Respect conference report

‘Delegates’ voted to build election profile

No coalition with ‘son of No2EU’

Issues of left and right are not so clear-cut when it comes to Respect. Mike Macnair reports on its annual conference, held in Birmingham on Saturday November 14

Respect’s annual conference was marked by somewhat confused debates on anti-fascist activity, and on the so far unnamed ‘son of No2EU’ electoral coalition. These have given rise to somewhat ill-tempered exchanges between the participants and among others in the ‘blogosphere’ in the last few days.1

The conference also changed the name of the organisation from ‘Respect – the Unity Coalition’ to ‘The Respect Party’, altered the mode of election of the leadership, and passed a number of leftwing ‘motherhood and apple pie’ resolutions on international questions, and constructive resolutions on constitutional issues and on free public transport.

This report focuses mainly on the controversies. I have tried to give as much as possible of what was argued on the different sides, so that readers can form their own views of the arguments.

The official report of the conference says that 210 delegates attended2 (‘delegates’ were, of course, any Respect members who had agreed to pay the conference fee, rather than people elected by branches). However, I counted around 100 present in the main hall in each of the morning and afternoon sessions, and in the one vote which was counted (to be discussed below) 113 votes were cast; but it may well be that people coming and going or in circulation outside the hall meant that numbers were higher than I saw. Clive Searle reported that Respect now has 850 members, with a significant growth in recruitment in the last months; it would be interesting to know whether these members are concentrated in east London and Birmingham or more widely spread.

At the beginning of the conference a decision was taken to elect the same number of national council (NC) members as there were nominees, avoiding the need for a contested election. The resulting committee of 47 is overlarge from a group of 850, but, of course, the actual leadership will be some body delegated from the NC.

As if to reaffirm this point, almost the last decision taken at the end of the conference was to adopt for the future a variant of the Socialist Workers Party’s method of election of a ‘party council’, with 40% to be elected by the conference and 60% by regional meetings. Clive Searle moved the proposal on behalf of Manchester Respect with classic SWP arguments: election by conference would tend to favour “people who talk a lot”, while “people who do a lot” do not get elected.

In reality, though, most political work consists of ‘talking a lot’ – on the doorstep, on stalls, in trade union meetings, in public meetings, in discussions with colleagues and neighbours. People who “do a lot” turn out to be, as the SWP experience of this form of election reveals … apparatus yes-men and women. Moreover, a regionally-elected NC lacks the clear lines of authority which would allow it to overrule and remove, if necessary, the actual leadership. This was one of the few contentious votes, but the principle of local/regional election was not controverted: Southwark Respect merely proposed election by branches rather than regions. This proposal was opposed by Ger Francis, Salma Yaqoob and Alan Thornett, on the ground of the very variable development of Respect branches across the country, and overwhelmingly defeated.

The conference started late, and the agenda had to be shuffled because George Galloway, who was supposed to introduce the first session, ‘Resisting the cuts agenda’, was stuck in traffic on the M1, so that the first item taken was the discussion on ‘One society, many cultures’ – in fact on fighting racism and Islamophobia – introduced by Salma Yaqoob. In general, the discussions were quite seriously cramped, with a small number of floor speakers restricted to three minutes.

Racism and fascism

Salma Yaqoob (as usual) started with the personal-political: her experience of growing demonisation of Muslims in the wake of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, which brought her into politics, moving on to a recent expensive racist smear-job leaflet about her which has been circulated to white voters only in the Sparkbrook constituency; and from there to mainstream politicians exploiting the Islamophobic climate, while making mealy-mouthed efforts to dissociate themselves from the British National Party. Terrorist radicalisation in this country arose from British state terrorist operations overseas, rather than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reducing the threat of terrorism here. It was not just the English Defence League which had crawled out of the woodwork; mainstream politicians had whipped up issues around immigration and foreigners, to the benefit of the British National Party. They refused to admit that it was their neoliberal economic policies which had led to the present crisis.

She argued that Respect’s stance, in contrast, was to insist on telling the truth. We had told the truth about unjust wars abroad; now we had to tell the truth about immigration. Britain benefited from immigration; even Boris Johnson admitted that half a million illegal immigrants in London needed to be legitimised, since if they were deported the city would grind to a halt. Society is richer for diversity and pluralism. Respect believes in the solidarity of all human beings. There is a 13,000 waiting list for social housing in Birmingham, which breeds resentment. If we invested in social housing, in infrastructure, in the hardworking working class people of this country, we would strike racism at the root. “We will fight together,” she concluded, “black, white, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Jew and atheist, for the betterment of all.”

This was not a sharply contentious speech. However, the second floor speaker, Stuart Richardson of Socialist Resistance, focussed his attention on ‘the anti-fascist struggle’. The context of the rise of the far right was the decline of the framework of working class politics; this made space for the demagogues of fascism. The EDL had come to Birmingham three times. The first time was unopposed. In early August, Asian youth had mobilised against them, but had been regrettably isolated. Unite Against Fascism had issued a statement calling for resistance to the EDL. But when they came the third time UAF refused to mobilise, and called for a police ban. In fact, the only police ban was on a ‘Birmingham United’ meeting called by a local journalist, and the EDL were unopposed. The EDL needed to be opposed whenever they came. And – anticipating the second debate – unless there was a broad left coalition in the coming general election, there would be massive space for the growth of the far right.

Among several very varied non-contentious contributions from the floor, comrade Richardson’s was opposed by a number of speakers, including Ger Francis and Kevin Ovenden, and by Salma Yaqoob in her reply to the debate. The gist of these arguments was that as a matter of tactics the EDL was aiming to cause a ‘race riot’, which could then be exploited to smear Asian/Muslim communities and win votes for the far right. In this situation the problem was how to avoid the youth getting into a ruck with the police; if this happened, said comrade Ovenden, it would not be people like comrade Richardson who ended up in jail. It was tactically necessary to call for police bans, precisely in order to avoid being seen to call for a ruck. If they came into Sparkbrook, said another speaker, a confrontation would be inevitable; but turning small demonstrations in Birmingham city centre into street fights was tactically wrong. Salma Yaqoob argued that we were fighting a propaganda war, not just a barney. The police had initially repeated the EDL lie that it was not a racist organisation, but had been forced to recant on this by UAF’s tactics.

Various blogosphere commentators have described the conference as a shift to the right, and this debate was one of the supposed symptoms. In fact, it is less clear. Both sides in the debate – the supposed ‘left’ as well as the supposed ‘right’ – framed the ‘anti-fascist issue’ within the popular-frontist ‘broadest possible coalition approach’ of UAF. Within this framework, Stuart Richardson’s argument was standard far-left, head-banging, ‘no platform’ politics. His opponents were certainly correct to say that going for a ruck with small EDL demonstrations in Birmingham city centre would have been bad tactics. The defence of Sparkbrook, if it had been posed, or the defence of a Harrow mosque – which actually happened – is a different matter. The point is that the left’s and migrant communities’ response to far-right mobilisations has to both be, and be seen by broad masses to be, clearly defensive.

The question of calling for police bans undoubtedly does place Socialist Resistance on the left of the discussion, as against Ovenden and co. The evidence of history, including recent history, is perfectly clear: police bans are used primarily to assist the far right against its opponents. For the left to call for them serves merely to legitimise the use of similar legal moves against the left. But then, of course, this is also a difference with … the SWP.

At a more fundamental level, comrade Richardson’s argument – connected both to the commitment to UAF, and to his views on ‘son of No2EU’ – is fundamentally mistaken. As Salma Yaqoob and others said, in order to confront far-right racism it is necessary to confront the myths about immigration promoted by the mainstream media and parties. And in order to confront these myths, it is necessary to fight for public services – housing, health, welfare – to meet the needs of all. It follows that a revival of “the framework of working class politics” or a broad left coalition which was unwilling to take on the immigration myths head-on and raise clear demands on production for need, not for profit, would not succeed in defeating the far right. In this respect Salma Yaqoob and co-thinkers have made a partial but fundamental step to the left of the standard Anti-Nazi League/UAF ideology. And so too has Abjol Miah, who spoke to the same point – the need to fight for public services in order to undercut racism – in the second debate.

Electoral strategy

The sharper debate came in the second session, ‘Resisting the cuts agenda’, actually about electoral strategy. The session was opened by Nick Wrack raising a point of order: an emergency motion he and others had proposed calling for support to the ‘son of No2EU’ coalition, had been ruled out of order. The point was deferred to after the lunch break (after George Galloway had introduced the session and there had been a brief question and answer session). It then took the form of Clive Searle giving a conference arrangements committee report, which argued that neither this motion, nor another on anti-fascism moved after the deadline, were genuine emergency motions on the basis of new circumstances.

Nick Wrack now moved reference back of the report. Left unity had been discussed over the last year, and comrades who favoured support for a project of this sort had been constantly told that nothing concrete had been agreed. Now something concrete had been agreed. This was a development since the deadline for motions, and therefore justified an emergency motion. The proposal for reference back was, however, defeated by 79 votes to 34.

From the technical or procedural point of view the conference arrangements committee was right. Nick Wrack and his co-thinkers could perfectly well have proposed before the deadline a motion supporting ‘son of No2EU’ on the assumption that the negotiators for this coalition might agree something. However, from the points of view of a clear, therefore democratic vote on the issues, the decision was wrong. The issue was central to the debate. When it came to the vote at the end of the session, however, both the motions which had been proposed on this issue were accepted nem con. It is reasonably clear that this would not have been the case if Nick Wrack and co’s motion had been allowed to go to the vote. In this sense the decision to rule the motion out of order obfuscated the decision-making process: the vote on the reference-back is left to stand as an indirect proxy for the scale of support for the ‘Wrackite’ position.

George Galloway’s introduction to the session displayed his usual rhetorical skills, targeted on New Labour, on anti-immigration, and on the all-party consensus for cuts – and also on the advocates of support for ‘son of No2EU’. Respect has to offer an alternative, because none of the mainstream parties will; the problem, he argued, is how to do so effectively. Respect is back on its feet and has a good chance of getting three MPs elected: “It is not for us to sew together a coalition which can get 1.8% of the vote. We want a breakthrough into the big time.” Long-standing membership of far-left organisations seems, he said, to be an obstacle to unity because comrades find it hard to break bad habits.

In the question and answer session, among other contributors, Stuart Richardson argued for a coalition; and for the possibility of mass strikes to stop the cuts, as in Ireland. George Barrett, from Barking, asked what help Respect could give to fighting the fascists in Barking. Another contributor asked what vote George would recommend where Respect was not standing. Kevin Ovenden asked what the impact on politics would be if Respect won three MPs.

These questions set the framework for George Galloway’s reply. In the first place, he argued for a Labour vote to try to minimise the Tory landslide. The Tories are worse than Labour because they have no connection with working people, while Labour depends on the trade unions for funding. In Glasgow North East, Labour was running “as insurgents” against the Scottish National Party, and the candidate made himself sound leftwing like a Respect candidate; he was not to be believed, but it reflects pressures Labour is under. Secondly, Respect had to make a choice whether to aim to coalesce with small forces to its left, or with larger forces who are now Labour supporters; this was a strategic choice which needed to be discussed through and settled.

In response to George Barrett, he said that the answer was practically no help could be given and this would remain the case unless Respect got a lot bigger and had more resources. To parachute a far-left candidate into Barking would, if anything, increase Griffin’s chances of success. Stuart Richardson, he said, was living in a fantasy world in relation to mass strikes against cuts. Respect had no leading trade unionists in a position to call for strikes, and in any case the unions had been so weakened that they would have difficulty sustaining such serious action. In some cases, like the NHS, what was needed was not strike action, but unity between workers and services users.

We should not call for a Labour vote across the board, Galloway said, but needed to consider the degree to which Labour candidates were implicated in government, and the degree of their venality, and also the likelihood that left candidates would win the seat rather than give the seat to the Tories. We should support Caroline Lucas (Green Party) in Brighton, and perhaps Peter Tatchell (also Green) in Oxford East. But we needed to avoid “auto-anti-Labourism” (nice to hear a phrase borrowed from this paper … even if it was used in service of the Morning Star’s line).

It was important to avoid illusions in the trade union movement, Galloway concluded; just as EP Thompson showed how the British working class was made, today it has been unmade as a class. We should keep nostalgia for mass strikes or storming the Winter Palace at home, and develop new ideas for a new world. Respect has, he repeated, a real chance of three MPs. If it achieves this goal it will become the magnet around which the left coalesces.

Debate

The afternoon session, after a speech by fraternal speaker Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition, saw a continuation of this debate. Kevin Ovenden moved a motion from the outgoing NC, urging that the main aim is to win three MPs in the target seats, but beyond this the importance of flexibility; the Greens have agreed to stand down in Sparkbrook in favour of Salma Yaqoob; we could support, for example, the People’s Party in Blaenau Gwent, Val Wise in Preston, or David Nellist in Coventry. Alan Thornett, moving a motion from Southwark, was carefully ambiguous on the disputed issues: though Respect needed to reach out to its right, he said, it was also necessary to collaborate with others to our left to build up a system of socialist candidates. We should not only support candidates who could win: for example, even if Dave Nellist could not win, we should support him against Bob Ainsworth. At the last resort we should vote Labour. And it was right for Respect to stand in its own name.

Ian Donovan, moving another motion on alliances, spoke in effect for the emergency motion not taken (to which he was a signatory). ‘Son of No2EU’ was more serious than comrade Galloway had suggested: the Communist Party of Britain was not a sect, and comrade Galloway writes for the Morning Star. The general secretaries of three trade unions were on the platform at the RMT conference. This was a partial break by the trade unions from Labour, and leftists should approach it “sympathetically”.

Ger Francis said that comrades were presenting a divide between those for and those against unity. The question was, rather, what sort of unity. The advocates of ‘son of No2EU’ had wanted Respect to stand in the Euro elections (in fact, they wanted Respect to support No2EU in those elections). In contrast, by choosing not to stand then, Respect had prepared the way for a similar action by the Greens in Sparkbrook. ‘Son of No2EU’ was exaggerated: all three general secretaries on the platform had been speaking in a personal capacity. The scheme was too close to the old Socialist Alliance, which got marginal votes.

Nick Wrack said that no-one was denigrating Respect or advocating that Respect not stand in its own name. But we need “a new party which brings together all strands of working class opinion against New Labour”. Respect candidates will only reach perhaps 2-3 million of an electorate of 20-30 million. Comrades were underestimating ‘son of No2EU’: these were not small, unpopular organisations. Many former Labour voters will not vote Labour. What alternative do we offer them? Salma Yaqoob said that the argument was about what sort of unity. By standing down in the Euro elections Respect showed the Greens we were able to work with others. Nick had opposed that.

Fred Leplat from Socialist Resistance argued for the need to collaborate with ‘son of No2EU’. It was a big step to have two trade union general secretaries and a leftwing daily saying they would back candidates to the left of Labour. It was like what was happening in Europe with Die Linke. John Nicholson from Manchester said that unity required an offer of trust. That was what Respect had done with the Greens in the Euro elections. ‘Son of No2EU’ was the opposite: “You do not build up trust by announcing an unnamed coalition shortly before an election and after having refused to work with others in No2EU.”

Curiously, George Galloway’s reply to the debate was held until after the votes had been taken (mostly, as I said, nem con) and a message of support read out from Peter Cranie, the defeated Green candidate in the North West Euro constituency. Comrade Galloway’s reply was quite sharply polemical. He argued that No2EU had “objectively helped Griffin into the European parliament”. Now there was another coalition being set up with no name, which would adopt the same schematic approach to elections. He is against it. There is a clear choice of priorities: if everything is a priority, nothing is. Respect should focus on its target constituencies, not divert resources to building a broader coalition.

It is true, he said, that he writes for the Morning Star, but the Communist Party of Britain is electorally marginal and an electoral liability. He does not want to be in a coalition with communist and Trotskyist groups. He doubts that Brian Caton will be able to swing his members in the Prison Officers Association, who are not exactly leftwingers; or that the RMT or FBU will back the coalition when it comes to the crunch. Even if it gets off the ground, in the vast majority of constituencies the coalition will not be a serious contender, and the right answer will to be to vote Labour. At all costs we need to avoid the possibility of being seen to help the Tories to a landslide victory. We have to be able to say after the election: we stood where we were strong, and in a few constituencies on this or that principle against the sitting Labour MP, but in the main we did what we could to stop the Tories.

I spoke briefly to Nick Wrack in the tea break. He said – as Ian Donovan, and some Socialist Resistance supporters, also did – that there was an underlying issue of direction. Was the orientation of Respect to be to a ‘left’ including the Greens, or, on the other hand, to a working class movement? ‘Son of No2EU’ meant some very tentative steps towards a trade union break with Labour; it was important not to ‘diss’ these steps, but to encourage them.

A move to the right?

Was this a left-right debate and did it, as some blogosphere commentators suggest, amount to a move to the right? It is in my opinion much more ambiguous, and it is necessary to disentangle the different threads. In the first place, neither Galloway’s underlying position that Labour is preferable to the Tories nor his and his co-thinkers’ willingness to reach stand-down agreements with the Greens if possible is a novelty. Respect has always been a project for a ‘left’ defined in non-class or cross-class terms. So this is not a move to the right.

If anything, the arguments of Galloway, Yaqoob and Miah at this conference were posed more in terms of the working class and of collectivism than they were in previous years. (The cause is probably the crash and the threat of massive cuts to public services, which has forced everyone – even sections of the right – to think to some extent in these terms.)

Secondly, he and other platform and floor speakers showed considerable willingness to take on anti-immigration arguments directly and upfront. At the early Respect conferences, Galloway argued explicitly against opposition to immigration controls and I have no idea whether he has actually changed his view on this question (probably not). But the pro-migrant emphasis represents a substantial shift to the left. If it is followed in the run-up to the general election, and if the as-yet-unknown political platform of ‘son of No2EU’ is anything like that of No2EU itself, Respect will be well to the left of it on this front, on constitutional issues and on internationalism.

Thirdly, in my personal opinion Galloway’s judgment of the British political dynamics in the run-up to the coming general election and of the likely success of No2EU is much more realistic than that of the advocates of support for ‘son of No2EU’. The next general election will be fought under conditions of a realistic prospect of a Tory victory, and that will squeeze any ‘left of Labour’ vote, (as happened in 1979), precisely because – though Galloway did not use this expression – Labour remains a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’. ‘Son of No2EU’ remains – a little more than four months before the last possible date for an election – without a name, a political platform, target constituencies or candidates selected. It would take a miracle for it to make a serious impact. That said, Galloway and his co-thinkers’ hopes for Respect winning three MPs are also probably overstated: the squeeze on ‘left of Labour’ votes will hit them, too.

In a sense the core issue is, on the one hand, the arguments of the ‘Wrackites’ that ‘son of No2EU’ represents a class movement because of its trade union basis; and, on the other, Galloway’s arguments, casually thrown into his reply to questions, about an “unmaking of the British working class”; and connected, but sitting on one side, the issue of stand-down agreements with the Greens.

The ‘Wrackite’ argument is probably unsound. If ‘son of No2EU’ really involved trade unions turning out large numbers of rank and file activists as canvassers, fundraisers and local activists of the new project, we could really speak of a mass working class movement. No2EU itself, however, involved nothing of the sort. It would be surprising if it had, since the trade unions have never directly mobilised much more than money in support of the Labour Party – the grunt work being done originally by the affiliated socialist groups, later by the constituency and ward parties as a sort of socialist group.

Conversely, while in one sense Galloway is correct to talk of an “unmaking” – that is, the decay from within of the still formally and numerically imposing institutions of the working class – his argument is, like that of the Eurocommunists from which it is derived, overstated. Class is still a large feature of lived experience in Britain and one which has real influence on practical politics; and workers in industry and infrastructure, though fewer than they once were, retain very substantial numbers and are to a considerable extent organised in trade unions. It is this fact, which actually underlies the political dynamics of the general election, which Galloway throws at his opponents.

This in turn affects the issue of the Greens. The Greens are, quite simply, a semi-leftist petty bourgeois party: meaning by that that their financial and activist base is among professionals and small businesspeople. This is reflected in their conduct in local government office, which tends to be similar to that of the Liberal Democrats.

This does not imply that stand-down agreements with the Greens are unprincipled. On the contrary: it would be a perfectly principled tactic for a Communist Party, in order to overcome undemocratic hurdles to electoral representation, to enter into stand-down agreements with leftish petty bourgeois parties, as long as these agreements did not involve ‘mixing the banners’ or pretending that class did not matter.

Respect is, of course, not a Communist Party, but – as constructed – a cross-class, left-populist formation. But, paradoxically, the debate at its 2009 conference shows the ‘right wing’ in some ways closer to the idea of a Communist Party than the ‘left wing’. The reason is that the ‘right wing’ recognises that Labour is in some degraded sense still a workers’ party, and hence is groping towards a policy alternative to Labour. Meanwhile the ‘left wing’, believing Labour has ceased to be a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, is hoping to reinvent Labour on the basis of a trade union coalition without any real policy alternative to Labour.

Notes

 

  1. For example, on Liam Mac Uaid’s blog: liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2009/11/15/respect-conference-2/; on Andy Newman’s Socialist Unity site: www.socialistunity.com/?p=4884; on Dave Osler’s Dave’s Part: www.davidosler.com/2009/11/respect_dead_end_for_the_serio.html
  2. www.therespectparty.net/breakingnews.php?id=767
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