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Respect Grows

Lindsey German

RESPECT MADE history on May 5. George Galloway’s narrow victory over Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow represents the first time that a left-of-Labour party has made such a breakthrough in the first-past-the-post system since 1945, when two Communist MPs were elected.

That in itself would be enough to launch a party which did not exist 18 months ago. But we also scored a number of remarkable results which were better than those achieved by any other minority party in this election and would have been beyond the wildest dreams of the left only a short time ago.

The Birmingham chairwoman of the Stop the War Coalition Salma Yaqoob scored a wonderful 27 per cent of the vote in Sparkbrook, coming within 3,000 votes of unseating the incumbent. In Newham we scored around 20 per cent in each constituency, beating Tories and Lib Dems for second place - and winning nearly as many votes as those two parties combined. These votes represented three of the top swings in the whole of Britain. In addition, Oliur Rahman scored nearly 20 per cent in Poplar and Canning Town.

In other seats, we kept our deposits and achieved a very creditable vote – in Leicester South, where Yvonne Ridley stood, Tottenham, which was fought by black justice campaigner Janet Alder, and Preston, where Councillor Michael Lavalette polled nearly 7 per cent of the vote.

Further results were patchier. In Walsall, Sheffield, Slough and Hackney, we gained close to 5 per cent of the vote, while, in other places, we did not break through from the traditional "left" vote.

We deliberately targeted a small number of seats so that we did not mount a national challenge. Our task now is to use our successes in east London and Birmingham to spread the Respect message to the rest of the country. We knew from last June’s European and London election results that we were well placed in the areas where we achieved our highest votes. We also knew that these votes would not necessarily stay with us in a general election. The experience of UKIP in this election shows how the European elections can just represent a one-off protest.

Our strongest areas were also those with a high Muslim population, highly politicised in recent years. But we could not win on such votes alone. We also knew that the Muslim vote would divide politically between the different parties.

So, from the beginning, we linked opposition to the war – despite what Tony Blair says, an overwhelmingly popular view across the whole communities – with domestic issues, for decently funded public services, an emergency public house-building programme in London and the abolition of tuition fees. Our appeal was to trade unionists, pensioners, different ethnic minorities, tenants and students. We were incredibly popular among young people and school students.

In Newham, we had a unified campaign, with me as the candidate in West Ham and Abdul Khaliq Mian in East Ham. There were no "no-go" areas and we took our message to every part of the borough.

We were very proud of challenging racism and oppression by doing so and we are sure that that helped us to win votes, which were remarkably uniform across two constituencies.

It shows the priorities of the mainstream press that a great deal is written about the threat of the BNP in neighbouring Barking and Dagenham – where they achieved a much lower vote overall than Respect did in Newham – while ignoring our message of anti-racism, equality and justice which was so successful among the voters of much of east London.

It also shows what a travesty is new Labour’s claim that George Galloway’s campaign was in some way communalist or even anti-semitic. Throughout east London, people from every ethnic minority voted and campaigned for us – Muslims, Sikhs, Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Irish, Jewish, Latin Americans and, of course, English. We stood up against racism in the most public way – can the same be said for the other parties’ campaigns?

Our impact can be seen by the horror with which the Establishment has greeted Respect’s victory, the renewed witch-hunt against George Galloway and the marginalisation of our other results.

They are right to be worried, because we are the ghost of Labour past and Labour voters, having been ignored for so many years, now have somewhere else to go. Respect presents a challenge for the traditional left in the trade unions, the peace movement and the Labour Party. It has proved that it can win in adverse circumstances, but, to build a mass base, it needs the support of much wider layers.

Socialists need to consider whether they want to stay with Labour – where the act of their "listening" Prime Minister straight after the election was to reappoint David Blunkett – or whether they should be part of building a genuine broad coalition which is providing hope and inspiration to new generations and to older ones who have suffered so many defeats in the past two decades.

We do not have the luxury of complacency – the left vote outside Respect was poor, reflecting a failure to engage with the wider movement, but the need for a left alternative in the face of a growing BNP has never been greater. In areas like West Ham, Labour takes its voters for granted in the most cynical way. Apathy and disaffection are rife, reflected in one of the lowest turnouts in recent history.

It is the responsibility of the left to try to change that and to deliver an electoral politics, rooted in grass-roots campaigning as exemplified by the anti-war movement, which can change that. In turn, Respect can help the battle inside the Labour Party by demonstrating that the left does have somewhere else to go and that there is space for principled left politics in the British political spectrum. Respect is here to stay and now is the time to help it grow.

Published in the Morning Star, 18 May 2005