Ghost of Labour past

The main aim of Respect's general election campaign is getting George Galloway elected as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow

At the March 30 London activists meeting held in Friends Meeting House, the 80 or so assembled were addressed by Lindsey German and George Galloway himself on the importance of a breakthrough in Bethnal Green and Bow. And their audience did not need much convincing. Socialist Workers Party members were at pains to emphasise that the local campaigns in Camden, Hackney and elsewhere would have to get on the best they could without additional help, apart from the branches in localities with no contest that have been 'twinned' with them. Individual supporters should prioritise comrade Galloway's seat. Indeed, in the words of Simon Joyce, SWP member from Camden, "I will be really pissed off if we come second in Bethnal Green - we must sort it out in east London". Indeed if John Mulrenan, the chair, is to be believed, the smart money is on George. He announced that a journalist friend of his had confirmed Galloway as the one the political editors are tipping to win. Confidence was also expressed about Respect's chances in the other constituencies in east London. According to comrade German, "we are the main contenders". But "we must crack into the Labour majorities "¦ we must go on a war footing" in the next few weeks. She was concerned to avoid a repeat of a situation where "we almost get somebody elected", as in last year's GLA elections when Respect received 4.57% of the vote. For her that failure "was nothing to do with objective forces and everything to do with lack of organisation". In typical upbeat fashion, Galloway boasted that New Labour was getting more and more nervous about his candidacy - a fact underlined by the scarcity of Labour activists on the ground. He was emphatic that "we are the ghost of Labour past - we are what Labour supporters want it to be". What was needed was "to knock on every door and let all those who have not yet heard of Respect know that we are standing. We have a sense of purpose, an elan, an optimism that none can match." In contrast the Liberal Democrats "don't know what way to turn". This led Galloway to criticise the fact that his "friend" and supporter, Tariq Ali, has called for a vote for the Lib Dems in the constituencies where the 17 anti-war Labour MPs are not standing. In an article in April's Red Pepper, reprinted in The Guardian last week, Ali argued that, "given the undemocratic voting system, votes cast for the Greens, Respect and others will have nil impact, with the possible exception of Tower Hamlets, where George Galloway confronts the pro-war Oona King. It is possible that in some constituencies the Green/Respect vote could ensure the return of a warmonger, as has happened in certain by-elections. So why not treat this election as special and take the politics of the broad anti-war front into the electoral arena? Vote Lib Dem. If the result is a hung parliament or a tiny Blair majority, it will be seen as a victory for our side" (Red Pepper April). Galloway responded in a letter to The Guardian where he stressed that the Lib Dems are not an anti-war party and indeed are not as well placed as Respect in the four east London constituencies contested by his party. To last week's activists' meeting he said: "Supporting me is not enough." Nevertheless he would be welcoming Ali onto the platform at the Respect election launch rally on April 6. As it turned out, Ali concentrated his fire on Blair and New Labour. He is, though, no Respect partisan. Once again this underlines the fact that this is essentially a George Galloway election campaign. In similar vein, Oliur Rahman, Respect councillor and candidate for Poplar and Canning Town, applauded George for his work in building the vote during his recent trip to Bangladesh. Galloway went to the sub-continent on a two-week tour in late February. Speaking at a press conference in Dhaka to launch his tour, Galloway described his purpose as "visiting Bangladesh to refamiliarise myself with the country and to meet and discuss with the leaders of Bangladesh, to listen to their concerns and learn from them how best I can help the great country of Bangladesh and its people" (New Age National February 28). He added that he was "particularly looking forward to visiting the Sylhet area, with which I and the people of Tower Hamlets have such a close connection". He planned to meet the mayor of Dhaka and other politicians and businessmen in order to build links and "get a better deal for Bangladesh in the world". He went on to tell his audience in Dhaka that the majority of Indian restaurants in the UK are owned by Bengalis, particularly immigrants from Sylhet - "And I want to represent them and champion their interests in the UK" (The Bangladesh Independent February 28). He wanted a strong Bangladesh and a multipolar world rather than US domination - "with a strong China, a prosperous south Asia, a united Africa and a politically-vocal Middle East" (ibid). This hobnobbing with the "leaders of Bangladesh" - reminiscent of his trips to Iraq - went down very well and seems to have had the required effect. According to Rahman, George has made a very good impression, especially as he visited a great number of villages in the Sylhet area. Since his visit, voters in Bethnal Green have been receiving phone calls from their relatives in Bangladesh telling them to cast their votes for Galloway. Oliur may not be aware of the rather muted approach to human rights in Bangladesh expressed by Galloway during his visit. Amnesty International has published numerous reports on abuses by both the state and islamic groups. It has called for action against islamists who are targeting the minority Ahmadiyya community with physical attacks. According to Amnesty, these groups "are believed to be attempting to force the government to yield to their political demand for the introduction of more stringent islamic law in Bangladesh" (www.amnesty.org.uk). The state itself is condemned in the report for the politically motivated detention of democracy activists, including the torture of many and even some deaths. The British government is criticised by Amnesty for adding Bangladesh to the 'white list' of countries deemed to be safe for the return of refugees and asylum-seekers. At least one newspaper in Bangladesh published extracts from a recent report on the situation by the US state department during Galloway's visit: "Police corruption remained a problem. Nearly all abuses went unpunished, and the climate of impunity, reinforced by 2003 legislation, shielding security forces from legal challenge of their actions, remained a serious obstacle to ending abuse and killings ... Violence, often resulting in deaths, was a pervasive element in the country's politics "¦ Police searched homes without warrants, and the government forcibly relocated illegal squatter settlements" (The Daily Star March 1). But despite being asked to respond to these instances Galloway has maintained a diplomatic silence. Could it be, as suggested by Private Eye, that Galloway has compromised himself in his ambition to get elected, being aware that "most Bangladeshis in London, whose votes Respect is seeking, support either the Awami League or the Bangladesh National Party, the two groups back home most closely implicated in such abuses" (Private Eye April 1-14)? Either way, it is clearly untenable for comrades in the SWP to maintain a silence on such issues. Votes from the Bengali community must be won on a principled basis, not through courting reactionary "politicians and businessmen". Anne Mc Shane