What Respect achieved in Tower Hamlets in 2005 was remarkable. For an organisation formed only two years earlier to return an MP is unprecedented.
In May there is a real possibility that Respect can win a significant number of seats on Tower Hamlets council and I am arguing that we should aim for nothing less than the 26 seats we need to take overall control. This is a daunting, if exciting, prospect, but it would be a mistake to lower our expectations.
If the touchstone of our general election campaign was Iraq, then in May 2006 it will also be housing. New Labour controlled Tower Hamlets council has pursued a policy of privatising council housing that has been hugely unpopular.
New Labour’s attempts to destroy council housing are all the more grotesque in Tower Hamlets because we are experiencing a housing crisis of Victorian proportions.
George Galloway’s caseload is full of appalling stories of suffering. We have the worst overcrowding in the country — suffered disproportionately by Bengali families — and examples of four or more children sharing a bedroom are not unusual.
The housing waiting list stands at 20,000 and homelessness and the use of grotty temporary accommodation continue to rise.
In the face of this, the council promotes a planning and development policy that favours private housing that local people cannot afford. New Labour has a “vision” of the East End that will bring even more luxury flats and offices — alongside the massive Crossrail development that will bring misery to thousands of residents. The task for Tower Hamlets Respect is to highlight these issues and suggest an alternative.
Local politics is increasingly controlled by a small oligarchy and decisions have been moved ever further away from local people.
Democracy and freedom of speech are undermined by a council that calls off housing privatisation ballots it thinks it will lose and tries to sack people who disagree with it (my partner, Eileen Short).
So, we have an opportunity. But there is one crucial ingredient needed if we are to fully exploit the failure of New Labour — hard work! The last two years have taught me that political success on the left requires foot-slogging.
That’s why my New Year’s resolution is to give at least an hour a day to Respect between now and the council elections. Phone calls, leafleting, letters to the local paper, or meetings all count and all make a difference.
But we can’t do it alone in Tower Hamlets. Perhaps the most significant day in our campaign in Bethnal Green & Bow was Saturday 30 April, when hundreds of Respect supporters from around the country came to Tower Hamlets. It was an experience I’ll never forget and I hope we will repeat it on 30 April this year, with a similar result.