Persistence of vision


Amongst the many gems in the SWP pre-conference bulletins is the fabulous Winchellised account of developments in Tower Hamlets from swivel-eyed party loyalists Doherty, McGarr and McLoughlin. Here’s one sample:

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.

Now, I don’t want to get into the matter of reading codes into what other people might have said. That way lies the madness of the Engageniks saying that any mildly critical reference to Zionists or the Israeli state is a coded attack on Jews. But there’s a question to be answered here about electability.

Generally speaking, it makes sense to run your strongest candidates in your most winnable wards. You don’t, at least not if you take elections seriously, run your weakest candidates in your most winnable wards. And, while in a national election you can parachute in a high-profile national figure and get away with it, the fact is that in local elections pavement politics is king, and it pays to run local candidates. By the way, this applies just as much to Ray Holmes or Jerry Hicks as to Salma Yaqoob or Abjol Miah. It applies too to Michael Lavalette’s herculean efforts over many years to sink serious roots in Preston. And it explains why, to pluck an example out of the air, it isn’t necessarily a smart idea to run for Tower Hamlets council if you live in Hackney.

This also lends some perspective to the ongoing row about Helen Salmon’s non-candidacy in Brum. It’s very possible, indeed likely, that Helen had much better formal politics than the character who eventually got the nomination. But a good grasp of ideology doesn’t always make for a strong candidate. If you think about this for a second, you’ll concede that, while Mark Steel makes an attractive election candidate, Alex Callinicos does not. Ask yourself why that is.

Does this mean “Asian candidates for Asian areas”? Not necessarily. The short history of Respect has demonstrated that Asian voters are willing to turn out in numbers to support white socialists – not only the Gorgeous One, but also Rees in the Hodge Hill by-election. (And anyone who takes the communalism charge seriously should recall Rees’ courting of the Kashmiri PJP in that contest and after.) The most you can say is that, in the Bengali communities in Tower Hamlets, a Bengali candidate may be able to reach some parts that a white candidate can’t. But then, the Labour candidate is also likely to be Bengali in those areas; also, a white candidate who is reasonably simpatico with the Bengali community isn’t labouring under that much of a disadvantage.

Now it must be said that in that kind of community you’re always going to get communalist pressures. But you have to ask yourself if the people in the leading positions are pursuing a communalist agenda. You have to consider that a real careerist, even in Tower Hamlets, is going to be in New Labour rather than Respect. And, by the way, the SWP had no problem with the idea of a “Muslim vote” as long as they thought their members could piggyback into office with Muslim support. It was only when some local organisations escaped SWP control and got uppity about things like selecting their own candidates that we started hearing about communalism.

This leads me to the question of the uneven development of Respect. To a large extent because of the “united front of a special type” formula, SWP-dominated branches have tended to be weaker than those dominated by independents. (Not uniformly, of course. There is the showcase branch in Preston; pre-split Bristol; and Haringey has built a good profile thanks largely to Simon Hester.) At the same time, the SWP has haemorrhaged its more Respectophile wing, increasing the weight of the purists who never liked Respect. Such is the regime in the SWP that this isn’t reflected at leadership level, but people like Martin Smith and Chris Bambery are adept at sniffing the air. And that shift within the SWP only increases the unevenness.

If the SWP leadership felt they weren’t getting their fair share of the electoral goodies, the obvious thing to do would be to build up these weaker branches. But that would have taken serious long-term spadework, and we all know the SWP’s addiction to get-rich-quick schemes. Why commit to spending years building a Respect branch in some provincial city, and pushing reluctant SWP cadre into doing that, in a possibly unsuccessful attempt at maybe someday winning a council seat, when you already have a couple of strong electoral areas, if only you could get the right candidates in place? Hence a lot of the localised bad feeling.

A lot of this comes down to the chronic short-termism of the far left. I have plenty of disagreements with the Militant/SP current, but their long-term graft in places like Coventry is in many ways exemplary. Think of the SWP and IMG election campaigns in the 1970s. Unsuccessful in the short term, if there had been serious targeted work in a few areas over the intervening 25 years, the SWP might have come to Respect with a clutch of councillors, and possibly a couple of well-placed parliamentary candidates, already under its belt. Worth a thought.


  1. andy newman said,

    December 7, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    Interestngly Rees was the only candiate who received a significantly lower vote in the three candidate wards than his running mates, some 200 votes less.

    There was a trend for the candidates without Bengali names to score slightly lower, but Rees was the only one where this was very pronounced.

  2. Muon said,

    December 7, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    That ain’t true, if you look at the old version of your SU site, the results for Weavers, Millwall, Limehouse, Blackwall and Cubitt town, Bromley by Bow all show a significant difference between Bengali and non-Bengali candidates. For example in Bromley by Bow Rebecca Townsend was nealry 400 votes behind Rania Khan. Seekers of more Rees-as-devil myths must look elsewhere.
    On a glance i’d say about Bengali candidates got about 25% more votes, which is prob the same penalty in votes that an Asian sounding Labour candidate would pay in a white working class estate in outer ring Brum.

  3. Muon said,

    December 7, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    Being a sad fucker, I’ve worked out the average bias in the 4 TH wards where Respect got at least 1000 votes, and stood a mixed Bengali/non-Bengali slate. On average Bengali Respect candidates got just over 30% more votes than non-Bengalis across those 4 wards. In the ward John Rees stood in the Benagali candidates got 26% more. There was no anti Rees mobilisation QED.

    (the smaller Respect vote wards show bigger voting differences in some and less in others – I’ve no idea why that might be and decided to look at the big Respect vote wards)

  4. WorldbyStorm said,

    December 7, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    I like the phrase ‘get rich quick’. There really is no substitute for engagement across not months or even years, but decades, in political activity on the ground. And part of that – wherever one places it in terms of ranking of importance – has to involve an electoral aspect if even only to keep the troops gee’d up and to demonstrate progress. I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons the SWP was so risk averse in the past in terms of electoralism was the fear off failure. The lessons from the contemporary period – from their perspective – perhaps offer ammunition for either way, but my feeling is that if they choose to eschew it they’ll be making a serious error… but even if they do choose it they may not have the internal culture to support and sustain the sort of continuing effort that is necessary. I find it not in the least surprising that an old electoral and other campaigner like Galloway sees the fundamental necessity to engage in a whole hearted fashion.

  5. Binh said,

    December 7, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    But a good grasp of ideology doesn’t always make for a strong candidate. If you think about this for a second, you’ll concede that, while Mark Steel makes an attractive election candidate, Alex Callinicos does not. Ask yourself why that is.

    You’re assuming Callinicos has a good grasp of ideology.

    The difference between the two? Honesty, for one. I don’t find Steel funny at all.

  6. johng said,

    December 8, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Its worth stressing that it was Salma who persuaded Helen to stand. This is accepted by everyone by now (established in long winding arguments on SU blog). There was a falling out subsequent to this (involving arguments about a seperate ward) and Salma threw her weight behind a rival candidate to Helen. In this case nothing whatsoever to do with Helen’s suitability or unsuitability to be a candidate. The suggestion that Helen stand somewhere else and the accusations of wanting to ride to power on the back of the Muslim vote etc, etc are all subsequent to this.

    In addition nowhere in the IB article quoted from is there the suggestion one should pick weak candidates. There is also nothing eccentric in suggesting that the arguments about ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ candidates was code for what community they came from. As the rest of the piece above suggests. Its also not true that opportunists would invariably join New Labour rather then Respect. They might rate their chances of being selected higher in Respect then New Labour. It is obvious that in a number of cases this is what actually happened (and no one disputes this). This clearly does present objective problems and there should have been a rational discussion about this within the then united organisation much earlier.

  7. johng said,

    December 8, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Oh and responsibility for not having that rational discussion, I think its fair to say, is shared by both parties to the dispute. This has been acknowledged by John Rees. Trying to have the discussion in the run-up to a possible election, and then in the midst of a dreadful faction fight, made certain that there would be plenty of heat and no light.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 8, 2007 at 11:42 am

    Well, it’s true that there’s no actual argument for standing weak candidates. But we may be dealing with different concepts of what makes a strong or weak candidate. To me, a ‘strong’ candidate suggests an electable candidate. In the peculiar circumstances of TH that may – but doesn’t necessarily – mean a Bengali candidate in a mainly Bengali ward. But I suggest that it might make sense that, from an SWP perspective, a ‘strong’ candidate would be one in or close to the SWP. And, with different views of what you stand in elections for, and a lack of discussion around this question… you can fill in the rest.

  9. johng said,

    December 8, 2007 at 11:53 am

    This is just not true Splintered. Everyone understands that electability is a key element in any selection. Its not however the only one. One should also make sure that those selected are not likely to defect at the first sign of trouble. There have been rumblings even subsequent to this split of problems like this looming. Its silly to imagine that this was not potentially a serious problem. I don’t actually think, in private, there would be a shortage of people in RR who acknowledged this problem. Its wrong to simply dismiss these problems in the way you’ve done above.

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 8, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    In terms of things like defections, or what people might do months or even years after they’re elected, I don’t think you can legislate for that. I know Rees flagged this up talking to Red Pepper, but how do you propose to deal with that? The only real political test is one of your candidate’s commitment to the programme.

    If you’re involved in practical politics, this sort of thing is an unavoidable overhead. There’s no inoculation against it. In fact, the SWP itself has had plenty of trouble in the past, either from people who were recruited on an opportunistic basis and turned out to be less than reliable, or people who’ve given good service for ages and then gone to the bad. I’m sure you could reel off a list of names as easily as I could. And I’m certain it’s going to happen again.

    Like I say, it’s an unavoidable overhead. If you don’t think it’s an acceptable overhead, then you’re going to be restricted to contemplative politics that does nobody any good.

  11. johng said,

    December 8, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Splintered I think there might even be people in RR who think to themselves on reading your last comment ‘can he spell disengenuous’?

  12. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 8, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    As George says, if you open the doors some flies will get in. But so will the sunshine.

  13. andy newman said,

    December 8, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    I think the complaintsof defectins can only be from people who don’t follow mainstream politics very carefully. There is a steady stream of defections from Lab to Tory, Tory to Llib Dems, and every other permutation at the clocal council level. this is becasue being a councillor is a generally unrewarding job, and the gravy train rewards people who defct to the party in office.

    It was inevitable with the way Respect was built very quickly, without the preceding period of long term collaborative working like happended in Scotland. that some of the councillors would be less committed than others.

    Of course the most unreliabale councillors were the block of four who resigned all at the same time to form an independent group on the council.

  14. andy newman said,

    December 8, 2007 at 4:14 pm


    You may or may not be right about th anti-Rees vote. i was relying on the detailed analysis that Jim Jepps did at the time, I haven’t crucnhed the numbers myself.

  15. johng said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    “course the most unreliabale councillors were the block of four who resigned all at the same time to form an independent group on the council.”

    oh yes ollie rahman is notoriously dodgy. really.

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:26 pm

    But there is a serious question here. We keep hearing about the need to have “other” criteria than electability for selecting candidates, but nobody will say what they should be. Let’s say you elect a councillor and then some months or even years later he turns out to be a bit opportunistic. You can beat yourself up and say that somebody else should have been selected, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. After all, even John Rees doesn’t have the gift of precognition.

    And as for closeness to or membership of the SWP being a guard against going bad – Roger Rosewell, Peter Hitchens, Garry Bushell… need I go on?

    The only safeguard you can have is for the party to hold its representatives accountable. Which isn’t really something the SWP is in a position to hold forth on, as its own leadership isn’t accountable to its members.

  17. johng said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    Again splintered this is entirely disengenuous. there is a real debate and argument that should have been had beyond pointscoring. There were real problems with this. We never had that debate in a sane way. Its a shame.

  18. andy newman said,

    December 8, 2007 at 5:58 pm


    If we were selecting candidates based upon whether or not their first loyalty is to Respect then that would rule out members of the SWP, would it not?

    It is simply a fact that the single largest defection from Respect by councillors were the TH four.

    there is a need for a serious debate, but fetishising the actions of two more flaky councillors in TH does us not favours. Rememebr Kiam Mac Uaid, who was Mr 110% commmitted to Respect resigned from TH Respect due to dissillusionment a year or so ago, due to the failure of the organisatin to develop meaningful democratic structutes, and this was at the ime when the SWP were pushing barbecues and fund raising meals instead of developing internal structure. That doesn’t mean that the whole thing was the fault of the SWP – but neither were you part of the solution.

  19. johng said,

    December 8, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    Andy its you who is being fetishistic. whether one believes in a coalitional logic for a new party or whether one believes in a membership party, or something in between (again, as said before, it is very informative to read the early history of the LRC at the moment), if you are a new force in politics, and your pitch is that your different to the other parties, and you are encouraging people to break with their traditional political loyalties, it is highly damaging if this kind of thing happens. And its foolish to pretend that it isn’t. Whether or not this has to do with developing internal structures (as far as I know no senior partner in the coalition was in favour of this until after this split took place, so if this was the reason for these problems then they were not part of the solution either) or it has to do with a desire to build up political momentum quickly, its a problem which should have been dealt with and thought about at a much earlier stage.

    Given the failure of all sides to deal with this question properly before the current fracas (and I think both sides are at fault here for various reasons) I don’t think trying to read back onto this problem the slogans and propaganda of the current split (SWP dual loyalties etc) is likely to yield any lessons about what is a difficult and complicated problem, which will not be resolved on the basis simply of slogans about ‘internal life’ of RR branches (its important to remember that there is at present little evidence that there will be such a thing).

    On the question of ‘dual loyalties’ etc, a comment on another blog which described the pitfalls of calling for a party rather then a coalitional model at this stage was very close to my earlier argument. The left simply is not ready for it yet, and there has to be a logic of keeping the door open for larger forces (who may have different ideas about internal arrangements). Frequent declarations that we are not yet the finished article (on both sides!) do not fit well with your attempt to move from a coalitional to a membership model. I do not believe that a left of labour force will be built up on the basis of recruiting individuals alone. Then again I have serious doubts about what the internal life of RR will be like, not because of malign intent, but simply because some of the leaders with a real electoral base are unlikely to want to be bossed around by the membership any more then they want to be bossed around by anybody else.

    what I’m calling the membership model implies much too detailed a platform for a formation at such an early stage with so little implantation in the class.

  20. andy newman said,

    December 8, 2007 at 6:42 pm


    Whether or not this has to do with developing internal structures (as far as I know no senior partner in the coalition was in favour of this until after this split took place, so if this was the reason for these problems then they were not part of the solution either) or it has to do with a desire to build up political momentum quickly, its a problem which should have been dealt with and thought about at a much earlier stage.

    I agree with this John. The lack of any support for developing democratic structures from either Geroge or Salma at an earlier stage (when they seemed to agree with the SWP over this) was why I resigned from Respect in the first place.

    With regard to the rest of it, I think a membership model is easier for people to understand – but this is not a settled issue in RR either – and I do not mistake the wish for the reality.

  21. johng said,

    December 9, 2007 at 11:54 am

    One of the more interesting things about Georges piece on ‘train crash on the left’ was his discussion of how, effectively, any coalition has really lost it if attempts are made to force things through by mobilising activists as opposed to concensus. I disagree with him on the detail of who was really doing this (obviously) but in general terms it points to a problem for those like yourself who see what I’ve described as the ‘membership’ model as key. My critique of your general theoretical account is that it focuses much too much on the diochotomy between ‘Leninists’ and ‘broad parties’, at the expense of looking at the history of how broad parties have actually developed. To my knowledge there are no examples of broad parties (of any description) emerging on the basis of ‘membership’ type ‘ones and two’s’ mobilisation. This is an ironically Leninist approach to broad parties, and what you can end up with is the worst of all possible worlds, a sect with broad politics, not to be confused under any circumstances with an actual broad party.

    It was the function of the SWP within the coalition (and indeed within the StW movement) to play the hard bastards in terms of ensuring that contingent collections of individuals did not scupper the attempt to build a platform which could be attractive to wider forces. There is something a tiny bit disengenuous therefore of some of these people playing the democracy and pluralism card.

    Its notable for instance that for much of the period under discussion George would have been deeply hostile to a paper despite not having the alleged motivation of the SWP that he didn’t want a competitor. No way would he have wanted to be tied to positions on the basis of an editorial policy which he might not have controlled. Similar difficulties would have existed with the idea of branch life which might have led to the setting of national policy. What you did find was that in areas were we had an electoral base there would obviously have been real things to discuss (and in some parts one saw this).

    But outside of that context whilst no one would have objected to activists meeting to discuss how they were going to build a Respect presence in a particular area, to have a national framework of branches which set the agenda nationally politically, irrespective of the social and political weight of the individuals who made up the branches would have been, and I strongly suspect, probably still would be, totally unacceptable to those whose participation is based on having real social and political weight within the movement. This has nothing to do with Leninism in my view. Its the logic of broad party formation at the early stages. One suspects that the people I am discussing would give more leeway locally were they would have the confidence that they could win their arguments through mass support of one kind or another. Some of the arguments against the SWP (that they all vote togeather, that they don’t have a proper electoral base etc) would be arguments that people like yourself may well find yourselves at the wrong end of.

    The difference between my position and yours is that I don’t think George is entirely wrong on the principle of the thing. Its just that I think he’s guilty of making the same mistake he accuses the SWP of. Early on in the discussion I pointed to the fact that just as it was widely understood that you had to take individuals as they were rather then as you’d like them to be, the same thing applies to organisations and individuals with real weight. Thats why George is right on the substance of the thing when he says that if you are in a position where you are mobilising groups of activists against each other, the thing is effectively finished. This is because at this very early stage, Respect, by definition as an electoral organisation (as opposed to, say, a revolutionary party) was seeking to ‘represent’ as opposed simply to ‘organise’ large groups of people way beyond the confines of its own membership. And both the organisations and individuals being discussed represented much more then the contingent membership.

    At this stage that was a good thing not a bad thing. And we needed much more of it. This was generally recognised before the current crisis, and indeed, almost everything that people currently argue about, from ‘internal life’ to the question of electoral strategy (strong areas vs spread, for instance) were widely agreed.

    It is much to early to go for the membership model. Respect could only exist as a coalition of forces rather then an amalgamation of members at this stage. In other words there would be a top down logic in terms of recognising that what was at stake was what you bought to the coalition, whether this was in terms of ones position in the wider movement, or whether this was expressed in terms of electoral weight, or in organisational abilities or whathaveyou. It was also neccessary to realise (and indeed was realised) that it would indeed be true that in any genuinely broad formation, the players would indeed have their own interests, whether it reflected (hopefully) trade union leaders, political organisations, community activists or whathaveyou.

    To preclude this in advance means effectively ruling out the possibility of building a broad party which will have as many disparate interests as its components but which is united around the idea of attempting to build a broad electoral alternative to New Labour. In the same way as there is a kind of circular trap in terms of electoral activity (in order to be effective you already need to have some kind of representation) there is a similar problem in getting these broader forces involved. It has to be large enough and significant enough for people to have an interest in holding it togeather despite even bitter niggles.

    The fact that we couldn’t manage this is a defeat for the whole project of establishing broad political alternatives, for those who call themselves revolutionaries, for those who call themselves reformists, and for those who think the distinction is irrelevent. Its a collective failure which requires more serious thought then is really possible in the midst of this, in many ways, ludicrous faction fight. When people from other countries write to me and ask what the hell is going on, and what they should say, I just send them Andrew Murray’s speech, and tell them to stress the importance of unity. I say thats the sensible thing to do.

    In reality it would probably be the sensible thing here as well, but what can you do.

  22. December 9, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    […] (This was originally a contribution to an on-going debate in an article on the Splintered Sunrise blog) […]

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