Over 1,400 people attended the founding of the Respect coalition at Friends Meeting House in London at the end of January: the young and the old, trade unionists, the left and those who have come to politics though the anti-war movement. The convention represented something historic in British politics – an embryonic movement making a decisive break from seeing the Labour Party as the party of the working class. For many who attended, the recent government decision over student tuition fees and the results of the Hutton inquiry have only highlighted the need for such an electoral alternative. Some of them spoke to Socialist Review.
Yunus Bakhsh is a member of Unison national executive. He spoke to Socialist Review about his hope for the future of Respect and also his disgust at the outcome of the Hutton inquiry: ‘We’ve seen now how the strategy of relying on Labour MPs to maintain socialist principles pans out. The whole debacle of top-up fees is ludicrous. The government may only have won by five votes but the majority of those who voted for them were in receipt of free education themselves. We can’t rely on people without backbone to represent us. We can’t look to people without principle to uphold the truth. The Hutton inquiry was set up to exonerate the government. The resignation of [the CIA-based Iraq Survey Group’s] David Kay shows that the whole reason we were taken to war was bullshit. Blair and Straw may have won a victory but it just confirms what people knew – that they are fundamentally dishonest and it should galvanise us to dump them.
‘Because public sector workers have borne the brunt of New Labour’s agenda and are sick of giving blank cheques to MPs who vote for privatisation, I want our members to have a choice over which parliamentary candidate to finance, and in order for that to happen, we need a viable electoral alternative – one which reflects the policies of Unison as opposed to New Labour, which stands against everything the union stands for.
‘I shall be reporting back to my branch about the event and spreading the message that there is hope. Large numbers of workers at my hospital have opted out of paying the political levy to New Labour in protest at its privatisation policy and refusal to deal with the issue of low pay in the NHS. We don’t want those people to be lost to apathy or seduced by the Nazis into feeling that the BNP can give voice to their needs and aspirations.
‘Why should Unison continue to fund a racist like David Blunkett and yet not support candidates who defend public services and oppose racism?’
Sait Akgul is a Kurdish community activist who has been living in Britain for the past 18 years. He is the ex-chair of the Kurdish Federation UK and a member of the Stop the War Coalition steering committee. He is proud to have been part of the launch of Respect but equally so not to have been a member of any other political party prior to this. He told Socialist Review, ‘Essentially now the government is in deep trouble. For Blair to be cleared over Hutton is disgraceful. This is shameful for democracy – there is no consensus and the government is ignoring backbenchers.
‘As a Kurd who lives in Britain I’m totally disillusioned with world players’ attitudes in general, and that of the UK government to ethnic minorities. I’m looking to take part in a new alternative force and I believe the experience of the anti-war movement has been such that Respect has the unity we are all looking for. It is a brilliant idea away from the spin and corruption of New Labour. Maybe we can appeal to communities and to the left and bring a truly British left into the European Parliament first and build the party after. The British government’s collaboration with the Turkish state since the struggle for self determination in Kurdistan started has been the same as practised by the Tory government. As a Kurdish patriot I also believe the Labour Party is serving imperialism full and well. Without New Labour George Bush would not have gone into this war. I am disturbed about the shift to the Lib Dems as an alternative to New Labour – they are not a credible alternative.’
Sait plans to go back to the areas where he lives and works in north and east London to take part in setting up Respect. He argues that members of the Kurdish and Turkish communities are alternative voices that deserve to be heard, and that the 10,000 or so members of that community can be organised to vote for an alternative to New Labour. ‘It is the responsibility of people like me who came to Britain after the first Turkish coup to represent that community and say no to people like Diane Abbott who do not represent our real needs,’ he argues.
Film director Ken Loach found the rally extremely encouraging. And he believes ‘in a perverse way’ that the results of the Hutton inquiry will help build Respect. ‘There will be a sense of revulsion against the government which will turn people towards us. Firstly because of those supine MPs who made such a fuss and then just rolled over. Second because of the flagrant misreading of the evidence Hutton had in front of him. Hutton was part of the Widgery report over Bloody Sunday which led to 30 years of anger – so in many ways he was the ideal man for the job, but I think that people will see through it.
‘The convention showed there is an overwhelming sense of unity, of people wanting to work together. There have been a number of false starts in the past but this is a good step towards progress. We have to build Respect between now and June – to build the branches throughout the country and progress our presence in public debate. What has happened at this first conference won’t be reported outside these four walls so we need our supporters to articulate our opposition to the Blair government – it is a huge task. There is a sense of euphoria among ourselves, but it will be hard.’
Ken argues that Respect will have to differentiate itself from mainstream parties such as New Labour and the Lib Dems, and that the key is to have internal democracy, ‘and to keep reminding ourselves that we have to be delegates, that there should be no block votes. Respect has to be different in ideas. We are only a coalition at the moment but we do not see big business and employers as our allies. Our point is that common ownership and democratic control is the means to building a better society. Even with Keir Hardie in the founding of the Labour Party there was no discussion of first principles. We need to learn from its mistakes. The Labour Party claimed to represent workers’ interests but all of that unravelled.’
Ken says his vision of democracy is an echo of some of the slogans on the anti-war demonstrations. He puts forward the idea that demonstrations are an important and essential part of our democracy in our efforts to ‘agitate, organise and educate’: ‘We need a democracy for everyone – so that everyone is represented equally.’
In terms of his own role in the movement, Ken puts forward the idea that ‘People can be drawn into this through music, films and plays – we can see this as a big coming together, a big solidarity. There is more space for radical culture. Ever since the 1960s people have been wide open to that. The modern reality TV shows have killed a lot of that and there is a real thirst from people to experience cultural events.’
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