SUPPORTERS OF Respect: The Unity Coalition have been gearing up for their challenge to New Labour in the 10 June elections. Meetings have been taking place around the country to begin gathering together the growing numbers who want to be part of organising that challenge.
Respect was established by a 1,400-strong national convention in London in January. It is widely seen as the political wing of the anti-war movement and aims to turn the 10 June elections into a referendum on Blair. The European and Greater London Assembly (GLA) elections are set to take place on this date, as well as some other local elections.
George Galloway, the inspirational anti-war MP expelled from the Labour Party, is set to lead Respect's election campaign. Respect has already attracted support from among those who marched against the war, including from within the Muslim community.
Trade union leader Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil servants' union, is also a leading figure in Respect. Respect is also winning support from some members of the RMT rail union and CWU postal workers' union, where links with Labour are a matter of intense debate.
An advert in the Independent newspaper on Wednesday of last week announced the launch of Respect. A website, www.respectcoalition.org, has been set up, listing meetings and allowing people to download information and resources for local groups. Now activists are planning to replicate this at a local level with colourful events to establish the name Respect as widely as possible. A number of groups have held their first organising meetings to set up constituency-wide conventions to select candidates.
A meeting in the East London GLA constituency took place last week. It involved local trade unionists and supporters of the local Stop the War Coalition. John McLoughlin, the chair of Tower Hamlets council Unison branch, attended the meeting. He told Socialist Worker, 'I was sent by my union branch to observe the meeting and then do a report-back. There were a number of leading trade unionists involved. From Newham there was the chair of the council Unison branch, a union rep from the street cleaners, the chair of the East Ham RMT rail workers' union, and the president of the NUT teachers' union. A delegation came from the local Stop the War group. There was also a delegation of civil servants, led by Oli Rahman, chair of the East London DWP branch of the union. They spoke to the meeting about their strike.'
Most of the people who attended the meeting paid their membership fee for Respect. Everyone there agreed to put their name to a letter, which will urge trade unionists to back Respect and to attend the local convention to select a candidate.
New ways to campaign
MOBEEN AZHAR went to a 40-strong organising meeting at the Leeds Civic Theatre last week. It involved former Labour Party members, trade union representatives, student groups and environmental organisations. Mobeen says, 'We set up working groups to deal with fundraising, contacting other groups and to plan the public launch of Respect.
'We agreed to push Respect into communities without the constraints and conventions of previous election campaigns. We discussed a day-long launch packed with events, visual stunts including a travelling float containing seven life-size costumed letters spelling out Respect.
'The meeting ended on a high with ideas exchanging hands and minds at a frantic rate. One participant commented, 'The whole country has been politicised in the last two years and now thousands, if not millions, of people are searching for a political home. That is what Respect provides.'
'We also talked about celebrity endorsement, and the use of local newspapers and billboards for exposure. A Muslim who addressed the meeting explained, 'We have a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility to unite, strive and achieve. June is just around the corner'.'
Slay the three-headed monster of official politics
MAKING A visual impact is high on the agenda for Respect members in Portsmouth. Some 24 people from Portsmouth attended the national launch of Respect in January. Since then they have held a number of organising meetings. One of those involved is a leading local artist and Stop the War supporter. He is planning to build a monster with three heads-Blair, Howard and Kennedy.
Respect members plan to hire a truck and tow the monster around picket lines at local universities on 25 February, when students and lecturers are set to hold a joint shutdown of higher education. This will attract support for the local launch of Respect planned for the same evening.
Activists in the North West constituency, covering Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire and Cumbria, have set up a local website, www.respectnorthwest.org They are organising a selection meeting in Manchester on 14 March. The meeting is timed so that it coincides with the Labour Party's spring conference, set to take place in Manchester on 13-14 March.
Some 30 Respect supporters met up in Lewisham, south east London, last week. They heard a report from the recent Convention of the Trade Union Left, and then got down to business. They plan a launch meeting with George Galloway and a Convention of the Left, to be held across the Greenwich and Lewisham GLA constituency, to select a candidate.
Moira, a teacher from Lewisham, says, 'In the meeting we broke into three groups dealing with trade unionists, students and the community. Each group discussed how they could involve new forces in Respect. For example, the student group set up leafleting around the local halls of residence.'
Respect supporters in Cambridge have planned a number of meetings. A convention on 6 March is being held in the city to select a candidate for the East Region constituency, which covers much of East Anglia and Hertfordshire. Then a rally in Cambridge on 29 March with George Galloway MP will help build support in the city.
Similar rallies are being planned in Norwich, Colchester, Harwich and Sheringham, a small fishing town in Norfolk. Comedian and writer Mark Steel is touring major universities doing rallies to catch the imagination of students for Respect.
Green Party spurns offer
THE 10 June elections will be the first opportunity to translate the success of the anti-war movement into a real challenge to Blair. The European and GLA elections will use a voting system with a list of candidates across each constituency.
So it is important to rally the maximum possible support behind a single list candidate in order to avoid splitting the vote. Sadly, the Green Party, who also opposed Blair over the war, have refused to negotiate with the Respect coalition in order to ensure the broadest possible challenge.
Leading members of Respect have made repeated attempts to agree an electoral pact with the Greens. This would bring together far wider forces than the Green Party alone can reach. But their national officers have repeatedly rejected the offer. George Galloway MP, who helped to establish Respect, said, 'I'm sad that the Greens don't feel able to work with Respect for our mutual benefit. It now means that we'll both be competing for the very substantial number of voters who feel alienated from Tony Blair, New Labour and, indeed, what passes for parliamentary democracy.'
Blair's pension deal is not enough, say protesters
FURIOUS DEMONSTRATORS stopped the traffic outside the Royal Courts of Justice last Friday. Chanting 'We want justice! We want justice!' ex-workers from several firms took to the streets against the government's latest pension betrayal. The protesters had all had their pension schemes axed when the companies they worked for went bust. Some had lost as much as £18,000. The new Pensions Bill was announced in parliament on Thursday of last week. The government's bill may help some people in a similar situation in the future, but not those 60,000 or so who are already losing their pensions.