The media blackout on Respect’s breakthrough in the local elections is, I suppose, par for the course in the era of Tony Blair, the master of the sincerely uttered Big Lie. But simply ignoring the results is only one way of dismissing Respect’s achievement.
Another ploy is to argue that, because Respect’s best performances were in Tower Hamlets, Newham, and Birmingham, it won a “communalist vote”.
This is the line taken, predictably enough, by that obsessive pro-war ranter, Nick Cohen. In his Observer column after the elections, Cohen had the honesty to acknowledge that Respect “did well” in the East End, but compared it to the Nazis’ success in Barking and Dagenham:
“Once again, we find a slice of the electorate in a poor part of Britain that is so lost in identity politics and victimhood that it will vote for those who stoke their rage, no matter how worthless they are.”
In accusing others of being bigots, Cohen reveals his own bigotry. The reality is very different to his statement. What we are witnessing is the long term disintegration of the Labour Party’s social base. The national distribution of the vote on 4 May – Tories 40 percent, Liberal Democrats 27 percent, Labour 26 percent – resembles nothing so much as Labour’s worst recent general election result in 1983.
The difference is that in 1983 Labour squeaked ahead of the equivalent of the Liberal Democrats – the SDP/Liberal Alliance. This time the Lib Dems pushed it into third place. This is the measure of Blair’s failure to renew Labourism.
But the Labour vote is flaking off unevenly. It’s not surprising that the biggest break so far has come among Muslim Asians. They were locked into Labour through the most cynical kind of clientist politics, in which “community leaders” delivered votes by the yard in exchange for patronage.
The “war on terror” opened up a fissure between New Labour and Muslim Asians. The vote banks were goaded into rebellion by Blair’s slavish subservience to George Bush. This could easily have led to the development of genuinely communalist politics, maybe even with the jihadis enjoying a real increase in influence.
The emergence of Respect blocked such a scenario because it offered an alternative – a coalition with the secular radical left that could extend opposition to the war to a more general challenge to the society that condemns Muslims to the most deprived place within it. A government commissioned study has just reported that 14 percent of Muslims over 25 are unemployed.
Ah but, Cohen and his ilk might object, look at the fact that the only Respect councillors to be elected or re-elected were Asians. This proves that Respect is a communalist party.
This outcome isn’t particularly surprising. “All politics is local,” said the US politician Tip O’Neill.
In the very closely fought contests between Labour and Respect in Tower Hamlets and Newham, the advantage that derived from being Asian proved often to be sufficient to make the difference between victory and defeat.
The Bengali families of Tower Hamlets tend to be large and extended, binding together significant numbers of people clustered close by in the same neighbourhood. White working class families, who lived this way a generation ago, have been scattered across wide areas of east London and Essex thanks to the decline of local industry and public housing.
The uneven nature of Respect’s results isn’t surprising, but it is a limitation we will have to overcome. Fortunately, the close seconds that a number of our candidates came on 4 May – with important examples provided by Maxine Bowler in Sheffield and Jerry Hicks in Bristol – show that we’re in the process of beginning to do this.
Labour is undoubtedly in decline, but this is a long term process. Developing an electoral challenge is essential if the radical left is to intervene to ensure that a new page is turned in the history of the British labour movement.
But building up this electoral alternative is itself a long term process. In the past two years, Respect has made some important advances, but we have a long way to go. We need to learn from our successes and failures, and to persist.