Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1951

Respect win is only the start

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
Respect national secretary John Rees analyses the general election results and argues the way forward for the left after George Galloway’s victory in Bethnal Green & Bow
Issue 1951
Respect candidate Lindsey German campaigning outside a school in West Ham, east London (Pic: Guy Smallman)
Respect candidate Lindsey German campaigning outside a school in West Ham, east London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Labour is back in office. But its majority is more than halved, and it received the support of the lowest proportion of voters of any government since the introduction of universal suffrage.

The percentage of the electorate voting, 61 percent, was only marginally up on 2001 — which was the lowest turnout ever. Labour won 36 percent of that 61 percent.

Taken together that means they won the support of 22 percent of those who could have voted.

The social base on which the government stands is still millions, but it is very narrow, especially as we know that many of those who voted Labour did so with a very heavy heart.

Tony Blair survived because the Tory party is in an even worse state than Labour. Its percentage of the vote was almost exactly the same as at the last election. So although it gained some seats, the Tory party’s purchase on the minds of voters has not widened at all.

At the beginning of the campaign many people felt that the issues of immigration, asylum and crime, aggressively pursued by Tory leader Michael Howard, would attract some working class voters.

These so called “dog whistle policies” were meant to be heard outside the established political spectrum and attract people on a right wing populist basis.

Tory shambles

Everyone heard the dog whistle and most people didn’t like it. That’s why the Tories had to change tack in the middle of the campaign. The Tories tried to raise the Iraq issue. But Michael Howard blew that up by out-Bushing Bush in his enthusiasm for regime change. At this point the entire Tory strategy descended into shambles.

The election result was even worse for the non-mainstream right. UKIP and Veritas collapsed.

The Nazi BNP achieved some worrying results, in particular the 17 percent in Barking in east London, but secured no significant breakthrough.

The overall balance of the election result underlines the fact that the majority of working people stand to the left of the Labour government. The deep disillusion with New Labour has not so far produced a platform for a Tory revival as it did in 1979.

The Liberal Democrats were the party best placed to make gains from this alienation from New Labour. It is an established party and had done enough in broad political terms to present itself as an anti-war party. Its policy platform was to the left of New Labour on many issues.

To some degree it did gain, with 11 more seats than at the last election.

But the overall assessment is that the Liberal Democrats are too establishment, too conservative, too remote from the feelings of working people, too distant from the anti-war movement and too weakly led.

Because of this it cannot provide an adequate vehicle for the left of Labour sentiment in many parts of the country.

Influential voices

And that reality may become even more apparent because many influential voices inside the party want it to move rightwards to become more attractive to Tory voters.

The three established parties have not dispersed the sense of alienation that many people have from mainstream politics.

The Iraq issue and the anti-war movement have irreparably damaged Blair’s position. In the period since the great demonstration of 15 February 2003 many people said that we marched against the war but nothing changed.

This was always to see the effect of a mass movement in too narrow a timeframe. Now we can see the full effect of the mobilisation of millions on that day and since against the war.

The arguments that the Stop the War Coalition first put in the run-up to the assault on Iraq and since have become accepted as good sense by many millions of voters. And they registered this verdict on Blair’s government.

It is now not a question of whether Blair will go, but how soon. It is now beyond doubt that the Iraq issue will be credited with ending Blair’s premiership, just as the poll tax was with Tory Margaret Thatcher.

Labour movement turmoil

There is already enormous turmoil inside the labour movement and the Labour Party because of the election. It is normal for a party leader who has lost an election to be greeted by newspaper headlines demanding his resignation.

It is a sign of the degree to which Blair has suffered a defeat that a party leader who has won a third term in office faces speculation as to how swiftly he will resign.

Under these circumstances the vote for the left alternative — the Respect vote — is of pivotal significance. If George Galloway had not won Bethnal Green & Bow, the whole arc of the Stop the War movement would have suffered an enormous reverse.

The Blairites and the opponents of the anti-war movement would have proclaimed a famous victory, and the most prominent member of the Stop the War Coalition would have been out of parliament.

This victory, in the first place for the anti-war movement, now opens up a very different prospect. The mobilisation by the Stop the War Coalition for the G8 demonstrations in July will go ahead with renewed vigour.

There is the possibility of very large mobilisations later in the year demanding the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.

Respect’s project

More than this, George Galloway’s victory is a victory for Respect as the political project whose aims include and then run beyond the anti-war movement.

It is the beginnings of an organisational and political embodiment of a mood previously visible only in opinion polls. These show the majority of people against privatisation and racism, and in favour of trade unionism and the welfare state.

This is the significance of Respect’s election results — not just in Bethnal Green & Bow, but also the 28 percent achieved by Salma Yaqoob which almost defeated Labour’s Roger Godsiff in Birmingham.

They also include the 20 percent votes that gave Abdul Khaliq Mian and Lindsey German second place in East Ham and West Ham, the similar vote for Oliur Rahman in Poplar & Canning Town, plus a clutch of saved deposits and near-saved deposits.

These show that in little over a year Respect has emerged as the dominant force on the left in British politics and is a real contender for a place in the national spectrum.

Smear campaign

Labour’s campaign in the East End of London stopped at nothing in an effort to defeat Respect by fair means or foul.

Labour’s Oona King twice had to pay libel damages to George Galloway in the course of the campaign and alleged electoral frauds in Bethnal Green & Bow are being investigated by the Metropolitan Police.

Baseless accusations against Respect of racism, and more baseless accusations of violence, were the routine reaction of a New Labour machine that simply could not believe that anyone had the temerity to challenge it in one of its safest seats.

However, Respect’s victory is only a bridgehead, and no bridgehead can be sustained from counter-attack unless it makes further progress inland.

In the depressed state of establishment politics, even the best electoral victories stand on a relatively narrow base.

Winning 15,000 votes for Respect in Bethnal Green & Bow is a magnificent achievement, but the electorate is 85,000. Respect has to reach out to all those who voted for it, and to many of those who did not, in order to sustain and widen its base.

We did not campaign solely on Iraq and we certainly cannot broaden the base of support by campaigning on Iraq alone.

Cheek by jowl

Bethnal Green & Bow is in the borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest in the country. It sits cheek by jowl with the square mile of the City of London, one of the richest areas on the globe.

Many of Tower Hamlets’ people live in poverty, suffer poor housing, and are served by grossly underfunded public services and schools. These people will not continue to support a party that cannot show it is fighting effectively on these issues.

Respect emerged as a political wing of a campaigning mass movement. It will sustain itself as a viable project only if it continues to generate other campaigns on other issues which it also seeks to represent politically.

We need a housing campaign, with some of the features we saw in the 1960s and 1970s, where tenants demand control of estates, where privatisation is pushed back, and where affordable housing becomes a central issue.

The Crossrail project, set to wreak havoc in the inner city area of Bethnal Green & Bow, must find vigorous opposition from the Respect MP and the Respect party in Tower Hamlets.

These and many other issues have to be central to Respect’s political project.

Gathering recession

And the more the gathering recession takes hold, the more central these issues will be for working people everywhere.

In all this, networks, which are so crucial to Respect as a successful political organisation, must be built and deepened.

Respect fails when it is simply a collection of left activists. Respect succeeds when the left, which comprises its core, reaches out to and engages and involves wider networks of trade unionists, campaigners, mosques and other communities.

This task has to be achieved in short order. In a year’s time there will be council elections throughout England. To sustain the victory achieved in the general election, it will be necessary to secure more victories in the council elections.

This can only be done if the sort of political alliances created in east London, Birmingham, Preston and other areas where Respect has good results, are generalised throughout the entire organisation.

Clear understanding

In this project the socialists in Respect, who have the clearest understanding of the general situation in which we operate and the greatest organisational ability to create the alliances, have a crucial role to play.

Where they are capable of engaging and leading the wider forces, Respect will succeed. If they fail, Respect will fail. There is too much at stake to allow this to happen, and too much to be won not to succeed.

Working people are now crying out for an alternative to neo-liberal politics, neo-conservative foreign policy and unending privatisation.

They have suffered a generation of decline in welfare provision and they want a political force that can express their concerns and focus their energies.

But nobody can tell how long such an opportunity will last. Working people will give short shrift to political projects that do not adequately embody their aspirations.

The present mood has found some echo in a variety of political forms — from the populist right to the socialist left — here and in other parts of Europe.

The left has a great opportunity. The price of failure is high and the time is short.

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