Fighting all year round

The Socialist Alliance's first elected councillor is Michael Lavalette, who overturned a huge Labour majority in Preston in the May 1 local elections in England. Peter Manson spoke to him

Congratulations on your victory. How do you account for this success? The Socialist Alliance in Preston was not particularly strong, but, as we got closer to the election date, there was some discussion within the Stop the War Coalition about standing a candidate. As part of STWC activity we had put together a petition to the local Labour MP, Mark Hendrick. His position was that he would only support war if there was a second UN resolution. The mosques contacted me as STWC coordinator because Hendrick rejected their approach, and the Stop the War Coalition had a meeting with representatives of all 12 mosques in Preston. They took the lead on the petition. They wanted to get 12,000 signatures (the size of his majority) together in just over a week - the week before the war started. They worked incredibly hard to get this huge total and we presented the petition to Hendrick on day one of the war. There were 10,256 signatures. The coalition was working not just with the one mosque which had been the most radical in terms of anti-war, but the others too. This was really important in breaking the link between the muslim community and the Labour Party - Hendrick ignored the petition and voted for war without a second UN resolution. That created the political space for us to move into. There was some talk of an anti-war candidate standing in Town Centre ward - the biggest in Preston, with the largest Labour majority. Last year, when the whole council was up for election, the ward returned three Labour councillors. The Labour candidate this time, Musa Jiwa, an active and devout muslim, had been third, but he had picked up 800 votes, while the leading candidate had over 1,000. Normally the Tories and Liberal Democrats get 200-250 votes, so obviously it is considered a safe Labour ward. Most of the voters in the ward are in Avenham and Frenchwood, which is one of the two areas in Preston with the highest Asian population. Town Centre is about a third Asian. There was some discussion about who should stand - whether it should be somebody from the muslim community, for example. But people from all the mosques, as in the STWC, wanted me to stand. At that point I made it clear that if I was the candidate I would be standing as Socialist Alliance Against the War. At the same time national office were putting some pressure on me. The closing date for nominations was Tuesday at 12 and the Monday morning at 10 o'clock I agreed I would stand. That evening we had 600 people at a Stop the War Coalition meeting with John Rees and Yvonne Ridley. At the end there was a line of people queuing up to sign my nomination paper. We worked hard. Every house got three leaflets. One of those was my biography, which obviously said that I was coordinator of Preston STWC, but the leaflets were Socialist Alliance leaflets rather than just peace or anti-war leaflets. The first was the national SA leaflet and all three carried the six points. The second one started off with the failure of New Labour and how they had disillusioned their own supporters; how they weren't spending money on health and education but they could launch a war and attack asylum-seekers. The final leaflet dealt with the kind of council we would be electing. I said I was an activist who would use the chamber to be the voice of the oppressed, the exploited and the excluded from across Preston. I am stressing the fact that all three were Socialist Alliance leaflets because there had been an argument - in particular from one member of the alliance - saying that we should have stood as just SA, not Socialist Alliance Against the War, and that it would be an anti-war, rather than an SA, campaign. That simply wasn't true - you can look at the leaflets we put out on the web. There was a dynamic between three elements. One was the activist base of socialists, who came out and campaigned. The second was a group of people from the Asian community who had been active in Stop the War Coalition, and the third element was the role of one of the imams at the Clarendon Street mosque, one of the two biggest in Preston. This mosque had been very active in the coalition - they had sent buses to every Palestinian and anti-war demonstration. It was myself who had been booking their people onto our transport. Sometimes they came with STWC buses and trains; sometimes there were groups who wanted to go by themselves because they wanted to stop and pray. But we booked the buses for them. So we had been working very closely with the imam and he has become more political. At the meeting when I was nominated he made a fantastically good speech about support for justice, equality and how in his interpretation these values were central to islam; how it was absolutely essential that people marched, demonstrated and voted and took an active part in the political process. He went on to say that the Asian population in Britain was here and here to stay: "We were born here. We're not going anywhere. And we will help shape the political future." That was an excellent speech. At Friday prayers he said there was a very important election the following week; that Labour, who most people in the mosque had traditionally voted for, is the party of war. Because Labour had a muslim candidate, people might think it was wrong not to vote for him, but he drew an analogy - a strange one perhaps. He said: "If the BJP in India selected a muslim candidate, would you vote BJP? I'm sure the answer is 'no'. I want you to think about that in the elections next week. Just because Michael Lavalette, a member of the Socialist Alliance, is not a muslim, that doesn't mean you shouldn't support him. In terms of opposing the war, in terms of racial equality, Michael has done more for the Asian population in Preston than Musa Jiwa." It was incredibly important that a young imam should speak like that. As a result we had people from the community out campaigning with us. When we went canvassing during the last week, covering as many doors as we could across the ward, there was always one white and one Asian person. If people didn't speak English, we always had a Gujurati speaker at hand. So there was this combination: the socialist activists; anti-war, anti-imperialist people who had broken from Labour and came over to the SA during the campaign; and the access to the wider community which was afforded us by the imam. His increasing disenchantment with Labour and his anti-imperialism meant that he was willing to back - and openly back - a Socialist Alliance candidate. There was one other dynamic which kicked in. As it became clear that we were in with a shout because of the support we were getting, many traditional white Labour supporters came over to our side. I don't think they would have done that if they had seen the Socialist Alliance as just a protest vote with no chance of winning. They included some really significant players in the local Labour Party, who said it was fantastic that I won. They viewed us as a real alternative. So the imam and muslim voters had no problem with the fact that you were a revolutionary socialist? The weekend before the vote took place, the Labour Party brought in muslims from other parts of Preston. The first thing they said was, "You shouldn't vote for Michael Lavalette: he's a communist." So it was right round the ward that Michael Lavalette was a communist, and communists are anti-islamic. Also the police let it be known through the community liaison committee that in their view I was an extremist who was no friend of the muslim community. We had to take that on at the doors. I responded according to how this was put to me. I made it clear that the Socialist Alliance is not a communist organisation, but an alliance of people with old and traditional Labour values right through to the far left, including some people who are communist. All those committed to social justice could fight around the six points the SA campaign was based on. I said that we might agree to disagree on how we get a better society at this moment. Then I would usually say: "You may know me from the Stop the War Coalition, but I am also a member of the Socialist Workers Party." So we were open about it. The SA is not a communist alliance: it's a Socialist Alliance. But at the same time I made it clear personally what my own politics were. Some muslim people we were working with asked: "Are you a communist? Can you tell me what a communist is? What is your position on religion?" They weren't put off, and this gave rise to a number of debates. What did you say when you were asked point blank if you were a communist? I would point out that there are a whole number of connotations associated with the word, but I would probably describe myself as a communist. I am a member of the SWP and I believe in a socialist society - that's how I would tackle it. I also made it quite clear that I have never been a supporter of what was the Soviet Union. The word 'communist' is tainted by such associations - which is what the people asking me were saying: "All I know about communism is through Animal Farm ." People from the Stop the War Coalition would then go on to say that we need to set up a whole process of political education, which has been squeezed out. It was interesting that they weren't dismissive. A lot of them are quite sophisticated: they went on the Socialist Alliance website and afterwards they were quite happy. I wasn't covering my views up. I've been in Preston for 12 years and most people know where I'm coming from. Did you think you could win? I thought we would get a good vote, but I didn't think we would win it. But socialist activists in the white community started to get more confidence from the wider support we were getting. There is a group of people - it must be the same everywhere - who would vote Socialist Alliance, who would join the Socialist Alliance, if they thought we could win. So Preston is important in showing that we can win and can make a difference. We can become a real alternative. At around 5pm on voting day we got as many campaigners out as we could and we went round doors asking people if they'd voted. Some people, including in the white community, said: "Are you Michael Lavalette? I've voted for you, because you seem to be the only one who did the work. You've been around and I've seen your leaflets. I agree with what you're saying." Nobody told me they'd voted Labour. Some people said they weren't going to vote - there were more white people who said that than from the Asian community. But those who said they had voted or would vote all said they were voting for me. Maybe they said the same thing to all the candidates, but by six or seven o'clock I started thinking we were going to get quite a good vote. It was a real boost when we won. The alliance had been very weak in Preston because of various things that had happened over the last couple of years. People who were in favour of the left getting together didn't join the SA because they looked around and said, "Here's the left, all squabbling and arguing." They thought we weren't a credible alternative. However, through the anti-war campaign, through the election campaign, our relationship with the Independent Labour councillors is back to what it was. A number of people who had been considering joining the alliance but moved away from us have now come back. The atmosphere on the May Day march last weekend was just great. People from all across the labour movement came up and shook my hand. The main union speaker was a Labour Party member until day one of the war, when he ripped up his card. His whole speech centred on how fantastic it was that Michael Lavalette had been elected for the Socialist Alliance, and we should all get together. The result has had a real impact on Lancashire, especially when you think about what happened in Burnley. So the future's looking bright if we get it right. There has been a lot of criticism of the fact that the alliance has tended to be switched off in between elections, leading to demoralisation. Is there a danger of that happening in Preston? I don't want the SA to become an electoral alliance only, because I don't think we'll ever make a breakthrough like that. It's no good getting together three weeks before an election - you've got to build and to have been around. You can build the alliance and link the various campaigns - they don't pull in different directions. It would have been mad if all anti-war activity had been coordinated through the Socialist Alliance - we would never have pulled the Asian community on board the way we have. The criticism has not been that the alliance should have substituted for the anti-war campaign. It is that the SA has been scarcely visible within it. For example, Lindsey German and John Rees did not present themselves as Socialist Alliance members on STWC platforms. I've already started to line up a whole series of meetings. I've written to the Muslim Forum in Preston. I've met someone from Usdaw, whose main branch is in Town Centre. I've drawn up a list of union branches so I can ask them if I can come and speak about my role as a councillor and who the Socialist Alliance are. I can reverse the criticism you're making. It may not have been done fantastically well, but it seems to me that the only people who were handing out Socialist Alliance leaflets and placards during the anti-war campaign, as far as I could see, were SWP members. On the trains from Liverpool, for example, if it hadn't been for SWP people handing out SA stuff it wouldn't have happened. I'm sure that's right. The criticism is not just of the SWP. But what we have pointed out is that, at a time when people were crying out for an alternative, instead of giving them that alternative, with the postponement of the conference the Socialist Alliance was put on hold. I was speaking at meeting after meeting for the Stop the War Coalition. There was so much going on at that time, it was so intense, I'm not sure if I would have been able to squeeze it in. I think it was right to postpone the conference. We were having really good, really big Stop the War events, which laid the basis for people to split from Labour and come over to the Socialist Alliance in Preston. Where now for the Socialist Alliance? The SA must be organic. It's got to be there all the time. We cannot run it on the basis of three weeks before an election. It's got to become a real part of the movement or else it isn't anything. That's how we'll become an alternative for disenchanted Labour members. That's how we'll become the alternative for the minority communities. If we just leave it for elections, I don't think we'll ever get the breakthrough. Preston, Town Centre - result Socialist Alliance 546 Labour 440 Tory 228 Liberal Democrat 220