Galloway and his fanclub having departed, I recently joined Respect, in order to see what was going on and make the arguments to as many people as possible for a turn towards independent working-class politics. I haven't had time to go to a branch meeting yet; my first foray was an attempt to attend the Student Respect conference on 2 December.
Since £26 had disappeared from my debit card (no concessionary rate!) I assumed that I was now a member of Respect. To be sure, however, I emailed Student Respect in order to explain why I joined and ask about attending the conference (on 2 December).
There was no subterfuge intended here. To start with, it wouldn’t work.
The British left is a pretty small place, and I am known to enough SWPers to mean that sneaking in wasn't ever an option. More fundamentally, however, there would be no point in doing so. Workers’ Liberty has nothing to hide. We are not changing or downplaying any of our criticisms of Respect.
On Saturday morning, the day before the conference, I received an email from SWP student organiser Colin Smith, who is apparently also a member of the Student Respect committee, saying that I wouldn't be allowed to attend.
“The AWL have been consistently hostile to Respect throughout its existence, and your organisation has never been part of the coalition...
“If there has been a serious change in approach and operation, then I think it would be best for discussions to be held between the leadership of Student Respect and your student leadership at some point in the future to discuss the possibility of your membership... There will not be time for such discussions to take place before tomorrow’s conference, and AWL members will therefore be unable to attend.”
I replied pointing out the rather obvious thing that has changed, reminding him that the AWL did attend the founding conference of Respect, withdrawing only when it adopted an alliance with Galloway, and citing the section of the recently amended Respect constitution (3.2), which states that “Other progressive political affiliations (i.e. membership of another left party or organisation) or religious belief (or affiliation) is no barrier to membership. Members of other parties, organisations, or faith groups who join Respect are entitled to keep their identity as members of these organisations or groups whilst participating fully within the structures and activities of Respect.”
Why, I asked Colin, was I therefore not allowed to join? So far I have not received a reply.
When I turned up to the conference the next morning, Colin and SWP NUS executive member Rob Owen appeared to tell me that I could not come in. They came up with all kinds of legalistic justifications for this, and insisted that a “top-level” meeting between “our leaderships” would be necessary before I was allowed to become a member of Student Respect.
Clearly, I am not just another person wanting to join Respect; clearly, and in fact quite openly, I have joined to make a fuss; clearly there are interesting political issues here, such as the relationship between membership in Respect and eg my support for Education Not for Sale (who, for instance, stand against each other in NUS elections). Equally clearly, however, their refusal to let me in was motivated entirely by political cowardice and an unwillingness to allow any serious debate. This is a pretty sad state of affairs, but not surprising given the weakness of the SWP’s narrative of what has happened recently.
I’ve just received my first members’ bulletin from the national office, so it seems I am a Respect member! As for Student Respect, we’ll see... perhaps the group at SOAS will be more welcoming than the SWP’s national leadership was.