Having written so extensively about the Respect crisis and nailed my colours as firmly to the mast as they’re likely to get at this stage, it was only natural I would want to toddle along to the conference and see what was going on. But which one? Hmm… well, even assuming that I would have been let into the Swoppie conference, I had a fair idea what was going to be said there in advance. The Renewal conference seemed a much better bet – that side has made a far more attractive case. Would it live up to expectations?
By and large, yes. It was lively. It was unpredictable. It was at times a bit chaotic, but that’s only to be expected – it’s a sign of life. And the signs were that Respect was very much alive and kicking. Certainly morale was extremely high.
George was on his normal barnstorming form, of course. Love him or hate him, there’s no political entertainer quite like him. I especially liked his comment that he wouldn’t be stooping to personal attacks on former friends, as it’s undignified (not something that worries me as much as George) and, besides which, calling somebody a great man for several years and then calling him the devil tends to put your honesty in question. You said it George.
A good thoughtful contribution from Salma, who’s getting to be a more and more impressive operator. Nick Wrack’s rallying call was brilliant if I may say so; Ken Loach raised some of the most pertinent points about how we got where we are and where we go next.
The Swops of course did come in for some stick, which is in no way surprising when you consider their behaviour of late. Perhaps not surprisingly, the harshest criticism of the SWP came from a series of SWP cadre with, I would estimate, well over a century of membership between them, who clearly know what they are talking about. Best of all was the contribution from the wonderful Jerry Hicks, a man the SWP should be thoroughly ashamed of losing.
After all the spin about the Bengali contingent, I was extremely impressed by the contributions from East End councillors Abjol and Hanif, neither of whom I had ever seen before but both of whom were first-class speakers. Both laid heavy stress on their Old Labour credentials, which was pleasing for people who have been represented as “Muslim communalists” of late. Abjol in particular is someone who, if he was just out for a political career, could walk into the Labour Party and be handed a berth – that he hasn’t speaks well of him.
The general tone was very much leftwing and socialist – not quite as clearly socialist and class-struggle as I would have liked, but then that’s an occupational hazard of attempts at building a broad party. Certainly this didn’t look like a right wing to me, not in any meaningful sense.
As I say, morale was high. Upwards of 300 people at a conference organised at 10 days’ notice is not bad going at all – that the SWP rally attracted a roughly equivalent number (almost exclusively Swops and fellow travellers, from what my spies tell me) gives you some idea of the balance of forces. The attendees were firm in the conviction that they are here to stay and will go forward. More than one speaker mentioned a feeling of liberation, a relief at having got rid of the millstone around their neck. This is not of course the SWP as a whole, which everyone agreed contains many great activists, but the rotten methods of its permanent leadership clique. Amen to that.
So that’s a preliminary assessment. As for how things pan out for the renewed Respect, whether it can pick up lost momentum, and what becomes of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Respect, only time will tell. The May elections and the conference scheduled to follow will of course be crucial. But this wasn’t a bad start, not bad at all. Quite promising in fact.