The neo-cons got more than they bargained for when they invited George Galloway to Capitol Hill last month.
More used to subservience from its visitors, instead it was the Senate committee and, by extension, the whole Bush administration which found itself on trial for the illegal war in Iraq. George Galloway has spoken for the millions throughout the world who have opposed one of the great crimes of modern times.
His performance came after a remarkable victory in Bethnal Green and Bow in this year's general election. Respect secured its first MP by overturning a Labour majority of over 10,000 votes. The coalition also performed excellently in the east London constituencies of East Ham and West Ham, as well as in Birmingham Sparkbrook, coming second in each. Almost one in five voters backed Respect in Poplar and Canning Town and there were also good votes in Preston, Tottenham, Leicester South and Birmingham Perry Barr.
Respect was formed less than 18 months ago out of the huge movement against the Iraq war. Opposition to war must remain central to the Respect project, especially given the prospect of Bush 'spreading democracy' to other countries. But Respect also has to take up wider social issues. Blair may have been bruised by the election but he has continued with the New Labour project unabated. The appointment of David Blunkett to attack our pensions gives an indication of what we can expect. The queen's speech also trailed further privatisation of the NHS, education and cuts in incapacity benefit. Blair has also made it clear that he will pursue a nasty right wing moral agenda.
Respect must rise to the challenge. Many will look to George Galloway to lead the charge and, as his performance in Washington showed, this is a responsibility that he will relish. But it is what Respect activists and supporters build on the ground that will prove crucial.
Respect must become a truly national mass organisation as a matter of urgency. We need a network of supporters and activists in every area. Of course everyone who promised Respect their vote while we were canvassing should be urged to join. But thousands more will have been inspired by the political earthquake of George Galloway's victory as well as his speech on Capitol Hill.
Harnessing that enthusiasm means entrenching Respect in the public consciousness as a campaigning organisation that resists the New Labour agenda. In Bethnal Green and Bow, this means, for example, fighting to stop the removal of a fire engine from the local fire station. Respect promised to fight this cut in the run up to the election. We must ensure that we back up this pledge by mobilising hundreds, if not thousands of local people who will, if necessary, physically prevent the vehicle's removal.
Clearly Respect is well placed in Tower Hamlets and Newham to launch such mass campaigns and to vastly extend its influence by next year's council elections. But there is nothing exceptional about east London. Networks of tenants, trade unionists, churches, mosques, parents and myriad other community groups exist throughout the country which we can tap into. The prize is building a dynamic organisation that can give a platform to the struggles of working class people across England and Wales.