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.
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
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
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
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