If you ask any observer of Irish politics about the late Noël Browne, chances are that the first thing they’ll mention will be the Mother and Child debacle in 1951, when Noël was comprehensively mugged by the Catholic hierarchy and his own cabinet colleagues. In fact, Noël dined out on that for decades afterwards. This probably explains why, despite his membership of multiple political parties including Fianna Fáil, and being a bit of a martinet who preferred gofers to comrades, he managed to maintain an image of being a selfless and uncompromising idealist. Nice trick if you can pull it off.
Somehow I doubt that Tower Hamlets councillor Ahmed Hussain, whose defection straight from the Socialist Workers Party to the Tories has now been confirmed, will live so long in the affections of the public.
Listen: anyone who’s been involved in local politics knows that defections are the small change of council business. They happen on a regular basis, in councils up and down Britain. Sometimes there are policy issues involved. Sometimes there are personality clashes in what’s generally a small world populated by crabby egos. And sometimes there are the spoils of office, which aren’t great in material terms, but the wrath of a councillor who feels he’s been denied a rightful committee chair or stint at wearing the mayoral chain is wondrous to behold.
Like I say, it happens all the time. Labour councillors join the Lib Dems, Lib Dems go Tory, Independents go every which way but loose. Since the mainstream political spectrum is so narrow (especially with the Orange Book gang taking over the Lib Dems) and councils’ powers are so tightly circumscribed, it doesn’t usually make a huge amount of difference.
You would think the hard left, as a more ideological tendency, would be less susceptible to this sort of thing, and you would be right, but less susceptible doesn’t mean immune. On a semi-regular basis – it seems like once or twice a year – you hear of some Labour councillor in the north of England who’s defected to the Socialist Party. The SP seem to never hold on to these council seats – either the councillor fails to be re-elected or he parts company with the SP or both. The SP used to tout these defections as evidence that they were on their way to great things, but they tend to be a lot more sober these days. And that speaks well of them.
So we come to the Ahmed Hussain saga. Firstly, it would obviously be different if Hussain had jumped ship to, say, the Socialist Party or the Greens. It would even be different if he’d gone over to Labour – New Labour may be hegemonic in the Labour Party, but the Labour Party is not reducible to New Labour. Defecting to the Tories, on the other hand – to the class enemy, the party of British capital – is a lot harder to explain away. And with such indecent haste! Negotiating his defection while still holding an SWP membership card! At least Roger Rosewell or Peter Hitchens allowed a decent interval between their revolutionary periods and their Tory periods.
What’s more significant is what this says about the SWP hierarchy. I agree that nobody has come out of this looking particularly good, but what is most bizarre is the press release issued by the SWP-Reespect in the middle of the night asserting that all was well and that Ahmed remained true to the ideals of Respect, notwithstanding his public praise for Dave Cameron’s policies and his photocall with leading London Tories. I assume this was the work of the SWP-Reespect’s press officer, listed as one J Rees. If so, Rees has made himself look like a pillock. Beyond that, the press release, issued in the name of Oli Rahman, made Oli look like a pillock, and if I was Oli I would be extremely annoyed. My chum Richard Seymour has also made himself look a pillock by loudly demanding “corrections” to what turned out to be a correct story.
Now, beyond that, let me reiterate that defections are small change in local politics. And we may say that Ahmed Hussain is an opportunist, and we’d be right, but there’s no foolproof test for opportunistic tendencies that individuals may develop months or years down the line. Lenin (the real one, not the blogger) said so on several occasions. And yet the SWP, in their self-proclaimed role as Scientific Marxist Vanguard©, have suggested that such precognition is possible. Here is Renaissance Man Chris Harman:
Another problem flowing from the success of Respect was familiar to people who had been active in the past in the Labour Party, but was completely new to the non-Labour left—opportunist electoral politics began to intrude into Respect…
Socialists did their best to deal with these unhealthy developments. They struggled against the non-left interlopers. By and large the left won. [Gulam] Mortuza turned against Galloway when the left blocked his bid to become “president” of Tower Hamlets Respect, leaving Respect and returning to Labour. Shamsuddin Ahmed was not selected for the council seat he wanted in 2006, left Respect and stood for the Liberal Democrats. Mohammed Zabadne soon became tired of left wing politics and broke with Respect. The willingness of socialists to argue against those who saw Respect simply as a vehicle for their own political careers was vindicated—but two years later this was used by Galloway to denounce, by implication, the SWP.
Renaissance Chris goes on to approvingly quote the Winchellised Internal Bulletin document on Tower Hamlets by Doherty, McGarr and McLoughlin, wherein the three comrades whine about not always getting their way in terms of candidate selection. This is the meat behind the accusation of Tammany Hall politics:
On the selection panel…we were continually being told that “strong” candidates were needed in the most winnable wards. This was a thinly veiled code for selecting Bengali men with a standing in the local area. Of course we recognised that after years of Labour clientalism it was important for the preponderance of candidates in these wards to be ethnic Bengalis. But we also argued that there needed to be a balance across the spread of candidates that reflected all the different elements in Respect’s coalition…
Well, at the heart of that was the big push to get John Rees a nomination in a “safe” Asian ward. But let’s return to the Three Stooges:
One [of the twelve councillors] defected to Labour and one resigned. Both felt slighted that their personal ambitions were not being satisfied. Both were Bengali men with some standing in their wards. One was the candidate who replaced John Rees in Whitechapel. Another was, in fact, one of the people hand picked by Abjol and Azmal as the only possible choice in Shadwell.
You may think, and you would be right, that this sort of thing is inevitable in hardball local politics. It was doubly inevitable in an organisation as new, unstable and diverse as Respect that there would be some attrition. What’s interesting is that during the Respect split, SWP loyalists made huge play out of one councillor defecting and another resigning. This was held up as proof positive that there was an opportunist degeneration in the Tower Hamlets council group. It was suggested that this could have been avoided with better vetting. As we know, however, Rees’ enforcer Shaun Doherty vetted all the Tower Hamlets candidates, so this boils down to a complaint that the SWP didn’t get the candidate selection all their own way. And there’s also been on occasion an unpleasant implication that opportunism is all you could expect of the Bengali councillors without the Scientific Marxist Vanguard© closely supervising them.
Shyeah. I think of Rees’ remarkable non-self-criticism in Red Pepper:
Even John Rees believes he made errors. ‘The mistake I made was not to raise the situation in Tower Hamlets nationally, because I didn’t want to make a local issue into a national argument. We [the SWP] gave away too much ground in Tower Hamlets and were too soft with George. But that’s the real world … We should have raised the issue of the accountability of our elected representatives after the 2006 local elections.’
In other words, “I was right but I wasn’t forceful enough about it at the time.”
And what of Ahmed Hussain’s defection, not to Labour but directly to the Tories? After the rhetorical huffing and puffing about opportunism on Tower Hamlets council – in which Hussain was held up as a model left councillor – you would think that some reflection would be in order. But then, this is the SWP we’re talking about here. So it’s no surprise to see a press release that amounts to “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”