Lindsey German reports from the successful first annual conference of Respect.
There have been repeated predictions of its demise - most recently from the employers' house magazine, the Economist. But Respect's first annual conference, held in London on the final weekend of last month, was a success which defied even the highest expectations. Over 300 delegates from across England and Wales were engrossed for two days in debates which ranged from Diego Garcia to Palestine, from anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) to asylum seekers.
The mood of the conference reflected Respect's origins in the anti-war movement with its warmth and sense of unity. But there was also a serious and sober determination to develop policy which can take us into the next election and beyond, and which can make Respect the natural home for all those who want to fight oppression, injustice and the neoliberalism which all the major parties espouse.
The main themes were opposing war and imperialism, defending communities and developing an election strategy. The session on defending communities turned into a riveting debate covering crime, housing, anti-racism and asylum seekers. Policy passed on these issues marks out Respect as a genuinely left alternative to Labour and a principled fighter against the scapegoating of minorities.
The Respect MP George Galloway introduced the session on electoral strategy arguing that we should target seats carefully in the election probably due next May. We have done remarkably in east London, Birmingham, Leicester and other places. But we have to concentrate our forces to make sure that we can be most effective. That means we should limit the number of seats in which we are standing and put all our efforts into those. We should also aim to get agreements with other parties of the left including the Greens, who have so far refused to come to any arrangements which could benefit us both.
Respect is a grassroots organisation and that was reflected in the organisation of the conference and the proposals put forward. Workshops on Kashmir and Kurdistan were organised by Kashmiri and Kurdish members, the civil liberties workshop by campaigning activists. Respect's youngest councillor, 23 year old Oliur Rahman, proposed a youth Respect. Respect for Palestine was discussed in that workshop. The number of resolutions also reflected grassroots input which meant there were too many to be given justice in the discussion at the conference and a number were remitted for discussion at the national council.
Who was at the conference? Socialists, trade unionists, sections of the Muslim community, and a number of former Labour activists who have left to join Respect. Two Respect councillors who were formerly Labour addressed the conference, as did the general secretary of the PCS civil servants union, Mark Serwotka. The People's Justice Party from Birmingham and the Muslim Association of Britain both sent delegations which brought messages of support.
Respect's policies from this conference are ones with which anyone on the left could and should be proud: on asylum seekers, housing, education, defending young people, for a woman's right to choose on abortion and a huge range of other issues.
Not everyone was happy with the conference. A small number of people put forward resolutions on Respect's structure and constitution, on secularism and representatives accepting the 'workers' wage', which were aimed at dividing the unity of Respect rather than carrying the organisation forward. They received even less support than they had done in January at Respect's founding conference, and often their motions had to be moved formally because they had so few delegates to speak on them.
There are many genuine differences of approach and politics within Respect. It is after all a coalition, which requires all its components to find common ground rather than insisting on their total view becoming that of Respect. There will be debates over the coming months over some of the remitted resolutions, over the method of election for Respect's leading body, the national council. Above all there will be serious discussions about where we stand in elections, and how we build Respect locally.
But the conference demonstrated that Respect is serious, its members full of talent, ideas and commitment and that it is here to stay. So for those, like the Economist, or even a few on the left who predict its imminent fall - don't hold your breath. And for those who are sick of the main parties and who are looking for a principled campaigning alternative - you deserve Respect.