It is a brave political gesture for a British political party to organise a public meeting in the ‘twilight zone’ that takes place between the Christmas and New Year public holidays writes Harry Blackwell. Yet that is what Respect did in Newham, East London, on Friday 28th December when it ‘relaunched’ its organisation in the London borough – and they will have been pleased at the results. Over 60 people, mainly local, turned out in the cold and rain to spend a couple of hours discussing local, national and (some) international political issues in a draughty community hall. They represented a significantly broad cross-section of the local population – overwhelmingly working class, a majority Asian and black, with some white, and a particularly remarkably wide age range from those barely in their teens to pensioners.
They had come to hear what were repeatedly described as the ‘top leaders’ of Respect – George Galloway, the party’s MP for Bradford West, and the unsuccessful candidates in the recent by-elections, Yvonne Ridley and Lee Jasper, former adviser to Ken Livingstone when London Mayor. (Abjol Miah former leader of the Respect group on the neighbouring Tower Hamlets council was also billed to speak but never made it to the platform).
However, the overwhelming backdrop to the meeting was anger at decision earlier in the month by Newham Council, led by its Executive Mayor Robin Wales, to refuse planning permission to a new mosque development in the borough (dubbed a ‘super-mosque’ or ‘megamosque’ by its opponents and the media). Over 3,000 supporters of the Mosque had gathered at the Council meeting on 5 December to hear the rejection of plans for the 9,000 capacity Abbey Mills development proposed by Tablighi Jamaat, a relatively conservative Islamic grouping.
Galloway got straight to the point by pointing out that there are 95,000 Muslims in Newham borough “which the Labour Party will be repeatedly reminded of” in the times ahead. Newham council leaders had claimed the proposed mosque was ‘too big’. “It’s big” said Galloway “because so many people want to go”. “I have no doubt”, he told the meeting, reminding them of his Catholic background, “that if 95,000 Catholics had wanted a ‘big’ church to pray in it would have got planning permission”, particularly as it was on disused, unattractive wasteland. Galloway and some other speakers repeatedly pointed to the positive aspects of people wanting to pray, ”in these godless times”, and, at times, the meeting had more than the hint of a religious ‘Revivalist’ meeting, rather than one purely about reviving a political party. Galloway went into a tirade against gambling and alcohol promotions on Christmas Television and Lee Jasper also spoke about how “despite these godless times” the growth of London’s black evangelical Christian churches, who had encountered difficulties with getting new premises, should be supported because they were bringing hope to people. The notion of faith as a centre of resistance for communities facing austerity now seems to be more than a passing part of Respect’s frame of reference following the departure of some key secularist left figures during the recent difficulties over Galloway’s appalling statements on rape.
Galloway developed the ‘Respect Revival’ theme in his potted history of Respect in Newham. In 2006 he pointed out that Respect had won over 40,000 votes in the borough (in fact, because electors have three votes each, this actually represented 16,000 people). Respect had achieved a breakthrough in electing three councillors, in the ward where the meeting took place, and second place ‘just about everywhere else’ (in fact in three quarters of all the wards). One of the former councillors addressed the meeting. Galloway did not develop this further, but it was indeed a much overlooked feature of Respect’s electoral performance 2004-2006, not least within Respect itself, that at borough level it was Newham where it scored its highest vote proportion in the country, and not the neighbouring Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets was more in the national spotlight due to Galloway’s election in 2005, and subsequently it became the internal battleground in the crisis that the then ‘Respect Coalition’ went through in 2007. However, due to the overwhelming domination of the Labour vote in Newham, Respect’s better electoral performance did not turn into success in winning seats in the same way that it did in its neighbour, where other parties like the Tories and LibDems also chipped into the Labour vote to win seats. In 2010, the local elections coincided with the General Election benefitting Labour who won every seat on Newham council. Following the 2007 Respect crisis and a very limited intervention in the 2008 London elections, in the 2010 borough elections, Respect only stood in four out of 20 wards in Newham and did not stand in the General Election. Despite modestly encouraging results, Respect subsequently completely abandoned Newham.
It was one of the critiques of Respect put forward by Socialist Resistance at its November 2010 Conference, that Respect suddenly running in the Scottish elections of 2011 would mean abandoning the bases that it had built in England. Respect’s ‘Scottish Folly’ showed that there are no short term solutions to electoral success based purely on Galloway’s celebrity status. Though much is (rightly) made of Galloway’s phenomenal Bradford West by-election victory in 2012, it is also clear, not least from Respect’s low scores in the Croydon North and Manchester Central by-elections, that there are no short cuts to electoral success. Consistent building over time is what is needed and one of the factors in Bradford was that Respect had had a regular local election presence there from its foundation right up to Galloway standing in the by-election.
There were hints of criticism from the floor of the meeting about not wanting to be abandoned again. This came from a number of one-time Respect activists in Newham. Like a certain Shakespearean play in the theatre, the ‘Scottish Folly’ is never mentioned openly as the reason for this. Instead Galloway promised a massive campaign from Respect around the mosque issue, starting with a petition to Number 10 which he urged the refounded Newham Respect to get behind mobilising tens of thousands of local supporters. The petition would in effect demand the ‘recall’ of the entire council and Executive Mayor and attempt to force elections. In fact there is no real legal basis in the UK for recalling elected representatives by a petition to the Prime Minister, and so Galloway also promised that “if this is unsuccessful”, Respect would be standing candidates in every one of the wards in Newham in the next borough and mayoral elections in May 2014. Galloway appealed to the meeting for candidates for 2014 to come forward and promised one of the ‘top leaders’ of Respect would stand as Mayor (though here Galloway did seem to be unaware that to stand as an Executive Mayor you have to actually live in the Borough and that unlike parliamentary elections and by-elections you cannot parachute in candidates living elsewhere in the country or even from neighbouring boroughs). He also promised Respect candidates in the General Election in 2015.
Respect has a very ‘top-down’ approach that seems to have increased following the recent departures, but it does not seem to have realised fully that success in local and general elections is mainly about building from the base up, and that means having a democratic culture and internal local life through organised branches, not all decisions being made at the ‘centre’. Otherwise, history is likely to be repeated.
Galloway also announced, with some fanfare, that Respect is now in the process of establishing a ‘London Office’ in premises in Brixton provided through a new supporter, who was at the meeting and spoke from the floor. Lee Jasper will be taking up a new role of London organiser, based in Brixton, and Newham would be the first priority. Hopefully, following the difficulties in 2007, Respect’s current leadership will remember that all donations, ‘in kind’ as well as cash, have to be reported properly to the Electoral Commission. The ‘dirty tricks’ brigade in the London Labour Party in particular will at the first sign of a threat be poring over every aspect of Respect’s finance and organisation in the capital to try to trip them up.
Much was made at the meeting of the allegedly dictatorial relationship between Newham’s Executive Mayor and the elected councillors. The Mayor appoints the cabinet from the councillors and has tremendous powers of patronage in assigning and controlling portfolios. It was repeatedly claimed from the floor of the meeting that many local councillors had claimed to support the Abbey Mills mosque’s planning application, but had been pressured into voting against for fear of losing positions in the council’s structure. In a ‘one-party state’ like Newham where every single councillor and the Executive Mayor is from the Labour Party, Galloway rightly made the point, originally made by Lord Acton, that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and promised a campaign to attack and unseat the Mayor. Respect has a short memory on this one though; another of the critiques Socialist Resistance put forward in 2010 was that the campaign for an Executive Mayor in Tower Hamlets, led and won by Respect members and endorsed by the then leadership, had not been discussed properly and had all the dangers of creating an unaccountable force over local democracy. In Newham we now see the undemocratic chickens of Executive Mayors coming home to roost. Respect would be much more effective on this issue if it had consistently opposed the undemocratic powers of Executive Mayors over local councillors and campaigned for their abolition rather than being so enthusiastic about their extension to other areas.
Galloway also claimed that Respect had consulted lawyers on the legal issues of the Newham case, though he was coy over where this might lead (especially as it may involve the Government’s recent Localism Act, sponsored and overseen by the right wing Tory minister Eric Pickles). It has certainly been the case for many decades that in English local government law, councillors are meant to consider issues on their merits rather than based on external issues of pressure (the so-called ‘Wednesbury principles’). However, one of the key legal cases that led to the establishment of these principles was the local East London case of George Lansbury and the Poplar councillors, who defied the law over both rate collection and equal pay for women workers and were defeated in the courts. Using very biased laws to try to intervene on local democratic issues may seem convenient at this point in time, but if were ever the case that Respect or other radical left wingers won control of the Council and attempted to implement their manifestos, they would encounter a myriad of similar legal challenges against them (there is a long litany of English courts intervening against left wing councils, including Poplar in the 1920s, St Pancras in the 1950s, Clay Cross in the 1970s and the Greater London Council, Liverpool and Lambeth in the 1980s). The only effective solution to this is the creation of a mass movement outside the narrow confines of electoralism to back an elected council challenging the law to implement a radical and progressive programme. Respect is a long way from embracing this as a strategy.
Much of the earlier speeches concentrated on positive challenges to Labour’s abandonment of its traditional working class base. Both Lee Jasper and Yvonne Ridley invoking their background as former Labour members, made strong indictments of Labour’s failure to support the working class and their support for austerity (dubbed ‘Tory-Lite’ by Ridley, though she did also say there was “nothing wrong with profit”). Labour’s policy on race was ridiculed by all the speakers, particularly Ed Miliband’s recent embrace of the Tory ‘One Nation’ policies, originally developed by Disraeli. Both Jasper and Galloway pointed out how Labour had cut spending on English teaching in colleges and they attacked Miliband for criticising family homes where English was not the dominant language. Jasper pointed to the importance of language development and how multi-lingualism was an asset not a bad thing, especially given traditional British attitudes toward languages. Galloway highlighted the inherent racism in Labour’s approach, claiming that in the letters sent while he was working for the TalkSport radio channel, the more ‘British’ the writers claimed to be, the worse their grasp of the English language. (He could have made the point that in Disraeli’s time there was one family where English was not the main language spoken in the home – that of Queen Victoria, where German was the dominant language and most of her children spoke with a very heavy German accent, a fact overlooked in most of the ‘period dramas’ of the time on current film and TV where they are all portrayed with an impeccably ‘plummy’ English accent.)
Galloway rightly pointed to the importance of independent organisation and an electoral challenge to Labour. It is often speculated that he is preparing his way back to Labour, but there was no evidence of that perspective in this speech. Instead he invoked the spirit of Keir Hardie, who stood and won as ‘Independent Labour’ in nearby West Ham South constituency (in the General Election of 1892). Galloway argued a comparison between the position of Respect and Labour today, and Labour and the Liberals then. Hardie would have no truck with the Liberals, Galloway claimed. In fact, in West Ham Hardie was elected without a Liberal opponent, who unexpectedly died before the election, and Hardie’s manifesto explicitly supported the Liberal Party programme. However Hardie’s success in West Ham was in part due to his strong support for the Dockers Strike of 1889 with many local dock workers living the constituency. Hardie went on to found the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1893 in Bradford, and there is a small element of Respect’s position that perhaps sees itself as the reincarnation of the ILP. However the comparison is very superficial, as Hardie strongly favoured unity of left wing groups and was constantly urging the then small socialist organisations to collaborate and establish a broader national Labour party. This is the very opposite of Respect’s current policy, which sees itself as ‘THE’ radical and left wing alternative to Labour. Respect could do far more, if, as urged by Socialist Resistance after his by-election victory, Galloway and Respect tried to work with other forces and encouraged left wing unity rather than pure growth of their own small forces.
Regrettably there was no discussion about ecological dimensions of the current crisis and the focus on austerity was exclusively on Britain, with no mention of the massive wave of action across southern Europe culminating in general strike action on 14 November. Nor was there any mention of Greece, or the rise of Syriza as a model for how a left wing and radical alternative can be built.
In some parts, this meeting was incredibly positive, not least that it took place at this time and was a well-attended and diverse meeting campaigning against austerity. People at the meeting seemed very hopeful for the re-establishment of Respect in Newham and establishing a serious challenge to Labour’s domination of the Borough. However there are problems: the ‘top-down’ model of organisation that led to Respect abandoning Newham does not seem to have gone away; the emphasis on the mosque and religious issues, while a key issue of democracy, may also alienate some progressive support; and, most importantly, Respect has still not evolved a position on building a broader left party. Respect may well be here to stay and part of the wider solution, particularly in electoral successes, but on the evidence so far it does not seem to ‘the’ sole solution to building a broad left party.
For Keir Hardie. his election in West Ham South and the origins of the ILP, see: ‘Origins of the Labour Party 1880 – 1900’ by Henry Pelling, pub 1954 and 1965, Oxford University Press