Plenty of people will already have noted the discussion on Socialist Unity about the SWP-Reespect’s “Left List” for the London elections. I don’t intend to get into the “Left List” as such, except to note that the SWP is now declaring an affinity for Die Linke in Germany. Given that until relatively recently the SWP weren’t all that fond of the PDS/Die Linke – I vividly remember a Chris Harman speech where the Renaissance Man made an attack on the PDS that was spectacular in its mendacity – this is a bit cheeky. It’s also ironic in that, back in the far-off 1990s, the PDS launched the Linke Liste as a means to broaden their base by having non-party candidates on the party list. The extraordinary narrowness of the SWP’s new “Left List” makes for an interesting contrast. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the post-split Reespect, where non-SWP people are like black delegates at the Republican Convention in the US – loads of them on the platform, but that doesn’t fool anybody.
Anyway, what interests me is the way the Swops have been whinging about a “loophole” preventing them from running under the Respect banner. This loophole being the Electoral Commission’s determination that Linda Smith remains the Respect nominating officer, and that an official Respect candidate must be approved by Linda. This fits in, by the way, with a persistent whinge in recent months about the EC, as well as lots of chest-beating on the blogs (in connection with the dodgy Dubai cheque) about how real r-r-r-revolutionaries don’t allow themselves to be constrained by bourgeois legality.
Let’s go over this again. The relevant piece of legislation is the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Apart from revealing in its title that the British political class have lousy Latin, the Act lays down the ground rules for political parties to operate and which the Electoral Commission is charged with enforcing. In the first place, parties have to register their name and details, including a leader, nominating officer and treasurer. For example, two days ago the Left List was registered, with Oliur Rahman as leader and nominating officer.
There are a number of restrictions on parties as well. One of the most obvious is that a party must have a name which does not lead to confusion with another party. This is what may be termed the Richard Huggett clause, after the notorious prankster who used to run as a “Literal Democrat”, and is designed to prevent spoiler candidates. Members of the Socialist Party (the ex-Militant version) will be able to tell you in great detail how they have to stand as “Socialist Alternative” because the EC ruled that the Socialist Party of Great Britain had prior ownership. And that is why the SWP can’t employ some creative variant of the Respect name.
The EC also has oversight of party accounts and donations, notably in terms of “permissible donors”, with anyone donating more than £200 having to fall into that category. Unless your party is headquartered in Norn Iron, donations from outside the UK are not allowed. That rules out donations from Jersey or the Isle of Man, never mind Dubai. This was the point about the dodgy Dubai cheque – a foreign donation to Respect would have been totally illegal, and (in re Rees’ solicitation of the money to defray debts from the OFFU conference) elementary steps to separate OFFU from Respect had not been taken. Galloway knew this, which is why he instantly suspected a provocation.
This is not, I must emphasise, a question of cringing before the capitalist state and its laws. Some of the more excitable Swops really need to go and read what Lenin (the real one, not Seymour) wrote in Left-Wing Communism. It’s really a basic question of professionalism. You want to run for election? Fine, there is a legal framework for you to do so. Even an amateur should know that. And, since the Electoral Commission is a quasi-judicial body with executive powers, which is very good at uncovering dodgy practices and takes such practices very seriously indeed, you would have to be either an adrenaline junkie or a complete idiot to even think about trying to hoodwink the EC.
So, if you’re looking to run for election, there’s no point in you bellyaching about how awful the Electoral Commission is. There are rules. You are made aware of them in advance. You have to abide by them. Even if it is an awful system, that doesn’t exempt you from the rules, no matter how revolutionary you are.
There are two further points worth making. One is that, when New Labour or the Tories fall foul of the EC for dodgy donations, you don’t hear the left complaining about the oppressive nature of the EC. In fact, when the Abrahams scandal broke, Prof Callinicos was positively crowing over New Labour’s embarrassment in Socialist Worker. That affair ended, of course, with the general secretary of the Labour Party falling on his sword. We need have little fear that Rees will follow him – even if we get past Rees’ habit of getting other people’s fingerprints on his work, the hierarchy has steadfastly protected him.
This leads me to another interesting point. While Respect is a registered political party, the Socialist Workers Party is not. This conveniently exempts the SWP from having to make any declarations to the Electoral Commission. In fact, the SWP’s status in law is that of a private club. A bit like White’s, only the food isn’t as good and the chairs are less comfortable. And to those familiar with the SWP leadership’s MO, a private club is kind of fitting.