Call for open borders
Respect's campaign road show for the European parliament elections came to Teesside, in the North East regional constituency, for the first time on Tuesday May 18.
Around 40 people attended a rally in Middlesbrough, chaired by local anti-war activist Pete Smith and addressed by the two candidates topping Respect's regional list - journalist Yvonne Ridley and Socialist Workers Party member Yunus Bakhsh.
The North East is probably the region least likely to see electoral success for the coalition because, even if it attracts a respectable vote, it will require nearly a quarter of the total poll to win one of only three seats up for grabs.
Yvonne Ridley, who attracted international headlines after being captured by the Taliban during the Afghan conflict and who has recently embraced the islamic faith, focused her speech on the hypocrisy of the US-UK justification for the war against Iraq. The only real weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East were held by the world's sixth largest nuclear power, Israel, which she described as a "disgusting terrorist state" that had formed alliances with oppressive rightwing regimes such as Turkey under the generals and South Africa in the apartheid era. "Why should everyone else in the region have to submit to the will of America?" she asked, claiming that the White House was effectively being run by Israel.
Comrade Bakhsh started with the outrages committed by the US-UK occupation forces, but broadened out the issues to attack New Labour's failure to represent the interests of "ordinary working people". Tony Blair's government, he argued, was a far-right regime modelled on Thatcherism and committed to a neoliberal agenda of privatisation. The UK had the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe and Labour had even criticised a conservative French government for objecting to Marks and Spencers' decision to close its Paris store without consulting the workforce.
The government's approach to asylum-seekers was "feeding hysterical press coverage" that demonised people who came to this country to work and contribute to society and treated them as if they were criminals. He highlighted the problem of islamophobia, saying that, although he was now an atheist, he was from a muslim background and he had experienced such prejudice on the streets of Newcastle himself.
Comrade Bakhsh rejected the idea that the Labour Party could be reclaimed by the left, saying that it offered nothing to working class people. Respect, on the other hand, was a "working class organisation" and a "party" that offered a real alternative.
Questions asked from the floor covered a range of issues, including Respect's lack of a detailed policy programme, environmental concerns, the EU constitution, whether voting Liberal Democrat would be a more effective way of giving Labour a 'bloody nose', and the candidates' views on the principles of a worker's wage for elected representatives and the abolition of immigration controls.
Yvonne Ridley was vague on whether she would accept a worker's wage if elected, arguing that MEPs' allowances should be tripled so that they could employ more support staff to help them research issues more thoroughly and represent their constituents more effectively. Comrade Bakhsh pointed out that the average worker ought to be getting a higher wage than they currently received, let alone what their representatives were paid. There should be no 'political class' at all, he argued: society should be run by ordinary working people, not a higher paid elite.
Both candidates expressed their support for the principle of open borders. Ridley, the first candidate on the regional list, felt that everyone should have the right to move around freely, not just the "boss class". Bakhsh argued that there should be no borders at all because states were artificial constructions. "It's not asylum-seekers who shut down the pits in this region," he observed.
Comrade Bakhsh said that he had never believed in the need for a detailed policy programme or blueprint - "Ordinary working people should run society. They'd do it a damned sight better than the people who run it now." Working class people would look after the environment and protect communities from dangers such as the recent factory explosion in Glasgow much more effectively than big business could ever do. The rich were responsible for society's ills: "I don't give a toss what colour they are. They're to blame, not asylum-seekers."
The dreaded 's' word - socialism - was not mentioned by either speaker, but together they articulated views well to the left of those publicly admitted by Respect's SWP-dominated leadership in recent times. Ridley appeared to believe that a successful electoral campaign could be based on little more than opposition to US foreign policy, whereas Bakhsh was keen to emphasis the need for a more fundamental change in the way society is run, towards one that is controlled by the working class.
It remains to be seen whether their message will have been noticed by North East voters come June 10.