The third annual Respect conference took place in London last weekend with delegates in an upbeat and confident mood.
The number of delegates and observers was up on last year. Many new Respect members spoke, and many Respect groups brought lively and vibrant delegations to the conference.
The weekend’s debate was shaped by the current crisis in the government over the war and Labour’s campaign to whip up Islamophobia.
George Galloway MP, opening the conference, confronted Jack Straw’s remarks about Muslim women wearing the veil.
Galloway said, “Everybody with a brain knows the reason why Jack Straw got down and dirty, and scraped the bottom of this filthy barrel, was to join the Dutch auction in New Labour of who can be most beastly to a minority - a minority which is already beleaguered and anxious in this country.
“It can’t possibly be true that Jack, after all this time, representing so many Muslims, being returned to parliament by them in overwhelming numbers so many times, suddenly discovers the semiotics of visual communication.”
On Saturday afternoon hundreds of people, shocked and angry at the massive increase in racism against Muslims, joined Respect conference delegates for a public rally addressed by Salma Yaqoob, John Rees, Oliur Rahman, Lindsey German and George Galloway.
The conference passed motions on Blair’s wars, Palestine and civil liberties with numbers of speakers talking about the depth of the political crisis caused by General Richard Dannatt’s criticism of government policy in Iraq.
Jonathan Neale introduced a session on climate change where a range of speakers emphasised the need to build Respect’s participation on the Campaign Against Climate Change protest on Saturday 4 November.
The conference was the first since Respect’s rise to become official opposition on the Tower Hamlets council where it now has 12 councillors. Respect also has three councillors in Newham, two in Preston, and one in Birmingham.
One theme running throughout the conference was the success of Student Respect. Thousands of students have joined Student Respect groups across England and Wales, and many colleges have seen some of their largest meetings for years.
As well as a series of impressive interventions from the floor, some 60 student delegates attended a lively meeting to discuss building Student Respect in the coming weeks.
An important focus for the conference was discussion of the party’s work around trade unions, introduced by Linda Smith.
The centrality of the Organising for Fighting Unions conference on 11 November was emphasised by Michael Gavan, the branch chair of Newham Unison, among others.
In the debate, sacked Rolls Royce worker Jerry Hicks brought conference to its feet with his lively account of his own victimisation and how trade unionists need to organise, recounting how Bristol is now sending a second coach to the trade union conference.
Fraternal delegates from the German PDS, the Danish Red/Green Alliance, the Portuguese Left Bloc and Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista addressed the conference.
John Rees, national secretary, introduced a session on building Respect.
He said, “The departure of Blair will be a cause of celebration for thousands of people and the reason he is going is because he lost the argument with the anti-war movement.
“The issue is that Brown or whoever replaces Blair will be embedded in the project of neoliberalism.
“The political establishment is committed to the neoliberal agenda. But what Blair going will do is reopen a debate about the direction of the labour movement.”
“The trade union conference gives us an opportunity to get activists together to discuss the future of the movement.
“While Respect is for the Trade Union Freedom Bill, New Labour is not.
“Respect is for public services not privatisation, New Labour is not.
“Respect is against the ‘war on terror’, New Labour is at the heart of it.
“In this context it is crucial that we create a discussion about the way forward. We have the opportunity to continue to transform British politics.”