Respect’s strongest result in the 4 May local council elections was in Tower Hamlets, east London, where it took 12 council seats leaving it the largest opposition group on the new council.
Rania Khan is one of Respect’s new councillors in Bromley-by-Bow ward. “It’s a fantastic result,” she told Socialist Worker. “Six out of the ten cabinet members in the old council have been chucked out, including the leader and his deputy.”
One of Rania’s New Labour rivals in Bromley-by-Bow was David Edgar, former lead member for housing and the architect of the council’s push to sell off its council housing stock.
Respect’s strong and vocal support for tenants’ campaigning against stock transfer was crucial to success in the ward, according to Rania.
“I’ve been actively canvassing for Defend Council Housing in Bromley-by-Bow since January,” she says. “People were really angry and fed up with Labour.”
Nowhere was this anger more strongly expressed than in Shadwell, one of the most deprived wards in Tower Hamlets. Respect won all three council seats there – kicking out New Labour leader Michael Keith and his deputy Abdus Shukur in the process.
Shamim Chowdhury, a well known local community activist, topped the ballot there winning 1,851 votes. “We’ve got the largest youth population in Britain here – but not a single youth club in the ward,” he said.
“Housing is another big issue. I’ve come across cases of eight people living in a two bedroom flat, or a single mother with five kids whose flat was falling apart. But the Labour councillors didn’t do anything about it. So people were upset and turned against them.”
Respect decapitated the Labour group in Tower Hamlets, but the Liberal Democrats also collapsed. They lost ten seats to Labour, including their leader Janet Ludlow.
This has allowed the Labour group to cling to power in the borough with 26 councillors – a majority of one. But the group is bitterly divided between hardline Blairites and those loyal to Helal Abbas, the previous council leader.
The Tories also made gains, taking seven seats from Labour. These were primarily in the Isle of Dogs area, which has seen a boom in luxury flat developments over the last four years and is now infested with thousands of yuppies.
Despite these demographic factors and Respect’s vibrant campaign, the Labour vote held up in other areas of the borough. New Labour narrowly managed to hold on to all three seats the Bethnal Green South ward, which was heavily targeted by Respect.
Bethnal Green South, along with several other wards, also saw an extraordinarily high number of last minute postal vote applications. These cases are currently under investigation by the police’s electoral fraud unit.
Respect councillor Oliur Rahman retained the St Dunstan’s & Stepney seat he won at a breakthrough council by-election in 2004. At first it looked as he if had narrowly lost – but a recount found that 100 of his votes had made their way into the pile of a Labour rival.
One of the challenges now for Respect is to prove its mettle by organising a vocal and effective group on the council. “We’re the main opposition in the council – that’s our job,” says Shahed Ali, who won a seat for Respect in Whitechapel.
“We can lobby for improvements in youth facilities and housing, and keep the community informed about what’s going on. For instance, we exposed what was happening over Crossrail to the local community and forced Labour to back down.
“The Liberals never played the role of opposition properly. Respect is different. We have four years to demonstrate what sort of contribution we can make – and build towards the next election.”
The other major challenge for Respect in Tower Hamlets is to broaden its base in the borough by forging links with more community activists, housing campaigners and trade unionists.
While the party polled well across the borough – taking 11 percent of the vote even its weakest ward, Bow East – the election results show it has broken through most strongly among Tower Hamlets’ Bengali community.
Rebecca Townesend won 923 votes for Respect in Bromley-by-Bow ward, beating New Labour’s David Edgar. “It was a great campaign and I loved every minute of it,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Obviously I’m sorry Ididn’t get in, but I do feel our campaign was a victory overall. We won support and built links with all sorts of communities across the ward – and especially among young people. I’ll certainly be carrying on campaigning for Respect in the area and builing up our support.”
Rania Khan echoed this sentiment. “We could tell from watching the votes being counted that we had won two seats in the ward. I felt happy at what we acheived, but sad that we didn’t do better – especially for Rebecca.
“I didn’t do this for my own personal gain, I did it for the party. I got involved in politics through the anti-war movement and being inspired by people like John Rees, George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob. This result is just the beginning for Respect.”