Building Respect: how do we get beyond the current stage?

Alan Thornett


The year since Respectıs last conference has been remarkable. The positive General election results in a number of key areas, a seat in Westminster, and the remarkable public profile achieved by Respect, are unique for a left-wing organisation. The mass support Respect has won in a number of deprived inner city working class areas with big ethnic minority communities ­ Muslim but not only Muslim ­ is also unique.

The task at this yearıs conference, however, is not about congratulating ourselves on past achievements it is about thrashing out how to translate these gains into long-term all-round development ­ not an easy task.

The conference agenda takes up a range of issues confronting us at the present time. There are strong resolutions on the war, civil liberties, asylum, climate change, defence of the NHS and education, solidarity with Venezuela and many others which will stand us in very good stead. But the resolutions on building Respect for the future are particularly important.

Respect does some things very well. It relates to wider sections of the oppressed than any of its predecessors. Its election campaigns, in its main constituencies, transcend anything the left has done for a long time. It regularly mobilises big rallies around key themes, attracting audiences beyond its membership. This reflects its real potential, as new Labour moves ever further to the right.

Yet there is a worrying contradiction between Respectıs potential and its current development. Respect is known to millions and originates from the mass anti-war movement, yet its membership is still around 4,000. This cannot represent Respectıs real potential ­ given the opportunities of the past six months. The WSAGıs membership in Germany has risen to 13,000 in half the time Respect has existed. National realities are different, but are they that different?

John Rees rightly argued that the gains made by Respect in the election were only a bridgehead. To avoid being pushed back, he argued, Respect needed to be built into a "mass membership party". This was strongly endorsed by the National Council (NC). George Gallowayıs often repeated target of 20,000 members is not a fantasy figure.

Yet there has been no real development on this since the election. We are still at the bridgehead with no clear view on how to get beyond. Many people join at rallies, and major events, but the membership does not go up. No new component of the left, or trade union left has joined since the last election.
Respectıs election strategy of targeting a small number of seats was effective at the polls. But the distortion of resources it required has left Respectıs spread of membership and local branch organisational strength dangerously uneven. There are large memberships in some target constituencies, but many branches, outside of Birmingham and East London, are finding it hard to develop.

If this conference endorses a similar election policy it must go alongside measures to back up the branches where there is no election campaign, and which suffer as a result.

This means tackling some of the things Respect is not so good at. At the moment the national office is over-stretched and understaffed and the contact with, and servicing of, local branches is seriously inadequate.

This problem is reflected in a cluster of resolutions to conference. Some call for better contact between branches and leading committees and more transparency, including the circulation of minutes and the right of branch members to attend as observers. Others call for a less top-down and more inclusive approach; arrangements for local branches to send resolutions to elected committees, more working parties, policy commissions (health, pensions, education etc), special interest groups and a more systematic approach to recruitment and the integration of new members.

Still more call for the development of basic political material for public use, a general manifesto (or policy statement) for sale to those interested, a regular publication (tabloid), at the national level, regular information bulletin to branches and members and formal arrangements for internal discussion within Respect between conferences.

Respect must project itself as a well organised democratic national organisation with a full range of developed policies, as an anti-war party but not just an anti-war, or single issue, party.

As the Camden and Barnet resolution stresses: if Respect is going to recruit on a wider basis and bring in other section of the left and the trade union ­ i.e. become a mass party - it has to be "recognised as the most democratic, transparent, and pluralist organisation within the wider labour movement".

It will be a real problem if these resolutions are rejected or accepted without the political will to implement them. Or met with the retort: they are good ideas but who is going to implement them - that there are not enough staff in the office or money in the bank to support themı. This tends to be the case on the NC when such things have come up.

The key players in Respect ­ the SWP and George Galloway ­ insist that Respect stays a lose coalition ­ and that is certainly what it is at the present time.

John Rees may refer to Respect as a party from time to time, but it is a party in name only. When arguing on the NC against Respect having a regular tabloid George Galloway insisted that Respect is not a party but a coalition therefore does not have enough of a common political line to publish a paper.
But if Respect does not have a commonly developed political line sufficient to produce its own publication, how can it have sufficiently developed political line to run its work, be a political alternative to new Labour, or have a group of MPs in Parliament or councillors in a local council? Such groups, without an agreed and discussed body of policy behind them would fall apart at the first test.
Still less can it present itself in elections (as it rightly does) as a governmental alternative to new Labour.

We have already had examples of this kind of problem. Respect failed to discuss the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill before George Galloway voted for it in Parliament. Whatever view you take on that Bill (and my views are argued on p10) that is not a viable relationship between an elected representative and the organisation he represents.

The other example was George Gallowayıs unacceptable absence from an important vote on the Terrorism Bill (a defining issue for Respect) in which the government survived by only two votes. Instead he was in Cork speaking at a meeting of his own organised separately from Respect.

The insistence on remaining as a coalition compounds this problem. Since there is no Œpartyı there can be no Œparty lineı ­ and no organisation to hold its representatives to account. Under this formula the Œcoalitionı is not a political organisation but a collection of foot soldiers for its elected representatives.

This does not mean that Respect should mandate its elected representatives on everything ­ as a resolution from Milton Keynes calls for. Sometimes they will have their own strongly held contrary views but this has to be discussed and transparent. There has to be an organised and democratic relationship with those elected reflecting the collective views of Respect ­ or what is it all about?
Finally Respect has suffered from the charge of social conservatism ­ particularly around the issue of LGBT rights. Itıs a false charge because Respect does have policy on such rights and does defend such rights. We have participated in Gay Pride in London and other places for the last two years for example with our own leaflet.

But the removal of any reference to LGBT rights from the election manifesto for the general; election however did not help in this and is not acceptable in the future. We are please to see therefore that not only is there resolution on the agenda to the effect that this will not happen again (which was sponsored by SR) but also that there are other amendments taking up recent and major examples of homophobic and hate crimes which have been taking place.

 

This article has been reprinted with kind permission of Socialist Resistance