Hundreds of Respect supporters from around the country came to east London last Saturday. After marching to the Respect office many of them campaigned in Newham and Tower Hamlets (Pic: Jess Hurd/ Discontent
“For me Respect represents old Labour values – the needs of ordinary people have to come before profit.”
Respect has become the focus of rising discontent against the council and its mayor.
New Labour’s Sir Robin Wales is one of the few directly elected mayors in the country. He rules through a cabinet and his coterie of advisors.
Privatisation of local services and the sell off of housing stock have effectively disenfranchised local people, while all challenges from the council chamber are brushed aside.
Councillors are no longer willing to question the decisions Wales makes.
In this election two wards have emerged as key battlegrounds – Green Street East and Green Street West.
At the centre of the two wards is the historic Queens Market.
The market, which sits on prime land, has been sold off to developers.
Respect council candidate Asif Karim has found himself in a fight that not only pits Respect against Labour, but local people against a powerful multinational.
Asif’s family runs a clothing store near the market. The loss of Queens Market will have a direct impact on his trade.
“The livelihoods of hundreds of families depend on the market,” he told Socialist Worker.
“If you walk around the dozens of stalls you will find some families that inherited their pitch from their grandparents. Next to them is a stall selling African food. Next to that a stall selling food from South Asia.
“All round the stalls are butchers, bakers, barbers, clothes shops. This is where people with very little money come and get a bargain. Now the council wants to throw it all away.”
In April 2005 it emerged that the mayor had banned all discussion on the future of the market from the council chamber.
Local people are up in arms about this destruction of a local market. For Asif the election is a battle for survival that affects the whole community.
Asif said, “Our livelihood depends on the livelihood of all the people in the area. By running down our services, ordinary people lose out. If that happens, we all lose out.”
The battle over the historic market has become a symbol of how Newham council is run.
The decisions of the Labour mayor and his cabinet always favour big business and are taken without the input or oversight of councillors.
Labour wants to block Respect here. If it loses the Green Street wards then the monolith of Labour in Newham will crack.
Hanif believes that a strong showing for Respect in the local elections will have an impact on ordinary Labour voters:
“In Newham, New Labour runs a virtual one party state. I hope our breakthrough will be a signal to all those still in the Labour Party to speak out at how this council is run.
“There are many inside the party who are unhappy. We will show them that there is an alternative and that it represents the values that they cherish.”
Forhad Hussein is standing in Plaistow North. Born in Stepney, he went to the local school before studying engineering at Imperial College, London. He now runs a web design company.
Forhad is angry about the war, but it was a local campaign over housing that prompted him to stand in the elections.
He joined a campaign over a local housing development and was dismayed after their petition was dismissed.
For Forhad the issue became a symbol of the erosion of local democracy.
He told Socialist Worker, “The campaign convinced me that we need an effective opposition in the borough.
“There is no effective scrutiny of the mayor’s decisions, and if any the Labour councillors speak out they are told to shut up. This means that councillors have become ineffectual and compliant.
“After 40 years of unchallenged rule Labour has developed an arrogance of power.
“This arrogance means that the Labour Party believes it will win all the wards by doing the minimum amount of work.
“They do not have the people on the ground any more, and they have missed an important change of mood among ordinary people.
“People are sick of being taken for granted and are looking for alternatives.
“This is what you hear on the doorstep. Even though anger about the war is important, it is the local issues that are coming to the fore.
“Our challenge is the challenge of all opposition movements – to present a viable alternative, a focus of anger and discontent.
“Whatever the final result in this election, Newham will never be the same again.”
‘We are reaching out to those disenchanted by the mainstream parties’
If Labour is putting all its forces into the Green Street wards, the other areas, where it feels the council seats it holds are more secure, have been ignored.
It is here and in other parts of Newham that a wider challenge to the council is emerging.
Little Ilford is far from the bustle of Green Street. This residential area is a mix of black, Asian and white working class people.
There have also been recent arrivals from Africa and eastern Europe.
The quiet streets were once part of Labour’s heartland, but years of disappointment have eroded support.
Respect candidates Summer Shahbaz, Rebecca Palmer and Sajid Rehman face a full field of parties.
Summer, a 28 year old mother of two, has found plenty of disgruntled voters on the doorstep.
“People are hungry for change,” she told Socialist Worker.
“The more we become a viable alternative to Labour, the more we can appeal to the people who do not vote.
“This is why Respect is like an opposition movement – because we are not just appealing to the people who already vote but to those who are so disgruntled that they do not cast their ballot.
“In these elections we will show that there is an alternative and it makes a difference if you vote.”
Part of the challenge for Respect is to mobilise the people who have become dissappointed after years of betrayal and no longer believe that it is worth voting for any party.
Respect candidate Rebecca Palmer is a youth worker and mother of three.
She told Socialist Worker, “People invested so much hope in 1997 and were patiently waiting for Labour to make good on its promises.
“That hope has given way to the gradual realisation that it will not deliver.
“Many voters have simply given up. In the 2002 local elections the choice was Labour or Tory. If you did not want either, then you did not vote.
“We are now seeing signs of change. A growing number of people are saying they will vote Respect.”