New star recruit Tafazzal Hussain: businessman
Peter Manson on the former Lib Dem council candidate Tafazzal Hussain, who has just joined Respect
Sunderland Respect, announces the party's website, has "shaken up the mainstream political establishment in the area", despite being formed only a few months ago and having just a handful of members.
How come? Well, it has just recruited a former Liberal Democrat council candidate, Tafazzal Hussain, who joined on March 11. The Respect website leads you to believe that he is some naive, but honest working class activist who is not only opposed to the war in Iraq, but is "against the privatisation of our public services" and for "a genuine alternative that stands for working people and our communities".
The truth is rather different. Hussain was not only a Lib Dem candidate (he polled 456 votes in Hendon ward in 2004, just behind the BNP); he had been vice-chair of Wearside Liberal Democrats during his three-year membership. In other words, not someone who had mistakenly signed up to the wrong party, believing it to be against privatisation and "for working people".
In fact Hussain is no worker, but a prominent local businessman, owning several retail outlets and takeaways. He is the archetypical 'community representative', so beloved by the mainstream. Vice-chairman of the Sunderland Bangladeshi Community Centre, he was a coopted county committee member of the national lottery's community fund in 2000-01, and last year was elected onto the board of Hendon's 'Back on the Map' regeneration project. He is an honest citizen who likes nothing better than to "distribute cash" to "good causes" and the "needy people in the north-east", he told me.
So what was it about Respect that caused Hussain to switch? Of course, there was Iraq: "Why go to war for nothing? You could spend the money on the national health service." He told me that 500 Sunderland NHS nurses had been sacked and replaced by workers from 'third world' countries on cheaper wages. I suppose someone with his position in the locality must know what he is talking about. Mustn't he?
I pressed him to say what else he liked about Respect. But all he could come up with was that it keeps to its name - it "respects everybody. They believe everyone should have the right to live in dignity."
Fair enough then. But what about his portrayal by the party as a fighter "for working people"? Surely he knew what Respect's initials stood for - 'S' for 'socialism' and 'T' for 'trade unions'? When I put this to him, he just laughed and remarked: "You know better!"
Well, how did Respect compare to the Lib Dems on that score, I asked? After all, they could hardly be described as pro-socialism and pro-trade union, could they? After a pause Tafazzal replied: "Precisely I cannot answer that one really."
Obviously the niceties of party policy are not Hussain's forte. As he explained, "I get involved in local issues to see what can be solved." What sort of issues? Car parking was the example that came up. He had recently been involved in a campaign to ease restrictions in Hendon: "Local traders couldn't trade because if someone comes in and parks their car they get ticketed. Hendon is a run-down area and we are lucky to have these shops to provide services to local residents. Parking needs to be addressed in the city centre, but traffic wardens coming into a run-down area to make money" is not right. Yes, I can see how local traders like himself would not approve of anything that might deter those lucky customers.
Apart from campaigning against yellow lines and traffic wardens, what other local issues does Hussain get involved in? There was no other campaign he could recall, but his own value as a 'community representative' should not be understated: "The council spends £53 million in Hendon, but very few members of the Bengali community get involved in it. You've got to be there for people to know what is available for you and what is being done. As vice-chair for the centre, I can address these issues."
In November last year, he was called upon as a 'Bengali spokesman' to give interviews to the media after 76-year-old Syet Sorafot Ali died of a heart attack. He had just learned that the house where his grandchildren lived had been set on fire in an arson attack. Hussain told the press that the attack could well have been racially motivated and urged everyone to keep calm and cooperate with the police.
So how does an apolitical 'politician' like Hussain choose between contending political parties. Why did he first join the Liberal Democrats, for example, when Hendon is a safe Labour ward? Apparently the Lib Dems had been short of candidates: "A few of my friends were with the Lib Dems and some of them suggested I should join. I wasn't very keen on the political parties at that time, but once I joined the other parties wanted me too."
And now it is Respect who has come out on top in the battle for his allegiance. Unlike with Labour, he should have no problem being nominated as a Respect candidate for his own Hendon ward. As he admitted, he is "99% hoping" to stand in May. He was first attracted to his new party when George Galloway addressed a rally in the Bangladeshi Community Centre late last year: "The comments and the remarks - that convinced me."
I spoke to a local Liberal Democrat activist who had nothing but kind words to say about Hussain. But she just could not understand how he could switch over Iraq. After all, the Lib Dems had voted against the war, and Charles Kennedy had even joined the great demonstration in February 2003, she reminded me.
Nor does Hussain bear any grudges against his old party colleagues, although they "weren't very happy when I left - I helped to keep their BME quota up to strength." BME? "Black, minority and ethnic. It's supposed to be all-inclusive, you know."
Another reason why they may not be so happy is that many of the recruits Hussain had brought into the Lib Dems can now be expected to follow him into his new home. Easy come, easy go.
From the point of view of a bourgeois localist, all this is highly understandable. Evidently the most important thing is the promotion of local interests (as viewed through the prism of a businessman), so why worry about minor details such as party policy?
But how do you explain it from the point of view of the Socialist Workers Party? Yes, the SWP is in alliance with various class, ethnic and religious forces, most notably Bangladeshi businessmen and middle class muslim activists. But how is this popular front alliance advancing the cause of the working class and revolutionary socialism? Presumably the SWP must know, since its comrades at Respect HQ have issued a call for all Liberal Democrats to follow the example of Tafazzal Hussain.