The Respect Renewal Conference was a stunning success.
It took place at the Bishopsgate Institute in the City of London on Saturday 17 November 2007. Notification of the conference had first gone out only on Saturday 3 November. In the intervening two weeks hard work by a team of volunteers ensured a wonderfully uplifting day.
Called at just two week’s notice it could have been a desultory affair. Given that it came after an acrimonious split in Respect it could have been rather depressing. Instead, it was a lively, if at times unpredictable, event attended by over 350 people. [A full credentials report will appear soon.]
As the Morning Star reported (Monday November 19), “The hall was packed out with a genuinely diverse crowd – young and old, men and women, black and white, Asian, Muslim, Christian and those of no faith, plus trade unionists and socialists from different traditions.”
People came from all over the country, with significant delegations from Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Dorset, Manchester and Bristol. Birmingham brought a coach load.
The hall was decorated with banners and photographs showing Respect’s successes and from the anti-war movement. Stalls from various left-wing campaigns hugged the walls of the conference hall. A tremendously inspiring video display projected onto the back of the stage images of working-class struggles from the last hundred years.
Behind the scenes a large army of volunteers ensured that the conference was properly prepared and ran smoothly.
At many times throughout the day there was standing room only. Refreshments prepared by a fantastic team of volunteers kept everyone going. A marvellous cake was eaten by everyone at the end.
When George Galloway’s letter to the Respect National Council, containing criticisms about the administration and organisation of Respect, was sent out on August 23 no-one could have predicted that we would end up, just twelve weeks later, with two conferences being held on the same day. No-one could have predicted, and no-one surely wanted, the split in Respect that has taken place.
However, the way in which the dispute was conducted by the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party meant that this split became inevitable. This was recognised by the SWP leadership itself and they entered into negotiations to separate.
It was an irony that the Respect Renewal Conference was taking place in the Bishopsgate Institute. This was the venue where the four breakaway councillors who had resigned the Respect whip in Tower Hamlets held their press conference on Monday 29 October.
That press conference was organised and attended by John Rees, SWP Central Committee member and National Secretary of Respect. This was one of the key events in the developing division, with the SWP leadership condoning and encouraging a split in the Respect group on Tower Hamlets council.
It’s been a pretty unpleasant three months for most of us as we have watched Respect split asunder. This split could have been avoided, if only the SWP leadership had been prepared to discuss criticisms and implement agreed compromises. Instead, at each stage it has increased the temperature of the debate, refusing to implement compromise decisions of the Respect National Council, illegitimately ruling out valid delegates to conference while ruling in other invalid delegates and vilifying those who disagreed with it.
Ludicrous claims of a witch-hunt against the SWP are still being made, despite the involvement of many prominent socialists in the Renewal conference. Criticism, even were it unwarranted, does not make a witch-hunt. The political justification for this by the SWP leadership is that there is a left-right split taking place. Again, this will come as a surprise to those at the Respect Renewal conference who will all identify themselves as being on the left.
A political split on the left is seldom good for either side. It can reinforce the idea that the left cannot be unified, that minor differences always outweigh agreement on bigger issues.
We recognise that this split is a set-back. However, there was a sense of liberation at the Renewal conference which reflected a feeling that we can now get on and do many of the things we should have been doing over the last three years – building branches across the country, linking up with others on the left and promoting our image and politics to a much wider audience.
The spirit of optimism and enthusiasm was demonstrated by the response to the financial appeal in which over £2,000 was collected. This was on top of the registration fee and travel costs that people had already had to pay. Membership forms and standing order forms for Respect Renewal Conference were also filled in or taken away.
There were many speeches, both from the floor and from the platform, which expressed the frustration that Respect’s development had been held back by the controlling hand of the SWP leadership. This is because of the SWP’s approach towards Respect, which sees it as something to be turned on for elections (in very few places) and then turned off. Those attending the Renewal Conference were very much of the view that Respect needs to be built continuously and broadly across the country. It has to contest elections but it has to be more than solely an electoral organisation. In order to win elections you have to be active and present all the time in between elections.
It is clear that Respect Renewal represents the overwhelming majority of non-SWP members in Respect. Our disagreement has not been with the many SWP members who have worked hard to build Respect but with the SWP leadership, whose political approach and behaviour over the last three months has alienated most of those outside the SWP and, indeed, many within it.
The conference was opened by Linda Smith, Respect National Chair. Because of her position as chair, Linda has headed up the list of 19 National Council members who have opposed the bureaucratic methods of the SWP leadership. She has also had to suffer a campaign of vilification from some members of the SWP in an attempt to undermine her.
George Galloway, Respect’s only MP, introduced the first session with one of his usual tours de force.
A great way to start conference. He outlined the reasons the Renewal Conference had been called and answered some of the ridiculous charges that the SWP leadership have levelled against him and others on the Renewal side. He poured scorn on the idea that this was a left-right split, or that he was anti-trade union.
Salma Yaqoob, Respect National Vice-Chair, spoke. She outlined her opposition to free market capitalism and the idea that there is no alternative to it. She explained how US capitalism relied on its massive military might to dominate economically. She repudiated the charge of ‘communalism’ made against her by the leaders of the SWP, outlining the practical steps she and other Respect supporters have taken in Birmingham to overcome tensions between different communities.
Ken Loach, world-renowned film director and winner of the Palme d’or, calmly outlined some of the reasons for the split and offered some suggestions for the way forward.
Guest speakers Andrew Murray, Chair of the Stop the War Coalition and Sami Ramadani, Iraqi Democrats against the Occupation, spoke about the need to continue our opposition against the war and occupations and to remain vigilant about further military actions. They both correctly warned about the importance of the split in Respect not being carried into the Stop the War movement and weakening it.
Anas as-Tikriti, from the British Muslim Initiative, reminded conference that he had relinquished his position as chair of the Muslim Association of Britain in 2004 in order to head Respect’s list in Yorkshire for the European elections. He is one of many talents that Respect has not called on in recent years.
Throughout the day there were many speakers from the floor. They spoke about the reasons for the split and about how to go forward. Inevitably, there were many contributions that dealt with the role of the SWP leadership. Several of these were all the more powerful because they were made by people who have recently resigned from the SWP: sacked union militant Jerry Hicks gave the most impassioned speech, along with Jo Benefield (35 years in the SWP), Richard Searle, Kay Phillips and Nadir Ahmed, a young member from Newham who resigned from the SWP during his speech.
The presence of these and other former members of the SWP should be answer enough to the suggestion that Renewal is right-wing or anti-trade union.
The SWP leadership were given the opportunity to put their case, with Weyman Bennett and Michael Bradley, both members of the SWP Central Committee, called in to address conference. They were listened to politely.
We were very pleased to have Derek Wall, principal male speaker of the Green Party addressing conference in a personal capacity, together with Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper. We look forward to working with Derek and others from the radical environmental movement in the future. We hope that we can reach out with Red Pepper to the many thousands of unaffiliated people on the left, to work together on the many issues that concern us all.
One of the silliest arguments made by the SWP leadership against those at the Renewal conference is that we reflect the right of Respect. It was amusing to watch the SWP-Respect conference systematically ask each of the speakers that had agreed to speak at the Renewal conference to speak at theirs. This included Andrew Murray, Sami Ramadani and Derek Wall, who quite rightly took up the invitation to speak at both conferences. Derek’s comments on the two conferences can be found at his blog
Derek Wall makes the amusing point that Rania Khan, speaking at the SWP-Respect conference, attacked the Renewal conference for having Derek speaking at it – only to then learn that he was speaking at her conference as well.
Brian Caton, General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association, one of the more militant of British trade unions, sent greetings and best wishes to the conference but I stupidly forgot to pass them on.
Several of our councillors spoke. Mohammed Ishtiaq councillor for the Birmingham Sparkbrook ward answered the charge of communalism by explaining that one of his opponents had come from the same village as his family. People had tried to persuade him not to stand against this person but he had stuck to his guns because it was a matter of policies for him, not family or village.
Three councillors from east London who haven’t normally been put on Respect public platforms until now revealed their tremendous abilities, which will no longer be hidden. Councillors Sheikh and Hanif from Newham spoke. Councillor Abjol Miah, leader of the councillors group in Tower Hamlets addressed conference with a powerful speech, showing his prowess as a speaker and his politics as being clearly on the left.
Patricia Armani da Silva, the cousin of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was brutally murdered by the police on 22 July 2005 spoke about the campaign to get justice for Jean. She called for the resignation of Metropolitan Police chief Ian Blair, a demand that was unanimously endorsed by conference.
Francisco from the Venezuela Information Campaign and Penny Duggan from the French Ligue Comuniste Revolutionnaire (LCR) both addressed key international issues and added an important international dimension to the day. Pakistani lawyer and veteran socialist Anwar Dholan spoke from the floor about the state of emergency and repression in Pakistan.
In the final session National Council members Alan Thornett, Clive Searle and I mapped out the way forward for Respect Renewal supporters. Conference endorsed proposals that the 19 National Council members who had called the conference continue to co-ordinate Respect Renewal work over the next six months, along with volunteers who want to help to organise things.
There will be a series of rallies and smaller meetings across England and Wales to discuss and debate the way forward, culminating in a recalled conference either in the Spring or after the May elections next year. Everyone who wants to contribute to the debate will be welcome.
One of the most important announcements was that the Socialist Resistance group, whose members had played a prominent part in building this conference, have agreed to hand over their paper to Respect Renewal. The first edition will appear in time for the Climate Change demonstration on 8 December.
The main message from this conference is that the task of building Respect and the broader opposition to New Labour continues. Of course, there are weaknesses. Emerging from a split means that we have only the skeletal outline of an organisation in most places outside east London and Birmingham. Although there were significant contingents of young Asian men and women from east London and Birmingham, we do not have anything like as many young people as we want. We need to reach out to young workers. We need to begin work in the further education colleges and universities to recruit students. This work will now begin. There are very few African and African-Caribbean members of Respect and we need to address this issue urgently.
Respect is not the finished article – far from it. We are just one small part of the process of building a new party to represent working class people. We have had fantastic successes in Respect’s short existence, with the election of an MP and several councillors. But that cannot be enough.
We want to build Respect Renewal. But we also want to reach out to everyone else who wants to build a left alternative to New Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories. We want to build a bigger, broader and more unified party of the left, representing the desire of working-class people for change. That is our main task: to work with others to create a radical, left party for all, whatever background or tradition. We have energy, enthusiasm, optimism and – most importantly of all – we have the radical, left-wing politics to appeal to millions.
If you want to join or find out more about Respect Renewal then contact us at Respect Renewal:
Fill in a Standing Order form or make a donation to Respect Renewal Conference.