New Labour in Tower Hamlets, east London, is running scared of the issues raised by Respect. And it has come up with a novel tactic for avoiding any kind of public accountability for its programme of neo-liberalism and privatisation.
At the council meeting, held on Wednesday of last week, the ruling Labour group voted against discussion of motions that were critical of “housing choice”, its scheme to privatise council houses in the borough.
Tower Hamlets’ full council meets only four times a year. Despite this, the entire Labour group voted against a procedural motion that would have extended the council meeting by half an hour to allow time to discuss housing issues.
Respect councillor Rania Khan summed up the fury of many of those present at the meeting. “It’s ridiculous. New Labour doesn’t want any kind of debate – it just wants to push its agenda,” she told Socialist Worker.
“They wouldn’t stay for half an hour longer to discuss housing choice. They get paid enough – but they just can’t be bothered. It’s so frustrating that local people’s views are not being represented.
“I know there are Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets who are against stock transfer.
“But when it came down it, they didn’t represent the community – they just acted like sheep. They’re more interested in their personal agendas and careerism.”
In contrast to the contempt for local democracy displayed by Labour in the council chamber, Respect has been busy building a genuine grassroots opposition since winning 12 council seats in the 4 May elections.
Last month Respect members and councillors met with The East London Communities Organisation (Telco) to discuss the Living Wage campaign, which aims at ensuring employers pay at least £7.05 an hour to their staff.
While employees directly employed by Tower Hamlets council receive more than this, the council has shied away from insisting that those employed indirectly through contracted out services are also guaranteed a wage that they can live on.
Rania asked the Labour council if they had any plans to insist that the agency labour it uses conforms to the minimum wage standards laid down by the Telco campaign.
New Labour responed by paying lip service to the living wage, but cited legal and financial constraints to get round giving any commitment to ensuring that agency staff also receive at least £7.05 an hour.
“Their response was rubbish,” said Rania. “They talked about how the council pays more than the living wage – but what happens when they use private companies for services?”
Last week Tower Hamlets Respect met the local branch of the RMT rail workers’ union to pledge support for the campaign to prevent the East London Line of the London Underground from being privatised.
Transport for London is refurbishing and extending the line with public money. But once that is completed it plans to sell off the entire line to a private company – the first full privatisation on London Underground.
“If the East London Line is privatised, what next?” said Rania. “The whole London Underground will be privatised. It’ll be a disaster – look at what’s happened to British Rail.
“The RMT wants to work with everyone who’s willing to support its campaign.
“What struck me when meeting them was how all the arguments about privatisation that they were having were the same arguments that I had when doing Defend Council Housing campaigning.”
Jason Humphrys is RMT branch secretary for the Jubilee South and East London Line branch. He told Socialist Worker, “When the announcement about the East London Line was first made there was shock that it was going out to the private sector.
“We had already discussed the matter in the branch and decided that if the decision went the wrong way we would link up with local councillors.
“Our branch meeting last week was very well attended. It was good that Rania came along to speak about the privatisation.
“The political complexion of inner east London in Tower Hamlets has changed with the election of a number of Respect councillors in Wapping, Shadwell and Whitechapel.
“These are areas with East London Line tube stations. It’s good that councillors who support our campaign have been elected there.
“Rania told us that the Respect councillors fully support the East London Line remaining part of London Underground. They will be raising our concerns in the council chamber.
“She said Respect was willing to get involved in our campaign and help. The branch thanked Rania for attending and invited her to come along to any of our other meetings where this is discussed.”