Saturday, November 17, 2007
Respect: Very Live. posted by Richard Seymour
"I was as happy as anyone when George Galloway won in Bethnal Green & Bow, and when the Respect councillors were elected ... I have declined to speak to the Renewal conference, and I'll tell you why. I have always believed in unity. Who is the happiest when some people split from Respect? Gordon Brown. He sees this as an opportunity. My appeal is for unity, but there can never be unity in a left-wing organisation when people attack and witch hunt other socialists." Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union.
The scoop is that Respect isn't going away. I can tell you this with a level of confidence and optimism today that I couldn't have yesterday. There were two events billed as Respect events today. One was the national conference, with 350 elected delegates and observers, resolutions and motions to be voted on. It would have contained more people, but 90 people had to be turned away since Westminster University was unable to provide an overflow room. I was there as a press person to observe and report, and did not participate in the votes. I will provide a run-down of the votes for you, but all passed resolutions will soon be available on the Respect website. The other was a rally held at Bishopsgate, without elected delegates, to which invitations were widely sent. I am told the latter had a decent turnout, 200-300 people mainly from Tower Hamlets, which is one of George Galloway's few strongholds. Two of our speakers, Andrew Murray and Sami Ramadani - both from the antiwar movement - spoke at both conferences, urging the necessity of unity above all when it came to antiwar activity. If anyone in either conference doubts that, they are surely in the decided minority.
This is how the National Secretary John Rees summed up the political framework that shapes the present problem (this is a summary of the key points rather than a transcription - as a rule, the comments reported in this account are far more likely to be strictly word-perfect, and I also expect Adrian Cousins to have full video clips posted on Youtube soon). "There are many issues, but the central thing, the irreducible core of the debate, is how to respond to electoral pressures, especially in areas like Tower Hamlets, and Birmingham, and Preston, and Newham, and wherever we have been successful. It is a debate produced by success. Four years ago, we had no record, we had to hunt for candidates to stand for us, and we had to persuade hundreds of people to fight for a left-of-Labour candidatge simply on the basis of the political arguments - probably not even expecting to win, but believing in the principle of it. That is not now the situation in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Preston or Birmingham. It is now the case, especially in those areas, that the minute we open nominations, tens of people put themselves forward, and sometimes hundreds of people register as members to influence the selection. It is no longer the case that people are only coming to Respect because of principle - now, people are coming because the best way to be elected is in Respect. We want to select and elect people who are as committed to the original vision of Respect as an anticapitalist, antiwar coalition. There has been some cost to us in this - in Tower Hamlets, of 12 councillors elected in May 2006, we have lost two. One of them crossed the floor to become part of New Labour, and the other resigned, causing a bye-election which we won by a small margin. There has been enormous pressure from the Labour machine - several people have been approached to leave Respect and join Labour, not only to be councillors for them, but they have been told that the sitting could be deselected and they could become parliamentary candidates. Michael Lavalette was told that if he would go for Labour, they would work to de-select Mark Hendrick. Now, sometimes George Galloway has resisted those pressures, but at other times, in important and damaging ways, he hasn't. We do have to have a robust attitude toward Respect's democratic procedures - it is not good enough to just select the person supposedly most likely to be elected if six or nine months later, they undermine the project and make us look like any other party. Because the most damaging thing that New Labour has done is to take the politics out of politics - you know what they say, it is no longer about ideology, but about delivery. If you take the ideology away, what's left? Careerism, avarice and opportunism. If we do that, we cease to be a real and radical alternative.
"We know from Labour Party history that you can pass great resolutions and be committed to the best policies, but if you don't elect the people who can fight for them, the resolutions don't make a difference. Part of the problem has come from our strategy - in a first past the post system, we sought to maximise our advantage in the strongest areas, in the hope that other places could follow. But this does create problems. It's been noted that the only people elected were Muslim comrades - and I make no apologies for that. They did what they should have done, what we wanted them to do - but they also realise, as we do, that we needed to be broader. At the 2006 conference, we therefore committed to support the Organising for Fighting Unions (OFFU) conference and get involved directly in the labour movement, and I think OFFU has been one of our success stories. It's been a lie, but a constant theme of our critics, that Respect doesn't stand for gay rights. So, we put this specific emphasis on the Gay Pride parade. This is one of the things that George Galloway has been critical of, but - whatever the technical issues - it was the right thing to do. I think the other side of this debate is pessimistic about where we can go, and want to concentrate on a few areas. I think if an NUM mining official like Ray Holmes can be elected as a Respect councillor in Bolsover, there are no no-go areas for Respect. Additionally, we cannot have forty or fifty members being signed up on one night for a meeting, by one person, with £450 of his own money - that is not the way to proceed. We didn't want this fight, and we don't accept many of its terms, but we always had to face these problems. The truth is that the core of any organisation is not its leadership, whatever the contribution they have made, but the membersip."
Members then spoke from the floor. Jackie Turner from Tower Hamlets Respect spoke on some of the issues faced by the local organisation. She spoke of the opportunism that had poisoned Respect's successes. The former Labour councillor Mortuza had signed up with Respect in a bid to be the leader of the group, and left when it didn't work out to stand for Labour (he lost to a Respect candidate). Others tried the same, and left for the Liberals when they didn't get their way. There was a lot of pressure to stand only certain candidates for certain areas - older Bengali men. Lindsey German pointed out that this involved a certain condescending attitude to Muslims, as if they would accept undemocratic practises or couldn't vote for young women - if that attitude had been accepted, Salma Yaqoob couldn't have stood for us. Paddy O'Keefe said: "I've heard us described as the SWP faction - now, look, some of my best friends are in the SWP. But I'm not. However, I value the dignity and restraint of some of the people who have been under attack personally in the blogs and in the media, and sometimes in the face of extreme physical provocation." Rania Khan revealed some of the problems she and her fellow councillors had faced locally, including the often horrible treatment of women and the difficulties working under the local council leadership. She said: "It's been claimed that John Rees was behind us resigning the whip, but I am telling you now that this is not true. He told us to stay in it, to save Respect - I'm sorry John, we tried our best, but the struggles became too hard, and we couldn't continue. The real principles of Respect were being forgotten because the committee meetings were lost to infighting." There was a general feeling in favour of wanting to preserve unity in some way: some grassroots members feeling they didn't pick this fight, and not accepting its terms. One pointed out that she had been ready to bash Rees and Galloway's heads together - until she spoke to some people in the East End and found out what had been happening. Nahella from Manchester added - "no one has asked us, and that's been really frustrating".
"I know where I am. I know I'm at home, in the real Respect." Jane Loftus, president of the CWU.
Kumar Murshid, the former Labour councillor and adviser to Ken Livingstone, provided some background. "This issue of pocket membership is important - you can't have a democratic party when one person buys a number of members. I've seen this before in the Labour Party, and it has a corroding and corrupting impact, and it strips ordinary members of their ability or desire to be active in and have an effect on the party. As far as the mainstream parties in Tower Hamlets are concerned, they have always been cynical. The Labour Party rewarded corruption and incompetence, and used divisions. And we remember the Liberals during their eight years of misrule in the Eighties and Nineties - they ruled in a racially divisive manner, with the effect that the BNP won their first ever councillor there. Respect can and should be a different story. I'm afraid what the other lot are doing is engaging in an elaborate personality cult movement. Many of the people in the other rally are people we have tried to work with, but who don't believe in open democracy. And I have seen this in Tower Hamlets, and we had to take a stand against that."
"I love Respect!" Councillor Lutfa Begum
One of the best speeches of the day was from guest speaker Karen Reissmann: I have some video of it later. I think it's important to be angry about what's happening to the NHS, and some of the details are truly shocking. The hounding of Karen and union activists like her is being conducted against the background of a wasteful PFI initiative, which has quadrupled the cost of beds. Yet, for the duration of the strike, they have sent patients to locked hospitals who shouldn't be locked up, sent them away to hospitals a hundred miles away, and paid for twenty extra beds in the private sector. As soon as the strike is over, they will no longer pay for the beds. The local campaign against cuts and privatisation has been extremely effective, nevertheless, raising £120,000 so far. The local media is sympathetic, the Green Party and the Liberals demand Reissmann's reinstatement, and the only people opposed are - well, who do you think? John Molyneux made what I thought was an extremely important intervention, urging an strong focus on climate change. The latest IPCC report shows that the rate of climate change is even worse than some of the so-called 'doomsayers' have predicted, and this is already beginning to impact on people's lives. We absolutely have to make a strong presence for Respect at the 8th December protest. I'm convinced that there is no answer to this enormous problem that doesn't begin to challenge the distribution of property and political power throughout the whole planet.
This is Michael Lavalette's speech:
Councillor Ray Holmes, displaying his rosette, introduced himself with a breezy "Hi folks!" I like this guy. "I want to say how proud I am of Rees and the others, and I think we are standing by our principles," he said. He explained how brilliant it was to be a Respect councillor and stand against policies imposed by the government, and urged us all to give it a try if we could. "The reason I took part in Respect was because I wanted the people by my side who share the same principles as me - and the attacks on the working class are coming thick and fast, and need the maximum unity to oppose them." Jane Loftus, president of the CWU, was extremely warmly received. The crucial debate taking place in the unions now cannot be overlooked: there are those who still argue that the unions should support Labour, despite all, but that is becoming a much more embattled position - "Even during a strike with 98% solidarity, we got nothing from Labour". And therefore, Respect should be at the heart of that debate, putting itself where hundreds of thousands of people are struggling. Francois Duval of the LCR didn't want to intervene in a dispute in the British left, but he did tell us a great deal about the fight now taking place against Sarkozy's reforms, a mere six months after the victory of the right-wing parties in elections. "Sarkozy is not even living up to his rhetoric," Duval said, "his campaign slogan was 'work more to earn more'. People are working more, but they are not earning more!" Comparing the current critical situation to the miners' strike, he argued that only a full general strike could win the situation. And because the parliamentary left are attacking the protest movement, because they share the prognosis and diagnosis of the right, a political re-alignment is necessary - to that end, the LCR is attempting to form a new broader anticapitalist party, which may come about in 2008 or 2009.
"I want to pay special tribute to one particular person. It's not Lindsey German this time. One person who has been especially important to the antiwar movement, and who has been a real pleasure to work with as a comrade is John Rees. And I must say I don't recognise the man in some of the things that are now being said about him." Andrew Murray, national chair of the Stop the War Coalition
Sami Ramadani spoke mostly about the war: "I waited with some anticipation when Gordon Brown made his first speech in conference, since it was suggested there would be a policy change on Iraq. He only devoted 19 words to the Iraqi carnage in an hour-long speech. Over a million killed since the invasion, 4 million refugees, the health service collapsing, Iraqi children can't go to school any more - only 19 words. They are now dividing Baghdad into thirty military zones, in tactics they learned in Vietnam. They know if they can isolate an area and surround it, they can crush all the resistance within it. 30 military zones - 19 words. They have convinced the media that a withdrawal from Iraq will result in bloody war: this is a lie. The presence of troops is the main reason for the violence. And the American idea of a withdrawal strategy is to leave a puppet regime, a network of military bases and a subdued population - that isn't the withdrawal that Iraqis want." Further, "the same multi-national corporations who are after Iraq's oil are profiting from a system that kills 2 million children ever year from hunger. So, this movement really matters, and I would appeal to you all, when it comes to the antiwar movement, to work together and keep the unity going."
Ady Cousins has posted Karen Reissmann's whole speech:
There was something about the unscheduled nature of Mark Serwotka's arrival and his comportment at the mic which suggested that his speech was going to be a dramatic one. I make no apologies for saying that it was by far the best speech of the day I think he set a context and an analysis that was necessarily broader than the problems of Respect, but as the quote at the top of this post makes clear, he isn't sitting on any fences. I will try and summarise as best as I can: "First of all, can I say I'm delighted to come to conference today. The context of my appearance is the need in this country for a united left alternative to Labour. And after having spoken here today, I am going to speak to the Labour Representation Committee to support John McDonnell, and also especially to urge them to look out more to the non-Labour left. We need industrial unity to resist the attacks of New Labour, but we also need political unity to give people hope. We've got to look at the opportunities today - every time I have met government ministers, and even trade union leaders, and I raise the problems faced by my members, and other workers, the uniform answer is always that no matter how bad it is, the offer from the Tories will be worse. The Labour Party think they can take working class support for granted, and this gives them a tremendous in-built arrogance: it invites them to be more right-wing and stick the boot in more. So, we have to make some important decisions now, because we don't want to be in the same situation in ten years time.
"Three weeks ago in Stirling, the churches were giving out food vouchers to people who couldn't get their benefits. The reason why they couldn't get their benefits is that there weren't enough staff to support them - they are cutting 40,000 civil servants. When it came to those who needed emergency loans, the most desperate people, what should have been available in 24 hours took five weeks to be delivered. It's not an isolated incident - among the cuts, New Labour is delegating welfare to the charities and private companies, increasingly. And I think, this is not Bush's America. It's a Labour government that is doing this to us. People are dying in hospitals because of underinvestment. They're handing hundreds of thousands of pounds to private consultants. And look at EDS - they have a clause in their contract that says if they are ever removed from a contract for poor performance or anything else, they have to be offered another contract. These are clearly corrupt contracts. And when billions are being paid in city bonuses each year, we are being told that public sector workers are the cause of inflation.
"If this was as good as politics could get, then we may as well pack up right now. But it isn't. How do we get from where we are now to something better? I think the first thing is that if you are in a union, I will say this publicly today, you must redouble your efforts to hold your union leaders accountable, especially if they are looking the other way while workers are being attacked. These are not idle thoughts. I have spent months working with comrades to defend our services, some of whom I can see in this hall, and I've seen union leaders turn their back. The PCS, from not striking for years, has now had four strike ballots in three years, and the last one we had three weeks ago had the highest level of support of the lot. And look at the members of the CWU, who showed they were not cowed. They were prepared to fight against their employers and the government, and not only in official strike action either. They took illegal action to defend their conditions. So, we have got to bring the unions together in action to produce the maximum effort. And I say this to Karen Reissmann today, it's almost certain that at our next NEC meeting, there will be a unanimously passed resolution on giving a substantial financial donation to her campaign.
"And the Prison Officers Association. I know they're not the most popular trade union, but they took illegal action. I got phoned at 6.30am when I was on holiday in Wales to be told that they were going to take an illegal strike action. And I take my hat off to them: they faced punitive fines, and possibly the destruction of their union. If the POA are fined, then my union and every other union should put their hands in their pockets and pay the fine, and show the government that we won't let our fellow trade unionists be bullied. We have repeatedly called for coordinated strike action, and a lot of other unions have said they hoped they would have unity - but you must have unity in your sector before you can unite with others. When Gordon Brown has announced that he will be imposing pay restraint until 2011, we need all public sector workers on the picket line, on the same day. if they can do it in France, we can do it here. Now, that may win victories, and we may make progress, but it won't stop the bosses coming back. We need a political alternative. I have seen the SSP prove that with a fair election system and a basic unity, you can overturn the lie that people won't vote for left-wing parties. I was as happy as anyone when George Galloway won in Bethnal Green & Bow, and when the Respect councillors were elected. I call for unity, and it is a sad irony that I am visiting three socialist meetings in London today - the Socialist Party, the LRC and this one. I have declined to speak to the Renewal conference, and I'll tell you why. I have always believed in unity. Who is the happiest when some people split from Respect? Gordon Brown. He sees this as an opportunity. My appeal is for unity, but there can never be unity in a left-wing organisation when people attack and witch hunt other socialists. And I won't hide it, I disagree with Martin Smith and John Rees on a number of things, but we have to find where we agree. We have to tolerate difference, welcome debate, but we need unity.
"We should not see today as a desperate position. We should see it as an opportunity to clear some things up, and move on stronger. And I would urge you - to avoid splits like this consuming your organisation, you need to root it in the organised labour movement. Let me tell yu about the TUC general council in July. Eighteen of us went to see Gordon Brown. I arrived about half an hour early and had to wait in the cabinet room - my son called and thought I was running the country. Brendan Barber and the others arrived, and Brendan asked all of us for a list of ourse concerns. We raised conditions, pay cuts, services and so on. And someone whose name I won't mention - well, he happens to be the general secretary of Britain's biggest trade union, so that'll narrow it down - said, 'I have to stop you all here, this is crazy: we are all forgetting that our priority is to get our government re-elected'. We have always had people in our movement who put Labour before the interests of the movement. But more people are questioning that. We see Bob Wareing standing against Labour, where he has been disgracefully de-selected so that Stephen Twigg - someone who I would argue does not know much about Liverpool - can stand as the Blairite candidate. We see Respect standing elsewhere. And today could perhaps be the day that we recognise what unites us is so much more than what divides us. We need to go out there and build an alternative that gives Gordon Brown sleepless nights, and our children hope for a better future."
You don't even have to take my word for it any more. Happily, Ady Cousins has uploaded the whole speech:
Andrew Murray, who is admired throughout the antiwar movement, and by both sides of this dispute, echoed Sami's plea that we opt for the maximum unity in the antiwar movement - splits happen, sometimes its unavoidable, but the tremendous work that had been done together by all sides including many in the Renewal rally shouldn't be rewritten. "The truth is, we have a responsibility to the British people, and to the people around the world - however big the difference between Westminster and Bishopsgate looks here, it is invisible in Beirut and Baghdad. We have to recall that we are a small margin between life and death for thousands of people" It was because in the Stop the War Coalition we learned to stop shouting at one another that we pulled millions of people beyond the left into activity and struggle in a common cause. He also paid tribute to both John Rees and to the SWP without whom, he said, the remarkable movement the Stop the War Coalition has built could not have happened. "We have real enemies - we have Tony Blair, still. The Middle East Peace Envoy whose first distinction in his role is to call for another war. In the Middle East. I understand he's going to be grilled on the BBC by David Aaronovitch - that'll be a challenging interview: 'is that your halo, my lord, or is it a trick of the light?' And there's Gordon Brown - he should be grateful to us, because we put him where he is today. He spent years wanting to be leader, not knowing quite how to catch onto successive waves of public anger, always passing up the opportunity. And it was only Tony Blair's craven support for Israel's destruction of Lebanon last year that made even the most spineless MPs realise that if they didn't get rid of Blair, they'd be gotten rid of."
Democratising and reaching out.
The procedural and electoral element of today's conference involved a number of planks - most matters to do with specific policies have been remitted to a future council, because today's conference was about setting up a workable constitutional arrangement with a fully elected National Council. I can say that despite some arguments here and there, the main bulk of the resolutions passed with a few divisive resolutions and amendments spurned overwhelmingly. The passed resolutions approved a new National Council, a chair, a national organiser and a national secretary; an amended constitution with single-transferrable vote elections rather than slates; new provisions clarifying the basis of membership to avoid people being signed up in bulk on the night of a particular meeting, and so on. So I can put this to you. We are not closing up shop and abandoning the coalition. It is clear that, despite the defection of some names, those of us supporting a democratic coalition have won over most of the membership. We are not going to turn inward: instead we have to reach out to the workers now under attack by New Labour. We aren't going to rest on our laurels or be content to work with old faces, as welcome as most of them are. We know there is a debate in the trade unions and in the Labour left about where to go now, and we intend to involve ourselves in that. We know that young people are being targeted for restraining orders and ASBOs while their services are cut and schools handed over to the Carphone Warehouse. We know that stop and search policies are targeting black people, anyone who might look like a Muslim, and also increasingly white working class kids. Pensioners are being hit hardest by the closure of post offices across the country, and still have to live with frightening, death-dealing levels of poverty. Muslims are still being targeted for racism, harrassment, curbs on civil liberties - and you better believe that whether the detention limit is 28 days or 56 days or 90 days, it won't stop with Muslims. As long as all those things remain a permanent feature of our landscape, so will we.