Respect has to turn outwards – Alan Thornett

Alan Thornett is a member of Southwark Respect and sits on the National Council. This is his reply to Andy Newman’s article on building Respect. Both pieces will be published in the next issue of Socialist Resistance as part of the debate around how to take the organisation forward.

The common ground in Andy Newman’s article is the need to build Respect, the significance of the electoral successes it has achieved, and its relevance as the most important left alternative new Labour moves ever more to the right. And it is clear what the response of the new Labour leadership will be to electoral defeat, particularly at a time of severe economic problems. It will be that they had not gone far enough to the right and they had not adopted enough of the neo-liberal agenda.

He seems to want to build it, however, on rather doubtful terrain in which John Cruddas and Compass are the centre of gravity in moving towards some kind of rainbow coalition. This is when it should be looking towards the trade union left, class struggle unions like the RMT, the campaigning activists –– environmental and otherwise –– and others on the left like the CPB who clearly should be in Respect but are still outside. It should also be looking crucially towards those sections of the working class hardest hit by the current economic situation and who urgently need a voice.

The deputy Governor of the Bank of England is one among many to point to the severity of the economic crisis and its consequences.  And the poorest sections of the working class are being hit the hardest by this situation. Unemployment is rising fast and Energywatch has predicted that this coming winter a staggering 5 million household will be in fuel poverty. The average UK household gas bill has risen by 31% this year and electricity bills by 22%.  Food prices have gone up by 25% –– list goes on.  All this is likely to lead to more trade union action on wages and in defence of jobs.

Respect will lose out big time if it has nothing to say about this situation. Those hit by it and those fighting back against it are its natural constituency both in terms of electoral support and for building itself as a party. Some of Respect’s biggest bases of support in inner city areas are amongst the hardest hit in this situation.

From this point of view the strategy presented in Andy Newman’s article –– for building Respect (or not building it as it could be reasonably described) –– points in the wrong direction. Respect should certainly work with organisations like Compass where that is possible as it can with many others but it has to get its principal constituency right.

Andy argues that instead of turning outwards in this way, winning new support, building new branches and strengthening the existing ones, it should concentrate its resources almost exclusively on its voter bases in East London and South Birmingham. Building outwards into other areas or into other sections of the working class is presented as more or less irrelevant.

He sees building a branch in Manchester or Bristol as just about useful whilst elsewhere there is little point. He puts it this way: “Between now and the next election, we should tilt everything towards Tower Hamlets and Birmingham, and the rest of Respect should see our task as mainly supporting them, and being led by their agenda, though we obviously need to continue to develop the small but important roots we have in places like Manchester and Bristol.”

It is an idea which has been advanced with some vigour by Andy and others inside Respect since the formation of Respect Renewal and it makes no sense –– even from a purely electoralist point of view, which is essentially what he puts forward.

The importance of building Respect in East London and South Birmingham and of winning seats there in the general election is absolutely common ground. These bases are essential to the relevance of Respect as an organisation and key to its future success. They represent a breakthrough into important minority working class inner city communities, which no other section of the left has been able to make.

It does not follow, however, that the best way to support and strengthen these bases is by counterposing them to building in other areas of the country and in other sections of the working class – for example the white working class with all its problems. Nor does it follow that the best way to build Respect there is by ignoring what is probably the biggest single problem they face. In any case the idea that Respect can build an organisation in the long-term which is overwhelmingly confined to two parts of two important cities and several minority communities is seriously flawed.

The real way to support these bases and maximise their electoral success is to build Respect outwards. To build viable branches in other towns and cities where it does not yet exist. It is a two-way process. Respect needs to use its success in these bases to extend its reach geographically and socially and then use an expanded organisation to give them the support they need for further and future success.

Of course Respect has to maximise support for Birmingham and East London in a general election campaign. It goes without saying. But what does this mean in practice? There are practical limitations. Respect’s electoral success is in advance of its membership and activist base. In Birmingham it is probably possible for all Respect supporters to pile in and support the target constituency. The same to some extent in London. But what do Respect members in Bristol, Manchester, Oxford, Brighton, Milton Keynes, Southend, Swindon, Dorset or other places where Respect has members or groups of members do? They could make several useful weekend trips to Birmingham or East London during the campaign, which would be very useful support of course, but probably not much more. They need to be building a branch locally at the same time.

In fact the key to winning elections in East London or Birmingham is to build strong branches in those places which can regenerate a strong voice to represent the interests of the area. If a branch is not built locally it hard to substitute from the outside. This is why electoral success has to be used to build active branches of the organisation.

Nor is it obvious that Respect branches in other places should not stand candidates –– in South London for example. It is difficult to build a branch locally, and put down the roots in the local community which are necessary to build something serious, on the basis that the only thing it can do at the time of an election is to go and campaign in East London or Birmingham.

Defending Respect’s existing Westminster seat is very important. But is it the totally make or break issue in the way in which it is being presented? It is always a big issue once you have elected representatives. You have to defend the seats you hold or you have an electoral setback. An electoral intervention is certainly essential, but no left party can guarantee to win seats. It cannot therefore be the only measure of success. In the last general election Salma Yaqoob failed to win her seat but she demonstrated very clearly that she had a major base in South Birmingham, which was then reflected in local government success.

But Andy Newman’s aversion to building Respect branches is not just about electoral strategy, it is about the character of Respect as an organisation. He argues that the ‘traditional left models of branches, resolutions and publications’ are outdated methods and a waste of space. He and other have repeatedly argued that Respect has to get away from these outmoded methods and adopt new methods and new ideas –– though not surprisingly there has been little detail as to what this means.

Everyone is in favour of new ideas of course. Though very few ideas in political organisation are actually very new. In Southwark Respect we not only have regular quite well-attended branch meetings (the August meeting was on Palestine) but a few ‘new ideas’ as well. We have just had a successful gig with Mark Steel and a very good intervention into the Carnival del Pueblo with a leaflet in English and Spanish followed by a successful Spanish language public meeting which established some contacts in the local Latin American community. Earlier in the year we had public meeting with George Galloway on rising fuel and food prices. It was not very ‘new’ but it was very successful. It found a resonance in the local community.

Andy Newman argues that Respect cannot be an ‘off the shelf’ alternative to new Labour, whatever that means. But it does have to present an alternative set of politics to new Labour if it is going to reclaim the ground they have abandoned. This cannot be done on a minimal platform of anti-war and ant-neo-liberalism. Andy ridicules the idea of having policies by saying it is not matter of having ‘correct’ positions. It is not a matter of having abstractly ‘correct’ policies. But it is a matter of having something useful to say about the problems people face and of having a vision of an alternative form of society around which to campaign –– and that means having some collectively agreed polices with which to do it.

No one thinks that Respect is preparing to form a government, or that it can have a policy on everything -–– that’s just another form of ridicule. But how can you present an alternative if you have nothing to say on most of the issues which come up in an election? Sorry – we have nothing to say on the unions, nothing to say on the environment, nothing to say on women’s right, nothing to say on civil and human rights, nothing to say on health or education, we are not that kind of party! To ask the question is to answer it. It would be absolutely bonkers.

Andy argues for Respect to have a vision for Tower Hamlets, and it certainly should. But how can it do this without developing policies on a range of issues on which to base such a vision? The alternative is for the ‘vision’ to be developed in some way other than collectively. Respect should indeed aim to win to take control of Tower Hamlets council but to do it without a developing organisation elsewhere in order to give the backup which would be necessary would be a hostage to fortune. Yes Respect should respond to the South Birmingham and East London agenda, but that means building an organisation which can do so effectively.

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