Respect Renewal and Agencies for Social Change

By Alan Thornett


Respect Renewal has done remarkably well in the four months since the split and its founding conference in November. True it does not yet have a national spread, but it has made some remarkable advances just the same. It has stabilised itself in its most important base in East London – which was wracked by the actions of the SWP in the course of the split. And a far better relationship has been built with its councillors than was the case under the SWP Respect. They are now getting a much better profile.

It has produced three editions of a monthly 24 page paper which has been well received and which has now been redesigned with new comrades involved, as well as an impressive free supplement for the recent anti-war demonstration. A series of highly successful meetings have been held in London, Birmingham and Manchester. And Respect Renewal is now gearing up for the May elections – the GLA where it will stand both on the list and in the City and East constituency, and in local council elections in Birmingham, Greater Manchester and Bradford. There is now the basis for an effective and successful election campaign.

Respect Renewal¹s leadership bodies have also developed well. Its National Council has been well attended and has had refreshingly open and genuinely democratic debates. This is very important. As Salma Yaqoob recently wrote “Our culture should be one in which disagreement is not seen as disloyalty and where inclusivity is not confined to those who sympathise completely with your own views”. Many of the organisations across Europe which have emerged to the left of social democracy have adopted this approach.

Respect Renewal has certainly established itself as the most important initiative towards a broad pluralist party of the left in England. This progress is important, since in the four years that Respect (Mark 1 and Mark 2) has existed, the need for a broad pluralist left alternative has become ever more urgent, the space to the left of Labour has widened, and the crisis of working class representation has become even more acute.

Emerging debates

A number of debates have emerged in the course of building Respect Renewal however, animated partly by articles in Red Pepper, about agencies for social change and about socialist strategy. They are also reflected in a number of contributions on the Respect Renewal website and are linked to a more practical debate about party building and media strategy.

One thing made very clear at the founding conference last November was that Respect Renewal does not define itself as “the” left alternative to Labour. Given the dispersal of the left in a wide range of organisations, campaigns, tendencies and movements – including the tens of thousands of people whose heart is on the left but who are not “in” something other than perhaps their union or local campaigns. Respect Renewal has to be the catalyst for an attempt to develop a wider framework for united left action on both the electoral and campaigning fronts.

This is crucial to its future development. It implies a high priority in developing better relations with, for example, the RMT leadership or the Morning Star, and why it was important to campaign for a broader left slate for the GLA elections.

The best conditions for Respect Renewal to act as a broader catalyst, however, is to build itself successfully, organise branches, undertake campaigning activities, get itself rooted in communities, in the trade unions, and in local and national campaigns. Without this everything else is difficult if not academic.

In order to build Respect Renewal we need a number of tools. These include some rather basic things like participation in demonstrations, organising rallies and public meetings and having a newspaper. Not because these should be fetishised and not because they are the be-all and end-all of politics, but because they are important in carrying our message beyond our ranks.

Surprisingly some of these basic forms of organisation have been contentious. It has been argued for example that going on the anti-war demonstrations has been a waste of time, that they marched through empty streets. But these demonstrations were a huge success – as was the whole anti-war movement which was built around them, and they had a real impact on the government and on the political situation. Blair in the end was damaged beyond repair.

The real audience of these demonstrations was the millions who either saw them on television and in the newspapers or became aware that they had taken place by one means or another. And in the campaigns to build those demonstrations thousands of people, in communities and the labour movement, in peace campaigns or just motivated as individuals, came to meetings to hear the anti-war message. Hundreds of thousands were moved to march themselves, and for many of them it was the first time they took any political action.

It was also argued that we had to break from “traditional forms of the organisation”. Not that anyone is against new ideas, of course, or against new ways of organising or getting our word out. We should grasp new ways of organising with both hands. But that is a very different thing from decrying existing forms of organisation simply because they have been around for a long time. In any case these calls for new forms of organisation have not been accompanied by much in terms of practical proposal as to what they should be.

There is no dispute about the significance and increased use of the internet of course. That is not the issue. Respect Renewal needs the best possible regularly updated and interactive website. It should use Facebook, YouTube and so on. We need a multimedia approach. But it would be a mistake to think that everyone spends a large amount of time on-line or that there is not an important role for printed media.

There has, however, been some dispute about Respect Renewal having a newspaper – despite its success. This has taken the form of a debate around whether it should be a multi-page paper with a full range of politics or a much more limited give-away broad sheet on immediate campaigning. In reality, however, much more a debate about what kind of organisation Respect Renewal should be than a discussion different choices of press.

In fact broadsheets and newspapers are both perfectly valid means of getting ideas across, they just perform different functions to that end. On a demonstration it might well be better to have a free broadsheet whilst for building branches and developing the organisation you need a more substantial and rounded paper. The broadsheet can reach out to attract new people and the paper can engage them politically and bring them towards the organisation.

What kind of party do we need?

The key debate is what kind of organisation Respect Renewal should be. If the task is to build a party with a national spread and profile which recruits into its ranks, builds branches, and provides the framework for the political development of its members, then a paper with a full range of politics is pretty important. If on the other hand the task is to relate to a specific electorate in a key area for Respect Renewal in preparation for the next election then broadsheets and leaflets might be more useful. In fact, however, both types of publication are equally important and should not be counterposed in any way.

There is general agreement that the electoral field is extremely important and should not be surrendered to our opponents. It is a crucial way of making a connection to those who have been deserted by new Labour and those in the unions and in oppressed communities who are looking for a way forward. The importance of having an MP and our group of councillors is obvious. Respect Renewal should have the objective of coming out of the next general election with two MPs – which would be a qualitative development.

But equally, to reduce Respect Renewal to an electoral organisation, or even an organisation principally concerned with the electoral field, would be a big mistake. Our objective must be to build an organisation which on the one hand fights elections but on the other responds to the direct needs of the working class and the oppressed – an organisation which takes the trade unions seriously, which is in the heart of the anti-war movement, which is in the campaigns defending civil rights, opposing discrimination, defending the environment, migrants and asylum seekers, the NHS and the public sector. Our parliamentary and local government representation needs to be integrated into this perspective.

For that we need a political party which builds itself into a national organisation and prepares itself politically on all these fronts. In the old Respect this question took the form of a debate around a party or loose coalition. In other words does the space to the left of Labour need to be filled by a temporary organisation, as implied by a coalition, or by an ongoing class struggle political party based on a comprehensive political programme and organising structure? A party which generates its own internal political life and collective experience as a means of development.

It has been argued that the only programme you need to build a party to the left of Labour today is anti-war, anti-racism, and anti-privatisation! This is reminiscent of discussions during the formation of Respect when John Rees argued that what we needed was a peace and justice party. This is turn might have reflected a tradition in the SWP of aversion to programme ­ “one strike is worth a hundred programmes” was at one time the mantra. Or was it 1,000 programmes? I can’t remember.

But you can’t build a party which presents itself as a political alternative at governmental level, on minimalist policies. It would have no credibility at all. Why would anyone vote for it? Lib Dems are in favour of peace and justice and many of them would have no problem with anti-racism, anti-war and anti-neoliberalism either. And what would be the point of it? There is no point in building an alternative which is not an alternative.

Such a stance would be to the right of the Greens, who have a comprehensive programme stretching from the re-nationalisation of the railways to the defence of civil and human rights and opposition to discrimination, as well as being strong on the environment. They are the most left-wing green party in Europe, and there is a very good reason why. It is because the only space they can occupy is to the left of Labour. For Respect Renewal to place itself to the right of them and not much to the left of the Liberal Democrats would be a big mistake.

Nor should the assumption be made that working class communities are only able to cope with a limited political agenda. As with other sections of society some will go for headlines and first impressions and others will want a lot more.

Pessimistic perspective

Some of the comments around programmatic profile seem to have been linked to a deeply pessimistic view of the current political situation. It has been argued that the anti-war movement had been defeated and that the whole of society is moving to the right.

This is wrong. The whole of society is not moving to the right. This view is over-negative on the unions and leaves out the anti-war movement, the environmental radicalisations and the global justice movement completely. The implication was that we should drop all this left-wing stuff, get real, and follow society to the right in order to keep in touch with it.

The overwhelming view projected from the conference last November that Respect Renewal has to reach out to the rest on the left, in particular the left in the unions and the Morning Star has also been contentious. It has been argued that such a left does not exist, hardly exists, or is so weak that there is not much point in relating to it.

This is a misunderstanding of the situation of the left and of its relationship to the trade unions. The fact is that if a group of trade union leaders made a call for a new party the response would be massive. Or if Bob Crow was prepared to back Respect Renewal and the RMT was prepared to affiliate to it, this would be a big step forward for the left in building a political alternative. It would also be a big step forward for the unions, since it is very difficult to regenerate the unions without a political dimension. That is why the Labour Party was formed in the first place.

Then there is the view that community work should be Respect Renewal’s overwhelming priority. And indeed it is extremely important, not least because Respect Renewal has some breakthrough bases in inner city communities in East London and Birmingham which at the present time are key to its development. But it would be wrong to counterpose these areas of work when they are in fact complementary and interlocking areas of activity.

Community struggles include the fight against racism and islamophobia, the struggle for decent, affordable and environmentally friendly housing, for municipal and healthcare provision for the elderly, for education, for the rights of the specially oppressed and ethnic minorities, for the rights and provision for the unemployed. There is a huge list – and they play themselves out as debates and struggles in communities and localities – even though the political issues involved are in the end national ones. These are all issues which should be taken into the trade unions.

Community activists are often active members of their unions and there are many instances where trade union and community struggles naturally merge and overlap. A classic case is the dozens of local campaigns against hospital closures and health cutbacks where the unity and interaction of organised workers and community campaigners is spontaneous. Such interaction only makes the struggle stronger.

Agencies for change

The issue at stake here is not whether community-based struggles and politics are important but whether such struggles have now replaced the organised working class as an agency for progressive social change. Community action, of course, is as much a part of the struggle of the working class as workplace action. And many of the big struggles of the future will be around environmental issues. But that is a different matter from the implication that the organised workers movement no longer has a key role to play as an agency for social change even if this is alongside other forms of organisation and action.

Internationally, the industrial working class has never been bigger, though much of it has moved East and South, to China, India, South East Asia and other “third world” or “newly industrialising” countries. As Paul Mason argues in his book Live Working or Die Fighting, it may be the actions of the millions of newly proletarianised workers in China and India who determine the outcome of the international struggle against capitalism over the next 30 years.

In no other country of Western Europe have the unions suffered the kind of defeats they suffered in Britain in the 1980s. In most Western European countries the unions remain a force to be reckoned with. In France they have rebuffed the right-wing offensive of Nicholas Sarkozy and are ready for the next round of struggle.

Trade union struggles in Britain, of course, remain at a low and level and on the defensive. The defeats inflicted on the trade unions the 1980s have not been reversed and their subjection to a neo-liberalist work regime in both the public and private sector is very dangerous. And it is hardly challenged, certainly at a national level. In part of course this is because all three major political parties are part of the neo-liberal consensus. But the issue here is not whether trade union struggle is at a low ebb now but can it re-emerge.

To this question we have to say yes ­ though it is not just one more heave, as the SWP imply. Class divisions have widened. And despite the current constraints hundreds of thousands of people are part of daily struggles in the workplace over their work conditions especially, over cutbacks and redundancies, and over pay and hours. Much of this is “invisible”, precisely because it goes on at a local level, does not often lead to national strikes, and is not reported in the national media.

The precondition for these actions is the existence, albeit often hobbled by hostile laws and right-wing leaderships, of the trade unions. And there are thousands of dedicated union activists, at a local, regional and sometimes national level, fighting against belligerent managements and in the face of the weary scepticism and resignation of many of their members.

And we face a sharpening of the political situation. Many observers argue that the economic crisis currently unfolding will be the worst since 1945. Whether this is true or not Gordon Brown has no option within the framework of pro-capitalist politics but to impose what are effectively wage cuts on millions of public sector workers and to cut back public spending. Tens of thousands of public sector workers already face the axe and the threat that their jobs will be deleted or replaced by agency workers. In the next period trade union struggle is going to become more important and not less. It would be very difficult to defend the historic acquisitions of the working class or the aim of progressive social transformation without a re-growth of the unions and of working class militancy.

This will be very difficult of it is confined to a purely trade union or syndicalist level ­ since freeing the unions from current shackles is as much a political as a trade union task. The crisis of political representation places a constraint on the development of the fight-back which itself needs to have a political dimension. One of the difficulties of overcoming the defeats of the 1980s is the historical weakness of the British working class ­ strong on organisation weak on politics. Something which began to be challenged in the 1970s but was knocked back again in the 1980s.

The building of a new party to the left of new labour therefore has to be a part of the process of regenerating the unions. It is not just a matter of uniting the left ­ uniting the left is a means to that end. This is why any perspective which fails to see the unions as a crucial agency for social change is missing the point.

* This article will appear in the first edition of the new Socialist Resistance magazine which is out soon.

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