Archive article from The Socialist Issue 439
Dangers in Respect's development
RESPECT STOOD over 150 candidates and got 16 elected: 12 in Tower Hamlets, three in Newham and one in Birmingham. The victories of candidates standing against the Iraq war, privatisation and the other neo-liberal attacks of New Labour and big business are welcome. However there are also strong danger signs regarding Respect's development.
All of their winning candidates are from a Muslim background and won predominately on the basis of Muslim votes in areas with high Muslim populations. Winning support from working-class Muslim and other Asian, black and immigrant communities is an essential task of left and socialist parties. These communities face some of the worst housing conditions, jobs and unemployment in Britain and also suffer the consequences of increased racism.
However, the extreme difference between Respect's election performance in those areas compared with areas with relatively few Muslims is striking. Virtually all of Respect's results in towns and cities such as Plymouth, Portsmouth, Cambridge, Liverpool, Newcastle and Oxford were very much lower (around 2-300 votes) than their votes in areas with high Muslim populations.
On its website, Respect declares that their twelve council seats in Tower Hamlets are "one more than the BNP in Barking and Dagenham". This would be a cause for great celebration by the left as a whole, if it had been achieved on a clear class-based programme. But instead, unfortunately, Respect could unconsciously further the beginnings of a polarisation based on racial division, by not countering the growing perception that it is a 'party for Muslims'.
The white working-class BNP voters of Barking and Dagenham will only be won away from the BNP by a left party that puts forward a class-based alternative. It is not so much a question of what Respect's election material says, but of what it doesn't say. While it puts across opposition to NHS cuts, council house privatisation, the war in Iraq and other welcome positions, it does not consistently include a class-based appeal to all sections of the working class.
As the Socialist Party has repeatedly warned, it is necessary for socialists to stand clearly and firmly on a fighting, class-based programme that can unite working people from all sections of society. In Kirklees, standing for 'Save Huddersfield NHS', Socialist Party member Jackie Grunsell won a council seat with 2,176 votes and a majority of 807, by appealing to both white voters and a significant Asian minority electorate. Victorious Socialist Party candidates in Coventry and Lewisham have also appealed to all sections of workers in those areas.
Another major challenge Respect now faces will be in living up to expectations to improve the lives of people in Tower Hamlets. Some of its new councillors there have a record of fighting privatisation and cuts, but as the second largest political group on the council they will soon be tested at a new level.
The housing, welfare and other urgent needs in that poverty stricken borough cannot be solved with the money presently given by the government and raised in local council tax. So Respect's councillors will be faced with the choice of supporting cuts in some services, increasing council tax, or of mobilising all sections of the community into a major campaign to demand the necessary resources from the government, as Liverpool's socialist councillors did in the 1980s.
Respect has already shown - particularly through the behaviour of its MP George Galloway - that its public representatives are far from accountable to the party. This, combined with the fact that many of its new councillors do not come from a socialist background, is cause for concern in Tower Hamlets.
What is needed, is a united, campaigning team of councillors, opposing all cuts and leading and basing themselves on the struggles of workers from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Only in this way can a successful campaign be launched against the New Labour government and council attacks on living standards and for the resources necessary to transform people's lives.