The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) is the biggest left group in Britain. Earlier this year the SWP and some other socialists put a big effort into a Respect election campaign for the European Parliament (held on 10 June). The election campaign was organised around the politics and personality of George Galloway MP, a figure who will be prominent at the ESF. But was it left-wing? Does George Galloway deserve to be a hero of the left? Does the SWP’s self-submergence in Respect help socialist and anti-capitalist politics? Colin Foster says no.
In the Euro-elections Respect failed to win a seat, with the average vote across the country, at 1.65%. Since then Respect has contended a number of Parliamentary by-elections. In the latest by-election in Hartlepool the Respect candidate gained 3% of the vote.
In heavily-Muslim electorates it has done better, winning one council by-election in East London.
None of this has got anywhere near the fantastic claims made for Respect at its founding conference January 2004 and later. The Euro-election vote was the sort of figure that any socialist candidate standing in an appropriate constituency at any time in the last century could have matched or bettered.
Yet the SWP’s leaders said had that the alliance would morph a sizeable part of last year’s anti-war movement into votes for Respect and “transform” British politics, “break the mould”.
The expectation of massive gains was the entire rationale for Respect, and the entire rationale behind combining with George Galloway — a man doubly tainted, by his long time Stalinism and by his decade of association with the Saddam Hussein regime.
In the Euro-election Respect promoted George Galloway as its hero: on its ballot papers, everywhere, said “Respect, the Unity Coalition (George Galloway)”.
But what Galloway is politically has been known with certainty for a decade. No international socialist, standing for the liberation of the workers of Iraq, should hold hands politically with Galloway, a man who held hands with the quasi-fascists who ruled Iraq.
Respect has not drawn anti-war activists into the left. If anything, the opposite: it has converted socialists into promoters of downright right-wing politics. How?
* George Galloway can make a leftish speech to left-wing audiences. But left is not what he is. Galloway gave one major press interview during the Euro-election campaign. Asked to describe his general politics “in one word”, Galloway chose to emphasise that he is “not as left wing as you think” and is strongly against abortion “I can’t accept that [a woman’s right to choose], because I believe in God” (Independent, 5 April 2004).
* That helped rope in the Muslim Association of Britain, a British offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Independent interview, MAB made its first public statement on Respect politics, saying that Galloway’s statements about God and abortion made it much happier with the alliance. Having won MAB endorsement, Galloway then told leftish Guardian readers that he was “not opposed to a woman’s right to choose”. This is the man Respect tells voters to trust.
* In the 1980s George Galloway was an old-fashioned Labour Party Stalinist of the Morning Star stripe. At that point he condemned Saddam Hussein’s massacre of Kurds at Halabja in 1988. He worked with a campaign which advocated sanctions against Iraq. But in the early 1990s he switched dramatically.
By January 1994 the switch had gone so far that he stood before the man whom his associates in the 1980s had called a mass murderer, and said to his face: “Sir… we salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability… We are with you. Until victory! Until Jerusalem!”
Galloway was calling for the Arab states to unite with Saddam to conquer Israel. Such a stance has nothing in common with democratic solidarity for the Palestinian people. It is nothing other than Arab-chauvinist warmongering.
* From 1994 to 2003, Galloway’s sole claim to left-wing credentials was his activity on Iraq. Otherwise he was a standard not-quite-Blairite Labour MP: he himself has said that he was not left enough to join the not-very-left Campaign Group. He “campaigned” against sanctions on Iraq, and on his own account spent more than £800,000 on it. But not to organise lots of demonstrations and meetings. He visited Iraq (on his account) almost monthly, and acted as a go-between between the Iraqi government and businessmen and journalists. Galloway is happy to admit to running that political operation on money from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and a Jordanian businessman rich from a percentage on Iraq’s oil exports. Galloway has also never refuted the allegation that he once published the newspaper East with money paid out by the Pakistani governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in order to promote their politics on the Kashmir question in Britain.
Even if Galloway never took a penny directly from the Iraqi regime, socialists ought to run a mile from a politician with this kind of track record
* On his own account also, Galloway “couldn’t live on three workers’ wages” and “needs £150,000 a year to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system” (Scotsman, 19 May 2003).
* In the Euro-elections Respect fought a communalist campaign. They appealed to Muslims to vote as Muslims for “George Galloway… a fighter for Muslims… Married to a Palestinian doctor… teetotal… strong religious principles”. This is as reactionary as asking Catholics to vote as Catholics for a candidate because he is a “fighter for Catholics”.
Respect turned not to Islamic-background workers or Islamic-background radicals and leftists, but to the Islamic communities, of all classes.
The Marxist attitude to all communities and nations, even oppressed nations fighting for liberation, is to split them on class lines, not shore up their “unity” by allying with the petty bourgeois and bourgeois establishments there. Socialists would work with that establishment in some situations, for example in organising physical defence against fascists. Even then as much as possible, we would directly relate to the working class in those communities.
Respect rejected the class approach because in the short term it would not have produced the large Muslim vote that they hoped would allow them to pole-vault itself into “big time” bourgeois institutional politics.
* In Yorkshire, the Respect list was headed by Anas Altikriti of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB). MAB is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world’s biggest authoritarian-religious organisation. Some on the left like to believe that MAB is not like the Brotherhood elsewhere in the world and has evolved beyond radical Islamism. But how do they reconcile that with, for example, the MAB freesheet Inspire (28 September 2002) — that it should be “punishable by death” or at least “seen as an act of mutiny and treason” for people brought up Muslim to renounce Islam?
* Respect opposes the US/UK occupation of Iraq. So do the Greens. When challenged to prove itself better than the Greens, Respect says that unlike the Greens it wants the US/UK troops out “now”. All this means is that Respect, unlike the Greens, solidarises with the Islamist militias which are at war against the Americans — and against Iraq’s reviving labour movement. Who would, if they could, impose a religious dictatorship on Iraq. That is a right-wing, not a left-wing, stance.
We have been here before — it is what the Communist Parties did during the notorious right-wing “popular front” period of the 1930s. The entire Respect operation was designed, promoted, and justified on the grounds that it would win lots of votes, and Galloway was the key to that. But winning a lot of votes in elections does not necessarily advance socialism. It depends who wins the votes, and on what basis they get them.