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First rung on the ladder

Andy Newman


 

Respect's victory in the council by-election in the St Dunstan's and Stepney Green ward for Tower Hamlet's council is very significant, and received coverage in the Independent, Guardian, as well as a positive report in the Morning Star.

Those of us averse to hype have tended to feel slightly cynical when told that quite moderate results are a major breakthrough. In many places Respect's votes in June were no better, and often worse, than the Socialist Alliance had achieved in the past. The Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election result was not much better than the Socialist Alliance by-election performances in Tottenham and Preston 4 years ago. Nor was the Leicester result that much better than Dave Nellist has been able to achieve in Coventry in the past; or the Socialist Alliance's result in the Hackney Mayoral contest.

Therefore the fact that Respect has now actually won an election, and one that was fiercely contested by the Lib Dems, means that there is now some substance behind Respect.

In passing it is a bit worrying that the National Front (NF) received a reasonably high vote in St Dunstan's and Stepney Green considering that their candidate, Lynda Miller, is unlovable even by the standards of the far right. A woman who has joined and then left under a cloud almost every fascist organisation, and has been active in the Ku Klux Klan.

Oliur Rahman has demonstrated that he has the ability and commitment to succeed. Let us hope that he also learns from the positive experience of Ian Page, Dave Nellist and other socialist councillors. Now that Respect has someone elected the hard work begins of translating that localised electoral support into a vigorous campaigning organisation.

It is reassuring to learn that there is a functioning Respect organisation in the borough that will be able to support and guide Oliur.



 

What is the wider significance of this by-election?

The first thing to acknowledge about St Dunstan's and Stepney Green is that the ward is not typical of much of England and Wales: it is not typical even of London. The ethnic composition is only 39% "white British" according to the 2001 national census. Statistics on religion are not available on a ward level, but assuming that the majority of people describing themselves as Bangladeshi or Pakistani are Moslem, and the majority of those describing themselves as Indian are more likely to be Hindu or Sikh, then the ward is 44% Moslem.

So the high RESPECT vote was certainly linked to there being a large Moslem population. As a recent article in Scottish Socialist Voice pointed out: "If the Muslim community throughout England begins to believe that the Lib Dems are a better bet to defeat Labour and punish Blair over the war, then some may end up deserting Respect. The question also remains as to what support Respect has managed to establish amongst the working class outside those areas with large Muslim communities"

This is indeed a good question.

Nevertheless, we should remind ourselves that in September 2003 the Moslem anti-war vote in Brent East did in fact go to the free market Liberal Democrats; so Respect is a move forwards in that regard. Of course there is some debate about why the Socialist Alliance did not gain electorally from the anti-war movement, only scoring 1.7% in Brent East. (For full results and election literature from Brent East see here)

Many of us feel that the Socialist Alliance could have succeeded had all the left used it to present a united public face in the anti-war movement.

It is also very significant that on June 10th Respect also scored a 28% vote in a council ward in Neath that is only 0.2% Moslem. So Respect does have the potential to achieve significant votes beyond the Moslem electorate. Respect has been unfortunately reticent about the Neath experience, and it would be very useful to have a detailed account of that campaign so that we can all learn from it. The candidate, Huw Pudner, had previously stood for the welsh Socialist Alliance, without the same degree of success.

The council by-election in Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets on 9th September is vital. This ward (which elected a BNP councillor a few years back) is different from St Dunstan's and Stepney Green, being 65% white; 15% Moslem and 5% Chinese. So Respect cannot win on the Moslem vote alone. However the high local profile gained from Oliur's victory, and the ability of Respect to draw on help from across London may make the difference. The Millwall by-election is in some ways the most significant test yet for RESPECT. (Please call Martin on 079 585 35231 or Nur 07879 496680 if you can help)


 

For the most part the election results of the June 10th elections are only available at a borough level, which makes the sort of detailed analysis useful for planning local elections difficult. However, it is interesting that Respect has been able to provide the Euro election votes for Sheffield on a ward by ward basis.

This allows a comparison with the statistics from the 2001 census, and shows that the relationship between the proportion of Moslems in an area and the Respect vote exists at ward level, as well as at constituency level.

As the graph of Sheffield results shows, most of Respect's vote in Sheffield came from just four wards where there is a significant Moslem population. Indeed in most parts of the town Respect's vote can only be described as dismal, scoring less than 1% in half the city, and 0.5% or less in more than a third of wards. Indeed in Arbourthorne a Socialist Party candidate scored 5.5% in a ward where Respect polled only 0.3%.

Generally the Respect vote across Sheffield was higher in the more ethnically diverse wards; there is no similar relationship between the Respect vote and any other statistical variable, for example nature of employment, educational standard, or age.

With regard to Sheffield, it is interesting to note that in Central ward, 18% voted Respect, and 18% voted Green. This high vote cannot simply be attributed to religion and ethnicity despite 11% of the population being Moslem. Sheffield Socialist Alliance activist Richard Belbin commented on this good result: "Why, I think Respect did well in Central was a combination of two things - the old SA & students.  The ward was expanded to include some parts of the neighbouring Nether Edge ward where the SA was very active, and where many of what might be called the 'professional left' (teachers, social workers etc) live.  There has still been a good anti-war group going there as well, which probably kept respects 'issues' more alive.   I do think part of why Respect did well in places was because of the work the SA had done. The other factor is students I reckon.  There have recently been a whole bunch of student flats built in the area, which has expanded quite massively.  Respect did seem to do a bit more work around the universities."

If we recognise that RESPECT has mainly done well where there is a large Moslem population, it follows that the model of organisation and tactics that have led to success in St Dunstan's and Stepney Green, cannot simply be transferred to other parts of the country. As one member of the Socialist Alliance national executive remarked "I'm not sure what there is to say about it that others could use to improve. Be better, live in an area where there is a high Moslem population and a strong left current."

But success does breed success. Respect has now shown that it can win elections. That means it will be treated more seriously, not only in the bourgeois press, but also within the Labour movement. The Saturday after the election saw an interesting editorial in the Morning Star editorial, both recognising that RESPECT had done well, but also sharply focusing on the really important issue, which is the growing rupture between the unions and New Labour: "Respect's stunning council by-election victory in East London indicates both that Iraq remains a live issue ... ... [and] that unions should remember that they are not supplicants. they formed the labour party and have a responsibility to guide it and to insist on policies that benefit working people. ...[if New Labour doesn't change] there is an ultimate onus on them to re-establish a party of labour and to leave the new Labour clique withering on the vine".

RESPECT is not necessarily an appealing vehicle for trade unionists breaking from Labour. As John Fisher pointed out at the January 2004 Socialist Alliance National Executive meeting, George Galloway does not have the same appeal for the trade union left as he does for anti-war activists.

Many activists have had an open mind about RESPECT so far, waiting to see how it develops. If the perception grows that RESPECT is in the control of an unaccountable clique then there is no prospect of gaining trade union support. The decision to hold a delegate conference rather than a conference open to all members in October may prove to be the defining movement for how people perceive RESPECT. Some of us have swallowed our reservations and joined Respect hoping that conference would allow us to contribute towards it being a genuine, open, democratic socialist organisation. The latest announcement about conference arrangements is likely to prevent the presence of these more undecided members, many of whom have played an influential and leading roles in the Socialist Alliance.

In their London based committee rooms the leading members of Respect seem unaware that in the rest of the country there is very little enthusiasm for Respect, and some real antipathy was generated in the manner of its launch. The waverers need to be won over if Respect is to prosper - stopping people coming to the conference is a step backwards.

Alongside the need for democratic structures within Respect, it is vital that systematic local work is done to sink roots into working class communities, and not just those with high proportions of blacks and Asians. To achieve this RESPECT needs to stop trumpeting how wonderful it is, and start to work alongside other activists not yet convinced about the RESPECT project. It needs to broaden its appeal so that it looks, feels and behaves like a Labour movement organisation.

To a certain degree chasing one Westminster by-election after another and bussing supporters around the country can become a substitute for building long term relationships nearer home.

For that reason I am sceptical about the wisdom of contesting Hartlepool, where Respect is likely to get stuffed. Then again who predicted Mike Tyson losing to unknown, Danny Williams?


 

 

August 2004

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