble the forces for something better.

Independent socialists in Respect? Not very many, and fewer than there used to be. The figures that have come out recently show the membership has dropped by a third.

We are where we are. Had it not been for the opening up of the debate by George Galloway, and subsequently by others such as Salma Yaqoob and people round her, there would not be many prospects.

But Salma Yaqoob’s document is very good, and I endorse it. There is room there for opening things up.

The left is not in a good position anywhere - not in the Labour Party, not anywhere. It’s a question of finding a way through the mess.

Which of the measures adopted by the Respect council on 22 September do you think are important for opening things up?

The appointment of a national organiser independent of the current office staff is a key confidence-building measure. As I understand it, the Respect council group in Tower Hamlets, George Galloway, and Salma Yaqoob do not believe that progress is possible with the current factional operation of the Respect office.

There is beginning to be a real debate about the way forward, and of course the SWP itself is not a monolith.

Can we really believe that George Galloway is making a stand for democracy? Whatever you say about the SWP, it does have conferences and elected committees. Every political operation George Galloway has ever run has been one based on his personal authority.

I wouldn’t overvalue those committees and conferences in the SWP. But if it were just a question of George Galloway, then there would be very little to play for. There’s a wider group than Galloway involved, not necessarily all saying the same thing as him.

And the electoral base of Respect, and its local groups where it has them, are not something to be walked away from lightly.

If genuine debate is opening up, then, however ironic some of the bedfellows we find ourselves with, it’s a better result than if we walk away.

Those of us who left Respect in 2005 because we felt there was no possibility of its lack of democracy changing now see things opening up.

I can’t see that any of the measures decided by the Respect council do anything to open up things for the ordinary members.

If the proposals decided by the council were the end of the matter, then we would be dead in the water. But it’s the opening up of a process.

There will be debates over the coming weeks, up to the Respect conference [on 17-18 November].

What do you make of the SWP’s charge that the Respect group on Tower Hamlets council has been operating so as to represent “a narrow and conservative trend” to the white working class and secular Bengalis?

This is a bit of an opportunist argument from the SWP. They have been defending the approach for the last two or three years, and now they’re agreeing with people they’d previously call “Islamophobes”.

There may well be problems about the accountability of Respect’s elected representatives. But the SWP have been trying to deal with the problem by diktat, because the central SWP people here have no experience of operating in wider labour movement bodies, like the Labour Party.

If Respect had a more open, democratic approach to its policy formation, rather than ideas appearing from John Rees’s head, then it would be more difficult for elected representatives to defy their mandate.

Galloway seems to be attacking SWP for wanting Respect to have union-oriented activity and a public profile in support of lesbian and gay rights.

I don’t think that everything is exactly what it seems with what either George Galloway or the SWP have put forward. The Organising for Fighting Unions initiative has not been that constructive. We saw this with SWP and Respect having a vanishingly small profile at the Shop Stewards’ Network conference in July.

It’s reasonable to question whether OFFU was less about Respect being active in the unions, and more about the SWP using the Respect hat to do what they wanted to do anyway in the unions.

As for the charge that Galloway wants to retreat into a Muslims-only organisation, I think that’s nonsense. Birmingham Respect has taken part in Pride.

The SWP, in a corner, has reached for weapons to use against Galloway which had been crafted by others to attack Respect.

The details of George Galloway’s attacks on the SWP are factional, too.

What do you think Galloway is aiming for?

I don’t know what George Galloway’s motives are. I wouldn’t like to speculate, because I don’t have enough evidence. In terms of his own prestige, he doesn’t want to see Respect blow up.

For some media or diplomatic career options he may have in mind, it could positively help him to be seen to do down “the Trots”?

Well, there are not many votes in attacking the SWP. If Galloway is serious about continuing his political career, then Respect is the vehicle he’s doing that through. If Respect is not working well as a political vehicle, that harms him.

It’s not normal in the labour movement for a National Secretary to be openly factional in a selection process, as John Rees has been. Salma Yaqoob says that after she had a tactical disagreement with John Rees — just a tactical disagreement — he stopped talking to her. I don’t think we need look beyond things like that for an explanation.

Do you think Respect will split?

It’s hard to see from the language being used on both sides how they can stay in the same organisation. But how it will pan out, I don’t know. It’s possible that part of the SWP will withdraw from Respect. But it is hard to see how the SWP can win in this situation. Without Galloway, and with a big public split with Galloway, they can’t get anywhere. But it’s not easy for the SWP to leave Respect, either. With the way they function, it’s difficult for them to make a sharp turn.

Can I see everyone in Respect being happy chums by the time of the general election? No, I can’t. But there are people in Respect who want to build something with a more participatory democracy, and more of an approach of reaching out.

There is an interest now in what’s going on from people who were never in Respect. They might prefer to have the Socialist Alliance, but Respect is what they’ve got.