Some 350 delegates and observers gathered to discuss the way forward at Respect’s fourth annual conference, held at the University of Westminster in central London.
Respect national secretary John Rees introduced the conference, arguing that the potential is there to build Respect. He celebrated the fact that despite recent problems, up and down the country Respect groups had elected delegates to come to debate the way forward.
“One of the most damaging things that New Labour has done is to take the politics out of politics,” said John. “You know what New Labour ministers say – it is no longer about ideology, but about delivery.
“But if you take the ideology away, what’s left? Careerism, avarice and opportunism. We cannot allow that culture to develop in Respect. If we do that, we cease to be a real and radical alternative to New Labour.
“We know from the Labour Party’s history that you can pass resolutions and be committed to the best policies – but if you don’t elect the people who can fight for them, then those policies aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.”
Referring to George Galloway’s decision to split from Respect, John said, “We didn’t want this fight, but it had to be addressed. It had much to do with the imminence of the general election, but we always had to face these problems.
“The truth is that the core of any organisation is not its leadership, whatever the contribution they have made, but the membership.”
There was a wide ranging discussion throughout the day. While the delegates discussed the departure of Galloway and some of his supporters, much of the debate looked forward to how Respect operates as a campaigning coalition.
Nahella Ashraf from Manchester said, “Respect is about us having a voice, speaking up and fighting for what we believe in. We are fighting for the vision we started off with.”
Paddy O’Keefe from Brighton said, “It has been a testing time. But in testing times you find out who your friends are. You also get to see the consistency between what people say and what they do.”
A number of speakers – including Kumar Murshid, Tower Hamlets Respect councillor Lutfa Begum and Salvinder Dhillon – spoke about how electoral success had created new problems and challenges for Respect but this was no reason why the organisation could not continue to grow.
Preston Respect councillor Michael Lavalette spoke about his work in the council. “There is no issue too small to take up in case work,” he said. “No matter what the issue is, we will take it up and fight to make sure you get representation. We also have to relate to national and international issues.”
Guest speaker Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service workers’ union, said, “We need industrial unity to face the attacks on workers – and we need political unity to offer hope.”
He pointed out that he had declined to speak at the rally organised by Galloway. “I have always believed in unity,” he said. “Who is the happiest when some people split from Respect? Gordon Brown – he sees this as an opportunity.
“My appeal is for unity, but there can never be unity in a left wing organisation when people attack and witch-hunt other socialists. We have to tolerate difference and welcome debate – but we need unity.
“We stand as Respect, but we want unity with those to the left of Labour. We need to go out there and build an alternative that gives Brown sleepless nights – and gives our children hope for a better future.”
Shirebrook Respect councillor Ray Holmes said, “I take great pleasure in standing up in council and saying, ‘I oppose that.’ I joined Respect to fight alongside others on my side.
“The attacks on the working class are coming so thick and fast, we need to be as broad as we can. And to win we need to be principled.”
Lindsey German, Respect’s candidate for London mayor, reiterated Respect’s commitment to the Stop the War Coalition, and to campaigning against any attack on Iran.
“We should remember we came from the anti-war movement,” she said. “Brown is now playing the same role Tony Blair did in the run up to attacking Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Pat McManus, the London assembly candidate for Brent and Harrow, spoke in defence of civil liberties. He noted how Labour wants to increase the time allowed for detention without trial from 28 days to 56.
“I left the Labour Party a year ago to join Respect,” he said. “I grew up in Northern Ireland. I spent part of my youth having my door kicked in. Then my children were pulled out of their beds because I was an activist.
“The most frightening thing in this country is the proposed terror law. It will lead to people being arrested, beaten and held for days without a solicitor.”