Following on from Andy’s excellent reply to the SWP over Respect, I think there are a couple of points worth making, and I’ll put my Mystic Meg hat on and do some prognostication.
Firstly, to recap – in 2003 the SWP CC realised the Socialist Alliance wasn’t going anywhere, not least because they had buggered it up beyond repair. On the other hand, a significant layer of Muslims had been radicalised by the war, plus you had Galloway’s expulsion from the Labour Party (at which point he was in extremely close contact with the SWP leadership) promising something bigger and shinier. Call me a cynic, but I’ve seen the SWP in this mode many times, and I always think of Homer reassuring Marge, “This isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. This is a scheme that will help us get rich, quick.”
So Respect was set up on a bit of a punt. Trouble was, it was organisationally dominated by the SWP from the start. Therefore their Oehlerite insistence on the independence of the revolutionary organisation at all times (without the redeeming feature of Oehler’s consistent ultraleftism) necessitated the “united front of a special type” formula, which meant keeping Respect programmatically minimal, and with its activity more or less limited to elections. This, together with the SWP’s own internal discipline, effectively enshrined the SWP as a privileged caste within Respect along with their peculiar vision for it. This situation was obviously going to cause problems in areas where Respect had some substantive life outside of the SWP, and likely with George, and so it has come to pass.
Do I think the CC wanted things to pan out like this? In some ways, I think they’re the victims of their own unthinking tactics. Having whipped the members up over the “witch-hunt” allegation, attempted to rig the conference and imposed a loyalty oath on their membership, I think they left themselves with no way of retreating. Thus you have the novelty of a left organisation effectively witch-hunting itself.
Right, so now to the new perspective being adumbrated but not yet openly proclaimed, most openly in the CC document in the first conference bulletin, and more cryptically in SW by Prof Callinicos. This postulates that there was a period of upswing dating from the big struggles of the mid-90s (in Britain?!) through Seattle to the antiwar movement that was favourable to the growth of new left parties. But now, this period is winding down and those parties are experiencing electoralist pressures and the emergence of rightist tendencies.
Alex, unfortunately, employs his standard form of argument by anecdote. Rather than demonstrate what the new left parties of Europe have in common, and present an argument as to the viability of the model, he just mutters darkly about something happening in Denmark and something else in Portugal – which may be enough to convince your less sophisticated SWP member who knows little and cares less of Denmark or Portugal. But a sure sign of a disingenuous argument is that the Scottish Socialist Party is introduced to prove Alex’s case, when surely it proves the opposite. There was no left-right split, as the SSP and Solidarity continue to have identical programmes. And if anyone in Scotland succumbed to electoral pressure, it was the SWP. From being amongst the harshest critics of Sheridan, they abruptly did a 180-degree turn and clung like limpets to the Tangerine Man, and they explicitly justified this on the basis of Tommy’s personal popularity on which they hoped they could piggyback.
So what does the future hold for the SWP? For reasons of face, I expect them to continue to try to run “I can’t believe it’s not Respect” for a while yet, maybe six to twelve months, maybe even more, to try to prove it a going concern. Trouble is, it will be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the SWP, with virtually nobody in it but the SWP, and thus will be even more prone to the SWP stunting its development, putting it into cold storage between elections etc. On the other hand, should it prove an ignominious failure – and, Preston and Sheffield notwithstanding, it almost certainly will – they have their argument about the new period already prepared, which would justify a return to building a standalone sect. And doing that in an environment where they have few friends, membership at a forty-year low and viable competition from George’s Respect, a somewhat revitalised SP and others.
Their position could be redeemed a bit if they reflect honestly on the situation and draw some sensible political conclusions. But hey, this is the SWP we’re talking about.