The Labour government’s ongoing crisis and the urgent necessity of a left wing alternative shaped the debates at the conference.
Socialist Worker editor Chris Bambery opened the discussion by pointing out that the Labour Party, while haemorrhaging members, has retained a core vote.
Chris said, “The recovery of the working class from the defeats of the 1980s is steady but takes place at a slower pace than we might like. One important aspect of that recovery was the election of Labour in 1997.
“But that process has come up against the party’s commitment to neoliberalism – a commitment that millions of workers reject, and which is the subject of intense argument.
“There is a weakening of Labour in key areas, for instance, on the question of union affiliation to the party.
“We are now seeing a beginning of realignment where the economic struggle is starting to catch up with the level of political ferment.”
The debate on the alternative to Labour continued into the session specifically on Respect.
John Rees underlined the opportunities for building a broad organisation to the left of Labour but also discussed the recent crisis in Respect, which he said had grown out of its electoral successes.
He explained that after the 2006 council elections the SWP argued for the need to broaden Respect’s appeal and reach out to wider sections of the working class with initiatives such as Organising for Fighting Unions.
However, attempts to reach new audiences created tensions with those who had a more narrow vision.
“It is important that we hold onto the idea that there is a very large audience for our ideas,” he said.
In the discussions, around 40 people spoke. Some asked searching questions about the Respect crisis, others reflected on its lessons. Many contributions pointed to activities over the past few months or looked to future tasks. An overwhelming majority supported the way the party had conducted itself during the Respect crisis.
A number of delegates also spoke about how the space outside of Labour is rich in political possibilities and that there are many opportunities to work with the left inside the Labour Party.
A nurse and young members’ officer from a Unison union branch pointed out that, “My union branch committee is very political yet it doesn’t have a single Labour Party member on it. And many people in my workplace haven’t gone through the defeats of the past. That opens up opportunities for us.”
London teacher Jane Bassett said, “There is a level of complete disgust with Labour’s attacks on its core values. In education, the health service and housing, we have no choice but to link political and trade union campaigning.”
Candy, from central London, said, “There is a contradiction between the opportunities presented by the grave crisis in Labourism and the fact that left alternatives in England and Wales, and Scotland have split. We need Respect groups with deep roots everywhere. And they have to come out fighting.”
Maggie Falshaw from Tower Hamlets talked about some of the activities in the area since the split. She explained that the Respect group is very mixed and goes far beyond the ranks of the SWP. They have had two public meetings of over 60 people in recent weeks, with large numbers attending from nearby estates.
John Molyneux from Portsmouth said that we need to prove that Respect is still viable by fighting for credible results in the forthcoming elections.
Paul Vernell from Bristol referred to the possibilities of future regroupment on the left. He said, “We have to build Respect now so that we are in the strongest possible position when new opportunities develop.”
A number of delegates raised questions about the donation to the Organisation for Fighting Unions from a businessman from Dubai and, with a near unanimous vote, passed a motion on the subject (see » Other sessions).
The conference agreed to campaign vigorously in upcoming by-elections, the London mayoral election in which Lindsey German will stand, and in the Greater London Assembly elections.