Populism at large

The April 25 Tower Hamlets hustings for local election candidates, organised by the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), was a highly charged affair. Huw Bynon reports

At one stage Oliur Rahman, Respect councillor for St Dunstan's and Stepney Green, continuously interrupted Blairite council leader Michael Keith. Comrade Rahman stood up threateningly, but was restrained by several members of the audience.

Earlier another Labour councillor, Abdus Shakur, suffered a longer interruption. Half a dozen islamist militants rose to their feet, shouting, "Are you a muslim? Are you a muslim?" There followed 20 minutes of uproar as the meeting, in the Brady Centre off Brick Lane, was suspended. The chair, ISB member and barrister Omar Farooq, taunted the islamists with shouts of "Munafik!" (an unbeliever who hypocritically pretends to be a muslim), taken up by sections of the audience.

There were cries of "Call the police" and "Take their picture", but several people tried to intervene to calm things down. Two women called out, "Stop provoking them", but the chair continued to sneer that he was "waiting for the police" to "eject these extremists". When order was restored, Farooq apologised to non-muslims present for the way some in the meeting had conducted themselves. Nevertheless, he remarked, it was exciting to see the "diversity of the Bangladeshi community and its involvement in the political system".

The majority of the 80-100 people present were of Bengali extraction. I would say that Respect supporters made up the largest bloc (although most Socialist Workers Party comrades were out canvassing), with Labour coming next. In fact Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrat group leader Janet Ludlow complained that it was a meeting of the two rival sides in the split between New Labour and "old Labour socialism" (no doubt the SWP's John Rees was pleased to be regarded as the standard-bearer of Labourite reformism).

Respect was officially represented by Rees and George Galloway, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. Also present were a couple of Tories and a hapless Green.

The meeting had started off quite innocuously, with preset questions from the chair, each speaker being given three minutes to reply. Not exactly generous, seeing that the questions ranged from local issues around health, housing, education and employment, through "diversity and inclusiveness", to "pursuing human rights and justice at home and abroad".

But Farook explained that the meeting would have to close after an hour to allow people to go to the mosque. After the ISB questions had been dealt with, there would be 40 minutes for questions from the floor.

Not surprisingly, every speaker (apart from Lib Dem John Griffiths) simply ignored the preset questions and gave their own prepared speeches. Conservative Edwin Northover gave the muslim greeting, Salem aleykum, and fellow Tory Stephen Parker, who sports a Colonel Blimp handlebar moustache, announced, to groans from the audience, that "There are no ethnic minorities - we are a single community."

Like the Labour speakers, the Tories knew their audience and posed as being vaguely anti-war. But Liberal Democrat Griffiths made the mistake of being honest (and specific): although he had opposed the invasion beforehand, once "our troops were committed "¦" The rest of the sentence was lost in the shouts and barracking. Griffiths did his best to recover with noises about opposition to ID cards and the terrorism laws.

Comrade Rees linked all the local issues to Iraq and the threat against Iran. Instead of privatisation "for the profit of banks and shareholders", the money for better health, housing and education could be found by diverting the £2.8 million a day spent on war to schools, hospitals and council housing, he said to cheering and stomping.

Comrade Galloway's welcome was more mixed - applause and cheers, but a few boos and a shout of "Pussycat!" Tower Hamlets was the "worst council in England" - it was a "byword for corruption and incompetence". It was a "rich man's council", standing between the "twin towers of capitalism - Canary Wharf and the City of London". In response to a question he promised, "if we win control", to find out where "the missing £900 million" went - "people will go to prison" (without making specific allegations, he mentioned Michael Keith and former MP Oona King before pledging a police investigation).

Tower Hamlets has one of the highest overcrowding rates in the UK, yet its stock of council houses is continuously being depleted. In this most deprived of all boroughs in England, Keith and co have overseen stock transfer and PFI schemes. New Labour's policy is to connect the City of London to Docklands, the idea being to drive working class residents to the outskirts of Dagenham and Barking, so that the financiers can buy up property in the area. Tower Hamlets has also featured undemocratic decisions in relation to Crossrail and the kind of general corruption Galloway referred to.

He skilfully linked these questions to the fact that muslims, while making up eight percent of London's population overall, account for 36% in Tower Hamlets. Galloway denounced the terrorism laws as being targeted against muslims, "just as they targeted muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine". This was no doubt the kind of comment Labour's Abdus Shukur was referring to when he accused unnamed organisations of "dividing the community in the name of religion and anti-racism".

The meeting, though, was really about the performance of Rees and the SWP's drive to turn him into a political celebrity. Comrade Rees, as previously reported, has been moved by the Respect selection panel from the Whitechapel ward to Bethnal Green South. This was after Dr Shamsuddin Ahmed was turned down as a Respect candidate in Whitechapel and subsequently jumped ship - he is now Liberal Democrat candidate in that ward, where he has strong connections.

Writing in Socialist Worker, Rees states: "There is a battle royal taking place on the streets of east London today. On the one side there is New Labour at its very worst - bent on privatisation and mired in sleaze. On the other side is Respect, a party that has emerged from the anti-war movement to offer a radical alternative to the neoliberal agenda. The stakes could not be higher. New Labour knows that if it loses control of a council because of us, Respect will be unstoppable in the labour movement" (April 22).

Leaving aside whether Respect will be "unstoppable", this tells us why most SWP comrades were out on the knocker in wards such as Bethnal Green South instead of attending the hustings.

Like Galloway, comrade Rees concentrated his left populist fire on Keith and the New Labour Blairites. Rees, as "one of the organisers of all the anti-war demonstrations", was "not interested in passing motions at a council meeting", he said. Looking at Keith, he yelled: "You weren't on the demos - you were asked and you didn't come." Keith is "a coward who wouldn't fight then over the war and won't fight now over housing".

Following the three-minute speeches, there was a barrage of questions from the floor on local issues - especially housing and corruption - but these were mainly directed at Michael Keith and New Labour. Respect had clearly not organised comrades to ask 'friendly' questions for their benefit - at one point Rees could be seen desperately signalling to someone at the front to come in and help him out. But for the most part Galloway and Rees were left sitting like a couple of lemons while Keith was constantly on his feet - even if he was not well received.

Eventually Galloway got a question about Big brother. The audience was split on the issue, with a noisy minority hostile to Galloway over his appearance on the show. But Galloway largely ignored the question and delivered another demagogic tirade against New Labour corruption. Brushing aside the calls of "Pussycat!" and "Answer the question!", he claimed that people say to him, "It wasn't you who voted to slaughter one million muslims in Iraq." The question on May 4 is "not about pussycats: it's about tigers".

'Vote Respect: we are different; we are not corrupt' - that was the main message of the hustings, just as it has been the message of the campaign as a whole. Of course, in one sense this is attractive to voters, after their experience at the hands of New Labour. However the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and even the BNP can spout the same nonsense. What is different about Respect? What sets it apart?

Campaigning on the streets of east London should be the occasion for the voicing of a different, radical politics, far removed from the normal establishment fare. But, in the name of maintaining "tremendous diversity" (Lindsey German), anything resembling a specifically working class platform is left unspoken. How this "tremendous diversity" is put across has more to do with mainstream liberalism than shibboleth socialism. The very fact that Respect has 'something for everyone' marks it out as a highly unstable formation, totally unable to "break the mould of establishment politics".

Before its launch SWP leaders assured us that the new formation would be "absolutely socialist" (Rob Hoveman), or, alternatively, "implicitly socialist" (Nick Wrack). Yet, when I asked an SWPer campaigning with me what the Respect acronym stands for, the comrade was unable to answer, totally ignorant of the fact that the 'S' is supposed to mean 'socialism'.

There is not much that could be called socialist about what the SWP comrades are saying on the doorstep. There is no espousing of the historic role of the working class in this part of east London. The only concern is to gain votes, and Respect pushes the issues of housing, health and education in a way that differs little from the other parties.

However, it is far from clear what the result will be - George Galloway has polarised the electorate. Going from one door to the next, it is difficult to know whether to prepare yourself for a love-in or a vituperative onslaught. Even when the occupant is a known Respect supporter their vote is not guaranteed - thanks to George's Kraftwerk dancing and cat impressions on Big brother.