Respect National Council member, Ger Francis, has been expelled by the SWP, over Ger’s role in swinging a selection of candidates in Birmingham contrary to the SWP’s wishes.
This isn’t just gossip, because the relationship between the SWP and broader left projects such as Respect, is a vital part of the left landscape in these islands. Indeed, the recent decision of ISG members, Alan Thornett and John Lister to withdraw from Respect’s national officers’ group leaves Respect without a fig leaf.
Ger’s expulsion raises some important issues.
Firstly, the constant argument used by Respect’s supporters, usually SWP members, is that it has achieved electoral success.
This is true, but there is need for some perspective, and I carried out the following analysis of the 2005 general election. (See also my psephological round up in 2004, and this analysis of the European elections.) “Respect's good votes predominantly came in about 10 constituencies, where there was no prospect of a Tory victory, and where there were large Moslem populations.”
The 2006 local elections reinforced this trend, and it was remarkable that most Respect councillors elected were Muslims. Jim Jepps analysed the 2006 election results , and demonstrated that there was nothing unique about the preference of Respect’s voters supporting Muslim candidates in wards with a large Asian population. Instead: “there is a strong tendency for the voters of all the parties to favour (sometimes only slightly) candidates with Asian names over those with non-Asian names”
However, Respect’s over-identification with the Muslim community did raise an obstacle towards Respect growing beyond that small proportion of voters for whom the Iraq war was the overriding issue. The SWP in Birmingham wanted the candidate for the 2007 local council elections to have a gender and political balance that better reflected the diversity of Birmingham’s population. However Ger Francis both argued against and voted against the SWP in favour of a slate of candidates with a preponderance of Muslim men. For this he was expelled.
This is a serious blow for Respect, as if the elections result in their base of elected councillors being even more predominately Muslim, then they have lost perhaps they last chance to break out of the bridgehead they have established. Ger seems to have pandered to a backwards and incorrect position that electoral success requires Asian candidates.
As I have argued before the electoral success of respect has simultaneously strengthened the existence of a space to the left of labour, while creating an obstacle to the left actually filling that space.
Of course the other problem for Respect is that is not only seen as an SWP front, it is an SWP front. As Liam Mac Uaid reports: “The problem was distilled to its essence by one comrade who put the question "How can I ask someone to join Respect? It's got a MP who does what he wants, no internal political life and is dominated by a semi-Stalinist organisation?"”
The rise and fall of Ger Francis exemplifies the unacknowledged “star system” that the SWP employs.
This was described by the now defunct International Socialism Group as follows: “Once a new perspective is declared, a new cadre is selected from the top down. The CC select the organisers, who select the district and branch committees - any elections that take place are carried out on the basis of `slates' so that it is virtually impossible for members to vote against the slate proposed by the leadership. Any members who have doubts or disagreements are written off as `burnt out' and, depending on their reaction to this, may be marginalised within the party and even expelled. These methods have been disastrous for the SWP in a number of ways: Each new perspective requires a new cadre (below the level of the CC), so the existing cadre are actively marginalised in the party. In this way, the SWP has failed to build a stable and experienced cadre capable of acting independently of the leadership.” (This ISG has no relation to the current USFI section, also called ISG)
Sadly, Ger was and is a political thug. He has played a disastrous role in both Birmingham Stop the war Coalition, and the Socialist Alliance, as has been fully documented by Sue Blackwell and Rumy Hassan. Ger polarised the left in Birmingham, using bureaucratic manoeuvres and allegedly even physical intimidation, to exclude those, like Steve Godward, who were regarded as “unhelpful” to the implementation of every wheeze that came from London. Instead of developing an empowering environment for independent minded activists, Birmingham SWP have sought to reduce the anti war movement to an army of automatons who will do what they are told. Ger was a star comrade because he got “results”. As recently as last September he was re-elected as an SWP member back onto Respect’s national Council. Even after being sacked as a full timer in 2002 he remained the SWP’s main figure in Birmingham Stop the War Coalition.
Because the SWP does not have any internal democratic mechanisms for the cadre to independently debate and resolve these sort of differences, the political gap between Ger and the London leadership has been conducted by the granting and then withdrawal of patronage. This political culture has allowed the SWP itself to operate for a number of years, relatively insulated from the harsh political climate, but it is a serious obstacle when it comes to working with other activists more used to the traditional democratic norms of the British labour movement.