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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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]