Two-way traffic and continued divisions

As the SWP desperately tries to keep a semblance of control over its Respect offspring in Tower Hamlets, the local branch has seen one of its councillors cross the floor to Labour, while a high-profile Labour leftwinger moves in the opposite direction. Peter Manson reports

In an extraordinary move, Tower Hamlets Respect this week postponed the election of its officers in order to avoid another damaging split.

A few weeks after one of the 12 Respect councillors in the borough, Waiseul Islam, defected to the Labour Party and just a week after Labour leftwinger Kumar Murshid came over to Respect, the May 15 annual general meeting, held in Oxford House, Bethnal Green Road, accepted the recommendation from the outgoing committee to defer the elections to the next membership meeting.

As with the 2006 AGM, the branch was in receipt of a number of applications to join Respect in the preceding period, but this year it was also faced with a list of 30 people who wanted to serve on the new committee. Last year, egged on by national secretary John Rees, the committee simply disbarred the last-minute applicants from the AGM, causing a substantial minority to walk out in an act of rebellion against Socialist Workers Party influence.

However, in 2007 comrade Rees was on holiday (George Galloway also sent his apologies) and the SWP had clearly decided to try and reach an accommodation with the opposition - mainly Bengali businessmen and 'community leaders' - which is now able to muster a clear majority by mobilising their supporters to membership meetings.

From the chair Glyn Robbins reminded the members that he had "apologised for last year's meeting many times in the past year" and was doing so "a final time now". However, he did not want to "dwell on the past": it was necessary to "look to the future" instead.

For that reason the outgoing committee was proposing that the 30 nominees would meet shortly in order to negotiate a slate to be put to the next members' meeting. This was the "alternative way" that "good members" had proposed and he hoped it would be accepted. It was the only way to ensure Respect remained "inclusive, democratic and diverse" - it would not be a "good situation" if the new committee were not "reflective of the membership". After his remarks were translated into Bengali the proposal was carried overwhelmingly.

Of the 30 names, including outgoing committee members standing for re-election, only nine are SWP comrades and their allies, which indicates that, for the SWP, all this is a question of damage-limitation.

This was demonstrated by the election - that was allowed to proceed - for the leader and deputy leader of the Respect group of councillors. Current leader Abjol Miah was challenged by Oliur Rahman, his deputy, but was defeated by 78 votes to 53. Comrade Rahman, backed by the SWP, decided to go for broke and did not contest the deputy leadership. This was won by councillor Ahmed Hussain, who defeated Shahed Ali by 77 votes to 55.

These results give a pretty clear indication of the balance of power in Tower Hamlets - the "secular socialists" are very much on the back foot. In his speech comrade Rahman stressed his trade union credentials, whereas Miah talked in vague terms about bringing everyone together in the community.

Leftwing catch

However, the SWP was able to put on show Respect's latest catch, Kumar Murshid, who, for obvious reasons, did not intervene in the discussion over the elections. Addressing the members as "comrades", he said he was for "the unity of the working class and oppressed" and for "core socialist values".

A former Tower Hamlets councillor and race advisor to mayor Ken Livingstone, Murshid contested the Labour national executive in 2001 and 2002 for the centre-left Grassroots Alliance. He was sidelined two years ago by the Tower Hamlets party after being arrested and charged with stealing public funds. Even though he was acquitted in March 2006, he was not rehabilitated by the Labour apparatus and kept off the shortlist to contest George Galloway's Bethnal Green and Bow parliamentary seat in the next general election.

This proved to be the catalyst for his resignation from the party on Tuesday May 8, when he announced he was joining Respect. He is hopeful of securing the Respect nomination for the constituency, although it is by no means certain that the bourgeois and petty bourgeois majority in Tower Hamlets will go for him despite his Bengali background. Labour has already selected Bangladesh-born Roshana Ali.

In an interview with the Weekly Worker comrade Murshid frankly admitted that his personal treatment had been a factor in his decision to quit Labour: "I wasn't allowed to test the democratic will of the membership in respect of my candidature. I've been active in the community for years with a body of support in the local area, but because it doesn't have faith in my loyalty, they preferred to parachute in someone like Oona King rather than take the risk of going with someone like me."

However, "that in itself wasn't the sole rationale for my leaving them. I've been in the Labour Party for 20 years and had a very good go at trying to change the party from within from the left. Over a period of time it has practically jettisoned every value that I considered important - everything from workers' rights and trade unionism to how they've dealt with inner-city issues and minority communities, their complete inability to have an enlightened approach to race."

When I asked him to explain this last comment, he went on: "Labour is extremely poor at supporting its own black members, particularly those who are free-thinking. They have the rhetoric of equality, but the practice is very different. There is a certain amount of paranoia about the whole notion of black leadership. They will only promote those they can control and who will act as their puppets. They serve as a kind of window dressing. I'm sure they do the same with the white left, but in a party where you have so few people of colour in positions of power, this becomes a sore point."

Ironically comrade Murshid's complaints about Labour are very similar to those voiced by Waiseul Islam about Respect. Murshid says: "The Labour Party has, in my view, fostered divisions within and between communities. I've found the approach both patronising and disrespectful. The way the white Blairites operate is that they divide the Bengali councillors among themselves - a classic neo-colonialist sort of approach to politics."

And this is councillor Islam, who left Respect to rejoin Labour on April 29: "I reject the notion of dividing the local community for political gain, which is what I believe Respect are effectively doing."

However, unlike the politically astute and articulate Murshid, Islam was either unable or unwilling to explain to me what he meant by those words, put out on his behalf by the New Labour machine. In fact Islam insisted on having everything he said cleared with his press officer before I could reproduce it.

Privatisation fan

Respect reacted to his departure by making out he was just one bad apple. According to John Rees, "Respect is a new and open party and those qualities are sometimes exploited by careerists." Wais Islam is "not the first and probably won't be the last to abuse the trust of voters and colleagues. But the record shows that voters don't like turncoats" (press release, April 30).

In fact Islam was in many ways typical of the anti-SWP majority around Respect group leader Abjol Miah. "The SWP agenda can't dictate how Tower Hamlets is run," he told me. "That's why so many members and supporters have left, particularly Bangladeshis, like those turned away from last year's AGM."

What about those accusations of careerism? Islam said: "It is John Rees who is the careerist, trying to gain political capital out of his position as national secretary - why else would he have been a candidate in Tower Hamlets? I'm not a careerist - I didn't want a cabinet position when I decided to rejoin Labour. I want to serve my constituents. John Rees and the SWP have tried to gain credibility by using Respect as a front organisation. The SWP neglect the community and use it for political gain."

So why did Islam originally leave Labour to join Respect? "Because I believed I could better represent the local community of Whitechapel that way. People out there need me to serve them. Things like housing, repairs and raising enquiries for them with the council, etc. It's about representing the whole community, regardless of their political affiliation. But the electorate as a whole across Tower Hamlets decided that Labour should act on their behalf."

In other words, Islam was not in the slightest interested in Respect as a political project, but was only concerned with belonging to the party that would give him the best chance of becoming a councillor. We could be charitable and concede that this may have been because he wanted to "represent the local community" rather than advance his own career. But in this he is like so many others whom the SWP has seen fit to support and promote.

For example, a year ago Socialist Worker was portraying Islam as a true inheritor of old Labour. He was quoted just before the 2006 elections (which saw him win a seat in Whitechapel) as saying: "We spoke to a former docker, who told us his father had marched with the radical Labour mayor, George Lansbury, in the 1920s. But, he told us, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have disgraced everything Lansbury stood for. He said the general election was the first time he hadn't voted Labour, and that Respect would get his vote again this time" (Socialist Worker April 8 2006).

So a year ago either Islam was claiming to be a Labour traditionalist or Socialist Worker was putting words in his mouth. Today, far from bad-mouthing Blair and Brown, he likes to extol the virtues of privatisation: "The idea of public-private partnerships is to raise cash for public services and to ensure that improvements to those services can be made as quickly as possible."

Those words were definitely put in his mouth by his New Labour press officer, although in our interview he made it clear he was totally at ease with PPP on the grounds of upholding "choice". Here he is again, his words once more filtered through his spin doctor: "Respect calls for more council housing while many of its members have bought houses and live in 'private' housing. Respect 'defends' council housing and opposes the right to buy, but many of its supporters and even members live in 'right to buy' property."

Islam concluded: "Labour is for debate, discussion and consultation." All very laughable, of course, but Islam most definitely fits into a pattern, particularly among Bengali localists, of switching political affiliation - often taking a good number of followers with them - according to which party seems more likely to select them as candidates. As comrade Rees says, Wais Islam is "not the first and probably won't be the last".

And he should know. He is prepared to welcome with open arms defectors from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the Tories! It may be that "voters don't like turncoats", but comrade Rees seems to have no objection to them - not when they move in his direction at any rate.

Tories, Labour, Respect

Speaking of defectors from the Conservative Party, last week Sajid Mehmood, who stood for Respect on May 3 in Park ward, Calderdale and came second to Labour with 1,147 votes, was arrested on suspicion of making a false declaration. Allegedly, having been convicted of an offence "for which he received a term of imprisonment of three months or more", he was not eligible to stand.

A local "Respect spokesman" was ready to disown him: "If the returning officer is correct and the police charge him, then that is that," he said. "We impose the strictest possible standards on all our candidates."

Leaving aside this shameful craving for respectability and apparent eagerness to defend and uphold such undemocratic electoral legislation, what a pity Respect does not "impose the strictest possible standards" when it comes to the politics of its candidates.

When I interviewed Mehmood in April, he explained how it was he left Labour for the Tories in the 90s: "I didn't like the internal politics being played out "¦ So I left and joined the Conservative Party "¦ I just thought I'd join and see how I could get on with them." He was glad to be given "the opportunity to stand as a candidate for the Conservative Party or any other party "¦" (Weekly Worker April 19). His SWP agent, who helped arrange our interview, seemed at that time to think Mehmood was the salt of the earth.

Back in Tower Hamlets, there is every possibility that there will be a good deal more switching of parties. Kumar Murshid is, of course, of a different quality, but many of his new "comrades" are just as likely to jump ship as Wais Islam if things do not work out to their liking.