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Challenges for Respect

Salma Yaqoob

George’s document accurately outlines the two biggest challenges and responsibilities we face today: ":to build Respect directly and to place it at the centre of a progressive realignment":. In order for Respect to rise to these challenges there are some foundation stones that must be in place.

Firstly, if Respect aspires to be a coalition of individuals and organisations from quite divergent political backgrounds, but united against imperialism and neo-liberalism, it is imperative that the internal political culture inside Respect is one that is at ease with difference and pluralism and not threatened by it.

Secondly, Respect has to proactively seek to embrace the broadest currents of progressive opinion if it is to fulfil the aspirations behind its launch.

The need for Respect
The need for a party to the left of Labour is more urgent than ever. This is confirmed for me on the second Tuesday of every month, when I attend the meeting of Birmingham city councillors. It is indicative of the sorry state of affairs of the Labour Party that they are regularly outflanked to the left by the Tories.

Under New Labour, wealth inequality and privatisation has increased dramatically. Gordon Brown calls on public-sector workers to accept a cut in their real level of pay, while 1% of the population owns one-third of all personal wealth in this country. Where the Tories only managed to sign 100 PFI deals with big business, Brown has delivered more than 600 wasteful and privatising schemes.

Meanwhile, Liberty argues that the government is ‘laying the infrastructure of Orwell’s Big Brother state’ and we see the ever-increasing beat of US war drums against Iran.

Despite the significant obstacles the first past the post system poses for smaller parties, I remain convinced and committed to the future of this project.

The broad constituency in favour of peace, equality and social justice is growing. On many issues it is even a majority in society. Millions of people are against war, against privatising and running down the welfare state, against racism, and for greater equality. There is an opportunity to be a voice for these millions, and to offer an electoral alternative to the parties of war and injustice.

Facing realities
Despite the growing number of people who oppose imperialism and neo-liberalism, the balance remains in favour of the parties of war, privatisation and racism.

Tony Blair won the 2005 election in the face of mass protests against the war. The growth of the BNP across the country far exceeds our own modest successes. Yes, Labour will lose seats at the next election. But the vast majority of them will be lost to parties to their right.

Respect therefore faces a situation where there is widespread and growing sympathy for the type of ideas we espouse, but where the parties of the right are increasing their stranglehold on electoral politics.

In a situation where our opponents remain far stronger than us, it is essential that we seek to operate in the most consensual and pluralistic manner possible, open to cooperation with all those, regardless of party, who share our commitment to peace, equality and justice.

This will be impossible if Respect is perceived as the property of a single organisation. To build a coalition of like-minded individuals and organisations we must go the extra mile in our efforts to include different voices and experiences. We have to consciously and proactively demonstrate to all those outside Respect that they have a place in our coalition, and that by joining us they are signing up to a genuine coalition in which no single component of it is in a position to impose its views.

If our coalition is currently insufficiently broad, it is all the more important that we act, and are seen to act, in such a way as to reflect the coalition we want to be.

The challenge for Respect is to be able to work with, and be a voice for, this growing broad progressive constituency. This constituency includes people who remain tied to Labour or other parties such as the Greens. We have to work patiently to build up our vote at a local level. But we also have to be part (and almost certainly a minority part) of a much wider network of alliances.

George has pointed to the urgency of initiatives in the aftermath of Blair’s resignation to capitalise on the space for a discussion on left realignment. This discussion is also taking place outside Respect. For example the recent Morning Star Conference and articles. And, in a different way, they are taking place in and around the Labour Party.

We have not been bold enough in taking initiatives to further this potential dialogue.

Respect needs a more democratic and inclusive internal political culture

Having taken the first steps towards bringing together a new party to the left of Labour we need to encourage an internal culture that is far more inclusive and participative.

If it is not seen that we operate in a genuinely collaborative manner, if we cannot manage our differences in a non-factional manner, we have no hope of being the pole of attraction to those disaffected with Labour and looking for an alternative. George’s proposals about strengthening the role of the national office with a new national organiser to work alongside the national secretary and a revamped officers committee are changes that need to be introduced. In the run up to conference we should also conduct a thorough examination of our current practice.

Why is it that Respect has such an uneven profile not just across the country, but also even within areas where we have made headway like London and Birmingham? How do we make ourselves more attractive to those disaffected with the current political system but nervous about Respect?

How can we improve our public events? How do we strengthen the political depth of our activists and better shape the political culture within the organisation? Is the slate system the most democratic method of electing delegates to our national bodies? Is it the case that we convey the impression that Respect is dominated by a single organisation? If so, what can we do about it?

Many members have expressed dismay that while their organisation is in the midst of this debate, no reference to it is made on our website and they have to scour the net to glean a greater understanding as to what the debate is actually about. There should there be space on our national website for internal discussion and the posting of internal documents.

Damaging allegations
Unfortunately, the manner in which this current debate is being conducted is a bad advertisement. Misrepresentation of views is perhaps a feature of these kinds of rows, but that does not make them any more excusable. It is, unfortunately, necessary to deal with two rather unpleasant allegations that have been introduced into this debate.

Firstly, it is not the case that I oppose the diversity of Respect candidates in favour of Muslim men as claimed by the SWP. As one of the few Muslim women in a prominent political position, I am more aware than most of the obstacles that are in our way, and the importance of bringing more woman (in particular) into leading political positions.

In Birmingham, four out of five candidates in the 2006 local elections were women. But in 2007, only one woman sought a nomination. All the other nominations were from Asian male candidates. In the only contested election the one woman prospective candidate was defeated but I wrote to Socialist Worker (10 February) specifically urging SWP members to come forward as candidates for any of the other 33 wards that we could have contested. No other nominations were made, leaving us with 7 male candidates.

Even more upsetting have been accusations around ‘communalist politics’ in Birmingham as reflected in the SWP Party Notes of 7 March 2007.

The allegation of communalism has been thrown at Respect from our enemies, and it is disturbing to see echoes of it inside Respect. Only those ignorant of my record, or hostile to my work, could make such a charge.

The fault line of ‘communalist politics’ in Birmingham has most recently been between African-Caribbean and Asian communities who often feel in competition with each other over council funding. These tensions tragically ignited in Lozells where two young people lost their lives. There is no political figure in Birmingham more closely associated with trying to address these tensions than myself.

That is why I initiated the women and children’s Peace March in the aftermath of the Lozells riots which received very high local news coverage. That is why Respect supporters took great risks, behind the scenes, to ensure there was no retaliation from Pakistani gangs in the aftermath of the desecration of Muslim graves in Handsworth cemetery. When I spoke from the platform of the recent Jesse Jackson rally to a 600 strong (and overwhelmingly African-Caribbean) audience, I used my time to call for black and Asian unity. It is not accidental that I was the only politician to speak at the recent march in Lozells against Gangs and Guns organised by the Council of Black Led Churches.

Furthermore, both in my newsletters and within the council chamber I have specifically championed the issue of poor educational attainment of white working class boys from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If I wanted to pander to conservative pressure inside the Muslim community, appearing on Question Time and opposing the imposition of Islamic dress on women, opposing the criminalisation of women in the sex industry, or opposing homophobia in the local media, would not exactly be the best way to go about it!

It is hard to think of a more damaging allegation than that of communalism. It can only sour relations between us and give ammunition to our enemies.

False divisions
Differences have to be discussed with restraint, and communication and dialogue is the key. Unfortunately, since I disagreed with John Rees over an issue of tactics in July 2005, I don’t think I have received more than 2 phone calls from him. Personal feelings are not the issue. The National Secretary should be able to maintain working relationships and act as a link to all parts of Respect. He should consult widely to learn from everyone’s experience.

It is disingenuous also to make references to my inability to attend National Officers meetings when no effort was made to act on my request to hold meetings on web cam to facilitate those of us who don’t live in London and have childcare and family commitments. A leadership striving to be as inclusive as possible would be imaginative and proactive about encouraging participation, especially of those with childcare and family responsibilities.

It is also disingenuous to misrepresent the issues at heart as being about whether John Rees should or should not resign. Neither George nor myself have called for John Rees’s resignation. In our meeting I commented to John that had I been in his shoes I would have stepped down, but I also made it explicit that I was not making this a formal demand in any way and was advocating only those demands outlined in George’s document. For the SWP to report this as a formal call for his resignation is a deliberate distortion, designed perhaps to distract from the real issues raised.

What I find most insidious about these allegations is not only that they are false, but that they have been deliberately circulated to foster divisions and exacerbate differences within Respect.

If the SWP leadership had issues of concerns about the political direction in Birmingham, particularly if they felt something as serious as a ‘pandering to communalism’ was taking place, the very least I would expect is that these concerns would be communicated directly to myself or raised openly inside Respect. Neither has happened.

Instead, it appears these claims, and others, are designed entirely to marshall SWP members with pseudo ideological cover in what is really a drive for control. Overall it has hindered not helped Respect and no doubt has been counter productive for the SWP itself. The interests of one factional bloc have been put above the broader interests of the Respect itself. This method has caused confusion and poisoned relations between people who otherwise had got on well up to that point.

This highlights an important issue of principle for Respect if we are to be seen as a genuine coalition and not a front for one component part – whether that is the SWP today or a ‘independents bloc’ tomorrow. We have to build into the culture, and maybe also the constitution of Respect, safeguards that compel us to work in a collaborative and not a competitive manner. In our internal dealings we have to enact the values of openness, transparency, pluralism and democracy that we espouse in broader society. In this way there will be consistency between our goals and our process, which will only strengthen us. It involves short-term compromise for long term gain.

My experience with ordinary SWP members had overwhelmingly been a positive one. They are committed, sincere and hard working activists. I value their contribution to Respect and other campaigns. I do not want to see the SWP outside Respect, and I continue to hope that they will play an important role in building Respect. I have been saddened by the unnecessary deterioration in relations.

Conflating legitimate criticisms of the National Secretary with allegations of plots to ‘subordinate’ socialist elements in Respect, also only compounds our problems. The notion that ‘the socialist left’ is in danger of being subordinated inside Respect can only be read as patronising. The inference is that, without a guiding hand, the rest of us (especially Muslims) would quickly gallop to the right and pander to all manner of prejudices. I do not accept that the SWP is the sole guarantor of the progressive values around which we have united.

While the well from which I draw my commitment to social justice may be a different one, it is every bit as deep. It was out of this very commitment to genuine progressive values that I helped initiate Respect.

Respect needs to build on its electoral strengths
On a national scale, our electoral successes are modest. But, in particular areas, we have really made an impact.

In East London, Birmingham and Preston we have developed a real base, with much of our support coming from Muslims. This is a strength, which we should celebrate. Opposition to the war on Iraq ran deepest among Muslims. Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, in particular, are among the most disadvantaged in our society. The constant attacks on the views and way of life of Muslims have produced deep anger. All of these factors serve to highlight the inadequacy of political representation at a local level, and the very limited representation for Muslim communities at a national level.

The fact that Respect has won a serious base in some Muslim communities is a tremendous achievement for all of us. For the first time, a part of the genuine left has sunk deep roots in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. In a period where racism is on the rise, and multiculturalism is under attack, the importance of this is hard to overestimate.

We have been much weaker in areas where this combination of factors is not as strong. But this is not, as has been unhelpfully suggested by the SWP, evidence of a lack of commitment to ‘widen and diversify Respect’s working class support’.

George’s letter specifically highlighted the contributions of Michael Lavalette in Preston, Jerry Hicks in Bristol and Maxine Blower in Sheffield – all white, socialist candidates. No one in Respect thinks that we are, or should be, a ‘Muslim party’. On the contrary, what we have tried to achieve is the coming together of people from very different traditions and backgrounds by stressing the common ground between us. This vision, which was at the heart of the discussions which led to the formation of Respect, remains as strong today as it was then.

There are whole swathes of white working class areas that feel abandoned. We need an honest discussion inside Respect about what we have committed to these areas, apart from rhetoric.

It is not true, either, that this argument is about whether Respect should withdraw ‘into the electoral common sense that only particular "community leaders" can win in certain areas’.

But the reality is that the strongest candidates will invariably be those who are the most locally rooted. This is electoral common sense. The Respect brand is simply not strong enough that we can parachute candidates into areas where they have no local roots and hope to do well.

Wherever this method has been applied the outcome has been poor and damaging to us.

Sustained local community activity is the key to ensuring strong local candidates and every potential Respect candidate should aim to be a ‘community leader’ if they are serious about trying to win. Part of our role is to be able to bring the respected and rooted local activist (or ‘community leader’) into the wider progressive alliance that we have created, and for us all to be strengthened by this common ground.

We need an open and frank discussion about the state of many Respect branches.

Too often we just do not undertake the hard slog of embedding ourselves in local communities by consistently addressing their local issues and concerns.

Building coaches for anti-war demos, or working in your trade union is important. If you want to get be elected as a councillor the electorate will also want to see the same passion and commitment about the local issues that are impacting on their lives.

Too often our organising skills are not focused enough on consistent local campaigns, advice surgeries and following-up on casework. Similarly attending resident associations or neighbourhood forums is rarely a priority, although these are often the arenas where local people gather to express their concerns.

We need to combine in our local work both a commitment to campaigning around the big political issues and addressing ways these link to specific local issues that impact on people’s day-to-day lives.

We need to work consciously and patiently to consolidate and extend our vote in our existing strongholds. And, where we are weaker, we need to begin to act as if we were already local councillors. The crisis of political representation extends right down to ward level. We have to be willing and able to offer an alternative now.

There are many people outside Respect who should be in Respect. By accepting George’s proposals we have an opportunity to strengthen a culture of participation and pluralism that clearly signals our willingness to be a genuine coalition. We have an opportunity to show, in practice, that we are a home for those seeking an alternative to the right wing consensus.

There are many more people outside Respect, who share many of our principles but who, for a variety of reasons and party loyalties, may not join us at the moment. Our willingness to be open and flexible in co-operating and sharing ideas and experiences is vital for the future of us all.

My vision for Respect is of a coalition which acts to support all those who share a commitment to peace, equality and justice. In building Respect we have to act in a way that strengthens this broad progressive constituency and does not divide it.