After George Galloway’s victory in Rochdale, David Renton reflects on previous left electoral vehicles, and the need for democracy and accountability to be at the heart of any sustainable left challenge to Starmer’s Labour.

RESPECT Battlebus Manchester 2005 elections – photo by JK the Unwise via Wikipedia used under CC licence.

The news of George Galloway’s byelection victory at Rochdale has accelerated discussions among activists about electoral opportunities for the left outside Labour. Keir Starmer’s manifesto for this year’s general elections will offer left-wing voters less than any programme on which Labour has previously stood. It will be to the right of Labour’s manifesto in 1997. Moreover, the social basis for such a challenge exists: the campaign for justice for Palestine has brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. Labour’s response has been to support the killing of Palestinian civilians, and to denounce the protest movement. The key questions are therefore, if activists devote significant amount of our time to standing candidates to the left of Labour will we be rewarded – will our movements be stronger, will people be won to socialist politics, will workers in Britain be any closer to taking power?

The history of previous rounds of left electoral work, the Socialist Alliance, and Respect, can help us to understand how socialists have challenged Labour in the recent past, as well as how the energy of those campaigns was squandered. A key lesson to is the need to democratise left-wing campaigns and to make our leaders accountable to our organisations.

The first attempts: the Scottish Socialist Party and the Socialist Alliance

In 2000, Tony Blair was in government. His party had ditched Clause IV, Labour’s historic commitment to public ownership. Peter Mandelson, Blair’s closest supporter, boasted that New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. But events in Britain and outside seemed to show that there were a significant group of socialists to Labour’s left who were willing to get organised, and capable of receiving public support.

The formation of a Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in 1998 was followed a year later by the election of Tommy Sheridan to the Scottish Parliament. He gave his oath of allegiance to the Queen while holding out his hand in a clenched fist salute and after declaring, ‘supreme sovereignty lies with the people of Scotland rather than an unelected monarchy.’ The SSP won a further five seats in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, but fell apart after a messy and bitter split in 2006.

Meanwhile, protests at Seattle against the World Trade Organisation in 1999 brought together an alliance of ‘Turtles’ and ‘Teamsters’. Protests against NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets. There were disagreements between left wing groups as to what would be the most effective form of unity; but very few people dissented with the ideas that this was a favourable moment, and that the right way to meet it was through left unity and joint electoral work.

The first unity measure in England was the London Socialist Alliance (LSA), a meeting point for different small socialist groups. In May 2000, the LSA polled 46,000 votes in elections for the Greater London Assembly, securing 3 percent of the vote. These were the elections when Ken Livingstone was running for Mayor, against Labour opposition. The LSA publicly endorsed Livingstone and hoped that he would reciprocate. Livingstone’s victory seemed to prove that candidates could secure election against sustained Labour opposition.

After those elections, the Socialist Alliance expanded to cover all of England and Wales, and began to attract a small number of individual members, many of whom had involved in campaigning around the Kosovo war.  It seemed possible that the Alliance could lead to a shake-up of the left, and that new people would come to the fore.

Some Socialist Alliance votes were high enough to show the possibility for future growth. Former Labour MP Dave Nellist secured 2,600 votes (7 percent of the total) in the 2001 general election standing in Coventry North East. Neil Thompson obtained 2,300 votes in St Helens. However, the overall results were modest, with the Socialist Alliance standing in 98 seats and winning 57,000 votes.

The Alliance was weakened later that year when the Socialist Party withdrew in protest at the introduction of ‘one member one-vote’, and then further weakened by more departures, many caused by the SWP’s heavy-handed use of its effective majority, which was one of the Alliance’s major weaknesses.

There is a long history of outsider parties standing in elections and winning publicity at key moments, but the Socialist Alliance did not last long enough to build the necessary bases of sustained support. To put the 2001 vote in context: the Socialist Alliance’s 57,000 votes was slightly more than the BNP whose candidates secured just 47,000 votes in those elections. But over the next 10 years, the BNP would stand consistently, securing at its peak the election of more than 50 councillors and two MEPs. It is not fanciful to think that if the Alliance had held together, similar results might have been secured.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened. There was no real sense of what the Alliance was ‘for’ other than standing in elections, and no serious perspective for how it might sustain itself outside electoral campaigns. In consequence, the Socialist Alliance became a organisation that did nothing for eleven months of a year, only to be brought out just before elections. The Alliance was already dying, in other words, even before the campaign against the Iraq war in 2003 threw up the possibility of a much broader initiative.

Respect: bigger but not better

The initiative for the launch of Respect came from Salma Yaqoob and George Monbiot, who held a series of public meetings in November 2003, calling for the launch of a new political party. Both were leading members of the Stop the War Coalition. George Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party for opposing the Iraq war, quickly came on board, as did the SWP. There was hope that other Labour lefts would follow Galloway, but these did not materialise, leaving him to play a disproportionate role in the new party. A variety of left celebrities were approached, but many remained distant, and George Monbiot withdrew almost immediately, after it became clear that Respect and the Greens would be rivals not allies.

In 2002-3 the Stop the War coalition was one of the largest mass movements in recent British history. The sheer number of people mobilised (the two million people who marched against the Iraq war before it started) would, it was hoped, provide the base for a major challenge to Blair’s New Labour.

Twenty years later, it is genuinely difficult to convey how bold the move was that the 2003-2005 era left was trying to make, and how much break it involved with the routines of small socialist groups: the grind of fortnightly meetings, weekly paper sales, and the building of parties through the recruitment of individuals. All these tasks are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Doing them (and nothing more) in face of the great crises of our time can feel like apathy not resistance. For many people taking part in Respect, there was initially a huge excitement. The left was making itself relevant to millions of people in a way it hadn’t in years.

For a time, Respect seemed to work, if not on the scale originally intended, then at least as a credible socialist and anti-imperialist coalition. In the June 2004 European elections, Respect won 250,000 votes nationally, or 1.5 percent of the total. Impressive votes were secured in Leicester (10 percent) and Birmingham (7 percent) Respect won 88,000 votes in the London assembly elections which were held at the same time: 5,000 more votes and Lindsey German would have secured a place on the London assembly. In the June 2004 Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill parliamentary by-elections Respect candidates Yvonne Ridley and John Rees polled 13 percent and 6 percent.

In Tower Hamlets, Oliur Rahman was elected as a Respect councillor in August 2004. George Galloway won the Bethnal Green seat the following year, becoming only the third MP for a far-left party to have been elected in Britain since 1945 (his predecessors were two Communists, Willie Gallagher in 1935-50, and Phil Piratin in 1945-50, in a neighbouring constituency to Galloway’s).

More councillors were elected in Tower Hamlets, as well as in Newham, Birmingham, Preston, where a former Socialist Alliance candidate won re-election in 2007, and Bolsover, where ex-miner Ray Holmes won the Shirebrook North West seat. In a number of places, high electoral votes – or the prospects of them – created opportunities for movement organising. In Leeds, for example, university students held meetings of up to 800 people, under the banner of Respect.

Galloway and democracy

George Galloway was clear from the outset that he would not accept Respect taking positions he did not agree with. At the first Respect conference, for instance, critics of Galloway argued that Respect candidates should pledge to only take an average workers’ wage if elected. Galloway opposed this and the SWP unfortunately supported him. Maybe the movers were playing politics. But it was an early defeat for the idea that MPs should be accountable to the membership.

Similarly, Galloway gave a number of interviews stating his opposition to abortion in principle. The left in Respect sought to explain this away, giving assurances that Galloway would vote the right way if the issue was debated. When it was, Galloway absented himself, as he did on a great many other occasions. Galloway’s record as an MP embarrassed many Respect supporters, never more so than when he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother bullying Jodie Marsh, and dressing up in a horrendous cat suit.

For Respect’s critics, the party was an alliance of Muslims and the SWP. The latter was accused of chasing an imagined audience of older middle-aged Muslim men. At the launch of Respect, this criticism felt unfair. The SWP had, after all, just been participating in an antiwar movement, whose local organisers were in many towns young firebrand Muslim women: the Salma Yaqoob generation. However, the longer Respect went on, the more it seemed that there was some truth in these criticisms. In other words, that the Islamophobia present in society as a whole was having an impact on the British left, and that groups were thinking of Muslim voters as if they were a conservative bloc for whom excuses needed to be made. Symptomatic of this was the fact that Respect’s manifesto for the 2005 general election contained no reference to LGBT equality.

Inside the SWP, there was a growing sense of disillusion first with Respect. Some attempts were made to create a counterbalance to the personal influence of George Galloway. The most important of these was a trade union campaign, ‘Organising for Fighting Unions’, which held conferences of trade unions. The idea was that the SWP’s industrial base would meet, would draw in the national leaders of the most militant trade unions, and that since they would gather under the banner of OFFU, which was allied with Respect, the social weight of this movement would act to draw Galloway back towards conventional left-wing positions.

There were always problems with this tactic, including the lack of any mechanism by which OFFU’s social weight would be manifested. What proved fatal was that OFFU itself had no democratic structures, and was controlled by individuals with little experience of the labour movement. In late 2007, a local paper revealed that OFFU had taken a donation from a Dubai-based construction company and PFI contractor; the donation had originally been offered to Respect, but under UK electoral law, could not be accepted by a political party. OFFU closed down shortly afterwards.

In August 2007, Galloway turned on the SWP, accusing his former allies of amateurishness (‘None of the Respect staff appears to have been tasked with either membership or fundraising responsibilities. Or if they have it isn’t working’), and an undemocratic approach towards the appointment of Respect full-timers.The SWP accused Galloway of launching a witch hunt against them, with Socialist Worker insisting, ‘The SWP leadership is not splitting from Respect‘. Following two rival events, both declaring themselves Respect’s democratically-elected national conference, Galloway took the Respect name. The SWP then attempted to maintain its previous electoral work, standing various candidates in the 2008 local elections, including Lindsey German, who came eighth in the London mayoral elections, winning a derisory 17,000 votes on a ‘Left List’ ticket. The repercussions would lead to divisions inside the SWP, with the leaders who had been most involved in Respect leaving in 2010 to form a new group Counterfire.

 Lessons in electoralism

Respect was a broader alliance than the Socialist Alliance; George Galloway’s election victory in 2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow with 36 percent of the vote far exceeded the best Socialist Alliance vote in 2001 (Dave Nellist’s 7 percent in Coventry).

But there was always the sense that Galloway would make no good use of his victory. He had not yet become the friend of far-right media figures that he has since made himself. He did not lean into anti-trans or anti-migrant politics the way he does today. But even by 2004, Galloway’s admiration for anti-American dictatorships was already pronounced.

As for the SWP, and the other left groups who allied with it in Respect, the central problem was that no-one had properly asked why we should be doing this electoral work, or what form a principled election intervention would take. Just as Corbynism was doomed, because a leadership position was won before the mass movement it would have needed to sustain it, so Respect was doomed, because there had been no attempt to think through how any electoral success might be used.

Maybe we were there to ‘make socialists’ (in William Morris’s old phrase). Maybe we didn’t care how many votes we secured, so long as people were given a chance to hear left-wing arguments. It’s an approach, and it can be a serious one. But those who’ve spent longer in electoral politics than I have will always tell you that the psychological burden of a low vote is a terrible thing. It’s very hard to stand in elections and willingly lose, and it doesn’t do anything to build either organisations or influence. From which it seems to follow that if socialists are going to stand in elections, then they should do so to win. From which it also follows that standing isn’t mandatory. At least at the start, it’s rather about taking up favourable circumstances only where they exist.

Part of the problem of Respect was not that people wanted to win; the problem was that they could see no meaningful strategy to go from winning a first victory (Galloway in 2005) to a second – even if that was as little as just securing Galloway’s re-election. I remember all sorts of talk about how a socialist MP would be used to galvanise the struggle, promises that firefighters would go on strike, occupy their station, and he would join them. But the promises never materialised into a plan of how to use this MP to build the movements.

Without that clear vision, and a group of people willing to act as a counterweight to Galloway, what he was actually used for was to go on TV and to promote himself. In the fifteen years since that time, his way of working hasn’t improved, it has only hardened.

In 2023, Galloway may be better on the issue of Gaza than the Conservative and Labour politicians who support the genocide. But the path to the collective self-emancipation of workers and the oppressed cannot lead through him.

However, the problems with Respect cannot be reduced to the problems with Galloway.  Any successful left-wing party must find people who are charismatic orators, and others who know how to do election work, and people who can build organisations (i.e. have administrative and bureaucratic skills) and others still with the tact and humility to be capable of sacrificing their personal interests in order to hold together an alliance of disparate people. Only two individuals with any history of mass work, were actually recruited to the alliance: the extremely impressive Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham and the much more mixed figure of the former Labour MP, George Galloway.

The SWP had a much stronger sense of where Respect needed to be in five or ten year’s time than they did of how to grow that organisation over a period of weeks or months. As they wrote, ‘For the SWP it was vital Respect broke the pattern of left wing candidates securing one or two percent of the vote. That meant concentrating forces in our strongest areas to guarantee success.’ This approach had its attractive features, but it lacked any strategy for getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’. To get to the position where candidates regularly win 10 percent of the vote, there is no substitute for sustained work. You have to pass through a long period when they win two or three percent, and slowly build from there. For candidates to be credible, they must have a sustained presence in a particular area, the organisation must be visible year-round, and local initiatives have to be tried. Electoralism needs to be patient, and the SWP would not give it time.

In the end, any genuine process of reflection and self-criticism based on the experience of Respect, has to address more than Galloway’s weaknesses. The key failure was a lack of democracy. If left candidates are going to be elected in the general election this year, and if their victory is going to be useful, then somehow we need to learn the central lesson of 2005. Which is that the movement has to build around them structures of democracy and accountability. Only in that way can successful candidates help to build something better than the cynicism and corruption of ordinary managerial politics, which is all that capitalism ever offer us. We need better, but there are no short cuts.

 

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