Last year the election of George Galloway was hailed as a bridgehead for Respect – one that had to be consolidated and extended. This May we succeeded in doing that. In east London and Birmingham Respect is breathing down the neck of New Labour.
In parts of Bristol, Sheffield and Preston together with areas in north and west London we have pulled ourselves up into a position to challenge them. We will soon face a much broader challenge when, in two years time, Respect stands for the Greater London Authority. A year later we will contest the giant European seats.
New Labour is losing the building blocks that made up the coalition of forces which loyally voted for it over decades. Revulsion at the Iraq war lost it support among many Muslim voters and led to the desertion of core activists. That process has continued as opposition to the Iraq disaster and to Tony Blair’s slavish free marketry has grown.
Yet Labour’s support has been built up layer by layer over a century. It will not be peeled away in one go. Its rise in the first half of the 20th century was fed by the changing patterns of class struggle, but it also involved winning the support of various immigrant groups.
It won popular support in the Irish community after they broke with a Liberal led government prepared to unleash repression against those fighting for Irish independence. But that also involved deals such as guaranteeing the Catholic church separate schools in Scotland.
Later it secured the votes of immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and from the Caribbean.
Canvassing in west London I came across an old African-Caribbean man who explained he would be voting Labour because of admiration for Harold Wilson. That rogue did stand up to the racists when securing election in 1964 – but then went onto to pander to racism in office.
People saw Labour as a shield, however inadequate, against the Tories. But it also delivered things in a clientist way in order to secure votes.
Labour is not going to roll over and die. Its attacks on Respect as a “communalist” party are attempts to hold onto its more middle class support and are also code that Respect cannot be trusted to look after African-Caribbeans or white people.
This can be countered by building up networks of supporters in every area. Where Respect has gained success it is where we have began to do just that, extending out beyond the narrow circles of the left or relying on radical Muslim votes.
These networks are not just created in four or five weeks of campaigning. Respect has to develop a permanent presence. That means relating to local issues and campaigns. We need to confront New Labour when it organises forums to push through its agenda of criminalising youth by dishing out Asbos.
But local issues should not be counterposed to big political questions. In the elections working class people connected Iraq to the lack of housing or the state of our hospitals. Many understood there was a wider neo-liberal offensive against the welfare rights our grandparents had secured.
That was true among many younger people who are often turned off conventional politics but relate to the anti-war and anti-capitalist protests. It’s also true of many among the mosaic of immigrant communities which makes up much of London.
Respect has to combine all this with building on its success in the trade unions and in the colleges.
This parallels the moment when Labour was created in the late 1890s. The catalyst was the creation of the New Unions among previously unorganised groups like dockers and gas workers.
The groundwork for this and the revival of socialist ideas was laid by those who rebuilt working class and left wing organisation by campaigning over voting rights, free speech and unemployment. They combined this with opposition to colonialism in Ireland and British imperialism.
Britain still remains a class divided society. But three decades of Toryism and New Labour has blunted confidence about our ability to fight and win. We have to rebuild that from the bottom up. Success for Respect is a key part in achieving that.