Socialist Worker

Where now for Respect?

John Rees headed the Respect list in the West Midlands and is a member of the Respect steering committee. He looks at British politics after the elections

Issue No. 1907

THE LABOUR Party, the party of government for the past seven years, received its lowest share of the vote since the First World War in the 10 June elections. The Tory party, the oldest and most successful conservative party in any parliamentary democracy, suffered an effective split in its voting base as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) took many of its natural supporters.

In the last general election alienation from the establishment political parties led to a voter strike. The result was the lowest turnout since universal suffrage was introduced. In the 2004 European and council elections alienation from the established parties saw a rise in turnout for those elections but a massive erosion of support for Labour and the Tories. The stability of the British electoral system has depended on mass support for these two institutions since the Second World War.

When the base of such monoliths crumbles it does not do so in a night, or in a tidy fashion. The Labour Party has had the allegiance of millions of working people and their mass organisations for generations.

The bitterness and disappointment with the establishment parties flows in many different directions when it breaks free of its traditional moorings. Some Labour supporters vent their anger at the Iraq war by voting Liberal Democrat. Some lash out at the government and the established parties by joining disillusioned Tories in voting for a seemingly "outsider" party like UKIP or even the Nazi BNP.

In the context of this decaying support for the "centre" of the establishment political system the mere existence of Respect: The Unity Coalition is of crucial importance.

Without Respect the disillusionment of millions with a political system that cannot address their concerns over the war in Iraq, privatisation, welfare services, the unions or pensions would only run in right wing channels. The existence of Respect has begun to create a left alternative to New Labour. The 250,000 votes for Respect add up to just short of 2 percent across the country. But it is not evenly distributed and when you look at the concentrations of the Respect vote it reveals some very impressive bases from which we can build.

In London, Respect came fifth in the race for mayor after the three main parties and UKIP, but ahead of the Greens and the BNP. Respect averaged just short of the 5 percent of the vote needed to elect Lindsey German to the London Assembly. It took 20 percent of the vote in the City & East Assembly constituency.

We were the third party in the whole area covered by Walthamstow, Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets in north and east London. George Galloway got 92,000 votes in the European Parliament elections in London. This was despite a press blackout only broken a week before the election when pro-war columnists in the Guardian, Independent and Observer and editorials in the Guardian and Observer warned against voting Respect.

In Preston, where Respect stood in five council elections, we averaged 30 percent of the vote, missing electing a second councillor by just 104 votes. In Birmingham we averaged 7.4 percent of the vote. In ten inner city wards in Birmingham we scored between 8 and 39 percent of the vote, averaging 24 percent of the vote. In Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall we scored just short of 5 percent of the vote.

In Leicester Respect won 10 percent of the vote. In Luton and Slough we won 6 percent of the vote. These are not a few isolated council wards scattered around the country. They are huge swathes of the inner city in some of the biggest urban areas of Britain.

Respect approached the Green Party in an attempt to have a joint list for the European elections. The Greens refused this. If we had combined our forces the left would have gained a UKIP-sized vote.

Muslims have been on the receiving end of an ideological offensive since 11 September 2001. Hundreds have been arrested. They have been abused and scapegoated by a spectrum of political figures that runs from New Labour ministers to the leaders of the BNP. Respect is proud that many Muslims stood as Respect candidates, worked for the campaign and voted for Respect.

"Labour used to be proud of the support it got from Asians in the inner cities," said one Respect supporter in Birmingham recently. "But now Asians are voting for other parties Labour calls it a 'Muslim vote'."

The truth is that there is no "Muslim communalist vote", as one Green Party candidate suggested at an election hustings in Birmingham. Muslims voted for Respect in equal numbers whether our candidate was a white socialist, an Asian trade unionist, a Jewish radical, an Afro-Caribbean campaigner or a white or Asian Muslim. Muslims are politically divided. Most still voted either Labour or Liberal Democrat at these elections. There is now a battle on to secure and extend the vote that Muslims gave to Respect in the inner cities.

Muslims cannot only be seen in their religious dimension. This perspective is one forced on us by the "clash of civilisations" view of the world that pro-war politicians have adopted. It is vitally necessary that Respect defends Muslims from these attacks. But this is not the whole story.

Most Muslims are working people with exactly the same fears and concerns as every other working person-over education for their children, pensions, job security, the NHS or student tuition fees.

Muslims are also, crucially, trade unionists. Oliur Rahman, our candidate in the City & East constituency in London, is both a Muslim and a PCS civil servants' union branch secretary.

Among the 400 Asian Euro Packaging strikers in Birmingham there were some people who Respect first met at the mosque. They are also now the victorious members of a recognised GPMU union branch.

The man who got Respect to speak at a local mosque in the West Midlands is a lifelong worker at the GKN engineering factory. The people who run the Islamic centre in Coventry are former postal workers who still have close CWU union connections.

Respect rests on three foundation stones-the socialists, the left in the unions and Muslims who have been radicalised by the wars in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq. Respect cannot prosper, does not want to prosper, without Muslim support. But it cannot prosper with only Muslim support.

Just as it is the job of our socialist and trade unionist members to help us sustain and advance our support among Muslims, it is also the job of our Muslim supporters to help us win the battle for Respect in the trade unions. Winning support for Respect in the unions is harder than among some layers of the Muslim community. There are about two million Muslims in Britain. There are eight million trade unionists.

There are conservative layers in the Muslim community opposed to Respect and loyal to Labour. But they do not carry the same weight as the trade union leaders like Tony Woodley of the TGWU or Billy Hayes of the CWU. Nevertheless, the crisis of Labourism is now reaching a new pitch in the trade unions.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has now joined the RMT in breaking its links with the Labour Party. Andy Gilchrist, the FBU leader, tried desperately to stop his members from disaffiliating from Labour by suspending the annual conference until after the European elections.

When the conference reconvened last week it voted to leave the Labour Party. In the Communication Workers Union (CWU) the important postal workers section of the union voted to give money to political parties other than Labour, but the motion was lost in the whole conference.

Nevertheless the whole union voted to leave Labour if the government pushes ahead with the privatisation of the Post Office. In the RMT, the FBU, CWU and the PCS, where general secretary Mark Serwotka is a Respect supporter, there is now a huge audience for Respect. Our supporters need to ensure that we get to speak directly to the union members so that they can hear what we stand for.

RESPECT HAS three central tasks. (1) To turn those who voted for us for the first time at this election into committed supporters. In those areas where we did well we should not assume that people will vote for us again unless we keep in contact.

We need local newspapers, bulletins and free sheets distributed door to door. We need film shows in community centres and cafes. Fundraising meals, picnics and barbecues are great ways of inviting whole communities into Respect. Cultural/political events are far more attractive than "regular branch meetings" so beloved of the old left and trade unionists.

(2) We need to pioneer Respect in new areas. Just send supporters to do a stall on Saturday. Get some contacts and leaflet for a public meeting. In the West Midlands Respect has organised groups in Stoke and Worcester simply because people from Birmingham organised in this way.

(3) Respect will be contesting council and parliamentary elections, including the soon to be declared Leicester South by-election. Start telling all Respect supporters that they can expect the call to get on the coaches to Leicester in the next few weeks!

Alienation from the political system leads many to bitterness and despair. This is the wellspring of votes for the populist right of UKIP and the Nazi right of the BNP.

Respect is the beginning of the politics of hope. It is the beginning of a mass, left alternative to New Labour.


Respect Results In Birmingham

In ten key wards in Birmingham the Respect vote averaged 24.2%
Bordesley Green 38.6% Springfield 29.5% Washwood Heath 26.0% Sparkbrook 25.2% Nechells 22.6% Aston 18.3% Soho 12.2% Yardley 12.0% Lozells 8.2% Moseley & Kings Heath 7.8%

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Sat 26 Jun 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1907
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