Reflections on the 2005 Respect Conference
There were three hundred or so delegates to this year’s conference – roughly the same as last year or perhaps even a few less. Once again the majority of the delegates were SWP members and once again the conference gave every appearance of being (slightly clumsily) stage managed throughout. While there were a few welcome new faces, mainly of students newly recruited in what seems to be a successful autumn campaign on the campuses, most delegates seemed to have been recycled from the previous year’s conference.
The conference began with a number of motions on Iraq and a powerful and moving speech by Haifa Zengana, an exiled Kurdish novelist. Following this was a debate on a number of resolutions on civil liberties which indicated the way the rest of the conference was going to go and also gave a clear indication of the thinking – or lack of it – of the leadership of Respect and the leadership of the SWP, which of course dovetail together with scarcely a crack to show the light.
My branch, Camden, had submitted an amendment to a motion in order to commit Respect to opposition to the Racial and Religious hatred Bill (as had Southwark along with a motion on the same lines from the CPGB). SWP members in my branch had initially supported opposition, but when it became known a few weeks before the conference that John Rees supported the Bill they gradually fell into line. Thus it was at the conference. I moved our amendment, which was opposed by a young SWP member using all the fatuous and false claims used by the Home Office and Blairite suits.
In response to Alan Thornett’s moving of the Southwark amendment John Rees came to the podium and did his voice of thunder thing. He had two arguments. The first was that since 7 July the situation for Muslim communities had changed and that those communities must be defended by a new law, even if that meant a diminution of freedom of speech for some writers. It was all a matter of balance, one had to strike a balance between the right of muslims not to be abused against the right to freedom of expression – and since 7 July the balance had shifted. “If”, he thundered, “it was writers who were suffering abuse, were being harassed by the police, were being threatened with deportation”… “then the balance might be different”. Essentially, John Rees was promoting Blair and Clark’s idea that that civil liberties are tradable commodities, that we can decide to have a little bit more of this freedom in exchange for a little bit less of that one. Not only was the logic of his argument essentially the same as Blair’s, his rhetoric sounded extraordinarily like Blair’s infamous ‘the rules of the game have changed’ speech.
His second argument was advanced more coherently and less apologetically by George Galloway. It amounted to ‘yes, but how will they respond on the door step’, the classic Labour argument against whatever issue of principle needs to be fudged by the party hacks. In this case George presented it as giving a weapon to our New Labour opponents who would be able to say to Muslim voters that Respect opposed the law that was designed to defend them.
Thus the SWP has ended up not just on the right of the socialist and civil libertarian spectrum on the issue, but to the right of the Liberal Democrats! In reality its an example of the tail wagging the dog. George – understandably from his perspective – went into the lobby to support the Bill and John Rees then had either to publicly oppose him or develop a rationalisation in order to support him. This did not go down well with all SWP members, one confided to me afterwards that he had voted for the Camden amendment and was extremely cross that there had been no discussion on the issue within the SWP prior to the conference (or at least prior to their caucus meeting immediately before the conference I imagine).
On Sunday morning a resolution from four branches regretting the fact that no reference to our support for Gay Rights was included in our election manifesto was met by the most extraordinary response. An amendment from Coventry tacked on an attack on Outrage and other LGBT campaigners for disproportionately highlighting homophobia amount Afro Caribbeans and Muslims and several SWP members, including Lindsay German whipped themselves up into quite a frenzy of outrage against the straw man they had introduced into the debate – and in the process came close to implying that the movers of the original resolution were in some way islamaphobic.
The next tiny shiver of controversy came with the debate on climate change on Sunday afternoon. An excellent resolution from Bradford included a reference to Respect adopting the Contraction and Convergence principle as the basis for negotiating effective and equitable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at international level which will lead to an equalisation of emissions globally, regionally and nationally on a per capita basis (i.e. everyone on earth should have an equal ‘allowance’ of emissions). The National Council moved the deletion of this reference – apparently not because they were opposed to it but because they didn’t understand what it was about and wanted to “look at it further”. I opposed the NC amendment, as did the other handful of delegates in the hall involved in the environmental movement, but of course all the SWP arms rose as one and Respect once again was stuck with an embarrassing and isolatingly conservative position on an issue that can’t be found in any of the text books of the old left.
The final session was on organisational issues. It was prefaced by an excellent speech by Colin Fox of the SSP, but unfortunately that was the high point of the session. There were seven resolutions, all putting forward basically the same message: Respect has to become much more open, more democratic, must involve members more, must have much more (and better) internal communications, and must have more and better agitational material, including a newspaper.
The Camden branch had sent in one of the resolutions, which was deliberately drafted in as non contentious language as possible and which put forward a number of modest practical proposals (reports of National Council meetings should be circulated, branches should be able to send observers, there should be a members only area on our web site to encourage internal discussion etc), none of which had any significant resource implications.
However, an addendum to the resolution reminded the National Council of a resolution from last year’s conference instructing them to develop some alternatives to our ludicrously undemocratic ‘slate’ system for electing the NC, which they had done nothing about. Shortly before the resolution was to be moved I was approached by Oliur Rahman with a request that this addendum be remitted. Since Elaine Graham Leigh, in her National Council report the day before had said that the NC would be starting work on this in January I agreed. However, five minutes later another messenger from the leadership buttonholed me to say that the section stating that branches currently get no information about NC meetings and instructing the National Secretary to circulate timely reports of NC meetings could be interpreted as an attack on the National Secretary and would I withdraw it? I pointed out that this was no more than a statement of fact and said that there was no question of withdrawing it. It was no doubt due both to the growing wisdom of advancing years and my gentle and unsectarian disposition that I didn’t just tell the youth to fuck off.
Three of the seven resolutions were passed, Camden’s (partly perhaps because of the horribly bland and almost apologetic way I moved it) and a similar one moved by Alan Thornett, along with an entirely uncontroversial one about Respect having a general manifesto stating our aims, objectives and policies. The SWP had changed its position from the previous year when it allowed its members to vote for a Respect newspaper and this year everyone loyally voted against it. How ironic that so many of those who voted against a Respect paper on the grounds that such a paper would be divisive, out-moded and unnecessary spend such a large part of their free time selling Socialist Worker.
Rees threatens to resign
However, the response of the leadership was very revealing, if depressing. John Rees boomed that if we wanted a National Secretary that sat behind a desk we would have to get another National Secretary (of course we have never had the opportunity to elect the National Secretary, but that is apparently not the point). Oliur Rahman was impassioned about how committed he was and how hard he and the rest of the leaders worked “We are not like you, we don’t have social lives like you”. George was, as ever, the clearest and most direct. We are a huge success. We have achieved things that no other socialist organisation has managed since God knows when, we are “practically a household name”, not only in this country but internationally (they talked of little else in Biarritz and St Tropez this summer I hear) and the growing opposition to Blair on health and education in the PLP is down to New Labour backbenchers’ fear of Respect.
But none of our manifest achievements have been due to members discussing policy – or indeed it seems anyone discussing anything. We don’t need a paper, that would simply be an opportunity for us to talk to ourselves rather than the masses. We don’t need any sort of web based forum because we are not going to achieve anything “stuck behind a computer”. We don’t need to be a proper party because that would mean having a party line, we don’t need formal lines of accountability between the dozens of councillors we are going to have after next May and Respect at local level because that is the old politics. Alan Thornett was gently rebuked for revealing that Respect still has only about four thousand members despite all the recruiting that has taken place over the last year “but I would rather have three and a half thousand members and a quarter of a million votes than ten thousand members and fewer votes”. We were told that these days people don’t join parties they form networks. So that’s all right then.
So it seems that all this nonsense about debate and discussion of ideas being essential to democracy and the lifeblood of a socialist party can be forgotten. The Galloway/Rees
conception of organisation is that we don’t need to discuss policies or ideas because that could divide us; we should just concentrate on the main issues that we agree on, and we don’t need to worry about what they are because our leaders will tell us.
Galloway and Rees are both highly manipulative politicians. My guess is that both went into the Respect project thinking that they could manipulate the other. But George is much better at it the John. George is a talented and highly experienced professional politician who has managed to climb the greasy pole of mainstream politics, slide down and then get up again. John has only manipulated within the tiny world of comic opera bolshevism. Now George can get on with doing whatever he wants to do and John will find the reasons why that is the right thing and will provide the troops to go out and set up the meetings, give out the leaflets and mobilise people for the demonstrations. That’s called division of labour.
Where does this leave Respect as a vehicle for the regroupment
Where does this leave Respect as a vehicle for the regroupment and revival of the non sectarian left and the base for growing a new type of mass party of the left? Unless the SWP can let go, can recognise that its old manipulative ways are now harmful, that it has a negative heritage of distrust across wide swathes of the left from the Greens to most trade union activists and that it can’t ride two horses (both a ‘democratic centralist, revolutionary’ party and an unacknowledged ruling clique in Respect) it will increasingly act as a sheet anchor preventing the growth of Respect’s influence and credibility within the wider labour movement. Unless Respect can be relaunched as a new type of organisation which is developing the democratic involvement of both members and supporters in new and innovative ways it is likely to continue to be seen by most of the thousands of unaffiliated activists in a hundred fields of dissent in England who are Respect’s natural base constituency as just the most recent front for Britain’s largest sect.
I am being dragged slowly and reluctantly towards the conclusion that the Respect project is a dead parrot – well perhaps not quite dead but certainly more than just shagged out after a long squawk. Respect has not grown significantly over the last few months, despite all the fantastic publicity that George has generated and the dozens of meetings (some of them the biggest seen in their locality for decades) he has spoken at all over the country – or rather it has probably succeeded in recruiting quite large numbers of new and inexperienced people but has failed to hang onto them for more than a very short period. Yet this is not admitted as an issue by the leadership - who don’t even want to tell us how many members we have. Indeed George says its not a problem. “Be happy” he says, its more important to get lots of votes than lots of members. Of course without one we won’t have the other for very long.
Sitting in the conference I was only too aware that the twin accusations made of Respect that it is merely George’s fan club and that it is merely the electoral front of the SWP are increasingly difficult to refute. Sadly, nothing that happened at the conference gave me any confidence that the SWP leadership have the will or wit to make the changes that only they can make the give Respect a real fighting chance to become a genuinely bottom up democratic organisation of and for ordinary working people.