Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Ovenden’

Respect Annual Conference 2009

Salma Yaqoob at the Respect Annual Conference 2009

The Respect Annual Conference was held in Birmingham this year.

The Respect annual conference took place in Birmingham on Saturday with 210 delegates attending. The event revolved around the three key themes of our general election campaign: anti-racism and defense of multiculturalism, opposition to the cuts agenda of the mainstream parties, and international solidarity.

The opening session was introduced by Respect party leader Salma Yaqoob. Salma laid into New Labour for creating the conditions under which the BNP has grown; with its attacks on the Muslim community and increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Salma Yaqoob speaks at the Respect Annual Conference 2009

Salma Yaqoob

She described how, since 9/11, Labour has resisted any examination of the disastrous role of its own foreign policy in creating a homegrown terrorist threat, leaving the impression that there is something intrinsic to the religon and culture of British Muslims that presents a threat to British society. She cited Jack Straw’s attacks on Muslim women who wear niqab; the attacks on mainstream Muslim organisations like the MCB and MAB for “sitting on the sidelines” in the fight against terrorism from the former Secretary for State for Communities, Ruth Kelly; and the Preventing Violent Extremism agenda, now described by Liberty as the ‘biggest spying operation’ since the Cold War.

Delegates at the Respect Annual Conference 2009

Conference delegates

Similarly when Gordon Brown says that he wants ‘British jobs for British workers’, or ‘local homes for local people’, or curbs on immigration, he is stoking the fires of fear and intolerance that the BNP are the primary beneficiaries of. Salma challenged myths about immigrants being responsible for the recession or shortages in housing and concluded by emphasising Respect’s twin track approach in tackling racism: On the one hand, upholding and defending multiculturalism and challenging all forms of racism; and on the other hand, challenging the social inequality that allows the politics of resentment and division to breed.

The following discussion was by far the best of the conference. Not only was the quality of contributions largely very impressive, but they also conveyed a deep sense of commitment to tackling racism and an engagement in that struggle.

George Galloway at the Respect Annual Conference 2009

George Galloway

The second session was introduced by George Galloway, focusing on the recession and the politics of an alternative to economic crisis. Unfortunately, the discussion became distorted by those advocating the yet to be born ‘son-of-No2EU’.

An account of what followed, by an observer from the Green Left, accurately conveyed George’s response: ‘Galloway absolutely hammered No2EU in particular for standing against Peter Cranie in the North West… and refused to entertain any talk of coalition with the son of NO2EU.’ In addition to hammering NO2EU for effectively letting the BNP in (‘if the left had united it would have been Peter Cranie on Question Time not Nick Griffin’) he was scathing about the exaggeration being peddled about son-of-NO2EU. Contrary to claims by Ian Donovan, there were not ‘three national unions’ supporting this initiative; the reality was that three national union secretaries addressed a meeting in a personal capacity on working class political representation. George predicted the FBU would not support any so-called ‘new coalition’ and ridiculed the idea that the Prison Officers Association were now in the vanguard of building a far-left of Labour alternative, saying this would come as a bit of a surprise to any prisoner, especially those black, Irish or Muslim prisoners who had been on the receiving end of dealings with ‘screws’.

A sharp tone was adopted by both George and Salma towards an increasingly marginal current of opinion in Respect that sees our future as part of a coalition of the far left. The tone reflects the degree of frustration with an argument, just 6 months before a General Election, over backing a coalition with no name, no policies and no electoral credibility.

Nick Wrack at the Respect Annual Conference 2009

Nick Wrack

It also reflects a clear difference of strategy. As both George and Salmaexplained, we are focused on building unity and working with others, but we reject the narrow conception of left unity that gives pride of place to organizations with absolutely no popular support. Respect’s former National Secretary, Nick Wrack, came in for particular criticism, with Salma pointing out the irony of his calls for ‘left unity’ when he was one of those insisting that Respect should stand against the Greens in the North-West European region.

The message was delivered loud and clear: we wish all those who want to join the ‘coalition with no name’ well on their journey, and where we can establish friendly relations with any other progressive party or coalition we will do so, but we have an opportunity to advance the left by getting Respect MPs elected. If we fail, it will not be for the want of trying.

Andrew Murray at the Respect Annual Conference 2009

Andrew Murray

The final session was introduced by Andrew Murray who received a standing ovation for his passionate call for opposition to the war in Afghanistan and for Respect to use its strengths to help Stop the War reconnect with its core support. He was followed by Francisco Dominguez from the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, who painted a vivid picture of the Bolivarian revolution 10 years on, the threats it faces, and the importance of international solidarity. Finally, Kevin Ovenden outlined exciting new developments in Palestinian solidarity, describing the way that Viva Palestina was fast becoming a global campaign, finding new and significant support in Malaysia among other places, and deepening its productive relationship with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

Delegates vote at the Respect Annual Conference 2009

Delegates vote

There was genuine and sharp debate at this conference. And the outcome was clear. Respect’s leadership is absolutely determined that the influence of the ultra-left will remain marginal. There is no place for the kind of political sectarianism that is indifferent to a Tory victory or bitterly hostile to cooperation with the Green Party. Such views, often articulated by politically irrelevant grouplets of the far left, are an obstacle to the growth of a radical party of the left. The potential for a serious radical and left-wing party will be determined by its ability to speak to the millions who are essentially disillusioned Labour

Respect Annual Conference 2009

Respect Conference

supporters, and its ability to provide convincing alternatives to the politics of war, racism and cuts.
I fully expect the new National Council, on which the more sectarian voices are a shrinking minority, to drive through this perspective more forcefully in the coming year.

A report by Ger Francis

[Videos for this event will be available soon. Picture gallery on the Birmingham Respect facebook group: here]

Additional reports:

Respect Conference – Andy Newman, Socialist Unity (15.11.09)

Respect Conference in Birmingham today – Derek Wall (Green Party), Another World is Possible (14.11.09)

Gallery: Save Gaza & Boycott Israel meeting – 18.01.09

Images from the 500-strong Gaza meeting, which took place at the Bordesley ‘Amaanah’ Centre in Birmingham on Sunday 18h January, 2009.

More images at the Birmingham Respect facebook group here.

Images: Mark Anthony France

Event: ‘Save Gaza & Boycott Israel’, Birmingham – 18.01.09

Salma Yaqoob addresses the crowds at the Gaza meeting in Birmingham

Salma Yaqoob addresses the crowds at the Gaza meeting in Birmingham

Report by Mark Anthony France
RESPECT National Committee

On Sunday 18th January 2009, following the 5,000-strong Demonstration through the streets of Birmingham the day before, over 500 people packed into the Bordesley Centre Camp Hill for the ‘Justice for Palestine’ meeting organised by Birmingham RESPECT.

As the size of the audience grew so did the atmosphere of excitement. This felt like a confirmation that RESPECT was a real force to be reckoned with in Birmingham politics. The audience was reflective of the local community and included a much higher number of young people and in particular young women than Respect Public meetings held in 2008

Aisharr Mahmood and Mariam Khan speak about Gaza

Aisharr Mahmood and Mariam Khan speak about Gaza

Mark Holland, who has been active in the Birmingham Labour movement for three decades, chaired the meeting and first to speak were two young women who have played a key role in mobilising solidarity with the people of Gaza over the past 3 weeks. Miriam Khan and Aisharr Mahmood spoke of the success of their work in using Facebook groups as a method of connecting with and organising young people and they received cheers from the audience. Miram and Aisha talked of how children and young people all over the planet have been affected by the images of slaughter caused by Israeli weapons.

Former US marine and Guantanamo Bay guard Chris Arendt speaks on Palestine

Former US marine and Guantanamo Bay guard Chris Arendt speaks on Palestine

Then Mark Holland introduced Chris Arendt a 24-year-old former Guantanamo Bay Prison Camp Guard who has been working with Moazzam Begg in a recent Caged Prisoners speaking tour. Chris talked about how impressed he is by the size and enthusiasm of the Palestinian Solidarity movement here in Birmingham he said “I am more used to speaking to small groups of concerned Christians and Liberals”.

Next up was the radical Anglican cleric Ray

Church minister Ray Gaston supports Gaza

Church minister Ray Gaston supports Gaza

Gaston who congratulated the audience for their hard work over the past three weeks in building the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign across the city. Ray explained how he was inspired to join RESPECT, he said “I was inspired by this woman [pointing to Salma Yaqoob] to join and to proudly stand as a candidate for RESPECT”. Ray went on to talk about the dangers of ‘Demo fatigue’ and noted that there was another national mobilisation called for London next weekend. Ray questioned whether now might be a better time to ‘think globally and act locally… to deepen the effectiveness of our campaign where we live’. Ray talked of the mobilisation tomorrow in nearby Lichfield against the factory that was manufacturing engines for the Israeli Drone aircraft used against the people of Gaza.

Ray was followed by Councillor Mohammed Ishtiaq who talked about the successes of RESPECT leading the way on Solidarity with Palestine in the Council Chamber using the clear moral arguments to bring New Labour, Lib Dem and Tory Councillors on Board with the Boycott Israel campaign. Cllr Ishtiaq talked about how many of these forces have now back tracked he said “Lip Service is no good….we need action in practice”, to growing applause Cllr Ishtiaq stressed that “the Boycott should start in our own homes”

At this point in the meeting George Galloway arrived and to rapturous applause joined Mohammed Ishtiaq on stage.

Kevin Ovenden [George Galloway’s Political Assistant and RESPECT National Committee Member] also joined the platform and after bringing greetings from the RESPECT activists of London’s East End spoke in some depth on the origins of the Zionism and its connection to the imperialist system that developed in 19th century Europe. When Kevin talked of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 15th Century and described how they were given refuge by the Islamic peoples of the Levant and Mahgreb he reiterated that the “slurs against us that we are Anti Semetic…anti Jewish have no foundation…and have never had foundation… to stand up to the Israeli State is not to be Anti-Jewish”.

Salma Yaqoob on Gaza

Salma Yaqoob on Gaza

When Councillor Salma Yaqoob took the microphone it was to prolonged and warm applause. She said “I haven’t come here to inspire….. I have come here to be inspired by you!” and the applause started again. At some points in Salma’s heartfelt speech individuals in the audience began to cry at other points there was smiles and laughter. She talked of the energy she gained from the mass mobilisations of ordinary working class Brummies. She explained why she put so much effort into attempting to construct the broadest political coalition to give practical support to the Palestinian people. Salma said she “didn’t regret arguing till midnight with councillors from other political parties to finally win agreement on the Boycott Israel Campaign”.

Salma began to say how proud she was of the role of the RESPECT Councillors and members in piling on the moral pressure. At this point the meeting exploded in spontaneous chanting of ‘FREE, FREE PALESTINE! FREE, FREE PALESTINE!’ Evoking the spirit of 3 weeks of mass action…Others began to chant “SALMA IS OUR MP!”

There was a standing ovation for Salma before George Galloway RESPECT MP for Bethnal Green and Bow took the microphone.

George Galloway encouraged support for the Gaza Aid convoy

George Galloway encouraged support for the Gaza Aid convoy

George spoke of the double standards and hypocrisy of the media focusing on the failure of the media to describe Hamas as ‘the Democratically Elected Government of Gaza’ and spoke of his disgust at the news earlier in the day that Brown is sending the British Navy ‘not to bring aid to Gaza but to tighten the siege’ to ‘prevent Hamas from getting weapons’… George said ‘What is wrong with the Palestinians having weapons to defend themselves from Israeli state aggression?’… ‘The Palestinian people need arms to defend themselves’. Towards the end of his speech George talk of the plans to establish a Convoy…. A Convoy of Aid to travel from Scotland through all the major population centres of the UK across to the continent …. through France, Spain across to Morocco and through all of North Africa to Egypt.
George said … ‘…and when we get to Rafah, if the Egyptian government will not let us through we will smash our way through!” Our aid to Gaza will get through!

After a second standing ovation the meeting began to disperse. Hundreds of people had signed contact sheets to become more involved with RESPECT’s work, Hundreds of pounds were collected for RESPECT and over 100 copies of ‘the RESPECT Paper were sold.

The end of this meeting marked the consolidation of the mass base in the working class that RESPECT activists in Birmingham have been building over the past year. This mass base has been tested through 3 weeks of intensive internationalist struggle, fighting for Justice for the Palestinians.
Birmingham RESPECT is in a powerful position to turn this mass base into a electoral breakthrough with the election of Salma Yaqoob as the MP for Hall Green in the next General Election.

Images: Mark Anthony France