The east London borough of Newham has for generations been a stronghold of the Labour Party.
For years every councillor was a member of the party. Residents have seen every New Labour scheme tested there.
But things may be about to change. During last year’s general election Respect candidates Lindsey German and Abdul Khaliq Mian each took about 20 percent of the vote, coming second behind Labour.
Now Labour is worried about Respect making a breakthrough at the council elections on 4 May.
On 2 March this year, an e-mail was circulated to council officers advertising an event to teach them how to operate with a multi-party council.
“Some officers may not have worked in a council with opposition groups before,” it read.
Last Sunday Labour canvassers, once deemed unnecessary in a council election in Newham, were seen passing Respect’s campaign headquarters.
Inside, Respect candidates were planning their assault on the town hall. The party plans to challenge for all 60 seats.
In Little Ilford ward, in the far north east of the borough, the three Respect candidates, from different backgrounds, are working as a close team.
Sajid Rehman has lived in the area all his life. Having voted Labour in the past, he recently switched to Respect and became a candidate for the ward.
Rebecca Palmer grew up in the East End, moved away and then returned to the area. “I came back and found that the poverty is worse, unemployment is worse, and young people have fewer opportunities,” she said.
The third candidate in the ward is Summer Shahbaz, who worked at the local university before taking a career break to have a child.
She has lived in Newham for 28 years. “I’m standing in an area where I grew up and went to school,” she said. “I’ve seen changes and growing problems, and I’ve got a real passion for the area.”
All three candidates agreed that there is despair at New Labour. Many people feel taken for granted by Labour and have stopped voting.
“The main reason people don’t vote is poverty,” said Sajid. “They’ve voted for years, but nothing has changed – they’re still poor, their houses are still shabby. They’ve just had enough.”
Rebecca agreed, “In some areas over 50 percent of people live in poverty,” she said. “They don’t know where their meals are going to come from. That’s down to the local authority not challenging the government. They just keep making cuts.”
Other issues include attacks on healthcare, lack of refuse collection and environmental problems.
“Asthma is a big problem. I’ve got seven sisters, all with sons. All of them suffer from asthma,” said Sajid.
As in countless other areas, anger over the war has fed into anger over local issues.
“On the doorstep people talk about local problems,” said Summer. “But people also say that the money that should be used in our schools and on our local area is going towards the war in Iraq.”
There is also anger over the way big business and privatisation is reshaping the area.
“People don’t like the way that the government talks about ‘regeneration’ but hands the money to private companies,” said Rebecca.
“They’re rebuilding stuff, but at what cost? One man told us his church was being knocked down because of regeneration. A new church wasn’t in the plan.
“This was a local, community based church, where young and old came together.
“We want more houses and facilities, but not at the price of ripping the heart out of the community.”
In another ward, Plaistow North, the closure of the much-loved Queens Market, has become a major issue.
Nazir Harif, one of the three candidates in that ward, said that the market “is one of the places that people could always go to get cheap food”.
But now Asda, run by US multinational Wal-Mart, is trying to take over the site.
Nazir, who came to London from the Indian state of Gujarat in 1975 and currently drives a black cab, is standing in the ward with two Respect candidates from a younger generation.
Forhad Hussain and Sabia Kamal are both 25 years old.
Forhad Hussain works in web development and joined Respect because of the war, and because it reflected his social values.
Sabia works for an international charity. She said, “The way we are treated here is terrible – there are no facilities for the young people or the very old.”
For her the planned closure of Queen’s Market shows everything that is wrong with New Labour. “It’s not just that people won’t be able to shop there, but lots of people will lose their jobs too,” she said.
“Labour doesn’t seem to care. Traditionally people here have voted Labour, in the belief that it might mean Old Labour.”
“New Labour is arrogant,” said Forhad. “There’s no opposition on the council. It used to be for the working class, but now it is not. It is all about privatisation of schools and the NHS.”
‘I am standing to make a difference for working class people’
Abdurahman Jafar is standing as the Respect candidate for mayor of Newham. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the issues in the election
‘I’m 34 years old and a barrister working in human rights. I’ve been with Respect almost since its inception.
I’ve always supported local politicians whom I thought stood for social justice and had a fair approach to international relations.
When Respect came along it reflected all my beliefs – I was keen to join and commit myself to the party.
I see it as part of a global movement to create a better world, the kind of world I want my children to live in.
It’s not just that Labour has an appalling record on international justice.
It’s everything – pensions, the treatment of poorer families, privatisations, everything that affects ordinary people. Labour supports the interests of big business and the multinationals.
We’ve got a beautiful local market that has sold fresh, healthy food for generations. Now the Labour-run council wants to hand it over to Asda.
With the Olympics due to be held in London this kind of thing will keep happening. They won’t leave a lasting legacy for people in Newham, just empty shells.
Labour turns cohesive communities into wrecks.
But Labour’s traditional support base, ordinary working class people, aren’t buying it.
If I won, the first thing I’d do is make sure Newham got the tens of millions of pounds it’s due from central government.
For some reason we don’t get inner London funding. We pay inner London rates for service, but we receive £70 million less than we should. That causes a huge deficit.
I also think we should look at the position of the executive mayor.
We think this system is undemocratic. Very few people voted in the referendum to introduce it. We think there should be another referendum to decide whether this is what people really want.’
Rally: Respect – the only challenge to Labour
With George Galloway MP, Yvonne Ridley (Islam Channel), Lindsey German (West Ham candidate), Abdurahman Jafar (mayoral candidate), and other local candidates.
Tue 11 Apr, 7pm
East Ham Town Hall, Barking Rd, London E6