'Talib Johnny' drops in and out

Peter Manson looks at Birmingham city councillor for Sparkbrook, Talib Hussain, who resigned from Respect only a week after joining

Earlier this month Respect was trumpeting a high-profile defection to its ranks. Birmingham city councillor Talib Hussain, formerly a Liberal Democrat member of the council cabinet and now an independent, announced he had come over to Salma Yaqoob's team.

According to Salma, "Respect is delighted to have a representative in Birmingham city council" (Respect statement, March 15). The press release concludes that "It is a sign of the reputation that Respect has built up in only a short time that even a former political rival is pledging his whole-hearted support to Salma Yaqoob's local election campaign in Sparkbrook." This was all the more significant in that councillor Hussain represents the same ward, although he himself is not up for re-election until 2008.

Unfortunately, however, it turns out that Hussain's "support" was rather less than "whole-hearted". Within a week, he had turned on his heels and left his new party (although, as I write, Respect's website still carries the original story, complete with a photo of the smiling pair - days later they fell out and their short-lived cooperation was at an end).

So what on earth lies behind this strange affair? Hussain's story is bizarre, to say the least. He told me how he changed his mind after discussions with local Respect leaders: "As soon as I had a chat with them, I found they had nothing in place. I thought they had policies and procedures to welcome elected councillors and other members to join, participate and have a say. Yet there was nothing there, so I decided not to be part of them."

You might think that the presence or otherwise of a 'welcome procedure' is a flimsy basis for deciding to join or leave a political party. When I pressed him a little more, though, a number of other things came out: "They want to prepare for the national level and I can't do that - I'm a local councillor. I represent the local people and my interest and my priorities are more with local than national issues."

Hussain went on: "Maybe in 10 years time they might have something which may cater for local needs, but right this minute their only agenda is national - and only to promote individuals, so they can become more well known nationally. I can't afford to do that. I'm a voice for local people. I know that Respect has got national policies and an MP. But when it comes to local issues, the candidate seems to say everything people want to hear."

A familiar story. Respect rushes to recruit, especially when it comes to the 'big catches' like sitting councillors, without worrying too much about policy - or the reliability, depth of politics or commitment of the newcomer. Clearly particular wariness is required when assessing local politicians who switch parties - especially as, in this case, it was not Hussain's first 'transfer': he had been a Labour Party member for over 20 years, but defected to the Liberal Democrats at the time of the Iraq war in 2003. In May 2004 he was adopted as a candidate for the first time and was elected in Sparkbrook ward. In the 2005 general election he stood against Salma Yaqoob in Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency - he picked up 20% of the vote for the Lib Dems, while she got 27% and second place.

Apart from his obvious localism, it is also self-evident that Hussain is not lacking in personal ambition: "Salma asked me to help and support her in winning a seat in my ward," he told me. "What I thought they wanted me to do was lead the party in the city council. I said I could do that, because my views are similar to what they'd been saying. Maybe their thoughts were that I would be number one and Salma number two. But Salma's idea was she wanted to be number one councillor in Birmingham. They only have one name in Birmingham they want to promote - Salma Yaqoob.

"In the West Midlands the entire responsibility lies with one individual. She thinks she knows what's best, yet she hasn't been elected a single time yet. She knows exactly what she wants to do and wants to control everything and that's it. I mean, you can't deliver services to meet local needs when you have an attitude like that."

Being able to parade a localist councillor with no politics as your latest recruit is one thing. But neither Yaqoob nor the Socialist Workers Party was exactly delighted at the prospect of having such a man as their main spokesperson on the council. In fact it seems the lack of "procedure" Hussain was talking about refers to the fact that his new party declined to confirm the existence of a Respect group on the council (nor his own membership of it) until "after the elections".

In fact it does not stop there. During his years of Labour membership Hussain had built up a substantial following amongst people of Pakistani origin. When he switched to the Liberal Democrats about 70 followed him. Last year, when he left the Lib Dems, so did they. This caused the party to suspend its Ladywood and Perry Barr branch until the status of several of these ex-members had been cleared up.

A Lib Dem activist told me that Respect might have been "panicked" by the possibility of all 70 signing up to Respect, effectively taking over parts of the Birmingham organisation. Hussain thought he could get a number of them adopted as Respect council candidates and - who knows? - one or two might be elected to sit alongside himself and Yaqoob after May. Maybe he even dreamt of winning back his £40,000-a-year cabinet post - he was sacked after his Lib Dem colleagues passed a vote of no confidence in him in 2005.

But his hopes were dashed when he learned of Respect's policy of contesting only a few, carefully selected wards: "Their whole effort is going into one ward and one ward only. They thought, 'Oh god, hang on. Talib is trying to develop a local platform, where Salma has other ideas.' What she wants to do is lead the party into the council this year, then to work towards the other wards next year."

In fact Respect is also standing in Springfield, Kings Heath, Aston, Lozells and East Handsworth, and Nechells - although there is no doubt where most resources will be directed: Sparkbrook, the only ward where it has a realistic chance of winning.

Respect had previously been cooperating in Birmingham with the Kashmiri-based People's Justice Party. There was an electoral arrangement whereby the PJP was to be given a free run in the three wards where its support was mostly concentrated, while it would ask its supporters to back Respect elsewhere. Then, a month ago, in a devastating blow to Respect, the PJP abandoned this alliance and decided to join the Lib Dems en bloc! No wonder Respect was desperate to win an Asian big name by way of compensation.

According to a local Liberal Democrat, it is hardly a new thing for 'community leaders' to switch from one party to another. In fact Salma Yaqoob and her husband were themselves in the Lib Dem milieu around 2001-02, although neither were actually members. They had tried to influence the selection and deselection of candidates around that time, he recalls.

But back to Hussain, who has a rather chequered past. Before he went into politics he was a 'character actor' whose most renowned roles were villains in two blockbusters: the James Bond film Octopussy and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (his stage name was 'Talib Johnny').

His meteoric rise with the Liberal Democrats came to an abrupt halt after a row over funding for the Bangladeshi Welfare Association. As the cabinet member responsible, Hussain decided to cut off the BWA's council grant after it failed to return accounts.

The Lib Dems said Hussain could at least have kept up the funding for another year (until after the elections), but he would hear none of it. Things came to a head in 2005 when Mohammed Khaliq, a Bangladeshi, became a Liberal Democrat councillor for Aston ward and his presence on the council provided the catalyst for the no-confidence move that relieved Hussain of his £40,000 job. In addition to the row over funding, he was accused of recruiting his friends to strengthen his own position, of being a poor speaker and of general incompetence.

He says: "The reason I resigned from the Liberal Democrats was that they removed the only Asian inner-city cabinet member and replaced him with a white member from the suburbs. That meant the diverse community did not have any impact on decision-making in the city council. The Liberal Democrats always said they represent the community as a whole, yet, when it came to the position of a cabinet member, they decided they didn't want an Asian having a say.

"They gave the excuse that as a cabinet member I stopped the funding for one of the community organisations that had been failing to deliver for the past four years. I was responsible to the taxpayers and people of Birmingham and I said I wouldn't waste a penny on people - whatever faith group or allegiance they belong to - and make sure the money is well spent."

Whatever the rights and wrongs of all this, clearly a man who switches from Labour to the Liberal Democrats for reasons usually associated with the left (the war on Iraq) and then accepts a leading post as part of the rightwing Tory-Lib Dem coalition (or 'concordat') that runs Birmingham council is no principled politician.

I asked him what he had known about Respect's policies and he said: "I thought that 'Respect' meant having a say when it comes to your belief, your understanding and your delivery." A bit vague. But did he know, for example, that 'Socialism' and 'Trade unionism' are part of its name? "No, I didn't, to be honest with you. I should have done. Salma was an opponent in the general election in Sparkbrook and Small Heath and I thought she has a strong voice and concern about local people."

So he was thinking more about local issues rather than the policies of the party he was joining? "Exactly. But once I joined and got to sit with them, I got to understand a few other things. I said, well, no, sorry, it's not what I've been looking for. My interest is with local issues and resolving the tensions and the problems we have.

"They don't have any procedure. They don't have any policy - they only talk about the war in Iraq and that's about it. I mean, what are they going to do about education? What are they going to do about council tax? What are they going to do about improving housing, health and so on? What they showed me on these issues didn't convince me."

Once again the SWP's dire opportunism has been well and truly exposed. In its rush to get Respect's leaders - in particular its own comrades, such as John Rees in Tower Hamlets - elected in order to win more influence for itself, it has collapsed into an electoralism 10 times worse than the kind it habitually accused others on the left of practising just a decade ago.

At that time it claimed that the very act of contesting elections inevitably leads to watering down your politics so as to be able to tell the electorate what they want to hear - you start putting the aim of winning votes above everything. I am not sure if they included the wooing of localist politicians and 'community leaders' in the list of undesirable practices electoralism leads to.