R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Will the Unity Coalition Earn it? By William Bowles

26 January 2004

Sunday (25/01/04) saw the launch of a new political party of the left in the UK, the Unity Coalition. The inaugural meeting held in the Friends Meeting House on Euston Road in London, was packed, with around 1200 people crowded into the main hall and represented a good cross-section of what’s left of left political activists, from the Socialist Workers Party, The Communist Party GB, the Socialist Alliance through to a number of Labour Party members but who understandably kept their heads down.

Noticeable by their absence were Black faces in the gathering (I counted about ten or about 1.2%) and indicative of where the Coalition draws its support from. I could be cynical and say that on the left Black is ‘out’ and Muslim is ‘in’ these days but it is yet another indication of just how far we have to go in dealing with the deeply rooted issue of racism in British political life let alone in society at large. Considering that the Asian, African, African-Caribbean population of London constitutes at least 10-12%, the tiny representation should be a warning signal to the Coalition that it needs to broaden its base of support. Slogans about combating racism are all well and good but it will take more than slogans to deal with such a deeply rooted cancer at the core of capitalism.

Nevertheless the Unity Coalition marks a significant turning point in left politics in the UK and more specifically, a break with the Labour Party that has gone just too far in its craven support of the US imperialist project, too far even for many of its traditional supporters. The coalition consciously targets the organised workers, pensioners, students, the poor and the immigrant communities though just how much the gathering represented these constituencies is difficult to tell.

The Unity Coalition’s leading light is George Galloway MP, the thorn in the side of New Labour and expelled for “bringing the Labour Party into disrespute” over his outspoken criticism of the invasion of Iraq and who along with Ken Loach, the film director, launched the ‘party’ to the sound of Aretha Franklin’s rendition of ‘Respect’.

The tagline “Founding Declaration of Respect – The Unity Coalition” evolved out of the anti-war movement that saw the biggest outpouring of opposition to government policies this country has ever seen when 2 million people hit the streets in March last year. But why has it taken nine, almost ten months for the Coalition to come about when possibly the best opportunity we had to go on the offensive against New Labour, slipped through the hands of the Stop The War Coalition after last March?

But first let’s take a look at the provisional programme, or more accurately, after the meeting, the actual programme of ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T – the Unity Coalition’.

  • 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 fully funded, democratically controlled NHS free at the point of need.
  • Pensions that are linked to average earnings.
  • The repeal of 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 and 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.
  • 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 the 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.
  • 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.
  • We want a world in which the democratic demands of the people are carried out; a world based on need not profit; a world where solidarity rather than self-interest is the spirit of the age.

The above was unanimously adopted by the founding meeting with a few modifications and additions notably:

  • Support for the people of Palestine and opposition to the apartheid system that oppresses them.
  • Opposition to all attacks on civil liberties, especially those proposed in the name of the fraudulent ‘war on terror’ – no to arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, attacks on the jury system and all extensions of emergency powers. We need a freer not a more repressive society.
  • Tax the rich to fund welfare and to close the growing gap between the poor and the wealthy few.

A steering committee was accepted that will flesh out and make concrete all the points listed above. The Coalition is aiming to contest both the European Parliament and the Greater London Assembly elections this coming June with a target of garnishing a million votes and the £1 million needed to fight both elections. Galloway publicly staked his reputation on this number and as with the massive demonstration, I hope he is proved correct (he predicted at least 1 million).

Some seventeen amendments were proposed to the Declaration of which only the three listed above were adopted. Chief amongst the amendments rejected were perhaps the thorny issues that confront any left political party in England and revealed what in my opinion are the weaknesses and contradictions that the Coalition will have to deal with if it wants to succeed:

‘The ‘R’ in Respect should stand for Republicanism’. Rejected by the gathering and opposed by the Coalition’s steering committee on the basis that it would be difficult to convince the essentially conservative attitudes of the British public to abolish the monarchy.

Indeed, the other thorny issues that will confront the Coalition that were sidestepped included the issue of “open borders and an end to immigration laws” again on the basis that it will be difficult to persuade the not insignificant section of the public that is xenophobic and racist. But one must ask the question that if the ‘difficult’ issues are to be avoided in this way, is the Coalition only going to take on the ‘easy ones’?

The other problem it failed to tackle was the issue of the euro. The Coalition takes the view of opposing adopting the euro because of the ‘Stability Pact’ on deficit spending. Yet, the issue is not the euro per se but the political programme of the EU. At the bottom of this is the thorny problem of English parochialism and endemic xenophobia (‘this sceptred isle’, ‘this island nation’ etc etc) and the fact that a large segment of the population is opposed to the abolition of the pound and to greater European integration. But by not dealing with this issue from a principled position, as with immigration and ‘asylum seekers’, it opens itself up to an even greater problem later down the line as most surely, the issue won’t go away, not if Thug Blunkett has his way.

The other fundamental problem the Coalition is going to have to face – assuming it gains the support of a significant segment of the population – is the perennial issue of ‘taking away Labour votes’ thus allowing the Tories back in. But perhaps unlike previous Labour governments, the Blair project has moved so far to the right that it is now no longer an issue with the traditional Labour voter? So will the Coalition be a left-leaning replacement for the ‘traditional’ Labour Party?

What is not entirely clear to me is whether or not the Coalition is a socialist, Socialist or left-leaning social-democratic party? After all, it doesn’t take much to be left of New Labour, even the Liberal Democrats have managed to create the illusion of being left of New Labour (until that is, they dumped on the unfortunate and courageous Ms Tonge last week over her comments on ‘suicide bombers’ and fired her from the Front Bench in Parliament).

Central to this issue is the role of social democracy in maintaining capitalism ever since 1945 when the Labour Party formulated the ‘social contract’ between labour and capital that resulted in the construction of the Welfare State that even the Tories of the time supported. And every Labour government since then has, to a greater or lesser degree trod the ‘fine line’ between promoting a ‘socialist’ line and propping up capitalism. In fact, virtually every attack on the economic and social rights and gains of the people have been opened up for the Tories by successive Labour governments led by Wilson, Callagan and so forth. What makes the Blair project different is that it took a ‘step too far’, too far even for those who up until now, have put loyalty to the Party before anything else. Is there a significant section of traditional Labour support willing to switch to the Coalition?

The other major challenge the Unity coalition faces is the very English disease of sectarian in-fighting between the ‘true’ followers over this or that ‘real’ socialist programme. Many of the speakers at today’s launch spoke of the necessity of leaving this kind of ‘baggage’ behind, of coming out of the ‘small back rooms’ and entering the mainstream of political life. Let’s hope it’s not just political rhetoric once they get back into those small rooms and try and make the real programmes of the Unity Coalition.

My fear is that organisationally, the Unity Coalition won’t be up to the task, which I think lay behind the failure of the Stop the War Coalition to capitalise on the massive March demonstration.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the founding of the Unity Coalition is that it marks a new phase in our post Cold War world and that makes it a significant event in British political life. I only hope that unlike the lost opportunity that marked the period immediately following the 2 million who demonstrated against the war last March, that the Unity Coalition will emerge as a genuine and realistic socialist alternative to fifty years of the social democratic capitalism that has finally shown its true colours with the Blair War Project. That the days of ‘liberal’ compromise are finally over.

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