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Finding RESPECT

Glyn Robbins, (Chair, Tower Hamlets Respect)

This article first appeared in Socialist Resistance


I sometimes feel as though Respect was made for me providing answers to questions I have been asking myself since I started thinking about politics.

Part of the reason lies in my own political story. I am a child of the Communist Party. Both my parents were CP members, so were other male members of my family and their close friends. They were part of a tradition of self taught working class radicals who got their political education on the shop-floor and at Party meetings.

Aged 15 I got involved with a Trotskyite organisation, the Militant Tendency. I never had any serious political disagreements with Militant, but I was never entirely comfortable with its organisational culture which, with hindsight, I see as being doctrinaire and exclusive.

It also demanded a level of commitment from its members that meant many did not stay for long. For a time I drifted away from active politics, though I have always been an active union member. I became involved in local, single issue campaigns, particularly on housing, but my Marxist upbringing told me this wasn't enough. Eventually I became an enthusiastic member of the Socialist Alliance, then came the Stop the War movement.

Marching with millions, instead of hundreds, rekindled the belief that great social movements, not politicians or journalists, create history.  And the anti-war demonstrations were different.

There were lots of banners from diverse campaign groups more women, young people, children and non-white faces. Inevitably the question arose of how to harness this massive political force. Something was afoot within the Socialist Alliance. New alliances were being proposed that grew out of the Stop the War Coalition.

We didn't exactly know the shape of them, but it was clear from the outset that if we entered into the new relationships, we would not be in total control and as a result, we could not preserve our identity as a uniquely socialist organisation.

When the name Respect was first mentioned, I thought someone was taking the piss! I didn't like it and I didn't think it would work. One year on, I think it was a masterstroke.

The acronym (.Respect for the Environment, Socialism, Peace, Equality, Community and Trade Unions.) is unambiguous, but the name also resonates in everyday use.

It means something that Socialist Alliance never did. Similarly, when we say Respect for Pensioners or Respect for Youth, it instantly conveys an idea and a political message.

There are some who question whether Respect is a workers party. I find this a strange objection, but it illustrates a type of thinking that is a relic from the past. New members of Respect don't have to justify themselves or take political tests.

It's enough to be angry about the current state of political affairs and want to do something about it. In fact, Respect is far more genuinely working class than any left organisation I've known.

Some people don't see this because many Respect members aren't white. Critics jump to the conclusion that we're a Muslim party, not realising that if you are a British Muslim, you are almost certainly a member of the British working class too.

This leads me to the allegation that Respect panders to Muslims.

Many on the left, including me, are atheists and sometimes overlook the crucial influence of Christians and Jews in shaping our movement. The position is very clear:

we have respect for Muslims and for people of all faiths and none.

At Respect meetings, we quite often have a break for prayers . one of my proudest moments was seeing a group of our supporters using Respect posters as prayer mats.

While some are praying, others have a fag. After the meeting, some of us go to the pub and sometimes .the Muslims. come too! Isn't this what Respect and socialism  is supposed to look like?

The role of the organised church is a different matter and something I want to discuss within Respect, but we have to be in the same room first. There are lots of other issues abortion, capital punishment, animal rights about which I can't assume what other Respect members think.

I hope to find out, but in the meantime I want to work with them to fight against bloody wars, the erosion of civil liberties, privatisation of public services, racism and attacks on workers. rights. So, I think Respect is the right response to changes in the international situation, the composition of the working class and the need for a new language to express them.

Respect is also right because the war in Iraq is wrong and has established beyond doubt that the Labour Party is wrong too.  The war has made us question the nature of our political organisations and leaders. For many Respect members, myself included, the conclusion that the Labour Party is damaged beyond repair is a painful one, but I believe this is the only conclusion we can draw from what has happened in the last seven years.

Respect is not even a year old yet and has no formal party structure, constitution or manifesto . and maybe a good thing too! The coalition wants to be different and has to be because it's a direct response to the widespread and growing disillusionment with the political establishment.

If Respect merely replicates the rigid hierarchy and sterile debate of other parties it will not last. It could be that Respect is a prototype for something else and now is not the time to get hung-up on names and structures. But the toothpaste is out of the tube.

The millions of people in this country and others who have demonstrated against war, globalisation, environmental destruction and racism will not get fooled again. In Britain, many are considering what to do with their vote at the next general election and concluding that they cannot vote New Labour. On the left, we either accept and concede to a two party state, or we build an alternative. Respect can be that alternative.

January 2005

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