Britain: Two conferences for split Respect


Two conferences of the English anti-war party, Respect — The Unity Coalition, were convened on November 17 in London. Both were attended by around 350 people. The "Respect Renewal" forces were led by MP George Galloway and 19 other non-Socialist Workers Party members of Respect's national council. The SWP convened its own conference across town.

Respect was formed in 2003 at the height of movement against the Iraq war as an expression of the widespread dissatisfaction with Tony Blair's pro-war "New Labour" government. Galloway was elected as a Respect MP in 2005 in London's East End on the basis of his opposition to Labour's right-wing policies.

The background to the two conferences was a split that emerged after Galloway issued a letter critical of the direction of Respect in August. The SWP — the largest component within the organisation — countered with a campaign attacking Galloway and raising allegations of "communalist" politics among its critics (that is basing politics on mobilising the support of particular ethnic groups on the basis of their ethnicity rather than any principle — in this case the base of support Respect has won among Muslims).

Relations completely broke down between the SWP and almost all other members of Respect's national council in October. Numerous SWP members who did not support the position of their leadership were expelled or left. The SWP — through its control of Respect's national secretary position — went ahead with the "official" Respect conference, despite its dubious authority.

Most of the other national council members supported the rival "Respect Renewal" conference, at which Galloway repudiated SWP's claims that the split was between "left- and right-wing" forces. He pointed to his own record of campaigning against war and imperialism in the Middle East.

He was supported on the opening platform by Birmingham councillor Salma Yaqoob and left-wing film-maker Ken Loach. Various other speakers — including many who had left the SWP — also expressed their support for the renewal grouping.

This conference was attended by a diverse audience, including many activists from the left and members of ethnic minority communities. In contrast, the "official" Respect conference was attended mostly by SWP members.

Representing Respect national council members not aligned with the SWP, Nick Wrack, who was recently expelled from the SWP, made a series of proposals to rebuild Respect or "at least some new form of grouping".

These included holding of a series of public meetings to rebuild the group and a further national conference after expected general elections in May 2008. A proposal was also adopted that the grouping publishes a monthly newspaper, with the Socialist Resistance group generously offering to suspend its own publication and contribute its resources to a paper that will be published by an editorial board appointed by the national council.

The "renewal" group faces challenges though, not least of which is it remains unclear whether the SWP will continue to keep control of the name Respect.