First rung on the ladder
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,
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
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
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
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
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,