Building Respect in the New Political Landscape

Below is an article by Alan Thornett as a contribution to the regroupment discussion.

Building Respect in the new political landscape

Alan Thornett

Since the rise of new Labour the building of an effective broad alternative to its left has been a central task for revolutionary socialists. Far-left organisations in their existing form were not, and are not, adequate to address the opportunities this situation opens up — although they potentially have a crucial role to play in building a broad alternative capable of tackling the crisis of working class representation.

Respect remains the most important initiative towards a broad party of this kind in England. Its validity is that is the only organisation on the left with significant bases of electoral support to have the possibility of winning Westminster seats as well as seats in local government. This was reaffirmed in the London Assembly elections in the spring when its results were qualitatively different to those of the Left List or other left organisations. I

Respect remains fragile and vulnerable, however, and its long-term existence has not yet been secured. The fact that it has survived the split last November, however, was a remarkable achievement given the size and organising ability of the SWP who initiated the split. This is a tribute to the genuine nature of what Respect had achieved and the resonance it has in some important sections of the working class. In fact it has survived the split far better than the SWP’s Left Alternative, which is now politically narrow and electorally irrelevant.

With the onset of the credit crunch we are now facing the task of building Respect with the political landscape dramatically changed. We are witnessing the most profound crisis of the capitalist system since the 1930s. The economic crisis has intersected with the ecological crisis. The neo-liberal project of endless deregulation and wild speculation is in tatters. Parts of the banking system have collapsed and large sections have been nationalised by the US neo-cons and by new Labour in Britain. And this crisis is now relentlessly translating into mass unemployment, home repossessions and sharply increased levels of poverty with all the social consequences involved. The ruling class are absolutely determined that it will be working class and the poorest in society who will pay for the crisis – both at the national and the international level.

This situation opens up big new opportunities for the left. People are looking for alternatives. Marx is back in vogue — all is forgiven! A wide-ranging debate has opened up about the viability of the capitalist system, around Keynesian economics and the merits of public ownership and control. But there are many dangers present as well as these opportunities. The far right, in the form of the BNP, will attempt to capitalise on the disillusionment of the poorest sections of the working class as the crisis hits. The response of the unions in defending their members against these conditions will be a crucial factor in how all this develops. At the moment the signs are not good.

The onset of the crisis has also transformed the immediate electoral prospects of new Labour. It has left the Tories with little to say and has thrust Brown into the limelight. We have seen a mini Brown bounce, which could continue until the effects of the crisis begin to hit home in a big way. From a position where a reactionary Tory government looked a certainty Labour is back in the running — at least for the moment.

The Brown leadership, however, will not conclude that the shift to the right of the past ten years was wrong and that they should tack back towards the left. Any measures they are forced to take to plug the holes in the sinking ship will be within the politics of new Labour if they have their way. If they are forced to introduce certain Keynesian economic measures under the pressure of the crisis they will do so whilst maintaining their right wing stance on everything else.

At the same time the Tory party has shifted to the right over the past year and the Liberal Democrats have followed them. They are now to the right of new Labour on the economy – they continue to oppose the nationalisation of bankrupt financial corporations – and they have returned to the Tory mainstream on immigration and the environment.

Despite the new opportunities which have opened up for the left, the building of a left alternative to new Labour remains a difficult task. The objective situation is there as it is across Europe, but the subjective factor is weak. The left is dispersed around in a wide range of organisations, campaigns, tendencies and movements – including the tens of thousands of people who see themselves as part of the left but who are not ‘in’ something other than perhaps their union or local campaigns.

Respect is therefore right to seek to be the catalyst for a wider framework for united left rather than the finished article. This was the theme of the conference last November and it was reaffirmed at this years conference on October 25th. This means keeping an open mind as to how and when the opportunity for a broader and more representative initiative can emerge. That’s why we have argued for a high priority in developing better relations with, for example, the RMT leadership, and why we supported the tactic of trying to develop a broader left slate for the GLA elections. The Convention of the Left was a part of this process as is the initiative called by Bob Crow and others, which also took place on October 25th, and the initiative for a broad campaign on fuel poverty. We should continue to defend this approach.

In order to be a catalyst for something new, however, Respect has to build its self in the here and now. It has to expand its influence by becoming a more effective voice for those hit hardest by the crisis. They are in any case Respect’s natural constituency and they include the inner city areas where Respect already has its strongest electoral support.

This, however, means building Respect as a political party — not as a coalition or network. The idea that Respect can develop as a loose network around its principal electoral bases or with a minimal structure and democratic decision-making process is false. The chances of members making a long-term commitment to Respect in the absence of structures which will give them a say when they want it is remote. Democracy is not something which only applies when a small party becomes a big party. It is crucial to building any radical party of the left from the word go.

The importance of the electoral bases Respect has won over the past four years amongst Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrant communities in East London and South Birmingham is self-evident. No other section of the left has been able to do this. But Respect needs to use the strength of these bases to build itself as a national organisation otherwise it will disappear completely at its first major electoral set back.

We have argued against counterpoising these two tasks and we should continue to do so. Respect needs to consolidate its influence in its key bases in East London and South Birmingham and at the same time building outwards to make itself into more of a national organisation. To retain a Westminster seat would be a major achievement to extend it to several seats would be huge. This means that Respect as a whole has a responsibility to maximise support for these constituencies both in terms of building those branches of the organisation locally and in the election campaign itself. At the same time Respect should stand candidates in selected other seats, particularly where this is a part of building a local branch and extending its influence in the local community. This approach was endorsed by the recent conference.

Defending Respect’s existing Westminster seat is very important. But is it the totally make or break issue it is sometimes presented? It is always a big issue once you have elected representatives. You have to defend the seats you hold or you have an electoral setback. But no left party can guarantee to win seats irrespective of the political conditions of the day. And the conditions of the next general election may well be more difficult than the last. The war has largely faded from the scene and a close fight between Labour and the Tories and there may be a squeeze on small parties. Winning seats cannot therefore be the only measure of success. In the last general election Salma Yaqoob failed to win her seat but she demonstrated very clearly that she had a major base in South Birmingham, which was then reflected in local government success.

The electoral field is very important and should not be surrendered to our opponents. It is a crucial way of making a connection to those who have been deserted by new Labour and those in the unions and in oppressed communities who are looking for a way forward. The importance of having an MP and councilors is obvious. But to reduce Respect to an electoral organisation, or even and organisation principally concerned with the electoral field, would be a big mistake. This was the problem with the SWP approach.

Our objective must be to build an organisation which on the one hand fights elections but on the other responds to the direct needs of the working class and the oppressed. An organisation which takes the trade unions seriously, which is in the heart of the anti-war movement which is in the campaigns defending civil rights, opposing discrimination, defending the environment, migrants and asylum seekers, the NHS and the public sector. Our parliamentary and local government representation needs to be integrated into this perspective.

This means defending and building Respect as a pluralist organisation with the right of platform for political currants within it. Such an approach should not be seen as a concession to whichever grouping might want to organise within it or a time-consuming luxury at conference but a normal and essential part of its democracy and its effectiveness. It strengthens the organisation as a whole and facilitates its development. It creates a transparent situation in which different strands of opinion can be democratically expressed. The SLP scenario must continue to be rejected at all costs. Respect has always recognised the right of platform, as with the Respect party Platform — though this is not adequately integrated into its constitution.

A new left party also has to develop a political line along with its own policy base and political culture. You can’t build a party which presents itself as a political alternative at governmental level, on minimalist policies. It would have no credibility at all. Why would anyone vote for it?

It has been argued at various times that Respect should be simply a Peace and Justice party. Peace and justice are indeed incredibly important but not enough in themselves to constitute a political alternative. Liberal Democrats are in favor of peace and Justice and many of them would have no problem with anti-racism, anti-war and even anti-neoliberalism. And what would be the point of doing so? There is no point in building an alternative, which is not in the end an alternative.

Such a stance would be to the right of the Greens who have a comprehensive programme stretching from the renationalisation of the railways to the defense of civil and human rights and opposition to discrimination as well as being strong on the environment. They are the most left-wing green party in Europe, and there is a very good reason why. It is because the only space they can occupy is to the left of Labour. For Respect to place itself to the right of them and not much to the left of the Liberal Democrats would be a big mistake.

The alternative to Respect relating to the left and the unions and others on the left, we are often told, is community work — which we should see as our overwhelming priority. And indeed it is extremely important. It would be wrong, however, to counterpoise trade union struggle to work in the communities or vice-versa. Community activists are often active members of their unions and there are many instances where trade union and community struggles naturally merge and overlap. Such interaction only makes the struggle stronger.

The issue at stake here is not whether community-based struggles and politics are important but whether such struggles have now replaced the organised working class as an agency for progressive social change. Community action, of course, is as much a part of the struggle of the working class as workplace action. And many of the big struggles of the future will be around environmental issues. But that is a different matter from the implication that the organised workers movement no longer has a key role to play as an agency for social change even if this is alongside other forms of organisation and action.

Trade union struggles in Britain, however, remain at a very low and defensive level. The defeats inflicted on the trade unions the 1980s have not been reversed and the employers are dominant in both the public and private sectors. This underlines the urgency for a new party to the left of Labour since it is very hard to regenerate the unions, reignite militant trade unionism, and reproduce militant activists, without a political dimension to that process. The Labour Party was formed in order to provide political representation to an emerging trade union movement. Today the issue of political representation needs to go hand in hand with more effective shop floor organisation and resistance to the employers.

Building Respect, or any such broad party, however, is a difficult and complicated business and revolutionary socialists need to be organised as a platform or tendency within if they are to play the most effective role possible. This is not just the best way for revolutionary socialist, and other with a distinct political view, to function it is the best way to build such a party. It creates an open and transparent situation which promotes confidence in the organisation and allows political development to take place.

Revolutionary socialist have distinct political views on British and world politics which go beyond the programme which it would be right for Respect to adopt as a broad organisation, at least at this stage of development, and this should be clear and open to all.

This dies not imply any kind of permanent block-voting caucus in meetings of the broad organisation. Other than on issues where class lines are crossed or the future of the broad organisation directly jeopardised revolutionary socialists should participate in the debates and discussions of the organisation with an open mind and responsive to the arguments put forward.

Following the conference on October 25th we are in a new phase of building Respect — though many of the old debates will continue. The last year has been one of holding the organisation together in the wake of the split — which was extremely difficult and never certain. The name had to be sorted out and it took a long time. The run up to the conference involved a debate about the character of the conference which was in effect a debate about the character of the organisation. The conference was very successful under difficult circumstances and demonstrated the ongoing viability of Respect as a project — whilst seeing itself as a component of something new which could emerge in the medium term.

The conference adopted a number of very good resolutions, including on the economic crisis and how to respond to it which now needs to be implemented in order to take the organisation forward. It rightly put nationalisation and re-nationalisation at the centre of any response to the crisis alongside public works programmes with particular reference to renewable energy sources. We as a current should do everything possible to facilitate this and to build the organisation through its next stage of development.

The European elections are likely to be the next electoral challenge at the national level — unless Brown goes for a spring election which is possible but not likely. And the case for Respect standing in selected constituencies in the Euro elections is very strong. The BNP is a real threat in these elections in some constituencies and given the expected collapse of the UKIP vote they stand the chance of a seat. They will aim at alienated and deprived sections of the working class who are vulnerable to them in the present circumstances and the presentation of a socialist, class based, alternative for them to connect with in such circumstances is particularly important. Respect is best placed to do this and should see it as a priority.

An invitation to participate in the creation of a new Revolutionary Socialist Organisation

This text was voted on and passed at a meeting in London on Sunday 29th June. A Steering Committee was also elected.

The purpose of this document is to launch a regroupment process, which will culminate in a conference after a period of discussion. It registers the most important areas of agreement we have achieved at the beginning of this discussion. There are other areas, not included, which will have to be the subject of further discussion.

1. This is a proposal made by members of the International Socialist Group (ISG), Socialist Resistance (SR), a group of former members of the SWP and some independent Marxists not presently in any organisation. It is an invitation to everyone who would be interested in establishing a new revolutionary organisation based on an understanding of the need for Marxists to build a revolutionary organisation and to work for the widest unity of the working class on economic, social and political issues.

2. We propose a regroupment, based on our common traditions as active revolutionary socialists. This proposal emerges from practical collaboration over the recent period in building Respect. We also appeal to independent revolutionaries and new militants to join us.

3. We hope that a process of discussion throughout this year will culminate in a founding conference to be held towards the end of this year.

4. We have a shared analysis of the nature of class society and how it can be changed. Capitalism is an outmoded system which cannot satisfy even the most basic needs of billions of the world’s population. The further advance of humanity and the protection of the environment from catastrophe can only be achieved by the creation of a socialist society.

5. The capitalist state cannot be reformed but has to be overthrown and replaced by a workers’ state. This revolutionary act can only be carried out by the working class, the only agency that can transform society.

6. The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself, acting as a class in its own interests. Socialism cannot be achieved from above by reformist politicians or trade union leaders. The struggle for socialism is international; the struggle of workers and the oppressed everywhere is one struggle.

7. We recognize that capitalism uses the oppression of certain social groups to divide the working class. The organisations of the working class must constantly strive to overcome any divisions by advancing the causes of these oppressed groups. We oppose all forms of oppression and defend the right of the oppressed to self-organization. We support, and will participate in, the struggles against national oppression, women’s oppression, racism and Islamophobia and against homophobia.

8. What existed in the “communist bloc” was not socialism. It was a Stalinist perversion of socialism; a dictatorship that brutally oppressed all political opposition, suppressed workers’ rights and trampled on workers’ democracy. Socialism cannot exist except with the extension of democracy so that the working class collectively takes the decisions about the future of its new society.

9. The dominant ideas of the present society are those of the capitalist class. For the revolution to succeed the most militant workers and their allies have to be organised into a revolutionary organisation which challenges and confronts that ideology with one in the interests of the new socialist society.

10. The revolutionary organisation must be part of the working class and take part in the life and struggles of the working class and the oppressed. It seeks to absorb the lessons of working-class struggles from the past and from today. It must give guidance and perspective to its members in their activity in the workplace, communities and campaigns. Theoretical study and discussion serve as a guide to the practical work of the organisation. In this way we can test our ideas in practice and learn from our experience.

11. Any revolutionary organization must be democratic, including the right to organize around minority viewpoints, but must aim to act in a unified manner. Socialist democracy is the only way to develop a genuine political leadership of the working class and its allies.

12. We believe that the decline of the Labour Party and the disintegration of its mass base present the best opportunity for many decades to build a viable alternative to the left of Labour. The signatories of this appeal have been working together as revolutionaries and with others to build such a party. We believe that the building of a united party of the working class is one of the overarching strategic tasks for revolutionary socialists in this period. The role of revolutionary Marxists in helping to build Respect over the next period will be an important one.

13. We state clearly our commitment to building a revolutionary socialist organisation, which will locate itself in working-class struggle – in the workplace, in the community, amongst the oppressed and in the broad party.

14. We are internationalists, against imperialism and war; we stand for mass action from below in the interests of the working class; we do not set ourselves apart from the working class and its organisations but seek the broadest agreement with others, using the methods of the united-front. Our aim is both to advance the interests of the class and the ideas of revolutionary socialism. To these ends we will explore the possibility of links with other revolutionaries internationally.

15. This document is intended only as a preliminary text. We invite all those who are interested in the ideas outlined above to join us in a process of discussion.

For more information or to become involved visit the Revolutionary Regroupment website or e-mail
revolutionaryregroupment@googlemail.com