The Socialist Unity Network

Are we ready for a delegates conference?

Jim Jepps and Andy Newman

It's welcome news that the RESPECT coalition has begun preparing for the founding conference on the 30th and 31st of October (click for details on RESPECT site).

It is to be particularly welcomed that the conference will be held over two days which will allow for a far wider range of topics to be dealt with, and far fewer motions to become subjected to that dreaded word 'remitted' (which in circles outside the left means we'll deal with this later, for us however means forget it). It's also important because a two conference must do more than simply be a rally or opportunity for the leaders to make speeches, and therefore, potentially, will get far more actual work done. 

There is a concern though.

The conference is due to be a delegate based conference rather than open to all members. Whilst there may be no disagreement with the principle of a delegates conference, there is the question of what this means in practical terms right now.

However, if we seek to build RESPECT as a mass, inclusive organisation then a delegate conference at this stage may well be very damaging. The legacy of Stalinism on the British left means that many of us are suspicious of undemocratic stitch ups - even when everyone is acting with the best of intentions and there is no malice intended. On the other hand we can all think of examples where constitutional means have been used to stifle or exclude debate. RESPECT must not only be democratic, it must be seen to be democratic.

If delegates are to be elected this means there must be trustworthy and robust structures that ensure that all members have equal opportunity to have their voice heard. RESPECT simply does not have these structures in place as yet.

Socialist Unity believes very strongly that these structures are a priority and we should set to work building them as quickly as possible, but we should also look facts in the face. In the vast majority of the country - even places where the vote was good - there is no functioning organisation even, let alone the capacity to hold a democratic discussion and considered
elections to this extremely important conference.

This conference is the chance to draw in yet more layers of those who oppose war, privatisation and inequality in society. To allow it to become a delegates conference it practice will mean only those who are currently in the loop will even have the opportunity to decide delegates, let alone go to conference.

If elections are to take place in area meetings it skews the pool of available delegates even further. If they are to take place in towns that have no functioning branch who is informed of the meetings to elect delegates and when they are informed will come down to a small self selected organising core (or even individual) which cannot be good for democratic accountability.

It would be nigh on impossible to establish democratic accountability of these local meetings to elect delegates - I've certainly attended conferences where 'delegates' are members who, due to the lack of organised meetings in their town, simply turn up as the representative by passing the necessity to actually elect them.

This is what will happen if the RESPECT conference is delegates only. We will have a self selected group of people (no matter how good everyone's intentions are) in some cases elected on a very narrow democratic basis and in other cases attending on the basis that they restricted the rights of others to decide.

So far Respect has been dogged with controversy and there has been a perception, we believe a bit unfairly, that RESPECT is an undemocratic SWP front. The October conference may be the only opportunity Respect will ever have to lay that controversy to rest and show it will follow the democratic norms of the Labour movement. If it has a democratic and inclusive conference then it can turn the tide and establish a culture that presumes that decisions will be democratic. If that is done then trade union support may follow in the fullness of time. But, if fails to take this opportunity then RESPECT may struggle to fulfil its potential.

At this stage in RESPECT's development the only transparent and trustworthy method of holding a democratic conference is to hold it on a membership basis and try to ensure that for next year the structures are there for full democratic accountability.



August 2004


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