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Report on the Blackwall and Cubitt Town By-Election

Kambiz Boomla and Paul McGarr

THE RESULT of the Blackwall and Cubitt Town (BCT) by-election [on 27 June] is clearly very disappointing and there is no point pretending otherwise. It is important to understand what happened and why, and try and draw some useful conclusions for the future.

The full result was as follows: Labour 686, Tory 676, Liberal 361, Independent (prominent white local ex-Labour) 252, BNP 87, Independent (ex-Labour local white tenant activist) 68, Independent (ex-Labour Bengali) 21, New Britain 19, Greens 16, Socialist Alliance 9. Labour held the seat by 10 votes from the Tories after a recount.

Some points need to be clear. The explanation for our poor result is not "subjective" in the sense that we ran a poor campaign. In fact we had an excellent candidate, known in the area, and ran a very decent campaign. We did far more work in this by-election than we did in any of the wards we contested in the 2 May full council elections. In those elections we achieved good results in the three neighbouring wards to BCT – 391 votes (17.5 per cent of the electorate); 261 votes (12 per cent); and 200 votes (10 per cent).

In the BCT campaign we leafleted the entire ward with our election address. We then canvassed door to door the four key working class estates in the ward and got a second leaflet out in both those and some more of the ward. We had around 60 people who had said they would vote for us and we visited almost all of these houses on election day itself as well as having a presence at polling stations.

On the doorsteps while canvassing we met a good response with people agreeing with us on many key issues (disaffection with New Labour, housing and so on). The candidate and campaign team put in a lot of hard and good work and the result is no reflection on that.

All the main parties ran campaigns which by recent standards were unprecedented. This was in astonishing contrast to the almost non-existent campaigns they had all run in this area on 2 May (when Labour won by a margin of well over 200 votes) or in any recent election of any kind in the area.

Labour had big teams of canvassers out day after day, as did the Tories and Liberals. On election day itself all, especially Labour, had dozens of people out all day, on polling stations, doing a full "Reading" canvass system with knocking up etc. For the most part these were councillors, the local MP, the Euro MP, but included activists brought in from across London and beyond.

Part of this ward coincides with the old Millwall ward where Labour unseated the BNP’s Derek Beackon in 1994. The Labour canvassing operation in this by-election was almost on the scale of that they ran in 1994 (though of course there were far wider forces campaigning against Beackon as well as Labour back then). Both the Liberals and the Tories ran similarly high power campaigns. The Tories have built up a genuine local base in the luxury housing developments which have sprouted in the area in the last few years. This meant that despite our efforts the campaign became a battle between Labour and the Tories slugging it out.

It is remarkable that in the light of this massive campaign the turnout was miserably low, and barely moved from the tiny turnout on 2 May when no-one campaigned (we did not stand in this ward on 2 May). The turnout on 27 June was 24 per cent (up marginally from 21 per cent on 2 May). The huge disaffection with "politics" was evident on the doorsteps. We clearly did not manage to tap or motivate this either. The seat effectively became a Labour-Tory marginal and we were squeezed very badly indeed. We found people who had said they would vote for us but under pressure of this squeeze, one pushed heavily by Labour canvassers, ended up voting Labour to stop the Tories winning. Labour was helped in exerting this kind of pressure by a sharp turn their campaign took in the last week. The following is not just our analysis, but one confirmed to us by friendly people in a position to know in the Labour campaign.

It was obvious over the last week that the Tories were going to get out a decent vote especially from the luxury housing area. The Liberals (incredibly given their record of racism in Tower Hamlets) stood a Bengali candidate and have recruited a layer of Bengalis. They targeted Bengali voters on working class estates (we overheard one of their canvassing teams one night going through the electoral register for one estate and visiting all the obviously Bengali households). Labour panicked, and knew from its initial canvassing that it was having problems motivating its traditional supporters in what has been a solid Labour area and was worried it was losing votes to the Liberals and that the Tories could win. So they opportunistically turned to "Old Labour" language with a vengeance.

The candidate was pictured in the local paper saying he would stand up for the rights of Muslims and fight for them to have a proper prayer room in the ward (a stance Labour has run a mile from in the past in this area). He also then did a stunt over a threatened new luxury housing development, with supporters pictured in the local paper holding placards and demanding an end to these developments and for affordable housing to be built instead (again in complete contrast to the normal approach of the Labour council). Labour canvassers used these stances heavily to motivate people to vote for Labour to keep the Tories out. They did not succeed to any great extent in reality, as the turnout indicates and as does the fact that the Labour vote went down from 2 May. But they did manage enough to just scrape home after a recount. In the process their opportunistic, and probably short lived, Old Labour stance undoubtedly hit us hard.

It is also worth remembering that in the by-election voters had only one vote and it was a straight choice, unlike on 2 May when we stood one candidate in each ward we stood in and voters had a chance to give us one of three votes. In the neighbouring, and very similar in profile, Millwall ward we know from our tellers at the count on election night on 2 May that over half our votes were 2 Labour and 1 SA.

An additional important factor in the by-election was the sudden emergence at the last minute of several "independent" candidates. All were ex-Labour. One was a maverick, but two were of real importance. One is a long standing tenant activist in the area who got 68 votes, but stood in a platform of "sons and daughters" housing policy (this means white in this area and everyone knows it). More important was the Independent who got 252, Terry Johns. He is from the most well known Labour family in the area over generations. His father, and his most prominent supporter, is a former Labour councillor and the man who led the well known "declaration of independence" of the Isle of Dogs in the 1960s and is something of a local folk hero. This candidate stood on a platform that on many questions was little different from the Socialist Alliance, attacking the lack of affordable housing, the way New Labour has abandoned working class people and so on. But, and a very big but, he also pandered heavily to racism, talking of the council "discriminating in favour of one section of the population" (Bengalis) and "against locals" (white). He stressed that he was the "only born and bred Islander" and on the polling stations this was the message his supporters were pumping out. This, already not too subtle, language carries an even heavier racist message in this area with its echoes of the early 1990s Liberal and BNP use of the same language then. This candidate clearly captured the bulk of those people who would vote and were disaffected enough with Labour to vote for some kind of, however contradictory, alternative.

One more optimistic note from the election is the performance of the BNP. Their vote (around 4 per cent) in a ward where Derek Beackon was the councillor less than 10 years ago is a real setback for them. It is by far the lowest vote they have got in any ward in Tower Hamlets for over a decade.

Some points from all this for us to reflect on and try and draw some lessons. Clearly with hindsight it would be easy to argue that we should not have stood and that we need to be more selective in future. Undoubtedly we need to be very careful about where we stand and not needlessly put ourselves in a position where we risk a very poor vote. But at the time we had to make a decision on standing it was impossible to make such a judgement.

The decision to stand was unanimously agreed by everyone active in the local Socialist Alliance of whatever political background. We had done well in the three neighbouring wards in May. We had a candidate at least as good as any we stood then. Labour had won by a relatively comfortable margin in May. There had been a lacklustre low profile campaign then and little reason to suspect the kind of barrage from the main parties or the way it would run into a neck and neck battle between Labour and Tory. The emergence of the independents and their role was not known until we were already in the race. To have withdrawn then would have been practically impossible anyway, and also politically damaging given the way they were pandering to racism.

How we assess by-elections and reach decisions on whether to stand is a problem, but not one to which there is any easy answer. Just as it would have been a mistake to get carried away with our good results in the three neighbouring wards in May, it would be equally silly to get carried away in the opposite direction after this poor result. A sense of perspective and balance is needed. We clearly can mount a credible electoral challenge in certain circumstances, and we need to learn from all the recent experiences to maximise our ability to do that more effectively in the future.

A key to building is to remember that electoral activity is only one part of the SA perspective. A focus on involvement in real issues and campaigns is now the key both in its own right, and also such involvement and developing a relationship with networks rooted in particular areas is the best guarantor of any future electoral success.

In this light it would be a terrible mistake to generalise from our poor vote that this has any relationship with the reception we found over the issues in the campaign. We are already initiating a campaign in the ward over a threatened new luxury development, and in this will be working with people who voted for Labour, the Independent, and who didn’t vote at all. Such work and many other similar campaigns can lay the basis for winning some of these people towards the Socialist Alliance more quickly than last week’s result on its own might suggest.

Finally, a thanks to all those members and supporters who put in a lot of hard work over the course of the by-election campaign. And a special thanks to our candidate Terree Selby, who worked enormously hard throughout.

This document was written for circulation within the Socialist Alliance and is reproduced without permission.