Any Respect left?

With the implosion of Respect, Hilary Wainwright asks can anything be learnt for the future or is it a moment simply of despair?

November 18, 2007
5 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

Personally, I didn’t invest energy in Respect beyond cheering Galloway’s victory in BBC studio on election night. I’d learnt the hard way in the Socialist Alliance that the SWP leadership was not going to abandon its sectarian determination always to build itself rather than put its considerable capacities into building of a far, far more broadly based and plural political voice of the left. And to be honest, although I was impressed by Galloway’s oratorical skills, my feminism, my instinctive dislike of leaderism and my aghast observations of the Scargill and then the Sheridan debacles made me extremely wary of an organisation that depended so much on a hero.

But it’s not all bad. There are positive lessons as well as negative ones. Especially if one looks beyond London (always a good idea). In Preston and Birmingham, Respect branches have begun to practice a different kind of politics, different both from different varieties of parliamentary socialism and from the vanguardist pretensions of the leadership of the SWP.

When Michael Lavalette became a councillor, initially for the Socialist Alliance and then Respect, in an inner city ward of Preston, he found that no Labour councillors held individual surgeries. He made it one of his first priorities to take up personal cases but making connections with national and international issues. His method was to be available where people gather, from the Catholic church and the Mosque to trade union and community meetings.

As well as having a massive case load he and an alliance of left Labour and sometimes Lib-Dem councillors, have won numerous victories large and small through a mixture of campaigning pressure outside the council and shrewd alliance building on the inside. Over 50% of resolutions proposed by Lavalette have been successful including resulting in an environmental audit of all council policies, a commitment to an integrated transport system, the successful blocking of the South African multinational Netcare’s involvement in the local hospital. He is one of two SWP members on Respect’s local branch committee of six, and very insistent on the SWP’s role as a minority in a much wider coalition. Salma Yaqoob and Mohammed Ishtiaq work in a similar way in Birmingham, working with community and trade union campaigns challenging the council leadership on issues on which everyone else is silent, for instance the damaging consequences of the Private Finance Initiative for the city.

Here are two experiments in creating a new politics, giving discontent a political voice at a time when critical opinion otherwise gets drowned in an apolitical miasma of consultations, partnerships, targets and overstressed voluntary organisations bogged down in bidding for funds to meet basic social needs.

The point of drawing attention to these experiences is not to create a warm feeling in a cold climate, nor to polish the tarnished image of Respect(s) – similar examples could be drawn from the work of Socialist Party councillors in Coventry or the Independent Working Class Organisation councillors in Oxford, Green party councillors in Brighton and so on…

The point for me about such local experiments is that they are effective because they are answering in practice a number of questions that have to be answered if we – ‘we’ being a very wide spectrum of independent and open minded pluralist socialists – are effectively to develop an organised political force. (And here I am leaving aside for the moment the urgent need for a proportional electoral system)

First,what is the point of a political party? As we answer this we should bear in mind two important features of the present situation. On the one hand there is the serious crisis of the institutions of representative democracy. Any political party of the left that is not highly self-critical and self-conscious of its distinctive and independent relation to these institutions easily becomes corrupted by them – a factor in the Respect debacle. On the other hand, in this age of social movements and networks, a political party has no monopoly over the process of social change.

A political party of the left must have its fulcrum in the movements and networks that have been built up in the past decades outside the political institutions but must at the same time promote the demands and needs of these struggles within and against these institutions, seeking all the time to open them up, redistribute power outwards. This is how Lavalette and Yaqoob are interpreting the role of Respect building it as a federal coalition without seeking to corral it into one organisation.

So the second question is how do we build a political party that is modest in its role, rooted in society and social conflicts not imprisoned in the institutions, plural and open in its culture, democratic in its internal structures and participatory in its recognition of the capacity and knowledge of all? A test of whether either of the remnants of Respect who met yesterday are capable of learning from their process of self destruction will be whether such principles are explicitly agreed.

See the forthcoming Red Pepper for an extended analysis of the underlying factors in behind the crisis in Respect by Alex Nunns.


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill