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Changes to the draft constitution

John Nicholson


 

Intriguingly, there are several changes made by the National Executive to the draft constitution that had been submitted to it by Alan Thornett.

 

1. Name

1.1 There is an additional last sentence: saying that Respect shall be a political coalition of groups, parties, organisations and individuals who support Respect's Founding Declaration and the decisions of its annual conference. Whether the groups and parties are involved as part of a coalition is a matter for further consideration (though the existence of platforms, without the name, is clearly recognised later on).

 

2. Aims

2.1 The first two paragraphs of "Aims" are reversed, so that "We believe that there is an alternative to..... "(descended from the Socialist Alliance constitutions) comes before "The aim of Respect is...". This seems sensible: it states the politics right at the start, and then moves on to the practical.

 

2.2 The first line of this paragraph originally read "... to build a broad-based and inclusive alternative to the betrayals and right wing politics of new Labour". The new one reads ".... to build a broad based and inclusive alternative to the parties of privatisation, war and occupation". It looks like Respect has the Liberals firmly in its sights. Alternatively, this could be seen as a slight retreat from the focus on winning the labour movement.

 

Either way, this paragraph arguably needs closer attention. The second line (unamended) states that "We will do this by intervening in elections...., building Respect as a campaigning organisation, ..". The biggest criticism of Respect so far is that this first commitment - the electoral intervention - has taken all-out precedence over the latter. A better constitution (and organisation) would put these two the other way round.

 

2.4 The political platform of Respect was set out in the Founding Declaration to the Convention held in Euston Road in January 2004. The amended constitution adds that this is "subject to amendment and development by annual conference". This is no doubt true in practice and sensible in principle. It does all depend on the composition of the annual conference, of course.

 

In the subsequent clauses of 2.4 a very distinct nuance has crept in. The original society we are trying to create is defined as including "the fight against, and ultimate abolition of, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious discrimination, and discrimination against disability and age". Clearly the religious angle has moved centre stage since the days of the Socialist Alliance. This may become a crucial issue at some point. However, the amended constitution agreed by the National Executive makes another aspect more obvious, by the change it adopts. The new wording is "the fight against and ultimate abolition of racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination on grounds of religion, disability, age or sexual identity". The very word "homophobia" has been lost. The assertion of "sexual identity" (whatever polite political correctness this may embody) has taken its place. The act of making this change speaks louder than the words themselves.

 

3. Membership

This again takes text from the Socialist Alliance, particularly in its inclusiveness. Religious belief has again been emphasised as no barrier to membership. (Is atheism a barrier? Or severe secularism??) The one change to the draft is the addition of the clause: "Disciplinary issues and disputes relating to membership will be dealt with by a procedure to be agreed by annual conference." Details unspecified. This replaces the (Socialist Alliance) formula of an Appeals Committee (in the original draft).

 

4. Policy making and structure.

And here is where the language starts to go astray and the practical everyday details come in (many of them not worked through). "Conference will normally be on a delegate basis." OK. We get the message. And maybe this is perfectly sensible for a fully-formed organisation. However, this does not mean that the founding conference that agrees this constitution should itself be on a delegate basis. This is simply delegates ratifying their presence as delegates.

 

However, looking to the future, the problem here is that there is no indication in the constitution where these "delegates" are going to come from. Perhaps, as with President Putin, the delegates will all be decided from the central office.

 

Day to day implementation of policies will be carried out by the National Committee, which emerges in the final constitution as being between 35 and 50 strong. (There was no number put on this in the draft.) The NC (confusing called the Executive Council in the Standing Orders) will be elected by alternative slates. This means a group of members must put in a slate - of about 40 people - for it to be considered as a slate.

 

This NC will have the final decision on where and when to stand candidates in elections at local and national level. Furthermore, (added to the final constitution) the selection of candidates for these elections, by the local branch or constituency organisation, will be "with the agreement of the National Committee". Enough said.

 

However, the NC will not meet as often as originally intended (down from 8 times a year to 6). Like the Socialist Alliance, one may predict that increasing the size of the Committee and decreasing the meeting frequencies will lead to lower attendance. So, in practice, the Executive Committee will take the decisions. This will be elected by the NC, from its members. So first there is a slate of 35-50, agreed by conference, then there is a smaller committee elected from this slate.

 

What about dissenters? Well, the right to form recognised political platforms has been changed slightly. Now, "any group of at least 20 members will have the right to organise within Respect and to present resolutions to conferences - consistent with the agenda of the conference".

 

And as for self-organisers..... the original draft contained a section giving women, black and ethnic minority members, lesbians and gay men and disabled people the right to oragnise themselves...... The new and final constitution doesnt.

 

Finally in this section is the abolition of the simple majority voting on the constitution. Nothing can be changed (and the organisation cannot be dissolved) without a two thirds majority of a conference. A conference, whose decisions are taken by delegates (coming from an unknown source) and whose actions are implemented by an NC and EC (originating in a slate of 35-50).

 

In the spirit of inclusiveness and coalition-building, the wording is not the issue here. In a different spirit, of one major faction involved in keeping control of the essentials, the letter of the wording may be more important.

 

5. Local organisation

As has already been identified by Socialist Unity, the issue of local organisation is crucial. In the constitution (following the draft) it is as if this section was where the authors ran out of steam (or knowledge of how local activists actually work together). Says the constitution: "The basic unit of Respect will the the local branch." Thats it. While all previous sections (1-4) have sub-paragraphs (1.1, 4.3 for example) section 5 just has a few short sentences. And this first one is the crucial one. But that is all it tells us.

 

There is a practical and sensible concession, that the geographical structure will have to be flexible to take account of new and developing organisational needs. But whose flexibility is involved here? Is this the Respect Office telling local members who they have to go in with, to form a "viable" branch? Again there is a chicken and egg here. The constitution will be approved by delegates. Delegates will come from branches. Branches will be formed by ..... the national office, which is there to implement the decisions of the conference.

 

But at the end of all this, the argument is not going to be about the constitution in reality. This document (even as amended) has much that socialists would support. Indeed, we have. We voted for it through generations of Socialist Alliance developments. The key is the way in which it is operated, in practice, and the willingness of the members (and their organisations) to build a wider unity rather than keep a tighter control.   

 

September 2004

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