Sunday, December 09, 2007

Interserve with Respect?

WITH political donations and party funding in the news, it would appear that in true democratic spirit the minnows are to be given attention along with the greedy pikes. It would be remiss of me not to remark on this intelligence which comes to us from the East London Advertiser by way of fellow-blogger Dave Osler, and Jenny at the Labour Left Briefing discussion list.

It seems that Respect, "the unity coalition" (now bitterly divided), in its 2007 financial statement which had to be filed with the with the electoral commission, reported that it had returned a cheque for $10,000 from a Dubai construction company as an impermissible donation.

The Advertiser reveals that the donor company is owned by one of Britain's biggest private finance initiative(PFI) contractors, headed by Tory life peer who was a senior policy adviser to the John Major government. (PFIs are Gordon Brown's favoured way of involving big businesses in public service investment, usually with more than generous inducements from public resources to guarantee they do well out of it).

Had Respect accepted the cheque from Dubai it might thus have been in line with the tradition of H.M.Hyndman, the Victorian Left who took Tory money to split the anti-Tory vote, though the anti-war Respect would not have shared Hyndman's jingoism. It would also have been in breach of laws forbidding funding from overseas.

The cheque from Khansaheb Civil Engineering, a subsidiary of Interserve plc, came with a letter from a Khansaheb executive saying that he was a great admirer of Respect leader George Galloway, and wanted to contribute to his causes. But Galloway, the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, used to newspaper accusations over his Middle East links, and facing investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner over donations to his Mariam Appeal, suspected the letter might be a set-up. He warned his staff that even if the donation was genuine, accepting it for the party would be illegal.

The MP told his staff to return the cheque and suggested if the donor wanted to make a financial contribution, he should make a new cheque payable to the Stop the War Coalition. That was in January. Respect's National Secretary, John Rees, a member of the Socialist Workers Party with whom Galloway has since fallen out, has confirmed he returned the cheque on January 23. But in his letter, Rees suggested the funds could be resent to the Organising for Fighting Unions (OFFU) campaign. This was set up a couple of years ago, ostensibly to unite trades unionists opposing government policies and supporting the Trade Union Freedom Bill. By seeming to give Respect a footing in industrial struggle which it otherwise lacked, it probably assuaged doubts among SWP militants about their turn to middle class alliances, and was also offered to those in Stop the War who asked what happened to its resolution some years ago on prioritising a trade unionists conference.

Organise for Fighting Unions material showed its headquarters address was that of Respect in Bethnal Green, although its conferences have attracted many trade union activists who are not members of Respect.
But the big OFFU conference in Shoreditch last year ended up with a £5,000 deficit. When Khansaheb sent a new $10,000 cheque made out to the campaign in February, it was used to cover some of the conference debts.

George Galloway says he discovered this in August and pushed for the Electoral Commission to be called in. "I wanted it referred to the commission earlier and that contributed to the split," he is quoted as telling the East London Advertiser. .The Electoral Commission said it was "making preliminary enquiries."

John Rees admits the donation was partially used to cover the conference deficit, but insists he did nothing wrong. "Galloway knew all along we had suggested an alternative destination for the cheque," he said. "He said Stop the War Coalition, we said OFFU." Rees claims Galloway is just using the issue to try to discredit his rivals.

Dave Osler and others are noting the irony of this affair coming out at a time when Socialist Worker has naturally been lambasting Labour over its acceptance of dodgy donations from rich businessmen and lobbyists.
The irony, too, that a campaign by trades unionists should be taking money from the very kind of interests they are fighting against.

"Interserve currently manages a number of PFI-backed schools and hospitals in the UK. The boss is 55-year-old Lord Blackwell, head of Major's policy unit from 1995 to 1997, who was made a life peer when the Tories lost office".

Mention the SWP and finance to some people, as I did at the weekend, and they immediately start reminiscing over the cavalier behaviour with signatures on cheques that was experienced when they were in the Socialist Alliance. To be fair, though it was a serious matter (the chairperson quit in protest after discovering her name had been forged), the sums of money were relatively small, and only a few individuals were involved. But had the SWP leadership dissociated itself from and condemned them it might have spared the rest of its decent, hard-working membership from being besmirched, and the Alliance itself from losing people's confidence. (and they call it "Respect"?).

Of course, I have some knowledge of what can happen when left-wing organisations and leaders start to get hooked on money, or expectations of money, from the Middle East. I worked on the Workers Revolutionary Party's News Line thirty years ago when Gerry Healy was soliciting support from Libya and Iraq (though our printers in Runcorn actually benefitted from British government regional development aid!) It didn't reach the pockets of comrades, nor spare them from desparate fundraising efforts to keep the paper afloat; But it did lead to distortions in what we were allowed to say and what younger members were taught, and probably helped sustain the leadership's increasing remotess from reality, where you have to be grounded if you are going to depend on workers' support.

At least in those days we thought that Libya, Iraq, and the PLO deserved our support insofar as they were standing up to imperialism, although it became difficult for Healy to explain away divisions that cracked that facade. By the end, unbeknown to any of us, after the Observer libel case debacle Healy and a select few acolytes went touring the Gulf trying to raise cash from ruling emirs and wealthy businessmen with no "anti-imperialist" pretence. Respect/SWP seems to have got there in one go without needing time to decline.

I sometimes wonder whether the SWP leaders and others on the Left have learned anything from what happened to the WRP, or if they just think it was all down to a rotund bald-headed Irishman whose sort we are unlikely to see again, and so we needn't worry about. OK, so far we have only heard about one cheque, and I say John Rees will say he can manage it. But. . . It all starts with one puff. And having a trade unionists conference dependent on finance from someone with PFI links is bound to raise questions - even if it's one of those "conferences" with so many platform speakers there's no time for questions to be raised.

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