Dead Men Left

Sunday, June 20, 2004

"Honest marxists"

After berating Peter Tatchell for his sectarianism in the last posting, readers may find it a little peculiar that I now devote so much time to the seriously misnamed "Alliance for Workers' Liberty" (AWL). Tiny and confined to irrelevance, increasingly squeezed out from whatever marginal influence it enjoyed in union politics - whether the NUS or the RMT - the AWL has taken an dangerous turn in recent years towards a populist "left" Islamophobia. This has earned it the accolades of Nick Cohen, if few others, who - after praising the "respectability" of UKIP - recently described the AWL in a national newspaper as a group of "honest marxists", raising the AWL's profile slightly above the other fragments of the British far left. For this reason alone, it would seem well within the remit allowed by the imprecation against sectarianism in scrutinising what the AWL has to say for itself. More pertinently, the AWL could be described as somewhat vociferous critics of the Respect initiative; whilst this usual rises little above a smear campaign against Galloway (over-reliance upon which is earning Nick Cohen's publishers a writ for defamation), their latest "open letter to SWP members" attempts to pose a serious and reasonable set of arguments against Respect, acting as a useful summary of the anti-Respect position. With my apologies to all those who remain blissfully unaware of the AWL's existence, time spent upon their "open letter" may not be wholly wasted. It opens:

Dear Comrades,

In the 10 June Euro elections, the Respect coalition scored an average of 1.65% across England and Wales. The Socialist Alliance average score was 1.69%...

The best that can be said for the Respect score is that if it were for a renewed Socialist Alliance campaign, then getting essentially the same percentage across all England and Wales, rather than in selected constituencies, could be claimed as another step in steady, slow progress...

"[E]ssentially the same percentage". Interesting phrasing, since of course the two votes are incomparable. First, the Socialist Alliance stood in 98 seats in England and Wales in 2001. There are 569 constituencies in England and Wales; the Socialist Alliance thus covered only 17% of the two regions, compared to 100% for Respect. Second, the Socialist Alliance polled just 57,553 votes. Respect achieved over four times that figure: an absolutely clear advance. If we want to attempt the sort of comparison the AWL make, we should compare the Socialist Alliance's vote to the total vote in 2001: on this reckoning, 57,553 votes in 26,365,192 is just over 0.2% of the total vote. Around one voter in every 500 voted for the Socialist Alliance; around one voter in every 60 voted Respect.

This is, obviously, somewhat unfair: Euro-constituencies are multi-member, as are some local council seats. In both cases, there are greater opportunities for credible minority candidates to emerge. When dealing with local councils results, however, the AWL's peculiar psephological traits work in the other direction. Later in the leaflet, they state

...Alliance for Workers' Liberty member Alison Brown, standing in a heavily-Muslim ward in the Sheffield council election, tripled her vote on 10 June, winning 11%...

In 2003, Alison Brown, standing for the Socialist Alliance, polled 203 votes, 8.08% of the total ballot of 2,512. In 2004, when all three seats in the same Burngreave ward were available, Brown, standing for the Democratic Socialist Alliance, polled 610 votes. This is 4.3% of a total ballot of 13,920; or, to follow the AWL's procedure, 10.8% of voters cast their vote for Brown. Whilst only one vote is cast by each voter in the Euro-elections, making comparisons with general elections at least roughly legitimate, the AWL are here attempting to compare a multiple-vote, multiple-seat ballot with a single-vote, multiple-seat ballot.

A far more accurate assessment is to compare the relative increase in total ballots cast to the relative increase in ballots cast for Brown, since this allows us to see what proportion of potential new votes created by the move to a multiple-member election went to the Democratic Socialist Alliance. The total ballot grew 5.5 times; Brown's vote increased three times. To maintain equivalent levels of support in both elections, given that she was the only candidate standing in a three-member ward, Brown's vote would need to increase by a factor of two-thirds relative to the total ballot's improvement, reflecting the fact that her voters could also choose two other candidates; if they voted solely for Brown, as they did in 2003, their votes would contribute less towards the increase in total ballots than those cast for other parties standing three candidates. Were two SA candidates to stand, the critical ratio need only be one-third improvement in their total vote; were three to stand, the ratio would obviously be one-to-one. A ratio of Brown's increase to total increased vote greater than two-thirds suggests improved support; less than a two-third ratio, however, implies that voters were proportionately less willing to vote for her than a year ago.

This is exactly what happened: Brown's vote increased by a factor one-half relative to the total increase. In fairness to Brown, voters seemed slightly more inclined to use her as a protest: her vote increased by more than the 1:3 ratio relative to the increase in total ballots cast that would suggest no improvement in absolute terms, and one of the Labour candidates (the deputy council leader)performed significantly less well than the other two. However, compared to Respect results in single vote elections - in local or Euro-constituencies - it is clear that Brown's vote is less committed.

A certain confusion in the complications of electoral statistics might be allowed, though. Where the AWL "open letter" causes more concern is in the political claims made throughout. Respect allegedly promoted "downright right-wing politics" and that left-wing politics did not "define" the Respect campaign. For the record, pasted below are the core demands of Respect's founding declaration:

We stand for:

* An end to the war and occupation in Iraq. We will not join any further imperialist wars.
* An end to all privatisation and the bringing back into democratic public ownership of the railways and other public services.
* An education system that is not dependent on the ability to pay, that is comprehensive and gives an equal chance in life to every child no matter how wealthy or poor their parents, from nursery to university.
* A publicly owned and funded, democratically controlled NHS, free to all users.
* Pensions that are linked to average earnings.
* Raising the minimum wage to the European Union Decency threshold of £7.40 an hour.
* Tax the rich to fund welfare and to close the growing gap between the poor and the wealthy few.
* The repeal of the Tory anti-union laws.
* Opposition to all forms of discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs (or lack of them), sexual orientation, disabilities, national origin or citizenship.
* The right to self-determination of every individual in relation to their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, as well as sexual choices.
* The defence of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Opposition to the European Union's 'Fortress Europe' policies.
* We will strongly oppose the anti-European xenophobic right wing in any Euro referendum. But we oppose the 'stability pact' that the European Union seeks to impose on all those who join the euro. This pact would outlaw government deficit spending and reinforce the drive to privatise and deregulate the economy
and we will therefore vote 'No' in any referendum on this issue.
* Support for the people of Palestine and opposition to the apartheid system that oppresses them.
* An end to the destruction of the environment by states and corporations for whom profit is more important than sustaining the natural world on which all life depends.

It could be criticised as vague. It might be considered a minimal sort of a socialist programme. I am certain many people would disagree with some, most or perhaps all of it. But I would defy them to claim it is not "left wing", or promotes "right wing politics". In condensed form, it was printed on every Respect election leaflet; it was presented in the election broadcast; it was argued for on stalls, on the buses, and outside polling stations. To argue that Respect promoted "downright right-wing politics", the AWL make three points: one evasive, one racist, and one libelous. It is an unimpressive spectacle.

Evasiveness: "Respect chimed in with nationalism by denouncing the European Union... Respect's 'anti-capitalist' excuse for Europhobia is no better than the 'democratic' excuse of UKIP." Having seen the mess of the new constitution - and our own dear Prime Minister's successful attempts to exclude basic workers' rights - this position looks rather odd for an "Alliance for Worker's Liberty". It fails to address the points - as covered recently by Lenin's Tomb, in discussing Larry Elliot - that a left-wing criticism of the EU is available, and should be promoted; just as it is on the mainland, in counterposing a "social Europe" to a "bosses' Europe". AWL fall decidely short of raising the argument above the playground level it generally attains in Britain, hiding behind the lax claim of "little Englandism"; they fail entirely to suggest how, precisely, the Euro, the stability pact, and the European Central Bank benefit workers anywhere.

Racism: "Respect appealed to Muslims to vote as Muslims for 'George Galloway - a fighter for Muslims...' ...This is as reactionary as asking Catholics to vote for a candidate because he was a 'fighter for Catholics'." Leaving aside the vexed question of how a Muslim can vote as anything other than a Muslim - as if identity, and beliefs, can be switched on and off at a stroke; or maybe Muslims shouldn't be allowed to vote at all? - and, of course, Respect's socialist platform as clearly stated on the leaflet they quote, this is a dubious claim. If Catholics were a gravely oppressed group in society, suffering slanders and depredations - as, indeed, Catholics have suffered in recent memory - I would insist on anyone claiming a "progressive" mantle to fight for their rights, as a fundamental part of their radical politics. This is - or should be - elementary stuff for "socialists": for those liking to present themselves in a grand Enlightenment tradition, the fight for freedom of worship should be recognised as a constituent part of the struggle for what liberties we currently enjoy. That is to leave aside the struggle against the overtly racist discrimination Muslims (or "suspected" Muslims) currently face. It is quite distinct from whatever other disagreements I may have with individual Catholics, or Muslims, about any number of other questions.

It is as if Dreyfus were sentenced once more: in defence of "secular" values, certain sections of the French "Left" refused to support a Jewish officer imprisoned on a concocted charge of treason - Jews, you see, with their "alien" traditions, could simply not be trusted to fight properly for a "secular" republic. Emile Zola penned his "J'Accuse" in criticism of precisely this attitude; today, sections of the French Left refuse to argue against - indeed, some actively support - a discriminatory attack on Muslims made through the hijab ban in the name of "secular" values. Thankfully, their nearest equivalent in the UK is tiny and isolated, confining itself to sniping at all suggestions that lining up with one's own ruling class in kicking a particular minority is barely compatible with any form of socialist politics. It would be wrong to describe the AWL as a racist organisation but they are playing an extraordinarily dangerous game with racist politics: the appeals to an liberal Islamophobic discourse, through the unwarranted assertions of "communalism", and the hints that - because Respect is supported by Muslims - it must be weak in defence of gay rights, are quite shameful for a supposedly "socialist" organisation.

The same could equally be said for the AWL's suggestion that Respect's principled (and increasingly popular) position of immediate UK troop withdrawal from Iraq is to solidarise "with the Iraqi 'resistance' - with the Islamist militias who are currently against the Americans... and against Iraq's reviving labour movement, and who would if they could impose a religious dictatorship on Iraq." Or, in other words, the AWL support a continued occupation, on the grounds that (doubtless) brutal, backward Muslims cannot be trusted to run their country for the benefit of properly "progressive" forces. On another flyer, AWL approvingly quote the "Union of the Unemployed of Iraq" as stating:

the 'resistance' of the ethnocentric and Islamist groups is reactionary... 'Occupation' and 'resistance' are two poles of the same reactionary camp...

This is a very old-fashioned species of liberal imperialism. Far from the right to self-determination being - guess what - a right, to be enjoyed by all regardless of their individual proclivities, the AWL seek to deprive Iraqis of this right on the spurious grounds that a continued US/UK occupation is somehow beneficial for the workers' movement: and this at a time when the US/UK is attempting to ban trade unions. More generally, whilst the occupation entirely determines the political situation in Iraq, it is the job of socialists to help end this latter-day colonialism at the same time as arguing for the kinds of politics that can do the job most effectively: the politics that stress international solidarity, in piling on the pressure against US and UK governments, against those that seek to separate the "Islamic" world from the rest.

For those in the imperial power, the advice for socialists is well-known. Karl Liebknecht, faced with "progressive" arguments at the start of the First World War to support German imperialism against the decidedly regressive despotic imperialism of the Czar, noted that for socialists the "main enemy is at home". One's own ruling class is one's first target, especially so if they are indulging in imperialist adventures. Leon Trotsky was even more blunt, apparently advising that those "socialists" in Britain arguing against the independence of India should be "branded with a bullet". Trotsky had never come across the AWL, so we have to presume he was joking; but it is a thoroughly appalling state of affairs for a supposedly "Trotskyist" organisation to be arguing quite so cravenly in support of its own imperialist power.

Finally, mendacity. Whilst restraining themselves from the venomous personal attacks they usually save for Galloway - a creature evidently somewhere between Beelzebub and Ashtaroth in the AWL's compendium of Hell - they still manage to brazenly misquote him. Referring to his interview with Deborah Ross in the Independent, they write

Asked to described his general politics "in one word", Galloway chose to emphasise that he is "not as left-wing as you think... Strongly against abortion... I can't accept that [a woman's right to choose], because I believe in God."

They suggest that Galloway made this claim to appeal to the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), and next claim

Having won that MAB endorsement, Galloway then told leftish Guardian readers [so different to those frothy-mouthed UKIP supporters at the Independent] that he was "not opposed to a woman's right to choose". This is the man John Rees told us all to trust, at the Respect launch conference. Regular newspaper readers would have known about Respect. But they would also have known not to trust it.

Galloway has a personal belief that abortion is wrong. He does not, however, oppose a woman's right to choose, preferring to make a distinction between his personal disagreement with abortion and the right of those to have an abortion if necessary. That's not an opinion I, nor many others in Respect, would take, and it is at odds with the party's stated position; it will perhaps be familiar to those, like Galloway, from Catholic backgrounds, as an attempted separation of personal belief from the state's activities. However, like Anas Altikriti, Galloway publicly stated he will do nothing to alter legislation regarding abortion rights if he were elected. The founding declaration is clear enough on self-determination in sexual choices, making a far clearer statement of principle than any other party standing in the recent elections.

What concerns me here are two things. First, MAB, contrary to the AWL's snide remarks elsewhere, are not part of the Respect coalition: in the London Mayoral elections, for example, the recommended a vote for Ken Livingstone, and elsewhere suggested Muslims should vote Green, supporting Respect only in four Euro-constituencies. Second, and more disconcertingly, the AWL have simply inserted words into his mouth: the phrase "a woman's right to choose" does not appear in the original interview, as indicated on the leaflet and above by the square brackets. At no point does Galloway say he opposes "a woman's right to choose" in the interview, confining himself to opposing abortion on personal grounds. It is only by assuming beforehand that he is lying that the AWL are able to add this allegedly "explanatory" phrase to the original text. Guilty, that is, until proven innocent. The original text in the Independent, April 5, 2004, reads:

I ask George to describe his politics in one word. "Socialist. Although I'm not as left wing as you think." Surprise me, George. "I'm strongly against abortion. I believe life begins at conception, and therefore unborn babies have rights. I think abortion is immoral." You can't be pro-choice? "Who is choosing for the child?"

Well, I say, better the unborn unwanted child than the born unwanted one. "I can't accept that, because I believe in God. I have to believe that the collection of cells has a soul."

Mysteriously, Galloway's claim that he is a "socialist" is ommitted in the AWL leaflet; though his "not as left wing as you think" quip, standing alone, hardly makes sense, given the question asked. Equally, it is clear he is expressing his own moral judgement, quite distinct from Respect and quite distinct from others' beliefs. At the end of this sorry "lash-up" of dubious elisions, statistical chicanery and appeals to the white man's burden, perhaps the best response to is in Galloway's own words:

Sacha Ismail manages three inaccuracies in 100 words (Letters, June 4). I am not opposed to a woman's right to choose and neither is the Respect coalition: we recognise people's right to express their own views and choices on this matter.

I never have had any kinds of links with the Ba'athist regime. My visits to Iraq were to express solidarity with the plight of the Iraqi people and to help prevent the calamitous war.

The Respect coalition is not engaged in a communalist appeal for Muslim votes. We recognise that many Muslims cannot bring themselves to vote Labour. We campaign to win their votes for a left alternative to Labour.

George Galloway MP

Respect, Glasgow Kelvin