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Alan Thornett is a member of RESPECT's national executive.

We've had the election; now let's build RESPECT

Alan Thornett


Respect is here and it is here to stay. That is the message which comes through loud and clear from the quarter million votes it won for the European Parliament on June 10, together with 87,000 for the London Assembly and 61,000 votes for the London mayor.

It came through loud and clear in the astonishing 19,000 votes Respect won in the City and East constituency in London. It is spelled out in the fact that Respect topped the poll in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and it is spelled out in a range of high scoring results in the West and East Midlands and in the North West. Respect won over 7 per cent of the vote across the city of Birmingham.

Respect scored 1.7 per cent of the national vote (over a quarter million) which is double the vote for the SLP in 1999, which still had a resonance at that time.
Of course our vote was polarised within this. It was poor in Wales and the South East. But Respect scored heavily in a number of key inner-city areas with large working class ethnic minority populations. This was especially amongst young Muslims, many of whom are vulnerable to fundamentalist ideas in the absence of a socialist alternative.

Such ethnic minority votes for a left party are unprecedented in British politics. They represent the most important breakthrough into ethnic minority communities. Previously most black and Asian people voted Labour. This change represent a real opportunity for the left to break out of the largely white sections of the population which it has been in for a very long time.

Moreover the Respect won its vote without compromising its politics. Respect was the only party in the election to openly and clearly defend asylum seekers in its main election material. It was one of the key demands on the 23.5 million Respect leaflets delivered by the Post Office. This was not the case with the Greens. In their mass leaflets the issue was left completely unclear. This stance made asylum the most disputed issue in the phone calls into the Respect office throughout the campaign. Callers would say 'I have j! ust got your leaflet and I agree with you on everything but asylum and immigration - do you really mean what you say on this?' Respect lost a lot of votes by this stance. It was absolutely right to do so.

Equally Respect was the only party calling for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq - another constantly raised issue on the phones. Respect was the only genuinely anti-war party in the election. The Greens were for a UN force and the Liberal Democrats were for sending even more troops if necessary.

So where does this result - winning a good vote on a principled basis - leave us as far as building Respect is concerned?

The response to the election campaign - generated most importantly by the election broadcast and the postal drop leaflet - exceeded anything those of us working in the Respect office had ever experienced. Hundreds of positive inquiries came in by phone every day and hundreds more by post.

Before the first transmission of the broadcast had faded from the screen all the phones in the office started ringing and didn't stop for several hours.

Respect now has many hundreds of new members and thousands of new contacts - all of whom are potential new members. We now have groups of new members and contacts in dozens of town and villages where we had nothing before.

All this has to be consolidated rapidly and forged into active local branches which will engage with the politics and campaigning activities in their area. New members will not be won to Respect long-term unless they have a well-organised organisation to relate to.

Also other elections are immediately posed. There is a local council by-election in Stepney - in the City and East Assembly constituency - in three weeks' time which Respect has decided to contest. Oliur Rahman, the 23 year old Bangladeshi who was our candidate for the Assembly has been selected as the candidate for this. There is a real possibility of winning.

There is a Parliamentary by-election pending in Leicester South which Respect intends to contest and is currently selecting a candidate. Respect polled 9.5 per cent across the three Parliamentary constituencies in Leicester and is well placed for a good result.

The next general election will probably be next year and Respect is planning a major intervention. In preparing for this, this campaign and these results have given us a detailed political map of the country - constituency by constituency - which will allow us to select the places we contest on a much more informed basis than before.

George Galloway is keen to put himself forward for an East London constituency, to start the selection process as soon as possible and, if he is selected, to get to work in the constituency well in advance of the election.

Unlike the Socialist Alliance Respect now has the real possibility of becoming a party of the broadly the SSP type. This will not happen immediately, but it needs to be the medium term objective. To prepare for this we have to start building Respect along the lines of a party right  now.

This means maintaining the momentum we have built up in the election campaign, rather than letting it dissipate over the summer. It means establishing well-organised local branches and other structures built on a democratic and inclusive basis. It means encouraging the local branches to get involved in the local activities and campaigns, in the name of Respect.

Although Respect has exceeded the reach of the Socialist Alliance, it has far from reached its potential. There is a lot more to be gained in the trade unions where anti-new Labour sentiment continues to grow. The support gained in the RMT and the CWU needs to be consolidated. Mark Serwotka who spoke strongly for Respect at its fringe meeting at PCS conference needs to play a more central role in the organisation. The FBU which has just broken from Labour at its conference needs to be won to Respect. Other organisations of the left like the CPB and the Socialist Party need to come into Respect. It is still insufficiently politically diverse.

Respect is planning a second conference towards the end of the year. This needs to be a working conference which will adopt a constitution and an organisational structure. We need a wider discussion on policy issues beyond the founding statement adopted in January.

Above all Respect needs to be developed into an active and campaigning organisation which does not just exist during elections but is there all the time. We did well in getting the name recognition we did, given a media blackout for the first two thirds of the campaign. But our potential will only be realised when we are widely known amongst the population and seen to be a permanent feature in the political landscape.

 

June 2004

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