It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times
The following is the text of an eight-page document sent to members of the Respect National Committee in August 2007.
THE Shadwell by-election victory has stunned the New Labour establishment, turned the tide in Tower Hamlets and opened up the real possibility of winning two parliamentary seats in East London which, together with the potential gain in Birmingham, would make us the most successful left-wing party in British history.
New Labour’s decision to try to rehabilitate Michael Keith – the former leader of Tower Hamlets council who we first defeated last year – raised the stakes in this election enormously. A victory for him in a ward where we had all three councillors would have thrown us into a grave crisis. Instead, it is Labour that is suffering shattering demoralisation and we are enjoying a post-Shadwell bounce.
Ealing Southall, on the other hand, just a few weeks before, marked the lowest point in Respect’s three-year history. The failure to harvest even the vote we had secured in just one ward of the constituency in the local elections 12 months earlier was a sharp reminder that what goes up can come down and should shatter any complacency about the London elections next May.
It is clear to everyone, if we are honest, that Respect is not punching its weight in British politics and has not fulfilled its potential either in terms of votes consistently gained, members recruited or fighting funds raised.
The primary reasons for this are not objective circumstances, but internal problems of our own making.
The conditions for Respect to grow strongly obtain in just the same way as they did when we first launched the organisation and had our historic breakthrough in 2005.
Anyone who was at the 1000-strong street celebration after the victory in Shadwell will attest that the idea of Respect remains very much alive and, as Jim Fitzpatrick MP said in Tribune, it’s clear that "the Iraq war hasn’t gone away".
Michael Lavalette’s advancing position in Preston shows what can be done with imaginative and dedicated work. In Bristol, around Jerry Hicks, and in Sheffield around Maxine Bowler, we have placed ourselves in pole position to enter the council chamber. But to achieve that we must recognise our serious internal weaknesses which are becoming more apparent and which threaten to derail the whole project.
No systematic effort has been able to be mounted – in fact, a major effort had to be launched to get back to the levels of membership we had, despite electoral successes, widespread publicity and the continuing absence of any serious rival on the left. This has left a small core of activists to shoulder burden after burden without much in the way of support from the centre, leading to exhaustion and enervation.
It is a moot point whether the turn to building Fighting Unions which occupied the National Office for four months was the correct prioritisation of slender resources, following our breakthroughs at the local elections last year. What is not moot is that mismanagement turned an event which ought to have been a money-spinner into a money-loser.
Equally the Pride intervention, which occupied a great deal of the organisation’s time (I personally was telephoned three times to be asked if I would make it, and others report similar pressure) can be compared to the total lack of a presence at the Barking Mela last weekend – the biggest in Europe – or the minimal campaigning presence at the recent London Latin American festival. Again, while it is arguable that Pride was the priority, what is not arguable is that fundraising at it should have been included in the plan.
Further, what ought to have been the unalloyed success of the Pride intervention was seriously marred. Instead of a simple encouragement for members to attend – with a logical emphasis on LGBT members and young people – several members in elected office were subjected to a high-handed "instruction" from the national office to take part. It appeared to them to be some kind of misplaced test of their commitment to the equality programme of the organisation. This is frankly absurd. There are LGBT people who don’t feel comfortable being on a float on a parade. It would be a serious mistake to read off someone’s commitment to equality from their willingness to be dancing on the back of a truck on the Pride parade.
Having done that and spent £2000 there was no effort to publicise our intervention externally by ensuring that all the relevant media and organisations were made aware that we were the only political party to have a float on the parade.
For example, at the selection meeting for our Shadwell candidate two members of staff were openly proselytising for one candidate and against another – including heckling – and even after the decision had been taken. This undoubtedly contributed to the exceedingly poor involvement of the wider membership in the subsequent election. No paid member of staff attended the Shadwell victory celebrations and when I asked one of them if they would be attending I was told "no, I will be watching the football". This was noticed widely by the activists who were present at the celebration and commented upon. It is again bad management to allow such culture and practices to proliferate.
Now she has been airbrushed from our history at just the time when she is becoming a regular feature on the national media and her impact on the politics of Britain’s second city has never been higher.
There appears to be no plan to rescue her from this perdition, indeed every sign that her internal exile is a fixture. This is intolerable and must end now. Whatever personal differences may exist between leading members the rest of us cannot allow Respect to be hobbled in this way. We are not over-endowed with national figures.
Decision making and implementation
For example, there was a very useful discussion at the last national council on what initiatives we should explore following Brown’s succession and the then anticipated failure of the McDonnell campaign to get out of the starting gate. Among the varied suggestions were seeking to cohere wider progressive opinion around a minimal five point programme; approaching McDonnell to organise an open meeting in Parliament; seeking a joint conference with the RMT, CPB, Labour left and others; and organising a people’s march to London as an agitational vehicle for rallying forces and struggles against the Brown government.
None of these have been seriously followed up. The overall emphasis – that the departure of Blair and the failure of the Labour left’s strategy opened up possibilities for us both to build Respect directly and to place it at the centre of a progressive realignment – was allowed to run into the ground.
Building the organisation
Two of our outstanding members are at the helm of Defend Council Housing; many of our members are active in it in their localities. Yet as an organisation we have done far too little to raise the Respect banner inside the campaign and, to put it bluntly, cash in on the work our activists have put in and the turmoil the campaign has caused among disaffected Labour councillors and Labour-supporting tenants and trade unionists.
At the successful Stop the War demonstration outside the Labour Party conference in Manchester in September last year the nationally produced propaganda was for the Fighting Unions conference. It was thanks only to the Manchester comrades that we had a tabloid promoting Respect as a political formation. It was again thanks to the Manchester comrades that we had such a publication for the protest outside Brown’s coronation.
In every area of activity we need to encourage in our members a focus on recruitment, fundraising, establishing the profile of our candidates and unashamedly promoting Respect as the critical force in the wider reconstitution of the progressive and socialist movement.
Relations between leading figures in Respect are at an all-time low and this must be addressed. I have proposals to make which are not aimed at a change of political line, still less an attack on any organisation or section within Respect. They are aimed at placing us on an election war-footing, closing the chasm which has been caused to develop between leading members, together with an emergency fundraising and membership drive to facilitate our forthcoming electoral challenges. Business as usual will not do and everyone in their heart knows this.
The crossroads at which we now stand can take us either down the Shadwell route or the road to Southall.
Instead of three MPs and a presence on the GLA we could have no MPs and no one on the GLA by this time next year. A few honest moments thoughts should suffice to calibrate where that would leave us. Oblivion.
I cannot imagine that any member of the National Council wants to see us arrive at the destination where now lies the wreck of left-wing politics in Scotland and so I hope that these proposals will be considered with the best interests of the Respect project uppermost in our minds.
A way forward
This committee must comprise the leading members of Respect, including Salma, Linda Smith, Yvonne Ridley, Abjol Miah (as the leader of our 11 councillors in the central election battleground of Tower Hamlets), me, Lindsey German, Alan Thornett, Nick Wrack as well as the National Secretary.
I also propose a crucial new post of National Organiser, preferably full-time, whose task would be the aforementioned re-organisation and re-energising of the key clusters of Respect support and the encouragement of members everywhere. This position would sit alongside the position of National Secretary. It must be advertised and subject to competitive interview overseen by the elections committee.
While this document may seem stark in black and white it reflects a widespread feeling which has surfaced in various ways – including at the National Council – and it is clear that the status quo, or minor tinkering, are not options. Time is short, renovation is urgently required and we must start the process now.