How many more careerists?
In Tower Hamlets, a prospective local elections candidate has resigned from Respect. Peter Manson reports
On February 23 Respect Tower Hamlets prospective local election candidate Mustaque Ahmed sent the following emailed letter to all members in the borough:
"I wish to resign from the Respect party immediately because I feel this is not the party for me or my community.
"My understanding is that the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow has hoodwinked the constituency and does not nor ever intended to represent these people. His only intention is and was to represent himself and his own interests. I feel let down, disgusted and angry at the way this party is run. Many people like me are disillusioned by Respect and people in it."
Ahmed did not feel it necessary to go into detail. Simultaneously, another nominated candidate, Dr Shamsuddin Ahmed, handed in his resignation and both men have joined the Liberal Democrats, much to the latter's delight. They are very likely to be nominated as candidates for their new party in the May elections.
The fact that the two have simply switched to a mainstream bourgeois party obviously marks them out as localists. But this in itself says a lot about Respect. How is it that such people can be selected as candidates in the first place?
The answer lies in the whole orientation adopted by Respect's leading force, the Socialist Workers Party. Having identified "muslim activists" as the main allies of "secular socialists" (ie, the SWP itself) in the period of the 'war on terror', the group has proceeded to build a political party on the most slender of foundations - light on policies and light on principles. So long as you are against the war on Iraq, against islamophobia and (more vaguely) against privatisation, Respect is the party for you. Anti-abortion? Anti-gay? These minor problems can be overcome at some later date.
The trouble is, such opportunism only works in the short term. The muslim establishment and the mosque, to whom the SWP looks first and foremost to bring on board the mass of muslims, have a totally different world view. They may be prepared to work with the SWP temporarily, but they will sooner or later look for greener pastures in their search for respectability and positions of influence. Careerists and self-seekers too will inevitably move on if - or, more likely, when - they fall out with the SWP.
In this case the falling out occurred over the allocation of seats for the May elections. Shamsuddin Ahmed was determined to be nominated for Whitechapel ward, but the SWP had other ideas. Although Respect had agreed to contest all three seats in each of the borough's 17 wards, the SWP wanted to ensure that its most important candidates - not least national secretary John Rees himself - were fielded in Whitechapel, as that was the ward where victory seemed most likely, according to returns from the general election.
Ahmed was offered Bethnal Green South as consolation, but he would have none of it and mobilised his Bengali supporters to back him against comrade Rees as Whitechapel candidate at the February 1 selection meeting. He lost the vote by 46 to 28, with around half of the Bengali members siding with him. All the white comrades voted for the slate proposed by the selection committee.
Ahmed was furious and, along with his namesake, decided to leave the party and offer his services to someone more grateful. He suddenly discovered that the man he had described as a "noble statesman" the previous month was actually a disaster for the area: "I believed that George Galloway was someone who could transform Tower Hamlets," he told me - which was why he had defended him during his Big brother venture. But now he realised that Galloway was not sufficiently committed to the area. He was travelling all over the country and abroad trying to build Respect and opposing the occupation of Iraq, and it was "so obvious that he had very little interest in the people of Tower Hamlets".
Ahmed's second gripe is that people of his ethnicity are not getting a look in within Respect: "George Galloway said he wanted to see more Bengalis in positions of responsibility, but in his office at Westminster and at Bethnal Green, there is not a single Bengali." That proves Galloway is "two-faced".
But Ahmed's number one enemy is comrade Rees: "Respect should be run on a democratic basis. But it's John Rees and his henchmen who are running the party. The Bengali officers have no real role. I was the vice-chair, but I didn't have any role. I was never consulted on anything."
Rees, according to Ahmed, is "over-ambitious" and is more interested in looking after himself than promoting Respect: "His partner was a candidate in West Ham. Now he becomes a candidate in Tower Hamlets, even though he doesn't live in the borough. He takes George Galloway around the country and he has hardly any time for the people here."
So, apart from attempting to build a national movement and allegedly trying to feather their own nests (something Ahmed himself would never dream of doing, of course), what else are Galloway and Rees guilty of? Well, their main crime lies in failing to recognise his own immense talents:
"I was running Whitechapel ward. I organised the best rally in Berner estate, where I live. Previously all the public meetings had been in the white areas, with only a handful attending. George Galloway said, 'I have never seen anything like this in my life.'
"Yet when the selection meeting came along, John Rees wants to be candidate in Whitechapel, pushing me to Bethnal Green South, where I didn't have any connection. It's not that I had to be in Whitechapel ward. But the man who was one of the chief architects of George Galloway's victory, the man who was responsible for bringing the campaign to the attention of the Bengali community, when Whitechapel ward had played a central role under my leadership "¦ I toured all around Tower Hamlets - all the mosques, all the imams, all the mosque committee members and other key people. I have visited hundreds of mosques and the people hold me in high esteem because of who I am."
Ahmed continued in this self-effacing style: "I'm not even that worried about the nomination. I didn't join the party to become a councillor. If I wanted to promote myself, I could have been a senior cabinet member in Bangladesh. Or I could have been a member of parliament by now. Being a councillor is nothing to me.
"George Galloway had the cheek to say at a meeting that 'John Rees made me an MP'. Who the hell is John Rees, who cannot make his partner an MP but can make George Galloway an MP? What a silly remark from a man who I thought was a great, great politician of our time. When Bangladeshi leaders were showing their anger and were disgusted at the sinister role of John Rees, George Galloway takes his side! He said this to the people who put him in the position he is today. He was kicked out of Labour. He was in the wilderness. Yet now he insults the Bengali community in meetings."
I asked Ahmed why he thought the Respect leadership would have overlooked his obvious and many talents: "They felt I am too good for any of them. When I speak they feel undermined because they don't have the same intellectual level that I have got. They thought I was overqualified and right from the beginning they started the process of marginalisation."
So now Respect has only itself to blame that "the elder statesman of the borough and the Bengali community has left". What a loss!
Next, Ahmed told me why he chose the Liberal Democrats: "They are closer to our point of view in terms of the war. Also I have got a lot of respect for the local group leader, Janet Ludlow, who I have worked with for many, many years. Whenever I needed her she was on my side to help with various issues and various problems. Unfortunately that kind of thing I couldn't achieve from Respect."
I pointed out to Ahmed the small matter of possibly conflicting programmes. After all, Respect claims to stand for "socialism" and "trade unionism" - not things the Lib Dems are likely to fight very hard for. But he had an answer for that too:
"They use the word 'socialism' to camouflage promoting themselves. John Rees has brought disgrace to the lofty goal of socialism. I believe in socialism and have a great love for it. But true socialism, not the socialism that promotes individuals or a group of individuals, using the Bengali community."
Obviously the two Ahmeds will be viewed as very great assets by the Lib Dems. Janet Ludlow, the group leader on Tower Hamlets council, assured me that her party "would never select any-body who was not in their heart of heart a true Liberal Democrat". However, in this case, I feel they might overlook Shamsuddin Ahmed's claimed adherence to "true socialism". In 2002 the good doctor, standing as an independent in Whitechapel, picked up over 500 votes (a long way behind Labour, but well ahead of the Lib Dems) and the opportunity to substantially increase their vote will surely be too good to miss. Ludlow confessed that both men are earmarked for a seat (if she can overcome the "bureaucracy" of local selection meetings and already nominated candidates).
In fact Ludlow must know only too well what kind of man Shamsuddin Ahmed is. She is well aware of what she calls the "element of opportunists" within the ranks of Tower Hamlets Respect. She described some of its remaining candidates as people "who have been rejected" by others - although she declined to name names or give details. She said Respect's list had some "strange" features, like a husband and wife team, and other people who were "dubious in calibre". Not something you can say about the Liberal Democrat candidates, of course.
This whole episode illustrates the pitfalls of populism - the avoidance of hard policy in favour of saying what you think people want to hear, along with parading one's alleged personal qualities. At the February 1 selection meeting Galloway stressed the opportunity offered by the May 4 local elections to turf out the "most corrupt, least liked, most unpopular" councillors "“ and the chance to replace them with those who promise not to "let the electorate and Respect down".
Well, now we have an (albeit small) section of Respect and ex-Respect members who allege or imply that Rees and Galloway themselves are corrupt, unliked and unpopular and have let Respect and the 'community' down. So where does that leave us? I am afraid there is no substitute for principled working class politics, comrades.
According to The Sunday Times, "George Galloway has revealed plans to stand for the Scottish parliament "¦ in next year's Holyrood elections" (February 26).
The article quotes Ron McKay, his spokesperson, as saying: "George has not ruled out standing in another Westminster constituency, but he is more likely to stand in the Scottish parliament and/or the European parliament. He gets a lot of requests to stand in Scotland, particularly as the Scottish Socialist Party has weakened."
The piece continues with what it claims are the further thoughts of Galloway's spokesperson - this time without quotation marks - in relation to former SSP convenor Tommy Sheridan: "McKay said Galloway was close to Sheridan and had tried to persuade him, without success, to defect to Respect."
This story follows hot on the heels of one in the Daily Express, which has Galloway himself saying: "I've fought and won five elections and I'm not fighting any more." Instead, "I'm discussing a lot of possibilities at the moment - including presenting programmes and making documentaries about politics and life" (February 14).
According to Galloway's Westminster office, the Sunday Times story, despite the McKay quotes, is just "rubbish", while Galloway himself denies having spoken to the Daily Express at all. Yet there has been no official rebuttal of either article.
So what is going on? Either two journalists in rapid succession have simply made up false statements, or else someone has been doing some briefing. Creating uncertainty about Galloway's future might serve as a kind of warning to the SWP after their falling out over Big brother - 'Don't try to rein me in, as there are plenty of other things I can do.'
And, once again, the latest story has made waves in the SSP. I hear that comrade Sheridan - about to be rehabilitated as vice-chair after this week's conference - can get "a bit short-tempered" whenever he is asked about Galloway's approach to him.