red letter | 25.11.2005 20:37
The second annual Respect conference took place in London last weekend with delegates in an upbeat and confident mood.
The breakthrough at the general election — above all the election of George Galloway in Bethnal Green & Bow — has clearly had an effect on the organisation.
The number of delegates, 350, was up on last year, as was the number of observers. Many new delegates spoke.
Unlike at the conferences of the mainstream parties, introductions to policy sessions by members of Respect’s national council were only about five minutes long, providing greater time for delegates to speak over the two days.
While there was plenty of reflection on the successes of the last 12 months the overall thrust of the conference was to look forwards.
“The elections that count,” said Galloway speaking on Saturday, “are not the ones we’ve just had, but the local council elections coming up in many areas of England in May.”
Hanging over those elections, and the many campaigns Respect members are involved in, is the sense of crisis engulfing Tony Blair’s government.
On the opening day several delegates who play a leading role in the anti-war movement in their localities described how that movement has been crucial to undermining Blair.
“Respect has to continue to be at the heart of the anti-war movement,” said Liz Wheatley from Camden, north London. She described how support for the International Peace Conference has mushroomed in her area.
“Trade unions, community organisations, campaigns and faith groups are all sending delegates,” she said. “It’s not just my union branch in the council that is sending delegates, so are shop stewards’ committees in individual departments.”
The same spirit evident in the anti-war movement is seeping into resistance to Blair’s policies on the domestic front, argued many delegates.
There was a standing ovation for Paddy Hill, one of the six Irish men wrongly jailed for 16 years after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. “If we let this government get away with its attacks on civil liberties, we will have virtually no freedoms left,” he said.
While recognising the significance of the government’s defeat over detaining people for 90 days without trial, he and other delegates highlighted the need to put the defence of civil liberties at the centre of politics.
Delegates argued that this should be connected with what is now majority opposition to the continued occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jill Russell from Darlington made one of the best received speeches of the conference when she described the successful campaign against the creation of a semi-privatised city academy school in Blair’s backyard.
There was a measured and serious atmosphere among delegates over just how far Respect and the movements it is connected to have yet to travel.
But what also permeated the two days was well founded optimism that not only is Blair on the ropes, but there is a renewed chance that the fight against neo-liberalism and war can win victories over the next few months, and in May’s elections.
The reports on the conference were compiled by Kelly Hilditch, Anindya Bhattacharyya and Kevin Ovenden