Party standing on principle

Sajid Mehmood is the Respect candidate for Park ward in the metropolitan district council of Calderdale. Peter Manson spoke to him about his strange route into Respect - via Labour, the Tories and Labour again

How do you view your chances on May 3?

I view my chances of winning the election as 99.9%.

You sound pretty confident. Is it a Labour ward?

Yes, all three councillors here are Labour. I'm so confident because people are fed up with the previous councillors who don't do anything. And I'm even more confident because I know it's time for a change. It's time to take up the local issues and stop taking people for granted. That's what the three major parties have been doing, including the Labour councillors in Park ward for the last few years. Not much is happening on a grassroots level and there's so much that needs to be done - local issues that concern people on a day-to-day basis.

Another reason I'm confident is that I've been involved in community work for a very long time. I ran the Calderdale Advice Centre for two or three years and then I was one of the volunteers involved in the Rhode Street Advice Centre. I don't work there now, but I always have people approaching me, and asking for information or advice on various things that need resolving. So I'm still a community worker in that sense.

What was it that made you leave the Labour Party?

I left the Labour Party because I did not believe in Tony Blair's policies and I thought it was time to move on to a party for the people and not a party that thinks about their own personal interests.

I wasn't happy with Labour's foreign policy. But locally too, there have been so many promises made which were not kept, such as spending more on the national health service and having a better education system. Unfortunately they failed miserably.

People have a right to work too. And all this money being spent on the war should be spent on the NHS and better education and public services. Why are the government and the local council privatising so many things?

How long were you a Labour member?

I was first a member for about seven years, going back to the 90s, before I actually left the party. I didn't like the internal politics being played out on a local level, which I disagreed with. So I left and joined the Conservative Party and after about a year I was selected as a candidate in Mixenden ward.

I came third in 2002, but the following year the BNP won the seat. Whoever takes 700 votes there will win and I got almost 400. That was a very big achievement for the Conservative Party, and for myself as an Asian, especially as it was in a ward that is profoundly English. By contrast, Park ward is half Asian or ethnic minority and half English.

But it's strange you joined the Tories, whose policies are so similar to those of Tony Blair.

I just thought I'd join and see how I could get on with them. There wasn't much happening and I thought, if I'm going to be given the opportunity to stand as a candidate for the Conservative Party or any other party, it would be to work for the local people on a local level. But that hasn't been happening with the current councillors for a very long time. So I was given the opportunity and I went ahead with it.

But many people would say that Respect's policies are pretty much the opposite of Conservative policies.

Yes, that's right, but that's the whole purpose of joining them. Respect is a party that stands on principle. There's no lies, there's no hidden agenda. What Respect says it means.

But you're now in a party that's got 'Socialism' and 'Trade unionism' in its name.

I support Respect's policies on socialism and trade unionism. Before I joined, I looked at all the policies and I decided this was the right party to join, because at the end of the day there's no hidden agenda and anything that needs to be clarified is clarified in the manifesto or the constitution. With other parties, they say one thing and do another. But, being a British muslim, born and brought up in this country, I think it is unfortunate that people are suffering on the local level because of the decisions made by the top-level politicians. Decisions that don't affect them so much as they affect us.

Do you mean islamophobia?

Islamophobia, yes, but many other things as well.

What was the trigger that caused you to join Respect?

I'd heard George Galloway on the radio and I went to the conference they had in London. At that time I decided this was the right party to join - what I believed in, that's what they stood for. I decided I wanted to join and stay in the party to build it up in Halifax.

It's a great honour in itself that I'm the only person standing for Respect in Halifax - it's a great privilege and it gives me great pride.

If you had to choose one Respect policy over the rest, what would it be?

Immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and let the people decide. They've created a mess there which needs cleaning up. And now they're focussing on Iran and I think that's a shame. We're living in the 21st century and still, in this day and age, we see the violation of human rights and no-one is doing anything about it. We're living in a democratic world where everyone has the right of freedom of speech and freedom to express their own views. But why is it that in these Middle East countries people's human rights are openly being violated, while the whole world is standing by, just looking and doing nothing about it?

We all know it was an unjust war, for the gain of the Americans, backed up by the Tony Blair government. We want our troops back home.

Then there's Palestine. The 'road map' has obviously failed miserably, and yet America always vetoes a solution.