SWP failure within Respect success

Peter Manson comments on the results of the May 4 local elections

As expected, Respect made its small electoral breakthrough in the May 4 local elections, picking up 12 seats in Tower Hamlets, three in Newham and one in Birmingham (Salma Yaqoob). In the two east London boroughs, the party stood everywhere (except in one Tower Hamlets ward, where its candidates were disbarred on a technicality) and, impressively, won well over 20% of the overall vote in both areas.

Communists welcome the fact that thousands of workers disillusioned with Labour backed candidates to its left, even if the platform they were standing on could not be described as remotely working class, let alone socialist. In fact, as the Weekly Worker has explained on numerous occasions, Respect's programme is one of left populism. It opposes cuts, privatisation and, most of all, the invasion and occupation of Iraq; but when it comes to what Respect is actually for, then things are vague or simply full of bombast on most questions.

Respect lambastes the corruption of the established parties, particularly New Labour, and calls for voters to support its candidates, who really will put the interests of the 'community' before their own. But its Socialist Workers Party leadership rejects any measures of accountability - measures that would carry with them at least the possibility of keeping careerists and self-seekers in line.

Perhaps the SWP thought that the new batch of councillors in Tower Hamlets could be kept on the straight and narrow under the leadership of Respect national secretary John Rees, who would be at their head. One snag, though. Neither comrade Rees nor any of the other SWP "secular socialists" were elected. From what we can gather, most of the successful Tower Hamlets candidates, as well as the one Birmingham and three Newham councillors, belong to the "muslim activist" wing of Respect. Oliur Rahman is the exception - but we have to admit that getting information on them has proved rather difficult.

In Tower Hamlets in particular it was hoped that the SWP comrades could piggy-back into the council chamber. Unfortunately, however, the momentum was not quite powerful enough. In the 11 Tower Hamlets wards where candidates from both wings of Respect were selected (there were three seats contested in each ward), in every case the "secular socialists" pulled in considerably fewer votes than the "muslim activists". In fact, on average, the SWP and its supporters won only 69% of the votes of their fellow muslim candidates standing in the same ward. (Again, comrade Rahman, a trade union militant, could be considered an exception, although, of course, he may well be perceived by some voters as first and foremost a muslim.)

The main casualty was comrade Rees himself. Although he was selected by the February 1 all-members meeting to contest Whitechapel ward, by some mysterious process he was switched to Bethnal Green South, in the vain hope that his prospects would be better. In fact two out of three Respect candidates made it in Whitechapel, but all three lost in Bethnal Green South. Comrade Rees, despite presumably being earmarked for the Respect group leadership, got the least support from the electors - 973 votes, as opposed to 1,342 for the best placed Respect candidate, Syeda Hussain (the three successful Labourites won between 1,400 and 1,600 votes).

In hindsight we can see that comrade Rees's best chance would have been to stand in Shadwell - the one ward where all three Respect members were returned, some 600-700 votes clear of the Labour candidates - a sufficient margin to override the gap in support between the two wings.

Of course, we should not make too much of the fact that a minority of electors cast their vote on the basis of ethnicity or religion. After all, 973 is still a pretty healthy return compared to the usual vote for leftwing candidates in recent times and, in any case, this phenomenon is hardly a new one - a proportion of white voters always discriminate against black or Asian candidates standing for their preferred party.

However, the SWP is rather desperately trying to play down the fact that most of Respect's support self-evidently comes from a particular ethno-religious group - and play up its appeal to workers of all backgrounds. One of Respect's new councillors in Newham, Hanif Abdulmuhmit, is quoted in Socialist Worker as saying: "Labour can't argue with us on policies - over the privatisation of schools or the sell-off of Queens Market to a multinational - so they accuse us of being a 'muslim party' or a party of extremists. It was clear from canvassing that we won white votes, black votes and Asian votes. We won votes from hindus and sikhs. All these groups in Newham face exactly the same issues" (May 13).

Similarly, Respect's candidate for mayor in the borough, Abdurahman Jafar - a barrister and supporter of the Muslim Council of Britain who won 12,898 first-preference votes in finishing second to Labour - comments: "Respect stands for the poor, the neglected and the marginalised. People of all religions and races came and voted for us. The muslim vote was very divided. But Labour makes these allegations against us. It calls us extremists. Well, that's the same thing the establishment said about the first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, when he was elected in Newham" (ibid).

I am sure it is true that Respect won support from all sections, but it is pretty clear which section gave it most support proportionally. The sad fact is that, where Respect did not stand in an area with a large muslim population, and particularly where the candidate was not muslim or Asian, the results were pretty much what you would expect for candidates of the left.

There were three notable exceptions to this. In Sheffield Burngreave, the SWP's Maxine Bowler gained 1,208 votes (27%) in second place. In Bristol Lockleaze, Jeremy Hicks polled 679 (25%), also in second place, while in Preston St Matthew's, Danielle Field (SWP) won 292 votes (23%). She too was second behind Labour, as was Elaine Abbott in Preston Riversway, who picked up 318 votes (26%). But comrade Abbott's vote was disappointing, since she was a sitting councillor who had defected from Labour in 2004.

Overall, despite the SWP hype, a very high percentage of Respect votes came from muslims - and the fact that this produced blatantly one-sided results on May 4 now lays bare the problems that were always going to arise in a much sharper light. How will the Respect councillors behave, particularly in Tower Hamlets?

As we have noted, the first problem is that there is no authoritative Respect leader like comrade Rees at the head of the Respect group. Nor are there rules and procedures that ensure accountability and guard against corruption - indeed the SWP at the last Respect conference rejected such measures (in an attempt not to upset George Galloway). For example, will the 'community' representatives accept as group leader the first councillor elected under the party's name, Oli Rahman (who was eventually re-elected last Friday after a recount)? Or will they regard him as a young upstart who is too close to the SWP for comfort?

What about policy? How will even Respect's election platform, bearing all the hallmarks of the SWP's brand of leftwing populism, stand up, once the new councillors are called upon to take hard choices over how money is spent and where? Tower Hamlets has not elected a proven team of working class fighters whose first instincts will be to mobilise the rank and file. Rather it will be localism, 'community interests' and paternal backroom dealing that will come naturally. The Respect councillors will surely tend to the pragmatic view of what can be achieved.

And in whose interests? Those of the working class? Or of some undifferentiated, classless 'muslim community' (in reality the interests of a combination of business - small and not so small - and the mosque)?

Then there is the question of the balance of political forces represented on the council. Labour has been reduced to an overall majority of just one. Obviously a precarious position. A rebellion or defection of a single Labour councillor, or an unexpected by-election, will open the way to all manner of coalitions and floor-crossing.

Will the Respect newcomers be immune to the inevitable pressures in such circumstances? The promise of an influential (not to say well remunerated) position on a council committee might be just too tempting - we had a taste of what might arise in March, when a selected Respect candidate jumped ship in a fit of pique and ended up standing for the Liberal Democrats. Are the new councillors of a totally different type? You certainly cannot guarantee that they will act consistently as a solid, principled bloc.

Socialist Worker fails to mention the fact that no SWP comrades were among the successful 16 candidates. However, John Rees himself states: "If we want to make further gains, we have to stress the labour movement and socialist values at the heart of Respect to appeal to working class voters let down by New Labour" (May 13).

Is this a recognition - blurted out in the aftermath of his own personal electoral disappointment and that of his sect - that Respect's "labour movement and socialist values" have up to now not been sufficiently stressed? Previously the SWP has argued - when trying to swat aside CPGB conference motions in favour of such basic principles as secularism, a woman's right to choose an abortion, open borders and working class socialism itself - that Respect ought not to be perceived as specifically socialist.

That has certainly been emphasised by George Galloway: ""¦ we're a coalition, and we don't bind a muslim candidate in Yorkshire to the explicitly socialist parts [?] of our programme. Many of them are small business people and wouldn't describe themselves as socialists and are not bound to accept it" (Pink News February www.pinknews.co.uk).

Galloway wants Respect to be the embodiment of the coalition of "socialists, liberals and conservatives" who he says came together during the great anti-war upsurge in 2003. In fact, just before last week's elections, he seemed to be stretching his notion of this 'broad alliance' to the very limits: "The most immediate thing is to vote for anybody but Tony Blair on May 4" (my emphasis Metro May 2). Perhaps Respect should be a coalition that represents everybody except New Labour.

While these statements appear at odds with comrade Rees's latest appeal for "labour movement and socialist values", they are actually no such thing: Respect is intended to be all things to all people. For Socialist Worker readers it is militantly pro-working class, while for "small business people" in Yorkshire it is eminently safe and respectable.

SP pockets

The election of three more Socialist Party members as local councillors is to be welcomed. Chris Flood joins sitting SP councillor Ian Page in Lewisham Telegraph Hill (comrade Page was also re-elected on May 4), and Rob Windsor now represents Coventry St Michaels alongside his comrades, Dave Nellist and Karen McKay. In addition SP member Dr Jackie Grunsell was elected as a Save Huddersfield NHS candidate in Crosland Moor and Netherton.

However, this success in fact disguises the SP's overall lack of progress and inability to make any kind of wider breakthrough. The SP has long had representation in St Michaels and Telegraph Hill (previously Lewisham Pepys) - thanks almost entirely to the personal support built up over a long period by comrades Nellist in Coventry and Page in the south London borough. Both were formerly Militant Tendency members first elected over a decade ago as Labour representatives - comrade Nellist as an MP.

So now the SP has all three councillors in one Coventry ward and two out of three in Lewisham Telegraph Hill (the SP's Jess Leach was beaten for third place by the Labour candidate last Thursday). In other words all of its councillors who stood under the SP's electoral name of Socialist Alternative (they are barred from contesting as 'Socialist Party' under the undemocratic terms of the 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act) are concentrated in just two tiny pockets. And the comrades are simply unable to make headway even in neighbouring wards - in Coventry the SP contested four other seats and picked up between 7.6% and 17%.

Elsewhere, the organisation's 11 other contests saw returns of between 4.1% and 17%. This last result was actually a big disappointment, since it was that of sitting councillor Paul Sutton, a defector from Labour who was attempting to retain his seat in Stoke-on-Trent Abbey Green. Comrade Sutton has featured prominently in the SP's Campaign for a New Workers' Party and allied events.

As for the rest of the left, the only other victory to report is that of an additional councillor for the localist Independent Working Class Association in Oxford. Jane Lacey won in Northfield Brook and is the fourth IWCA councillor in the city. Other notable results were for Peter Smith of the Walsall-based Democratic Labour Party, who came second in Blakenhall ward with 824 votes (34%), and the two United Socialist Party candidates in Knowsley, Merseyside: Eric McIntosh won 282 votes (26.2%) in Halewood West, while Andy Thompson picked up 310 (21.8%) in Halewood South.