Respect has won a crucial council by-election in Shadwell, east London, fending off an attempt by New Labour to return its deposed local leader Michael Keith to the Tower Hamlets council chamber.
The victory bodes well for Respect’s campaign in next May’s elections for London mayor and the London assembly. The party is standing Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition, for mayor on an anti-war and anti-privatisation ticket.
The by-election on Thursday of last week saw Respect’s candidate Harun Miah polling 1,512 votes, beating Labour on 1,415, the Tories on 476 and the Liberal Democrats on 98.
The result means Respect polled 43 percent of the vote, as compared to 46 percent in May last year. Labour’s share rose from 30 percent to 40 percent – the bulk of this rise coming from Tory and Lib Dem voters switching to Labour.
“This is a victory for people power,” Harun Miah told Socialist Worker. “People are tired of New Labour’s policies – especially on housing. They want housing owned by the public and with public investment.
“In terms of the bigger picture, this result shows people haven’t forgotten about what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. People know that Respect is the party that speaks out against injustice and wrongdoing across the world.”
Turnout was just under 40 percent, a high figure for a council by-election.
The last days of the campaign saw Respect activists from across London come to Shadwell to help canvass.
For Respect, the campaign was in many ways a trial run for the London assembly elections next year. The party needs to win 5 percent of the vote across the city to get a member elected on the London assembly – and 7 percent to get two members elected.
“The issues that delivered the Respect vote in Shadwell were housing, private development and the growing gap between the rich and poor,” said John Rees, Respect’s national secretary. “These same problems exist in working class areas across London.”
Respect’s win in Shadwell will also strengthen the party in east London. George Galloway, currently Respect MP for Bethnal Green & Bow, last week announced plans to seek the party’s nomination for the neighbouring constituency of Poplar & Limehouse.
Respect’s victory shows the limit of the “Brown bounce” – the idea that Labour has regained some popularity with Gordon Brown replacing the hated Tony Blair as prime minister.
While the change of leadership might be enough for Labour to win recent by-elections in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield, it was not enough for the party to take back a deprived inner city council ward from Respect.
Shadwell had been a solidly Labour ward from 1919 until last year, when Respect won all three councillors in the ward – kicking out Keith, then leader of Tower Hamlets council.
The by-election was triggered when former Respect councillor Shamim Chowdhury unexpectedly resigned at the end of June, citing “personal reasons”.
Chowdhury then attacked Respect in the local press for being too “militant”, fuelling rumours that his resignation had been engineered by New Labour to trigger a by-election and get Keith back in the town hall.
Labour’s campaign was marked by vitriolic smears branding Respect an “extremist” organisation. The Tories opted for blatant racism, griping about a “Muslim cemetery in Britain’s most overcrowded borough”.
Respect in contrast focused on the issues, attacking Labour’s appalling record on housing in the borough.
The fact that Michael Keith was closely associated with the council’s policies helped Respect win says Maggie Falshaw, who organised Harun Miah’s campaign.
“People were determined to win – and determined to keep Keith out,” she told Socialist Worker. “There was a general attitude of ‘We’re not having that man again’.” The Respect campaign was also marked by its most systematic canvassing operation to date says Maggie.
Respect activist Carole Swords, a well-known housing campaigner in Tower Hamlets, is making a formal complaint to the police over her treatment on the day of the by-election.
Carole was arrested outside a polling station on Bigland Street on “suspicion of obstructing the highway” after an argument with police officers.
She was later taken hospital to be treated for injuries to her hands and arms. “The police over-reacted,” said Labour activist Moynul Kabir, who witnessed the arrest.