The Respect Coalition – Reactionaries in Progressive Clothing?

The European and local elections of June 2004 saw the emergence of a new political party in the United Kingdom; called Respect, it presented itself as a new force in British politics, driving a progressive agenda. However, there are contradictions within this agenda, and in its practices, which threaten to turn it into a reactionary party rather than a progressive one.

Respect, or to give it its full title, Respect – The Unity Coalition, was formed on the 1st February 2004. It was set up both to replace the Socialist Alliance (although it was stated that Respect’s position was not explicitly socialist), and also to transform the Stop the War Coalition into a political party – thus taking protest against the war in Iraq to the ballot box. Both the Socialist Alliance and the Stop the War Coalition had been heavily dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a Trotskyist organisation with a history of trying to build coalitions with other organisations in order to generate a ‘broad front’ [1], and this is reflected in the leadership of Respect. For example, two prominent SWP activists, Lindsay German and John Rees, both held senior positions within the Stop the War Coalition leadership and both became electoral candidates for Respect. The new party also enlisted George Galloway, the anti-war MP who had been expelled from the Labour Party for urging British soldiers to disobey orders during the Iraq War. George Galloway has quickly become the most prominent public figure representing Respect.

George Galloway has always been a controversial figure, even among many people who opposed the Iraq War. Whilst most people who opposed invading Iraq clearly abhorred the regime of Saddam Hussein, even if they did not support going to war to remove him, Galloway’s relationship to Saddam has always been much more ambivalent. Although Galloway denies having had links with Saddam’s regime [2], he often visited Saddam and his deputies in Iraq during the 1990s, most notoriously to tell Saddam in 1994 that, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Even after the toppling of Saddam‘s regime, he was still willing to class Saddam’s deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz as a personal friend. [3] He has also expressed support for undemocratic regimes elsewhere in the world, insisting that Fidel Castro is “not a dictator” [4] and describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the biggest catastrophe of my life.” [5] Further controversy ensued recently with the publication of his book I’m Not the Only One [6], which received mixed reviews. The Independent columnist Johann Hari was especially scathing in his review, claiming that the book “made me feel as though I was trapped in a lift with a crack-smoking Stalin” and accusing Galloway of distorting recent Iraqi history to downplay the human rights abuses committed by Saddam. [7]

It is ironic that the founders of Respect chose to subtitle their party “the Unity Coalition”, as many of their former allies showed little desire to show unity with them. Few of the SWP’s comrades on the hard left joined Respect, with the notable exception of the Communist Party of Great Britain, who agreed to join, but with a decided lack of enthusiasm, and only in order to engage critically with Respect. [8]

The SWP fared little better in enticing member organisations of the Stop the War Coalition to join Respect. Within weeks of Respect’s launch, attempts to generate an alliance between Respect and the Green Party had fallen through, which led to the departure not only of the Greens but also of the writer and environmental activist George Monbiot, who is a Green Party member. Monbiot attempted to avoid ill-feeling in departing Respect, insisting that “I’m not apportioning blame for this: I recognise that it has been difficult for both sides to find a means of working together.” [9] The spokespersons of the two parties were distinctly less conciliatory in tone. Respect claimed that they had been “snubbed” by the Greens, while the Green Party in their turn dismissed Respect as little more than an SWP front. The Greens claimed that Respect meetings had been organised by SWP activists without so much as an invitation to Green Party spokespersons, and expressed the view that, “Mr Galloway and the SWP simply wanted the Green Party involved in their project to lend credibility and make them appear more broadly based.” [10]

One former ally in the Stop the War Coalition that the SWP had more luck in attracting to Respect is the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a rather conservative organisation with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist movement. This has resulted in one of the most bizarre pairings in recent British political history – a revolutionary Trotskyist organisation allying itself with a conservative Islamist one. It is this pairing that makes Respect’s position more than a little contradictory.

Trotskyism and Islamism would appear, on the face of it, to be diametrically opposed ideologies. The desire of Trotskyism to create a secular, classless society has little in common with the Islamist ideal of society organised on strict religious lines. However, the SWP and the Muslim Association of Britain share two beliefs that have become key to their alliance – vehement opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and uncompromising support for the Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Thanks to the MAB’s co-sponsoring of the Stop the War Coalition’s marches, the SWP found themselves working increasingly closely with the MAB, and hence the two movements began to forge bonds.

There are, of course, areas in which the ideological differences between Trotskyism and Islamism are difficult to ignore; in particular the issues of women’s rights and gay rights have proven problematic. This was highlighted recently when the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, along with protestors from Outrage and the Queer Youth Alliance, joined a march protesting against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The gay rights protestors had opted to protest both at the human rights abuses committed by Israel against Palestinians, and also against the persecution of gay people by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and they carried placards bearing the slogan “Israel, stop persecuting Palestine! Palestine, stop persecuting queers!” The Outrage press release describes what happened next.

As soon as they arrived in Trafalgar Square to join the demonstration, the gay protesters were surrounded by an angry, screaming mob of Islamic fundamentalists, Anglican clergymen, members of the Socialist Workers Party, the Stop the War Coalition, and officials from the protest organisers, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). They variously attacked the gay activists as “racists”, “Zionists”, “CIA and MI5 agents”, “supporters of the Sharon government” and “dividing the Free Palestine movement”. [11]

Officials from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign tried to persuade the gay protesters to stand at the back, and when the protesters refused, tried to block their placards with their own. It was a shameful display of intolerance on the part of people who claimed to espouse tolerance.

Any organisation wanting to create a progressive movement out of the anti-war/pro-Palestine movement would need to confront these sorts of reactionary attitudes. Unfortunately, signs so far within Respect appear to indicate that the opposite is happening. At one point it looked as though Respect might not have any commitment to gay rights or women’s rights at all, when at a Marxism 2003 meeting Lindsay German of the SWP (and later a Respect electoral candidate) announced that although she was in favour of defending gay and women’s rights, she was “not prepared to have them as a shibboleth.” It was subsequently pointed out to her that the “shibboleths” were in fact two of the causes celebres of the British left and a vital part of any genuinely progressive movement. The Communist Party of Great Britain, soon to become the SWP’s somewhat reluctant partners in Respect, condemned her comments, insisting that, “Doctoring, abandoning or putting aside demands so as not upset the sensibilities and prejudices of the mosque is not only crass opportunism, but is actually to give up on the struggle for democratic rights in the here and now.” [12]

In the end, Respect included in its founding declaration statements expressing commitment to “Opposition to all forms of discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs (or lack of them), sexual orientation, disabilities, national origin or citizenship” and “ The right to self-determination of every individual in relation to their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, as well as sexual choices.” It has been suggested that it was these two statements that prompted the Muslim Association of Britain’s decision not to give outright support to Respect. The MAB did however retain informal links with the party, and the MAB’s former President Anas al-Tikriti stood as lead Respect candidate for Yorkshire and the Humber in the European elections. At the official launch of Respect, an MAB spokesman told the assembled crowd that, “We hope to cooperate with Respect, and that it will maintain a position which will prolong that cooperation. We know that on some issues we take different stands: that is why it is important to keep the door open.” The “different stands” were interpreted by some of those present as a reference to the statements on sexual orientation in the founding declaration. [13]

Despite the failure to win the outright support of the MAB, who instructed their members to vote tactically for Respect in some constituencies, and for the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Ken Livingstone in others, Respect continued to campaign heavily for the Muslim vote in the run-up to the June elections. Respect activists trooped around the mosques of Britain (the Respect campaign in Wales was actually launched in a mosque), and no opportunity was missed to build links with the Muslim community. Meanwhile, the shibboleths were being quietly shunted aside. Respect’s feverish efforts to win over Muslim votes were being matched by a deafening silence on the issues of gay rights and women’s rights.

This can be illustrated by a simple, if not entirely rigorous, method. On the 22nd June 2004, running the word “Muslim” through the search engine on the Respect website returned an impressive 224 results. By comparison “Christian” returned only 17 results, while “Jewish” yielded up 25. “Sikh” produced 2 results and “Hindu” just one. “Buddhist” and “Buddhism” returned none at all.

Moving on to the shibboleths, the gulf grew yet further. A search of the website under the word “gay” returned just one document – a newsletter from the Brighton and Hove branch of Respect that made brief reference to a Stonewall protest for gay rights in their area. Searching under “gay rights” again returned just that one document from Brighton and Hove. “Homosexual”, “bisexual”, “feminism”, “feminist”, “abortion”, “contraception” and “sexuality” all returned no documents whatsoever. The word “sexual” produced only results that referred to the original statement in the founding declaration about the right to self-determination over sexual choices.

In comparison, typing the word “gay” on the same date into the search engine at the Conservative Party website returned only two documents created in the period between the launch of Respect and the June 10th elections. In itself a pretty unimpressive result. However, one of these documents was a report on a “gay and lesbian summit” that had been held by the Conservative Party. The event was attended by Steve Norris, the Conservative candidate for London mayor, Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary and, of all people, that favourite whipping boy of the right-wing press, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick, the gay senior police officer who had nearly been hounded out of the Metropolitan Police by a media storm riddled with thinly-veiled homophobia. At the summit “delegates from both national and community-based organisations discussed key issues, including strategies for tackling homophobic bullying, the role of government, and the importance of promoting healthier lifestyles.” [14] By contrast, during the same period Respect had failed to produce a single press release relating to gay issues, let alone an actual campaign. From this (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) test, a party that had been launched with the aim of being a new voice for progressive politics had emerged as less gay-friendly than the Conservatives!

While gay rights and women’s rights were being quietly ignored, anything that might be perceived as offensive to the Muslim community was being pounced on and denounced by Respect. On 26th April 2004, Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat candidate in the London mayoral elections, expressed concerns about young Muslims in London being converted to religious extremism. “The major concern is that there is a growing group of young, particularly Muslims in London, who are becoming more fanatical,” he said. “It is the extremists in London who may be growing in number rather than going down in number.” [15]

Respect issued an immediate press release denouncing Hughes’ comments. “Simon Hughes’ comments can only help to stir up hostility to Muslims in the capital,” protested Respect’s Lindsay German. “He should apologise to young Muslims for his outrageous attack on them in today’s press.” Oliur Rahman, another Respect candidate, said, “What is Simon Hughes trying to achieve with these comments? If his aim was to win racist votes to the Liberal Democrat cause then he should stand down. It is clear to me that no Muslim should back a candidate who is creating hostility towards our community.” [16]

Nowhere in Respect’s press release was any evidence offered, or even the claim made, that Islamist extremism was not on the rise among young Muslims in London. The mere fact that Hughes had suggested this was touted as evidence of his racism. Arguably, Respect action’s crossed the line between denouncing Islamophobia and attempting to stifle legitimate criticism of Islamist extremism.

More sinister still was the reaction of first the Muslim Association of Britain, then of Respect, to the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin by Israeli forces. Sheikh Yassin was the founder and religious leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. On March 22nd 2004 an Isreali helicopter gunship fired a missile at Yassin’s car as he was returning from morning prayers, killing Yassin and 9 other Palestinians.

The assassination was denounced across the world. Amnesty International said, “Once again Israel has chosen to violate international law instead of using alternative lawful means. Sheikh Yassin could have been arrested and prosecuted.” [17] The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called the assassination “unjustified” and “very unlikely to achieve its objective.” [18]

The Israeli attack was certainly disproportionate, reckless and probably illegal under international law, but one should not whitewash Yassin. As the founder of Hamas, he bore direct personal responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians at the hands of Hamas’ suicide bombers. He also poisoned the minds of young Palestinians by preaching martyrdom. In 1996, a wave of suicide bombings by Hamas wrecked the Oslo peace agreements and caused the election of a hardline Israeli government under Binyamin Netanyahu. Arguably, Hamas have also done much to keep Ariel Sharon in power. Sharon may be a thug, as his detractors insist, but he is an elected thug, and the suicide bombs of Hamas have done much to persuade the Israeli public to elect that kind of leader.

It is considered bad taste to speak ill of the dead, so it is presumably with good taste in mind that the Muslim Association of Britain chose to commemorate this architect of mass slaughter with the words, “For millions of Muslims around the world and for many freedom lovers and justice defenders across the globe Sheikh Yassin was a symbol of struggle for freedom and justice.”[19] The MAB also described as “most regrettable” the decision of the European Union to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation, a decision that the MAB claimed “gave the green light to open what Sharon and his generals termed the ‘hunting season’ going after Hamas.” [20]

Faced with such a shocking apologia from one of their closest allies for one of the most brutal terrorist organisations in the world, Respect knew exactly what to say, and whom to blame.

Respect declared Jack Straw (yes, the same Jack Straw who unreservedly condemned Yassin’s assassination), to be a “co-signatory on Sheikh Ahmed’s death warrant.” On the day of the assassination, George Galloway said that, “Jack Straw pushed the EU into taking the catastrophic decision to declare Hamas ‘terrorists’ and from that the tragic consequences inevitably flowed.” [21]

In the week before the election, a sudden burst of vitriol was aimed at Respect from commentators in the quality press. Ironically, this vitriol came not from right-wingers, but from those left-wingers who had supported the war in Iraq. Nick Cohen, writing in the New Statesman, declared that “the far left has reduced anti-war protest to absurdity, not to say ignominy.” [22] Meanwhile, in the Independent, Johann Hari claimed that a vote for Respect would be “a vote for totalitarians in an unconvincing left-wing costume.” [23] The Guardian’s David Aaronovitch went further than mere commentary, choosing to attend a Respect meeting. He reported back, “I chose at random, but I chose badly. The Respect website is full of reports of huge meetings comprising hundreds of cheering people, and yet I wound up in a pleasant community hall in north-east London with 25 Trots, some of their more sceptical mates and five or six Muslims.” He spent an evening enduring “the almost inconceivably tedious routine of the far-left political meeting” before finishing his report by commenting, “I give ‘em a year.” [24]

It’s probably not surprising that so much venom has come from left-wing writers working for left-wing publications, while right-wingers have simply dismissed Respect, who are probably no threat to the right. Cohen, Hari and Aaronovitch on the other hand saw a party claiming to champion the left that was so desperate for the Muslim vote that it was willing to jettison any commitment to women’s rights or gay rights so as not to offend the more reactionary elements within the Muslim community; that tried to stifle legitimate condemnation of Islamist extremism in the name of combating Islamophobia, and that was willing to campaign against civilian deaths caused accidentally by RAF and USAF warplanes but not those caused deliberately by Hamas suicide bombers. A party claiming to bring back democracy to Britain, whose figurehead George Galloway had apparently been happy to socialise with dictators in Iraq and Cuba. Such a party would be likely not so much to save progressive politics as to destroy it.

When the June 10th elections finally came, success eluded Respect. Across England and Wales they polled just 1.7%, dashing George Galloway’s hopes of winning a seat in the European Parliament. Hopes of riding on the back of public opposition to the Iraq war had failed, with most of the anti-war vote going to the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. However, this low national figure masks some surprisingly high polling figures in certain very localised areas, particularly in parts of London and Birmingham. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Respect actually polled more than any other party, with 20.36% of the vote, while in Newham they polled 21.41% of the vote. Across London as a whole they gained 5% of the vote for the Greater London Assembly, and hence only just missed out on getting a seat on the GLA. [25] Given the very localised nature of Respect’s successes, the Green Party’s Spencer Fitz-Gibbon commented that, ”A quarter of Respect’s votes [in London] came from one constituency alone, so I think we’ve witnessed the impact of some highly disciplined Muslim politics here, with what looks like a large block vote being given to Respect thanks to the efforts of the Muslim Association of Britain.” [26]

Defenders of Respect point out that the party is only a few months old, and its policies are still evolving. However, if Fitz-Gibbon’s analysis is correct, Respect now find themselves in a quandary. Their greatest hopes of electoral success lie in maintaining and developing their alliances with the Muslim community. However, if they wish to continue pandering to the prejudices of reactionary organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain, they abandon all hope of becoming a genuinely progressive movement. If, on the other hand, they wish to promote gender and sexual equality, and to campaign against human rights abuses whether committed by Israel or Hamas, then they risk biting the hand that has so far fed them votes. The path which they take is up to them.


1. As well as the Socialist Alliance, the Stop the War Coalition and Respect, the SWP have also been heavily influential within the Anti-Nazi League and Globalise Resistance.

2. Letter by George Galloway to the Guardian. 7 June 2004

3. Mueller A. (November 2003) George Cross: George Galloway MP. The Independent on Sunday.

4 ibid.

5. Hattenston S. (September 16, 2002) The Monday Interview: Saddam and Me. The Guardian.

6. Galloway G. (2004) I’m Not the Only One. London: Allen Lane.

7. Hari J. (May 14 2004) Book Review: I’m Not the Only One by George Galloway. The Independent.

8. Neira M (January 29 2004) RESPECT Launch – Socialism: The Final Shibboleth. Weekly Worker 513

9. Green Party (Feb 18 2004) Monbiot resigns from Unity.

10. Green Party (Feb 12 2004) Greens regret attack by Galloway/SWP “Respect” party.

11. Outrage (May 15 2004) Gays attacked at Palestine rights protest.

12 Conrad J. (July 10 2003) No compromise on sexism and homophobia. Weekly Worker 488

13. Neira M. op. cit.

14. Conservative Party (March 29 2004) Conservatives stage gay and lesbian summit.

15. Woolf M. (April 26 2004) Simon Hughes: ‘It is easier to beat Livingstone now he is the Labour candidate. He is Blair’s mayor now.’ The Independent.

16. Respect – The Unity Coalition (April 26 2004) London candidates denounce Simon Hughes for stirring up hostility to young Muslims in capital.

17. Amnesty International (March 22 2004) Amnesty International strongly condemns assassination of Sheikh Yassin.

18. BBC News Online. (March 23 2004) World anger after Hamas killing.

19. Muslim Association of Britain. (March 22 2004) MAB Condemns Israeli Assassination of Palestinian Spiritual Leader Yassin.

20. Ibid.

21 Respect – The Unity Coalition. (March 22 2004) Foreign Secretary “co-signed Hamas leader’s death warrant.”

22. Cohen N. (June 7 2004) Saddam’s Very Own Party. New Statesman

23. Hari J. (June 4 2004) This election proves that politicians, whatever their faults, aren’t all the same. The Independent.

24. Aaronovitch D. (June 5 2004) Same old guff with an added ingredient. The Guardian

25. Respect – The Unity Coalition. (June 14 2004) Respect polls over a quarter of a million votes and establishes itself as a serious national party.

26 Green Party. (June 12 2004) Mixed fortunes in London elections.

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