Respect: the case against allowing extremists into the Labour party

by Rob Marchant

Last week there was much speculation about whether or not Salma Yaqoob, the former leader of Respect who understandably resigned rather than share a party with George Galloway, might join the Labour Party, should she so desire. Indeed, local Labour MP Richard Burden on Thursday extended the hand of friendship, saying she would “be an asset”.

Yaqoob is a young, articulate politician about whom we know relatively little, given that she is, in terms of real administrative power, an ex-backbench Birmingham councillor and has had few years of exposure to the national media.

But as a former party leader she still has political weight and, unlike her erstwhile colleague Galloway, she has not had time to make many serious gaffes or enemies although, as Dan Hodges pointed out, describing 7/7 as a “reprisal attack” came pretty close.

On a brief examination of her party and her politics though, the vast majority of us, if we bothered to do so, would probably find that our gut reaction would be that we didn’t care very much for either.

But that is not the point. Everyone has rather been asking the wrong question: instead of asking, do we want this person in Labour, we should be asking, is it in any party’s interest to invite people in from the extremes of national politics?

In other words, a grown-up political party should not be in the business of opining on specific cases, but have a robust, general policy; some universal principles about why it would or would not want to engage with another political group’s cast-offs. Not to do this makes us look at best subjective and, at worst, cronyish – arbitrarily picking and choosing only our mates for our party, and throwing out anyone who dissents. Not a good look for a democratic party.

Neither is this about banning, rarely a good idea in politics. And that is because, self-evidently, the only terms on which a known politician would want to join Labour – a classic “defection” – would be if they could see a well-lit path to becoming a Labour MP.

So, if someone is not invited to join and welcomed by the party’s top brass, there will be no defection. And, hence, there is no question of any silly “banning”, as various people have recently tried to do with Progress members. In reality, there is simply a decision to be made, either way, by the party leadership.

No, a party should be asking a simple question: before we invite them in, could this person be reasonably expected to damage the party in any way?

For example, are they joining from a political environment with a history of entryism, and are therefore not to be trusted? Based on past behaviour, do they display a realistic likelihood of embarrassing the party in the future with their public statements? Do they come from a political party with a history of supporting sectarians, homophobes, sexists or racists?

Not unreasonable questions, are they? And neither would they be likely to apply to any defectors from the political centre (i.e. from mainstream parties), only to those on the extremes of right or left. But if you were to answer yes to them, any sensible party would surely at some point say: look, we’ve got enough borderline nutcases on the fringes of our party already; for the protection of our good name, perhaps we should try and avoid having any more. Is that not also reasonable?

So the answer to the original question is no, it’s not in our interest to invite in members of Respect, any more than it’d be in the Tories’ interest to admit someone from the BNP (or from UKIP, for that matter). The message it sends to voters is that we are obsessed with things others don’t care about, or worse: things they are repulsed by.

Now you can apply this argument to all parties; but let’s turn to Labour. A lot of decent people have, surely, re-joined the party because they prefer the direction of Ed Miliband to that of New Labour. Fine: a change in political direction to the left or the right will always result in some joining and some leaving. Welcome to the Lib Dems who have defected, and any Tories who might.

The only difference is that the effect is asymmetric: a party moving towards the centre is unlikely to pick up extremists, a party moving away from it is. So movement one way requires, at the very least, more care than movement in the other.

There was a time, in the late 1990s, say, when the memory of Militant was still fresh, and successful entryism unthinkable, because the whole organisation was still reflexively vigilant; it knew the damage that Derek Hatton and co. had inflicted on the party, and all swore that it would never be repeated.

The signs are, sadly, that this is no longer the case. That was New Labour paranoia: now we are a broad church of many different faiths (and besides, our numbers are low and we need all the activists we can get). Well, that much is probably true, but you can be a broad church and still guard against the extremists who can bring it all crashing down. We used to understand that: smart parties watch their backs.

Suddenly less well-known individual far-leftists, such as ex-SWPer and Stopper Andy Newman have rejoined; aside from backing the Galloway position on rape, the man is delightfully noted for describing the bombing of Pearl Harbour as “the opening salvo in a war between two rival imperialisms for control of the Asia-Pacific region”.

But this is not about letting in one extremist who might damage your party individually: while undesirable, the party can probably handle that. The real issue is, by landing a bigger fish, the signal it sends to all the others.

What matters is not what we say, but the interpretation they put on it: We say, magnanimously, “we celebrate the repenting sinner”. Imagine how it sounds to the ears of an SWPer: “come on in: our bourgeois party is ripe for entryism. We have grown flaccid and naïve, full of useful idiots who will embrace you as a comrade, even though you are not. More useful idiots in our trade unions will help ease the path. In fact, your people are already members of some of them. Don’t wait: the moment is now.”

In short, inviting in a figurehead for an extreme group would be an act of dangerous naiveté. There’s not much historical precedent, and it is not putting too fine a point on it to say that such a decision might be remembered down the Labour generations to come: when we gave the signal for a swarm of wing-nuts from Respect, Stop The War Coalition and the SWP to descend on Labour’s membership department in search of a toe-hold in constituency politics.

But hey, we’re undoubtedly worrying too much. It’s surely the case that the Labour leadership would not dream of engaging with this kind of extremist, regressive politics. There will be no misguided, dangerous revival of religious and ethnic politics to avenge the party’s defeat by Galloway in Bradford West. And it would not dream of rolling out the red carpet to modern-day entryists, a problem which last time took more than a decade to clean up to the point where the party was electable again.

Of course we wouldn’t. Only, given the party has recently readmitted Lord Ahmed, a man whose politics extends to rather comparable extremist views…well, it just seemed worth repeating.

You know, just to be on the safe side.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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25 Responses to “Respect: the case against allowing extremists into the Labour party”

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    I think each case should be treated as an individual one rather than throwing our generalistic comments about people from particular backgrounds. I know people who came over to us in Liverpool from the LibDems. One I have a lot of time for, as I think he is a very good local councillor and makes a valid contribution to the party. On ideological grounds, i would certainly see my views being closer to Salma Yacoob than, say, Liam Byrne, or to be honest, yourself, Rob – who I rarely agree with. That doesn’t mean that I was ever in the least attracted by Respect!

    If Salma decides to join the Labour party, and I hope she does consider it, then clearly she will find many in the party she will be at odds with on some issues, but then, that is not surprising given that Labour incorporates everyone from effectively right of centre individuals through to marxists

  2. John P reid says:

    A visit to Andy Newmans website saw them Praising stalin for the 1941 defence agisnt the Germans, and endless Commetns about Chairman Mao being a great bloke, Let alone Medhi hasan with his unon Muslims are cattle, Laureie penny all emn are potential rapist,

    kate Osamor with her the comnent in LRC magazine ,the 1985 tottenham riot was self defence and Mark duggan was unlawfully racistly killed, yet Today’s news prove this not to be true,

    I’m worried about Sadik Khan bakcing desgraced Cop Ali diziae and those like Sunny Hundal trying to get Lufthur rahman back in the labour fold too

  3. Ben says:

    Rob – if you actually had ANY clue about Salma Yaqoob you’d know she is not “still a backbench Birmingham councillor”. She stood down last year. Labour hold all seats in that ward.

    If this is the level of evidence in the case for the prosecution, I move that the case be thrown out of court.

  4. Blake says:

    I’d be very surprised if Yaqoob does join Labour. On the evidence of this post and many comments made here and elsewhere, it doesn’t seem like she’d be made very welcome.

    The Green party have made it clear that she’d be welcomed with open arms. She has also worked with them in the past. Yaqoob encouraged Respect supporters to vote Green at the 2009 Euro elections, while the local Green party in Birmingham encouraged Green voters to back Yaqoob in the 2010 general election.

    Of course unlike Labour the Greens are not in any position to ‘offer’ her a safe seat in return, not only because they only have the one seat, but because they are still a democratic party, so it would be up to her to convince local Green members to select her. Given her good relations with Greens in the West Midlands, and the close second she came when she stood for parliament in 2010, this seems very possible.

    However, since she actually stood down as a councillor last year for health reasons, it’s not at all clear what her personal electoral ambitions are.

    But I know which party I would choose if I was her, and it’s one that already includes many ex-Labour members: the Greens.

  5. Jon Lansman says:

    You want to keep extremists out of the Labour Party. Would that have included ex-Communist Denis Healey? ex-Communist John Reid? ex_Militant supporter Stephen Byers, ex-IMG member Alan Milburn? ex-IS Jerry Fitzpatrick? (to name but a few)

  6. Henrik says:

    Of course, it’s entirely up to you guys in the Party whom you choose to admit, although it might be worth reflecting on whether internal ideological feuding is more important to you than becoming electable. If your judgement is that a move to the left – to a greater or lesser extent of crazyness – is important to that end, hey, fill your boots. Good luck making some of the arguments to the electorate.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @Mike: this isn’t about “particular background”, as if someone were being discriminated against because of it. It’s about whether mainstream parties should admit people from extremist parties. And if there are really Marxists in modern-day Labour, they must be either hopelessly lost or new entryists.

    @JohnPReid: yes, lots of nutty stuff on that website, but mostly either saying that totalitarian regimes were quite nice really or that the Americans are actually fascists.

    @Ben: thank you for pointing that out. Any other comments, or just that observation of two missing letters?

    @Blake: thanks for your pitch to Salma Yaqoob for entry into the Greens. I’m sure she’ll consider it in due course.

    @Jon: just to repeat my comments on Twitter:
    Time Denis Healey was in the Communists: 3 years (as a student) out of 94
    Time Salma Yaqoob has been in mainstream politics: 0 years out of 41
    I think we can see a bit of a difference there, can’t we?

    @Henrik: indeed. I am not sure that anyone calling for the entry of extremists into the Labour Party cares in the slightest about how this might look to the electorate, more’s the pity.

  8. paul barker says:

    A good article but 10 years too late, not only have the far-left, in its various forms taken control of big chunks of the union wing, they have also been sucsessful in using splits between blairites & brownites to divide their enemies.

    One other point, in your list of unacceptable bigotries you left out class-hatred, every bit as harmful/useful as sexism or racism in dehumanising the “others”.

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    @Paul: the good news is they are not yet in large numbers within the party, although they are growing in number in the labour movement. Fully agree about class hatred, by the way, another thing which is on the rise.

  10. Liberanos says:

    She wears a scarf, the uniform of subjugation.

    Outrageous in the party of sex-equality.

  11. swatantra says:

    To let Yaqoob in is asking for trouble. The same could be said of Caroline Lucas who may be gradually edging towards Labour having realised that The Greens have twarted her career prospects. Let the matter rest for 5 years until they have proved their loyalty. We should also be ever vigilant at weeding out fellow travellers.

  12. john P reid says:

    jon lansman, Denis Healey Joined the Communists to fight fascism and it is possible to be a communist believe in state Run Capitalism (like the Old USSR) and more importantly be a democrat,
    regarding Byers and Co. support of Militant, wasn’t It tony ben Who said How easy some Blairites transition from Stalinist to Blairite Fascist, or how easy it was for Paul Boateng to go from Militant to Uncle tom figure,

    I oculd point out some supporters Of Torotskyite organisations Like Sociailst labour or SWp inclue Ricky tomlinson and comedian Kevin Day, Both Ex NF.

  13. David Brede says:

    This is such as contentious subject. In Northampton in 2011 the Tories won a convincing victory at the borough elections led by David Palethorpe. By November of that year things had changed and as we were protesting through the streets on the 30th, he was signing his application form to join Labour and has worked tirelessly for us since then.

    Yet there are former members of the party who have worked consistently for us in spite of their exclusion yet cannot be allowed in.

    Clearly there is a lot of scope for favouritism and personalities to creep into the approval of applications for membership which discriminates against those who are not liked or have perceived issues whereas a comparable candidate just sails through.

  14. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    I see Jon Lansman is indulging in one of his regular bouts of whataboutery”. I watched the rised and demise of Respect in Tower Hamlets at close quarters. It was a totally undemocratic alliance of businessmen after council contacts, Islamists, the SWP, assorted carpetbaggers and the kind of rootless demagogues who attach themselves to extremist movements.

    In reality it was no different from pre and post war Fascist groups in this country and Poujadism in France. Strip away the rhetoric and there was nothing of substance there. All of the individuals Lansman names whatever their allegiances when young are firmly in the social democratic tradition in which they spent the great majority of their adult lives and careers.

    The same cannot be said for Yaqoob or any of the other ex extremists from Respect and the SWP now looking for a political home. I agree that the Labour Party has managed to purge itself of the worst of the Trotskyist entrists from the 80s and the few that remain are without influence but the threat from infiltration of the unions is as great as every.

    Lansman seems to want to take into Labour any old waif and stray that might bring a few votes using local patronage. For that reason he is still, as far as I know, campaigning for Lutfur Rahman and his increasing Tammany Hall style regime in Tower Hamlets to be re-admitted to the Labour fold.

    With the demise of Livingstone there is simply no chance of that especially as the East End regime staggers from one crisis to another. All of this is academic as Yaqoob has yet to apply to Labour and given her public statements about that party over the years she would paint herself as the biggest turncoat and hypocrite for many a long year.

  15. Rob Marchant says:

    @JohnPReid: “Denis Healey Joined the Communists to fight fascism” – quite.

    @themadmullah: largely agree, especially about infiltration of unions. However, don’t forget that Livingstone is still on the NEC. You are quite right that Yaqoob is yet to apply to Labour but, as the piece points out, paradoxically, a pre-requisite for this would be an approach from Labour to her. This is the first step, not her application, and one which should be avoided at all costs, as it should be from anyone from an extremist background.

    You may, by the way, like my earlier Uncut piece on Tower Hamlets:

  16. Derek Wharton says:

    Banning people from membership is a dangerous policy. Where do you stop?

    It may be better to have them as members and so having the opportunity their views. I am violently opposed to Israel having witnessed its barbarity yet this and past Government have effectively supported Israel occupation of Palestine. I am supported by many UK and US Jewish organisations, but would I be allowed ‘in’?

  17. Rob Marchant says:

    @Derek, as I made crystal clear in the article, there is no necessity to ban anyone. Someone simply needs to make a decision whether or not to make an invitation to a known political figure outside the party. There is no question that any such person would only accept in the event of a clear invitation from the party leadership.

    I’m not quite sure how we get onto the subject of Palestine, but for the record every British government since its creation has supported the existence of Israel and its “occupation” of Palestine, as you call it. You, on the other hand, feel it has no right to exist, if I read you correctly, which puts you in quite a minority, I’d say.

  18. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    Yes, Livingstone is still on the NEC, but he and his ilk are finished. He is a dinosaur from the 80s like Ted Knight, Linda Bellos, Lee Jasper and Simon Woolley. They stagger on, make statements and extract ever smaller amounts of money from gullible charities but essentially they are a footnote to history.

  19. Clem the Gem says:

    Well Rob, certainly in the case of Andy Newman, I think your fears of an SWP coup are far of the mark, given the level of vitriol he gets from erstwhile comrades. The truth is that there are a number of activists outside Labour who are increasingly demoralised by the idiocies of the far left. Not all of them are going to come our way, but those that do should be treated with cautious respect. If they abide by our rules, and do not bring the party into disrepute, then we need these people.
    As someone who used to be a trot, but got over it, I say let the broad church continue, with an appropriate attitude of wariness.

  20. Clem the Gem says:

    As Caroline Lucas was first in line to brown nose Salma Yaqoob, my guess is that she will probably end up in The Greens anyway…

  21. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    What is of more interest is what happens to the remains of Respect in terms of Galloway and the councillors in Bradford. If GG hangs on in spite of the opposition to him any shreds of credibility that may still have attached to him for the far left will have disappeared.

    My bet is that he will stay out his term for the salary and the increased pension rights. There will also be a decided decrease in his marketability as a late night radio commentator so he will rely more and more on his Parliamentary salary to finacne his bling lifestyle.

    The Respect group of councillors will either fade away, do what has happened in Tower Hamlets and become an independent force this time around Kashmiri politics, or ally themselves with other parties to form a block capable of controlling the council and getting access to all of the resulting perks.

    The big question is where does the now rudderless but still large and politically active group of far left elements that thought Respect was going to be the next big thing do?

    The idea of a Socialist Alliance/Respect type formation is out of the question. There is too much bitterness, personal hatred and disillusionment for any such a venture even if there were a core of people around which it could coalesce.

    Expect to see a steady stream of people entering the Labour Party. Many of these will be joiners, people who need a home and an argument, a composite motion to debate and something to do with their lives.

    Many more will be the new entrists, they will have to be for there is nothing else outside Labour. It is just possible that there is time for enough of them to have joined and got themselves into positions of authority with local Labour organisations for the Tories to point the finger at the next general election and say that nothing has changed and that Labour is the party of extremism.

    This last is the danger of Salma Yaqoob in the party. She is a long term contagation with a rich store of quotes to be used against Milliband. Local parties should be aware of a sudden increase in membership and have the courage to remember last time and tear up the cards.

    Without any shadow of a doubt the Respect fiasco is for today’s far left what Hungary was for the Communist Party in 1956, even worse as while that entity staggered on with its industrial base into the 70s the essentially Trotskyist dominated left of today have nothing.

  22. Rob Marchant says:

    @themadmullah: I don’t agree. Many people are noting a distinct rise in far-left activism among union membership (examples are FBU, RMT, UCU, PCS). It’s only a small step from there to the Labour Party.

    @Clem: I hope you’re right. And it rather depends: where there are people who have genuninely seen the light, that’s one thing. But a high-profile person who shows no signs of any change in their politics, I’d say that’s something for Labour to be very skeptical of. Oh, yes, and on the Greens, I’d say you may well be right. I can’t imagine a young, ambitious politican will be without a party for long. And the not-very-subtle pitch is here in these comments for all to see!

  23. themadmullahofbricklane says:

    I don’t think we are in disagreement on the broader issues here Rob. What I wouldn’t want to see come the next general election is a situation where the Tories are able to point to a whole range of constituency parties and say that the country has been there before with Militant.

    Let us not forget that Lansman was, I believe, partly responsible for the longest suicide note in history, the 1983 Labour Party Manifesto. If he and co can do it once they can do it again. Check your email, I have sent you some stuff which I am following up.

  24. Mike Homfray says:

    Rob: I would say that each case should be treated individually. I too find it surprising that marxists stay within the party, but they do. I also find it surprising that people whose views are not even vaguely associated with the political left joined the party, but of course entryism comes in many forms.

    I certainly don’t think we can divide politics up into ‘extreme’ and ‘non-extreme’. There are members of the Tory party who are on the extreme right and the thought of them in the Labour party would make my flesh creep – but we have a councillor, Les Byrom, who was a Tory, a parliamentary candidate at that, but who joined us in 2008 and made a sterling defence of social housing at a recent meeting I was at.

    I would hope that those who wished to join labour would change their politics, but that should include those from any source, not only those who tick our particular ‘bogeyman’ box

  25. Clem the Gem says:

    @Rob: On the basis of Andy’s latest post on his site, celebrating China and its new(ish) Aircraft Carrier, I hate o say it, but you may very well be right…

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