John Rees, the national secretary of Respect, introduced a discussion about building Respect.
He pointed out that despite unevenness around the country, Respect has a remarkable record of electoral success – better than any previous left wing intervention since the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s.
He also talked about how the impact of Student Respect has transformed politics on the campuses and in the National Union of Students.
John argued that there is a need to constantly expand the base of Respect by making sure that Respect is part of wider campaigns such as Stop the War and defending the NHS.
He said, “Respect is not a one-off trick. We have to constantly keep renewing the organisation. Respect is tiny compared both to New Labour and the mass movements. We must be a living part of the movements.”
John also spoke about the need to deepen Respect’s roots among trade unionists by building on the success of the Organising for Fighting Unions conference in November.
This brought together hundreds of union activists to discuss the way forward in the movement.
He said the conference was the “beginning of reorienting Respect not just on the anti-war base but into the trade union base of the Labour Party”.
John spoke about the two forthcoming electoral priorities for Respect – the council elections in cities outside London this May and the London Assembly elections in 2008.
He pointed out that people need to start preparing now for the London assembly elections. “At the last London Assembly election in 2004, we missed Lindsey German being elected to the assembly by 0.4 percent of the vote,” John said. “We were only two months old.”
One of the most important elections this May will be in Preston where Respect councillor Michael Lavalette is up for reelection.
Michael encouraged people to come to Preston to help with the campaign. He said that the Labour Party has already started campaigning in the area and bringing people in from across the north west of England.
He added that, across England, “We need more Respect councillors because there is a democratic deficit in this country and it is up to Respect to fill that gap.
“If we lose in Preston then Labour will think that they have put Respect on the back foot.”
Tower Hamlets Respect councillor Oliur Rahman is not a member of the SWP but attended the conference as an observer.
He spoke about why Respect councillors make a difference. He said, “In the May 2006 elections, Respect became the main opposition on Tower Hamlets council.
“Since then we have been central to stopping six housing transfers. We have stopped an illegal housing development.
“We have stopped the Private Finance Initiative in one particular school in the borough. We have raised issues around the housing crisis.”
Sharon Price from Sheffield was the Respect campaign manager in last year’s council elections. She told the conference, “At the last election we won 1,200 votes and came second to Labour.”
She spoke about how Respect has been building on that vote in the city. “We are not just about elections,” she said.
“We have to be about campaigning. In the summer we organised meetings over Lebanon with other groups. We petitioned against Islamophobia.
“There was a protest about a school closure last week. Respect members were involved in that and Maxine Bowler, who was our candidate in the last election, spoke at the protest.
“There were two estates in the ward where we stood that we never got to canvass. Now we are petitioning door to door in those estates over housing.”
Lindsey German spoke about preparing now for the London Assembly elections of 2008. In areas of outer London she and Respect MP George Galloway are speaking at rallies in the next few months to start the mobilisation for the elections.
She said, “A lot of what wins elections is done years and months in advance. You can’t just have a three-week election campaign. But of course you do also have to put a huge effort into the election campaign itself.”