Saddam's very own party

D-Day for British politics - Respect, the alliance between the Muslim Association of Britain and the

Just before the war against Iraq I began to receive strange calls from BBC journalists. Would I like information on how the leadership of the anti-war movement had been taken over by the Socialist Workers Party? Maybe, I replied. It was depressing that a totalitarian party was in the saddle, but that's where the SWP always tries to get. Why get excited?

Oh there are lots of reasons, said the BBC hacks. The anti-war movement wasn't a simple repetition of the old story of the politically naive being led by the nose by sly operators. The far left was becoming the far right. It had gone as close to supporting Ba'athist fascism as it dared and had formed a working alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain, which, along with the usual misogyny and homophobia of such organisations, also believed that Muslims who decided that there was no God deserved to die for the crime of free thought. In a few weeks hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, would allow themselves to be organised by the opponents of democracy and modernity and would march through the streets of London without a flicker of self-doubt. Wasn't this a story?

It's a great story, I cried. But why don't you broadcast it?

We can't, said the bitter hacks. Our editors won't let us.

Radio silence was imposed on the sinister and in many ways right-wing behaviour of the far left and has continued into the campaign for this month's elections. With the exception of the New Statesman and Tribune - and the Harry's Place website at - no one has found it worth noting that, for the first time since the Enlightenment, a section of the left is allied with religious fanaticism and, for the first time since the Hitler-Stalin pact, a section of the left has gone soft on fascism.

At first glance, Respect - the Unity Coalition (the name under which the Muslim Association of Britain and the SWP have united) offers the best chance the far left has ever had of winning a European seat. One million people demonstrated in London against the war last year - two, if you believe the march organisers.

Not much has changed since then. Read the liberal press and you will find that the rage of middle-class liberals and British Islam burns as brightly as it did in February 2003. As I have argued before on these pages, that rage is morally ambiguous. Disgust at the Bush administration has pushed liberal opinion around the world into the shameful position that it would not back the opponents of Saddam Hussein. The result of the breakdown in international solidarity is that an Iraqi or Kurdish socialist is more likely to get a fair hearing from the Wall Street Journal than the New York Times; the Daily Telegraph than the Independent.

You might predict that Respect would benefit from representing in extreme form what patriotic Tories, Liberal Democrats and a large chunk of Labour supporters believe. It is foolish to pre-dict election results in the week before polling day, but if the opinion polls are a guide, Respect has blown its big chance. George Galloway may just scrape a place in the European Parliament if turnout is very low. But I wouldn't count even on that.

The beneficiary of the great left-wing revolt against Blair has turned out to be the right. The Tories are doing better than they have done for a decade. Voters disillusioned with established politicians are turning to the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than to the left. The reactionary shift should not be a surprise. The only unanswerable anti-war argument was the generally conservative, Little England case that it is no longer in Britain's interests to tag along behind the United States. Meanwhile, the betrayal of comrades - exemplified by the unwillingness to choose whom to support in the struggle between Ba'athists and Islamists on one side and what democratic forces there are in Iraq on the other - fits more easily with conventional right-wing foreign policy than the internationalist concerns of the left.

Then there is the nature of the Respect alliance. It's all very well to say, as I did above, that the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition reflects in extreme form what millions think. But quantitative change can become qualitative, and the far left has reduced anti-war protest to absurdity, not to say ignominy.

For a start you would have thought that a principled anti-war movement would have done everything it could to distance itself from Saddam. A first and essential step would have been a decision to have nothing to do with Galloway. He had flown to Baghdad and greeted a tyrant who modelled himself on Stalin, while emulating the racial extermination campaigns of Hitler, with "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength and your indefatigability". Yet there he was on stage as the star speaker at last year's anti-war rally in Hyde Park, and no one in the crowd booed or threw an egg. Since then, this modern Mitford sister has published his autobiography, I'm Not the Only One (unfortunately he's right on that), which is packed with apologetics for Saddam's slaughters of Kurds, Shias, democrats and socialists.

Even this performance has not embarrassed his backers. Galloway has become Respect's unique selling point. His pinched face adorns its propaganda, and the uninitiated might believe that Respect is simply the George Galloway Party.

The price you pay when you ally yourself with religious fundamentalists is a downgrading of the aspirations of women and gays. The Muslim Association of Britain, the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that Galloway was a man it could do business with when he told the Independent that "abortion is morally and ethically wrong". These comments, the association said, as well as Galloway's "statements on faith and God in the same interview, will surely be welcomed by British Muslims who see Respect as a real alternative to the main political parties".

As for gays, well, they are being told that they must know their place. A few weeks ago, there was a nasty incident when members of Peter Tatchell's OutRage! group joined a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Their placards read: "Israel: stop persecuting Palestine. Palestine: stop persecuting queers". The slogans had been inspired by the arrest and torture of Palestinian gays by Hamas and Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. When the demonstration went into Trafalgar Square, the gay protesters were surrounded by an angry crowd of Islamic fundamentalists, Anglican priests and members of the SWP, and were variously denounced as "racists", "liars" and "Zionists". Say that Palestinians should be freed from theocratic tyranny as well as Israeli occupation and you're an American, or, worse, a Jew.

The feminists used to say that rape isn't about sex: it's about power. And, mutatis mutandis, the same applies to the SWP. You join them in a coalition because you think you share a belief in a common cause. But it is never about opposition to war or the British National Party. It is always about the party's power. The leaders of the anti-war movement have calculated that power will come from tying themselves to the Islamist resurgence.

An optimistic sign amid the gloom is that increasingly, people on the left are realising the moral and intellectual barrenness of the strategy, and are walking away. Globalise Resistance, a hard-core anti-capitalist group, has had its independent members resign in protest at SWP domination. There is a long-running scandal on the Birmingham left about the treatment of Steve Godward, a working-class socialist who was sacked by his managers for his part in the firefighters' strike, and then hounded by the SWP because he would not parrot the party line. Most significant of all has been the decision of the Green Party to reject all invitations to form an electoral pact with Respect on the grounds that it did not want to throw away years of building an "open, democratic" organisation to ally with people who weren't too keen on openness or democracy.

The Greens and the Liberal Democrats look as if they will take most of the anti-war vote. But there is a tender part of my heart that hopes that they don't, and that Respect scores a sensational breakthrough on Thursday. For if it fails to capitalise on its huge advantages, the only course for the left will be to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror and confront what it has become. And you would not wish that hideous punishment on anyone.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article appears in the 07 June 2004 issue of the New Statesman, D-Day for British politics