This weekend I took the Respect coach to London for our party’s national conference. It was good to catch up with old and new friends. I was especially pleased that the Birmingham contingent thoroughly enjoyed the day too. In fact, so much so, that two of our delegates returned wanting to stand as candidates in next May’s council elections!
The conference was smaller than in recent years. I was not surprised by that. There’s a big difference between winning elections and losing – however close or hard fought the contest. We couldn’t quite take a big step forward at the General Election, and that isn’t going to make it easy for us in the coming year.
But I do feel that Respect is shaking off the post-election blues, and there are some exciting developments in the pipeline.
The conference was dominated by discussion of the attacks being unleashed upon us by the ConDem government. It is important to understand the scale of these attacks if we are to work out how to best resist them.
It is not just that this government are planning massive job losses, or that wages and benefits will be cut, or that communities will be blighted. That would be bad enough. It is not even the fact that our most cherished institutions - like the National Health Service - are being refashioned to make them ready for privatisation.
This government are plotting something much more far-reaching and profound. Their goal is to go much further than Margaret Thatcher even attempted. They are planning to fundamentally reconfigure British society; to break the post-war social contract that has shaped British society – for the better – for more than half a century.
As a party of the left, Respect has to use its electoral platform – small as it is – as a lever to push politics in a progressive direction. We know from the experience of the anti-war movement that it is not enough to have pressure on the streets – we need that pressure to be expressed at the ballot box as well.
Challenging the traditional parties on their own ground is always difficult. The work is long and hard, and the rewards are few. But as things stand in England today, it is only the Green Party and Respect who offer a clear political alternative and have a serious chance of winning votes.
The more representatives we can elect to use the platform that elected office provides to spread the resistance to the cuts; the stronger the case for a political alternative to the cuts will be.
To that end, there was some encouragement from the reports to our conference.
Respect is rebuilding its base In Tower Hamlets. Earlier in the year we were at the heart of the campaign to win a referendum for an elected Mayor, and played a role too in the eventual victory of the independent Mayor Lutfur Rahman. This is a major blow to the colonial style politics that dominates Labour’s practice in the borough. And it has been greeted with the most ridiculous and dangerous nonsense about Tower Hamlets now being an ‘Islamic Republic’. Unfortunately, that is the consequence of the incessant racist campaign to paint Muslims as a threat. Respect was on the right side of this battle, and now has every chance of winning the forthcoming by-election for the seat vacated by the new Mayor.
I was very encouraged too by conference’s decision to back George Galloway’s decision to stand for the Scottish Parliament next May. There was a lot of debate about this, but for me the issue was simple. We need to get as many progressive politicians elected to office as we can, each of them determined to go on the offensive against the government.
If there is one thing I know about George, it is that he will make an impact in the Scottish Parliament. He will lay into the Tories and the Lib Dems with a passion and eloquence that few can match. And he has a real chance of winning a seat. You can’t say that about many left-wing politicians today, and a victory for George will be a victory for all those who want a strong voice to champion opposition to the cuts.
There was positive news from Birmingham too, where Respect was central to the campaign that won a major victory for the civil liberties of all of us with the scrapping of the spy cameras. It wasn’t only Respect - many people played their part in this campaign. But I am convinced that our unshakeable determination to stand up to the racist scapegoating of entire communities was a vital ingredient in this success.
Delegates from other areas, like Manchester and Harlow, all talked powerfully of their involvement in local anti-cuts campaigns. And there was enthusiasm for a campaign in Oldham, which we hope will lead to us standing a candidate in the forthcoming by-election. Conference also heard a typically powerful speech from Jerry Hicks, who is campaigning to be the General Secretary of the trade union UNITE.
George Galloway returned to the podium to introduce a session on international solidarity. He was followed by Kevin Ovenden, the director of Viva Palestina. Kevin’s speech was inspirational. Our implacable opposition to imperialism is one of the things I am most proud of. And the work of Respect leaders like George and Kevin in establishing the siege-breaking convoys of Viva Palestina has been remarkable. I doubt there are many parties in Europe delivering this kind of practical, hands on international solidarity that Respect does in relation to the struggle for Palestinian self-determination.
All in all, the last year has been one of ups and downs. But that’s life. We are still here, still fighting. We still have a voice and a political platform and we intend to use it to the best of our ability.