As the election campaign gets under way one issue we have to address is the idea that a vote for Respect is a “wasted vote”. These arguments can be summed up as, “I like what you say, I agree with you on the war, but you can’t win — and even if you win a seat, what impact can you have?”
We should not underestimate the extent to which ideas such as these can prevent Respect breaking into the three party system that dominates Britain. It’s important we know how to respond.
Let’s start with the idea of the “wasted vote”. This notion is being put about by Labour supporters to try and stop people from voting Respect. But the fact of the matter is that in the British electoral system the vast majority of votes are “wasted”, in the sense that the majority of the electorate do not vote for the winning party.
The Labour Party has never gained the votes of more than half the electorate. Preston has traditionally been a solid Labour city. Yet the part of the city I live in has been carved off into the Ribble Valley constituency — one of the safest Tory seats in the country.
The only way my vote would not be “wasted” is if I voted Tory — and there is no chance of that! But you don’t hear Labour supporters in my part of Preston suggesting a vote for them is a “wasted vote”.
The big three parties push the “wasted vote” argument because it benefits them. But it leaves us with no choice. Voting becomes reduced to putting a cross beside Tweedledee, Tweedledum, or Tweedledumber. Each of them is a party of big business, privatisation and war.
Voting Respect does three things. First, it emphasises that the anti-war majority will not, and cannot, be silenced. Blair and the rest of his lying cabinet should pay the political price of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. A good vote for Respect will mean Blair will continue to be haunted by the Iraq war.
Second, though elections are ultimately about winning, a good vote can lay the basis for future elections. In Preston last June we stood in five wards at the local elections.
We did not win any of the seats — but we were second in three and third in two. We got an average of 30 percent of the vote and are now the main challengers to New Labour in central Preston.
Our second place has meant we are taken much more seriously in Preston. Respect gets lots of local media coverage. And various community networks are working with us to ensure that we go from second to first next time round.
This emphasises the final point, that we are involved in a longer term project — laying the basis for a radical fourth party in Britain.
We have targeted our resources because we want to make a national impact, allowing us to challenge New Labour in many more seats in future elections.
This success of this project depends on getting in the votes this time round. So we are asking people to vote Respect in May and, in the process, be part of an exciting new project to reshape the political landscape of Britain.
But if we do get someone elected, can we make a difference? Let’s start to answer this by asking some questions.
Has the anti-war voice benefited from having George Galloway as an MP? Or the fight to defend our civil liberties? Has our national profile — both as Respect and as an anti-war movement — been strengthened or weakened by having an elected representative? The answer is obvious.
But more importantly, getting elected means we can initiate a different type of political engagement from that offered by the mainstream parties.
First, we want to encourage a grassroots political upsurge. This may sound awfully grand, but we want to make politics real and relevant. We don’t want MPs who disappear for four or five years and then reappear at the next election wanting a vote.
We want to use our position to strengthen and deepen our contacts with the trade union movement, with local community and cultural organisations and with youth and campaigning networks. We want to become, and be seen as, their representatives in parliament.
This means that our second aim is to avoid getting bogged down in the interminable work of parliamentary or council committees. Rather, we want to use parliament and the council chambers as platforms to raise issues that promote a more radical and engaged politics.
That means using our elected position to defend communities who are under attack, supporting trade unionists in struggle, defending civil liberties. It means promoting the anti-war and anti-imperialist cause, and building the movement against neo-liberal globalisation.
This is what George Galloway has done as an MP and, on a local level, it is what the Respect councillors have managed to do in Tower Hamlets and Preston.
In Preston we have used the council chamber to raise issues such as Palestine, the Asian tsunami and global warming. We have consistently voted against cuts in jobs and services.
Oliur Rahman, the Tower Hamlets Respect councillor, has managed to raise support for strikers, to stand up against cuts in the local fire service, and to raise demands for improvements to local housing.
Respect is a new organisation. But we already have a record in parliament and in council chambers that we can be proud of.
Voting Respect at the general election not only reflects the political aspirations of the anti-war movement in Britain. It also lays the basis for an engaged politics of hope. It is something we should all fight for over the next month.