Well, we’re on the home straight now, and I have to say that George has played a blinder. I must admit that this isn’t how I expected things to pan out – if you’d asked me six months ago how Respect would break up, my prediction would have been for George to self-destruct and the SWP to be left holding the baby. But George has been very canny – he’s chosen his dogs and the sticks to beat them with a lot of care – and he’s been very fortunate in his opponents. My suspicion is that this represents the SWP terminally jumping the shark.
Was the blow-up inevitable? Probably it was, due not least to the tension between the SWP’s vision of Respect as a “united front of a special type” and others’ view that it should function as a party. The major line of division around that has been the SWP’s tendency to keep Respect ticking over at a minimum level between elections, and others’ understanding that sustained local activism was necessary to build an electoral base. This led in some Respect branches to SWP members turning up at the AGM and voting to do nothing; it also made it difficult for non-SWP members to function within Respect. A related issue was whether Respect should be effectively a subsidiary of the SWP, or have a life of its own. Another related issue was whether the monolithic regime of the SWP created two classes of membership in Respect – the now famous “Russian dolls” analogy.
The “Russian dolls” argument is a compelling one, but it is less the product of conspiracy and more of the SWP’s peculiar culture. In the first place, there is the sectist arrogance that sees the SWP as the repository of political wisdom, as the people who see further and better than anyone else. Sometimes they talk about learning from others, in a somewhat metaphysical way, but they generally assume themselves to know best. This is what makes working with the SWP in movements such an enervating experience – they are manipulative, but not usually in a malicious way. Rather, very much like the old adage that what’s good for General Motors is good for America, they assume that what’s good for the SWP is good for the working class.
More to the point in this struggle is the internal regime of the SWP. Put bluntly, if Respect was to develop it needed a democratic culture, and you can’t have a democratic Respect if you don’t have democracy in the SWP. The SWP’s own democratic structures are so stunted and its commandist culture so entrenched that the permanent leadership of the SWP couldn’t but be aware of the danger to their own cosy little regime if, for example, they were to allow free votes within Respect. It was imperative that they hold to their traditional way of working, that the SWP hierarchy would take decisions, and the SWP membership would follow those decisions en bloc within Respect. Hence the experience, familiar to anyone who’s been to a Respect conference, where the SWP members would turn up knowing in advance which way to vote, and would all vote the same way, even on tiny procedural issues. To say this puts others at a disadvantage, or even puts a question mark over the need for discussion, is an understatement.
This is what determines the way the SWP works in its so-called “united fronts”, including its “united front of a special type”. If you look at the CC document’s account of all the people the SWP has worked with on this or that campaign, you will notice that it’s a list of prominent individuals who’ve been involved with the SWP over single issues. But this in itself proves little. Of course the SWP can work well with Tony Benn or Tariq Ali or even Peter Hain on a single-issue campaign. That’s a matter of diplomacy. Their record of working with other organisations, especially in an environment where their control isn’t assured, is frankly appalling.
This MO couldn’t work long-term in Respect. The SWP CC seem to have predicated their approach on the idea that the SWP would consistently call the shots in Respect, controlling the central apparatus, setting priorities, turning activity on and off like a tap. George could be circumvented by stroking his ego, letting him do whatever he wanted and staunchly defending him whenever he went off on a tangent. Other figures were simply treated as useful idiots. Salma Yaqoob was built up by the SWP after her appalling role in stitching up the Brum STWC, but as she developed into a substantial figure in her own right, attempts were made to shut her out of the organisation. As for the Bengali councillors in the East End… not that these people are saints by any means, but I can’t be the only person to have detected a nasty subtext coming from the SWP, an undercurrent of outrage that these unsophisticated peasants should have pretensions to leadership, rather than just following the lead of the white Marxists who know what’s best for everyone.
So it shouldn’t have been surprising that resentment against the functioning of the SWP, especially its leadership, should have grown up in Respect, particularly in those areas not under the firm control of the SWP. And it wouldn’t have surprised SWP insiders that the national secretary of Respect, whose job it was to maintain working relationships, would have fallen out with just about everybody else. And that’s the context in which to put George’s original letter – amidst the speculation about a snap election, it was painfully obvious that Respect was in no condition to face an electoral contest. And so George made a number of criticisms – quite measured ones in the circumstances – and proposals for putting Respect back on an even keel.
And the SWP CC’s response to that was to declare war, although their reticence showed they were finding it hard to think of a casus belli. A proposal to reduce the power of Rees was portrayed as an attack on the SWP, although George let it be known he would happily have any SWP member other than Rees in the national secretary’s position. SWP leaders started making savage attacks on a man they had been almost uncritically supportive of for four years. Then you had the surrealism of the 29 September Respect NC, where SWP reps were part of a unanimous vote for a package of measures that seemed to assure peace in our time, to be followed the next day by an SWP Party Council where the CC proclaimed that there was a left-right split in Respect, and George was determined to drive out the “socialists” (i.e. the SWP and its close fellow travellers).
Some of the SWP’s behaviour since then has simply been blatant organisational skulduggery. Notably the rows over conference delegates – moribund branches being reactivated to elect slates of SWP delegates; attempts to have fraudulent “student delegations” accredited on the basis of numbers of people indicating a vague interest at freshers’ stalls; the argument that the mostly Bengali Tower Hamlets branch, where fewer than 10% of members are in the SWP, would be best represented by a delegation consisting in its majority of white SWP members. The last case was especially hilarious, as the SWP was calling for gender, ethnic and political balance in a branch it didn’t control, while everywhere the SWP had a majority it turned out the comrades’ idea of “balance” was an 80-100% SWP delegation. This puts into a different light the SWP’s demagogic calls to “let the conference decide”, and appeals to the democratic rights of the Respect membership on behalf of an organisation that doesn’t allow its own members much in the way of democratic rights.
Many of the SWP’s actions, however, simply seem irrational, and can be best understood in terms of the SWP’s own functioning. That’s probably the best way to approach the CC’s Big Document on the Respect crisis. The document itself, in rhetorical terms, is little more than an inordinately long-winded version of what South Park fans will instantly recognise as the Chewbacca defence. There is a lot of fun to be had for someone in unpicking all the hypocrisies and terminological inexactitudes – I am immediately struck by the carping about Galloway’s earnings from the very people who voted against the principle of the workers’ wage, and also by the critique of “communalism” which has been borrowed off-the-shelf from the AWL. Non-SWP members of Respect will hardly be convinced by a document that obviously refers to a parallel universe, so little resemblance does it bear to their own experience, but that isn’t the point. Like all the CC statements during this crisis, it is primarily for internal consumption, and its main purpose is to whip the membership up into a frenzy of party chauvinism.
And where has all this left the SWP? Taking the thousand or so signatures on the CC’s loyalty oath as a starting point, we can firstly discount the CC’s wholly fictional claim that the SWP has 5900 members. Given that the loyalty oath contains some joke signatures, more than a few people who haven’t been active in years and a large number of “Respect supporters” (i.e. SWP members who have either refused or not bothered to join Respect), it’s open to serious question whether the SWP could even command a majority of Respect’s 2000 members in a democratic conference. That would put SWP membership at a forty-year low, which is a hell of an achievement for the post-Cliff leadership.
And the only way is down. The expulsions of Wrack, Hoveman and Ovenden may be passed off as unfortunate, but losing people like Jerry Hicks and Gary McFarlane starts to look like carelessness. One may expect further defections – certainly, the SWP’s “Real Respect” conference, where they are going to be in a room with themselves, will lower morale quite considerably. They will find it exceedingly difficult to forge alliances with anybody for years to come. What could possibly redeem their position slightly would be a turn back towards hard Trotskyist politics, but there is absolutely no evidence that the recent leftist rhetoric has been anything more than rhetoric. What we are likely to get is a small, isolated, propagandist and sectarian SWP with populist Respect politics, which is no earthly use to anybody.
As for the other half of Respect – I’m not inclined to hype up the possibilities. The most optimistic thing I can say at this point is that they will be more open than the SWP, and the Renewal conference may see a genuine discussion about ways forward. Which isn’t much, but it’s more than we’ll get from the SWP.