Conference rights eroded

In order to prevent a repeat of last year's Respect conference, when the CPGB and other critics exposed the SWP's crass opportunism, the Respect leadership is trying to change its conference rules - and runs the risk of acting unconstitutionally

The standing orders for the November 19-20 Respect annual conference have been circulated by the national committee. Their contents - in particular the apparent attempt to deny basic rights contained in the constitution agreed a year ago - do not bode well. If successful, this will ensure that the second annual conference is even more stage-managed than the first. And there is no doubt but that the first Respect conference was truly a farce. The bureaucratic manoeuvres of the Socialist Workers Party leadership would have made Joe Stalin proud. The fixing of delegates to exclude those considered too challenging, the demonisation of critical voices, the ostracisation of the opposition, the gerrymandering, the restriction of delegates to three-minute contributions, while allowing a long list of 'guest' speakers to dominate the event - these shenanigans showed John Rees and his comrades at their worst. I recommend Peter Manson's detailed conference report as a useful reminder of the lengths they were prepared to go to in order to railroad through their populist agenda (Weekly Worker November 4 2004). The whole event left a bad taste in the mouth. Those not in the camp of the SWP became increasingly more annoyed as the occasion wore on. Democratic norms and the membership were treated with contempt. Particularly disparaging was the leadership's attitude towards minorities on sensitive questions such as secularism and abortion rights - in essence anything that challenged the stitch-up between the SWP, George Galloway and the 'muslim community'. Greg Tucker of the International Socialist Group found himself under attack when, while moving a motion for the right of platforms to exist, he argued that this should include the right of 20 members to put forward a resolution to conference. Chris Bambery in typically venomous fashion countered: "There is something undemocratic about people who can't get elected as delegates, who can't get their motions through locally, putting them through at conference." SWP members applauded their hero and jeered at the opposition, most of whom were forced to observe from the balcony. Both they and comrade Bambery seemed to have forgotten that they were about to pass a constitution which allowed exactly the right he considered so deplorable. Paragraph 4.6 states: "Any group of at least 20 members will have the right to organise within Respect and to present resolutions to conferences consistent with the agenda of the conference" (www.respectcoali-tion.com/index.php). However, pass it they did, with not a peep from the SWP about this particular offending paragraph. But obviously the leadership has had a rethink. The standing orders for this year's conference state that all resolutions must go through branches - and only two motions "maximum" are allowed each branch. In contrast to the national committee, which has no limit on the number of motions it can propose. As it presently stands, the constitution puts no limits on the number of motions allowed from branches - and of course it allows any group of 20 members to submit them too. The standing orders are therefore unconstitutional and must be challenged. The constitution contains the rules for the operation of Respect. It gives the membership some recognisable rights and determines how Respect will carry on its business both between and within conference. It is only conference that can change the constitution. It is not up to the national committee to change it on its own initiative - and without mentioning they are even doing it! There is no provision for such unilateral action within the constitution that they themselves pushed for and succeeded in getting voted through unamended. They are breaking their own rules. Therefore, contrary to their edict and according to the constitution, any group of 20 members can properly submit resolutions to conference. Can and should. And branches are not limited to two resolutions. Of course, if John Rees had his way, all branches would pass only the resolutions recommended by the national committee. There would probably only be two resolutions in all to conference. No disagreement would be voiced. Lindsey would tell George how wonderful he is. George would reply in kind. There would be no adverse reports in the media about arguments on secularism or women's rights. The MP and the whole popular front project would be protected. Contrary to those who tell us that Respect will become more democratic once it has had some success, the reverse is true. George Galloway is well known for voicing his opposition to abortion and euthanasia. He has made it clear that he will struggle for his own views in parliament. Respect has a policy of allowing its elected representatives a 'conscience vote' on contentious questions. In effect the SWP says nothing while George says whatever he likes. For example, what does the SWP think of comrade Galloway's latest outburst in Edinburgh? According to the Scottish press, he has repeated his threat of last year to stand against the Scottish Socialist Party. Galloway is quoted as saying: "... I think the SSP may well sink without trace at the next election. I hope that doesn't happen, but if it happens then Respect will have to look again at its decision not to organise in Scotland." But the SWP is well aware that its populist unity is fragile and vulnerable to any type of coherent argument. It can keep opposition delegates out of conference, but does not want even its own loyal members submitting too many resolutions. And it certainly does not want oppositional members submitting anything. Only the leadership is all-powerful. While ditching awkward parts of the constitution might serve the SWP well in the short term, it will only increase the tensions within the organisation. Not allowing space for the expression of even mild criticism will cost it dear. Arthur Scargill tried it to his cost. Whoever hears anything about the Socialist Labour Party these days? But it is important to fight this brazen attempt to circumscribe conference, otherwise the event will be a mere talking shop. All members of Respect must challenge the standing orders - and the best way to do so is to submit motions as presently allowed under the constitution. Keeping quiet will only ensure that they get away with it. The left minority is Respect must get organised. Anne Mc Shane