Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

The Future for Respect

John Rees and Elaine Graham Leigh

Respect has organised the most successful electoral intervention by the left in British politics in two generations. It has galvanised hundreds of thousands of voters, tens of thousands of activists and drawn thousands towards radical ideas.

But as any organisation grows it confronts new problems and must refresh its structures and modify its strategy in order to deal with them.

We regret that George Galloway's criticisms of Respect have, inevitably, now been reproduced on many websites, including The Labour Party website, circulated on the Internet and become the subject of articles in The New Statesman, the East London Advertiser, The Independent and the sectarian left press. But if the debate they have initiated leads to a renewal of Respect democratic structures and a renewed strategic orientation they will have served a useful purpose.

Below we set out our views on the future of Respect.

1. Has "nothing changed" since we founded Respect?
George's desire to attribute all the problems that Respect faces to organisational questions centred on the national office has led to the claim that there have been no changes in the objective situation that present us with any problems.

This is obviously not the case. The defeat of Tony Blair, the arrival of Gordon Brown, the defeat of the British in Iraq and a renewed level of industrial struggle are all quite significant changes in the objective situation that pose fresh difficulties and challenges for Respect.

Equally the development of Respect itself presents us with problems that simply did not arise at the beginning. In some areas we have been so electorally successful that we attract tens, sometimes hundreds, of candidates and supporters who simply never existed in the early days. At the beginning we never thought of worrying about Labour and other defectors joining Respect because they could be successful rather than because they believed in its politics.

Now this problem is present in every area where we are successful and the pressure on us from this direction is intense. In Tower Hamlets it has led to two defections from our original council group of 12 councillors. It makes every selection process a battle ground and it demands the requirement of strong political belief and commitment to Respect's politics is greater than ever. It also demands greater accountability on all sides.

Look at the record in Tower Hamlets: the Vice Chair of Respect left and stood for the Liberals at the last council election; former Labour councillor Mortuza joined Respect amid much publicity then left again and stood against us for Labour; and now one Respect councillor has joined New Labour and another caused a by-election in Shadwell which Respect only retained by 97 votes after a 6.7 percent swing to Labour. If this goes on the pressure of Labourism and opportunism will break the council group in our greatest stronghold.

In other areas the problems are different. Since the very beginning of Respect we have consciously and deliberately adopted a policy of concentration of resources in order to make electoral breakthroughs in our best areas. We wished to avoid the Socialist Alliance experience of standing more widely but rarely winning.

It has been a successful policy. But every success breeds problems and in some areas Respect is less strong than it could or should be. John Rees raised this issue at the last NC and recommended that we now relax the policy of concentration and overcome the unevenness of Respect by building on a more widespread basis.

We will return to how we can best overcome these problems in the conclusion of this document.

2. Does this mean that Respect is "moribund"?
The council election results this year hardly support this view. We won in Birmingham, Preston and Bolsover. But the success was general where we stood. In Sheffield we doubled our base, by winning substantial votes in two wards rather that the one ward of the year before. In Bristol where Jerry Hicks' original ward was not up for election we successfully created another base in a central Bristol ward. In Cambridge Tom Woodcock got a terrific vote. In Leeds and Halifax we ran our strongest ever elections campaigns. In Leicester we ran our strongest campaign since the Leicester South by election. Even in the weakest areas like Whitstable and South Wales we began to put Respect back on the map.

And no one reading George's document would think that in the last two years we have sunk significant resources into creating Student Respect. This has been an outstanding success in the colleges, has had significant electoral success in local colleges and at the NUS conference. Student Respect has reshaped the left in the colleges and on significant issues moved NUS to the left. This year, for the first time ever, Respect supporters have won NUS to affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition.

George's document questions the Organising for Fighting Unions initiative yet it has held the most successful union activists' conference since the 1980s, effective local rallies, large fringe meetings at union conferences and a highly successful May Day rally. Without this initiative Respect would have had little purchase on the rising tide of industrial resistance.

3. What is the truth about the organisational and financial failure of Respect?
George is unfortunately poorly informed about Respect's organisation. There are misunderstandings and factual errors in nearly every paragraph of his document. Here we correct just some of the most important:

• The Respect national office is neither 'amateurish' or 'irresponsible' with money. We have brought the debt of Respect down from 21,000 in 2006 to just 3,000 in 2007. There are now no unpaid long term invoices.

• Respect did not 'lose 5,000' on the Fighting Unions Conference. The cost of the conference was exclusively carried by Organising For Fighting Unions from its own funds raised through conference fees, trade union and other donations. In fact Respect made 168 from the sale of merchandise at the conference.

• It was a Respect national conference decision to prioritise the building of Fighting Unions. The NC resolution on this issue was passed overwhelmingly as was a North Birmingham resolution also calling for the prioritisation of OFFU work.

• The national office staff work systematically on the membership, with the result that the figures for renewed members are significantly higher than at this time last year.

• It is not possible to collect money on Pride because the organisers exclude bodies who collect money on Pride. There was no instruction from the national office to attend Pride, only a letter encouraging people to do so. Most floats at Pride cost between 4000 and 5000 but because the national office obtained a free flat bed truck and other material at below cost price the cost of the Respect float came in just below the budgeted 2000. Every demonstration costs money. This was money well spent when Respect is constantly under attack for not supporting LGBT rights. The Barking Mela is attended by 60,000 but Pride is attended by more than 500,000 people.

• There was not 'an exceedingly poor involvement of the wider national membership' in the Shadwell by election. Abjol Miah, the leader of the Respect group of Tower Hamlets councillors, phoned John Rees after the election to congratulate him on the wider mobilisation and to express the view that the victory would not have been possible without it.

• It was a decision of the national officers, in line with conference policy, to prioritise the Fighting Union conference leaflet on the Manchester STWC demo. There were, of course, Respect placards, Respect stalls and other Respect materials.

• The 'Brown coronation' demo did have a specially produced Respect recruitment leaflet.

• All appointments of national office staff have been agreed by the national officers. Any objections to the individuals or the process could have been raised at the officers group or at the NC at any time.

• Salma has not been 'airbrushed' from the organisation. For instance, she was invited to speak at the STW conference, to chair a major session at the OFFU conference and to speak at the Birmingham OFFU rally. She declined all these invitations. She is a member of the officers group but has not been able to attend a meeting. She is a member of the NC but has not been able to attend a meeting since the last Respect conference. Salma was a welcome speaker at the Women's Conference in March this year.We are happy to discuss this situation with Salma if she has further suggestions for improving contact between us.

• Nearly all the members named for inclusion in the elections committee are already members of the officers group the problem is that some of them rarely, if ever, attend.

4. Is there a crisis in the leadership of Respect?
Yes there is but since the evidence in George's document is not accurate it cannot be for the reasons he gives. Rather the crisis has developed like this: at the foundation of Respect there was a high degree of consensus over the nature of the organisation. This was a result of many long hours of discussion hammering out the founding statement and the programme of Respect.

But in the course of three years the growth of the organisation, the pressure of success, the changes in the struggle have all meant that new problems have arisen on which divergent views have emerged.

These are of course perfectly ordinary disagreements over strategy and tactics and they occur in any political organisation. But over time and taken together they amount to a different perspective on how we respond to the pressures of Labourism and electoralism. We believe that the constant adaptation to what are referred to as 'community leaders' in Tower Hamlets is lowering the level of politics and making us vulnerable to the attacks and pressures brought on us by New Labour. It is alienating us not only from the white working class but also from the more radical sections of the Bengali community, both secular and Muslim, who feel that Respect is becoming the party of a narrow and conservative trend in the area.

These pressures exist everywhere we are successful. But they do not always have the same outcome. In Preston and Newham for instance similar debates have been resolved on terms which have strengthened the original vision of Respect. And although this has sometimes meant that some would-be Respect supporters have turned to Labour it has done us no serious or long term damage. Indeed, by raising the level of politics and the coherence of the Respect cadre it has made us stronger. Remember at the last council elections the Respect vote in Newham was higher than that in Tower Hamlets even though the number of councillors elected was less.

These issues of orientation and candidate selection have now been raised as national issues by George's document and it is important that we resolve them in ways that stop the drift away from the vision that we initially held of Respect as a radical left project.

5. More democracy and accountability
The most important thing we can do to improve the performance of Respect is to realise that the new prime minister is not only weakened on the issue of Iraq, as was Tony Blair, but even more vulnerable on issues of privatisation, deregulation and trade union rights. Brown is after all the author of New Labour's neo-liberal economic policy and is now confronted with more industrial unrest that Tony Blair ever had to face.

Respect must therefore continue to locate itself in the labour movement mainstrean and among the core of the organised working class if it is to progress beyond its current areas of success. The launch of Fighting Unions and the intervention in Pride were meant to, and did, advance this perspective. More, not less, of this kind of work is necessary.

If we are to use the discussion provoked by George's document productively then we must insist that there is a greater degree of accountability and democracy in Respect.

The work of our elected representatives is rarely effectively reviewed by the democratic bodies of Respect, not least because, with a few honourable exceptions, the leading elected figures in Respect rarely attend them or report to them.

Indeed one of the crucial weaknesses of Respect is that the work of the MPs office, those of the various council groups and the national office is not co-ordinated.

Important media and political initiatives, which have a profound effect on Respect, are taken with no consultation or prior discussion.

We need a return to the democratic structures of Respect as the primary site of these discussions. Those elected to the NC and the national officers group must attend and discuss their work with other elected comrades in Respect.

6. George's organisational proposals
George makes two suggestions: that there should be an elections committee appointed and that a national organiser should be appointed after interview.

These are sudeful ideas but they need to be adopted in a way that is consistent with the democratic structure of Respect:

The committee with the personnel that George suggests (except for Yvonne Ridley) already exists. It is the national officers group elected by and accountable to the NC. All that needs to happen for this to become the committee that George wants is for the people who have never or rarely attend it to turn up. Others can be co-opted, as the Respect constitution allows, according to the committees wishes and by agreement with the NC. If we wish to make a special concentration on the coming elections the officers group can meet as an elections committee on, say, every second week.

To appoint a second committee is unwise since it gives two committees, the officers and the elections committee, a brief covering very many of the same areas with no indication which body, if there is a conflict of interest, takes precedent.

The appointment of another national office worker, whatever their title, would be very welcome. There is of course no problem with an open interview process of the kind that the national office has already used in the past.

But any worker so appointed will have to work under the direction of the elected officers of Respect.

Moreover, before we advertise such a post it would be wise to know where the wages for this employee will come from. Indeed it would be sensible if wages were in the bank before we took someone on.

7. Where do we go from here?
The discussion over the future of Respect can be one which strengthens the organisation. A renewed committment to resolving tactical and strategic issues through the democratic structures of Respect, an increase in the accountablity of all the elected officers and elected representatives of Respect and an insistence on maintaining the radical impulsed on which Respect was founded can give us all greater confidence in facing the challenges ahead.

But most of all we need to get to work on the GLA campaign and the preparations for next year's council elections and what may be an early general election. Respect's radical message wins more votes today than it has ever done. But it needs to be put more credibly before an even wider range of voters.

If we all recommit ourselves to this task the future for Respect can rise above the already great heights that it has scaled in its first years.

John Rees, national secretary
Elaine Graham Leigh, national treasurer