“I think that we have a good chance because people are disillusioned and dissatisfied with Labour,” says Raghib Ahsan, Respect council candidate for Lozells & East Handsworth in Birmingham.
Raghib is a longstanding activist who was a Labour councillor for seven years.
He is one of the many people joining and becoming active in Respect to challenge New Labour’s pro-war and neo-liberal policies in the forthcoming elections.
Raghib says, “Millions of people in this country opposed the war on Iraq. Those people oppose the privatisation of our schools, our housing and our hospitals.
“I think that we need the Respect party because there is no one to represent these people.
“Lots of people feel that they are not represented by Labour any more. The Liberal Democrats are trying to pick up some of these voters, because they put themselves across as an alternative. But they are not.
“I started my political life as a trade union shop steward in South Wales. I then moved to Birmingham where I worked in a car factory as an engineer. I was part of a lot of campaigns over low pay.
“I used to think that the Labour Party was about representing people like me.
“I was a member of the Labour Party for a long time, and a Labour councillor for seven years.
“I left Labour in January 2004 because I was dissatisfied with this government’s conduct over the war.
“I also left because the government shows total disregard for Labour members. There is no democracy inside the party. The structure is such that it is impossible for those opposed to the leadership to organise. It is completely controlled from the centre.
“The scope to change Labour from the inside is very limited. Where branches still exist they don’t meet and when they do they have very little power.
“It used to be the case that you could influence policy from the branches up.
“Members were able to take ideas to conference, and decisions at conference would be taken on board by the leadership. Now Labour leaders ignore conference resolutions.
“There is so much space in politics now to the left. There are so many people who aren’t represented.
“When people feel that they are not represented, they will look to the alternatives.
“And we have to provide a better alternative than the Liberal Democrats or the far right BNP.
“Labour still has a real hold over a large number of people.
“But I know locally that Respect and other groups are taking over the campaigns that would in the past have been led by Labour.
“In 1983 I was involved in an anti-deportation campaign that I am still very proud of today.
“We won, and we brought Labour policy on side. For the first time we linked up this sort of campaign with the unions.
“In Birmingham we’ve been campaigning very hard to get people to the Stop the War demonstration this Saturday.
“People are still very angry about this war and any future wars.”
The Lozells area of Birmingham, where Raghib is standing, hit the news last September after a week of riots which saw one man killed.
Sections of the Asian and African Caribbean communities clashed over allegations of the rape of a Jamaican girl by a gang of Asian men.
Raghib says, “The riots last year were terrible. Respect is campaigning to bring people together. The problems locally are not to do with race, they are to do with class. And we need to be united.
“Soon after the riots I was at a meeting between residents and the police where the police were forced, quite rightly, to apologise for the way they dealt with the situation.
“Respect is not about divisions within communities – that is just a way to distract people.
“The real problems are the disadvantages that whole layers of people in our society face. They are problems of capitalism and class, and we need to work together to help the disadvantaged, not fight each other.
“We are making gains, and getting ourselves off the ground.
“There is a huge space open for the left and we need to make sure Respect fills that space. We need to have a long term strategy.
“When I was a councillor I thought that you had to organise to help people.
“You had to really represent your constituents and you have to treat them as I treated workers when I was a shop steward. I hope to be a councillor again.”
Respect councillors are needed to put the case for equality and justice
With just seven weeks to go until the 4 May council elections Respect campaigners are preparing to mount a major challenge to New Labour.
Over 100 candidates, election agents and supporters from across Britain came together last Saturday to discuss tactics and campaigning ideas.
Respect councillors Oliur Rahman from Tower Hamlets, east London, and Michael Lavalette from Preston spoke about the difference that one councillor can make. Michael said, “You have to be honest with people about we can achieve.
“We can make a real difference in the council by getting things talked about. But in Preston the Labour councillors are now whipped on everything because they voted through a few of our motions.”
Manchester Respect candidate Nahella Ashraf said, “Whether in parliament or in the local council chamber we need Respect members putting the clear and popular case for peace, justice, liberty and equality.”
Rebecca from Sheffield spoke about how Respect was campaigning locally. She said, “There are various campaigns that we are involved in. We have worked together with the Green Party in the Campaign Against Climate Change.
“We have been involved in a campaign about transport.
“The bus company has been cutting back on services and people are up in arms about it. I think it’s important to link up our national campaigns with things that affect people closer to home.
“We’ve already been out leafleting the ward and we’ve had a really good response so far.”
In Bristol former Rolls Royce worker Jerry Hicks is standing as the candidate. One of the activists from his campaign said, “The really important thing is getting out and talking to people.”
Yolanda from Slough spoke about how Respect had got involved in the local anti-incinerator campaign, and how it was important to be grounded locally.
Those at the meeting discussed how to respond to the emphasis placed on crime by other parties.
One Respect member said that in his area the Labour Party was focusing on a recent poll on youth crime in a ward where Respect were planning to stand. He asked, “How is it best to deal with these sorts of issues on the doorstep?”
Respect national secretary John Rees replied, “Firstly you have to be aware that these polls are about what questions are asked, rather than people’s main concerns.
“Secondly, Labour has cut back spending on youth programmes and after-school activities – it has pushed young people onto the streets.
“Tony Blair used to say that New Labour was tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – but in reality they have created causes.”
One of the themes that came up again and again was how important it was to get people to the London Stop the War demonstration this Saturday.
Gareth, an activist from Portsmouth, said, “Once you’ve built up the networks and got people together for the demonstration, then these are the same people you can ask to help with the leafleting or the canvassing.”