It is too early to be able to assess the full impact of the breakaway from Respect launched last weekend by George Galloway and his associates.
But it’s important to see that what has been happening in Respect is very far from being unique. Right across Europe the radical left is in crisis.
The most extreme case is the Scottish Socialist Party, which has effectively collapsed since a faction within the leadership decided to drive Tommy Sheridan out. In Italy the leadership of Rifondazione Comunista is participating in a centre left government that is trying to implement neoliberal policies and has committed troops to Nato’s occupation of Afghanistan.
In France the effort to agree on a unitary candidate of the anti-neoliberal left in the presidential elections in May ended in failure and bitter divisions. In Denmark the Red Green Alliance has been paralysed by its leadership’s inability to cope with the climate of Islamophobia stirred up by the right wing government.
In Portugal the Left Bloc has been thrown into disarray by the decision of José Sá Fernandes, a left wing maverick elected to Lisbon council with the Bloc’s support, to make a deal with the Socialist Party – the Portuguese equivalent of New Labour.
At one level all these crises, like that in Respect, have their own distinctive features. But there is a common theme underlying them all.
The European radical left came to prominence as a result of the intersection of two forces. The first was the wave of resistance to neoliberalism that emerged, beginning with the French public sector strikes of November-December 1995.
The second was the shift to the right by the parties of social democracy. This meant the movements of resistance needed new vehicles to find political expression. It was this that gave the new, or reinvigorated, parties of the radical left their impetus. But they soon had to face difficult questions.
Some were about political alliances – for example, should the radical left be prepared to enter coalition governments with the mainstream social democratic parties? Others were about electoral strategy, as in the case of Respect.
Here the tension that ultimately exploded into open crisis in the past two months was over whether we should concentrate exclusively on winning votes from the Muslim community that had been our strongest original supporter.
The reason why conflicts have emerged is twofold. First of all, the answer to these questions wasn’t neutral politically. On the contrary, the particular response given was likely to reveal much broader approaches to principles and strategy.
Thus there has been a tendency on the part of what has crystallised as the right wing of the new parties to lapse into old reformist habits. We can see this in Fausto Bertinotti, general secretary of Rifondazione, making coalition deals with the centre left, but also in Galloway putting electoral advantage ahead of any larger vision for Respect.
Secondly, the radical left parties are coalitions composed of distinct political forces often with very different traditions. This is an important part of their attraction, but it also makes them potentially fragile.
In Respect, for example, the tradition of working together among the main constituent forces was very new, dating back largely to the formation of the Stop the War Coalition after 9/11. Attitudes to democratic decision-making and political accountability have proved to be very different.
Serious political conflicts therefore can cause the coalitions to buckle and even to break. This isn’t a reason for refusing ever to challenge the right.
The alternative strategy of making endless compromises to try to keep the show on the road can have a demoralising and even corrupting effect.
None of this means that the radical left is finished. Recent election results have shown that the hold of the mainstream parties is continuing to weaken. The parliamentary elections in Greece, for example, represented a marked swing to the left.
The collapse of Gordon Brown’s bounce underlines the fact that a significant space continues to exist to the left of New Labour. The process of realigning the British left will continue despite the setback Respect has suffered.