Socialist Worker

A message from Respect to lifelong Labour supporters

As the Respect coalition gears up for the general election, with plans to stand around 30 candidates, leading members send an open letter to Labour voters

Issue No. 1942

Respect campaigning in Tower Hamlets, east London, last year with candidate Oliur Rahman

Respect campaigning in Tower Hamlets, east London, last year with candidate Oliur Rahman

Many of us in Respect have, like you, always voted Labour in previous general elections. Indeed many of us come from Labour families who have voted Labour for as long as there has been a Labour Party. Some of us have held office in the Labour Party or been Labour candidates.

We understand why generations of working people have given their loyalty to Labour. In a society riven with inequality, where the Tories unashamedly represent the rich, the Labour Party was a natural home if you were a trade unionist, if you were poor, or if you were from an ethnic minority. For many it was the obvious party to join if you believed in equality, peace and justice.

But Tony Blair has transformed Labour into New Labour. And New Labour no longer stands for those traditional working class values. New Labour stands for privatisation, bringing market inspired mechanisms into the NHS and education.

Tony Blair has taken us into far more wars than Margaret Thatcher did. And he’s lied to get us there. The cost is 100,000 dead in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Now the Iraq war is also costing us our freedoms—even high court judges are saying that the New Labour government is endangering our civil liberties.

The lies and broken promises will produce one overwhelming result at the next election. Many, many traditional Labour supporters will not vote for Tony Blair. That’s a fact and none of us can do anything about it. But we can do something about what happens as a result.

We could just let Labour voters stay at home. But do we really want to see our already limited democracy further eroded in this way? The last general election saw the lowest turnout since universal suffrage was introduced. Of course you can’t blame people for not voting if the only choice before them is a government party that is in favour of war and privatisation and an opposition party that is in favour of war and privatisation.

We could let Labour voters turn to the Liberal Democrats. But they are as much in favour of privatisation as New Labour. In fact, it’s even official Liberal Democrat policy to privatise the Royal Mint—now that really is selling off the family silver.

Nor have the Liberals ever been any friends to trade unionists. They still back all Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union laws. And although it’s the Liberals’ anti-war stance that attracts disillusioned Labour voters, the Liberals not only supported the war when it started but they also back the occupation and supported sending more troops to Iraq.

And you won’t find more ardent supporters of the Israeli state than those among the Liberal Democracts.

But if not voting or voting Liberal Democrat aren’t the answer, what should the left do?

Many Labour supporters will feel that backing a party like Respect will break the unity of the labour movement making us all weaker. But if a radical alternative were to emerge to the left of Labour would this really make the working class movement weaker?

There is no reason why the growth of Respect should harm the Labour left. We are deliberately not standing against left wing Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn or Diane Abbott. And in the wider trade union and anti-war movement there is no reason why members of different parties should not fight together on those issues that unite us, just as we do now.

Evidence from Europe shows that a radical left party can make the whole movement stronger. In Italy the working class is represented both by a centre New Labour type party and by the more radical Rifondazione Comunista. This has both given the left a voice in parliament and, more importantly, allowed a strong, radical mass party to throw its weight into supporting the anti-war movement, the anti-globalisation and trade union struggles of recent years.

Few would argue that the Italian left or the Italian working class movement is weaker than the British movement with its monolithic Labour Party.

It’s the same in France. There’s a centre Socialist party, a slightly more radical Communist Party and a reasonably large far left that has enjoyed some electoral success. Looking over the channel at the strikes and demonstrations in France in the last decade you could hardly say that the working class movement has been hindered by having independent left parties.

Even in Scotland the success of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) has made it more difficult for New Labour to be so right wing north of the border. An alliance of the SSP, the SNP and the Greens has just voted down ID cards. Student fees didn’t get through in Scotland either.

And the existence of the SSP hasn’t weakened the wider labour movement. Strikes aren’t more difficult for the RMT in Scotland because they have affiliated to the SSP.

An independent left party frees those activists now imprisoned in New Labour. Blair has so altered the structure of the party that internal paths for left advance have been destroyed. After all, if the biggest mass movement in British history couldn’t make a dent on Blairite control of the Labour Party then there must surely be a case for building an alternative.

In fact, if Respect grows in strength it will make it easier for the left inside the Labour Party. At the moment Blair just takes the support of the left for granted, just as he takes working class votes for granted. Its all part of the “triangulation” strategy that he borrowed from Bill Clinton. This means you take the right wing’s clothes and don’t bother with the left because you know they’ve got nowhere else to go.

This is one of the things that stands behind the constant New Labour mimicking of Tory policies—nowhere more frighteningly than on immigration and law and order.

But “triangulation” collapses as soon as the left creates somewhere else to go. The whole political spectrum will be forced to move to the left.

Perhaps the final thing that is worrying you is whether Respect is a viable alternative. Respect is only just over a year old and so it is of course smaller than a 100 year old party like Labour. And, like the Labour Party when it was formed, we are stronger in some parts of the country than in others.

But where we are strong we have stolen the march on New Labour. In every ward of the London borough of Tower Hamlets in last June’s Euro elections we came either first or second. We got a quarter of the vote in both parliamentary constituencies in the London borough of Newham.

Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, came fifth in the race for London Mayor. We saved our deposit in our first two parliamentary by-elections, in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Leicester South, the first new party to do so since the Seconad World War.

Oliur Rahman was elected as a councillor in Tower Hamlets last summer, joining Preston councillor Michael Lavalette. Since then four more Labour councillors have crossed the floor of council chambers around the country to join Respect.

And we think that George Galloway, now sitting as a Respect MP, has an excellent chance of defeating Labour’s pro-war Oona King in London’s Bethnal Green & Bow. New Labour is certainly worried. One of their apparatchiks told a group of GMB stewards in east London that the party would rather lose 30 seats to the Tories than lose one seat to Respect.

New Labour knows that once the subservience of working people to the Labour establishment is broken there can be a new beginning for radical politics in Britain. Please help Respect make it happen. Don’t waste your vote, your time or your energy on electing another government bent on war and privatisation. Help us to help those who are looking for a new home where equality, solidarity, peace and justice are the values for which we fight.
John Rees national secretary, Respect
Oliur Rahman Respect councillor, Tower Hamlets
Michael Lavalette Respect councillor, Preston
Elaine Abbot former Labour councillor, Preston

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Sat 12 Mar 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1942
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