Respect - the party for everybody

Businessman Harun Miah is Respect's candidate in the August 9 council by-election in Shadwell, Tower Hamlets. He defeated the SWP's nominee in Respect's selection meeting and is being opposed by former Labour leader of the council Michael Keith. The by-election was sparked when sitting Respect councillor Shamim Chowdhury resigned, at first citing "changed personal circumstances", but then launching a bitter attack on his former colleagues. Harun Miah spoke to Peter Manson

How is the campaign going?

It's going well - I'm very happy. A lot of people are supporting us locally, so I'm pleased.

Labour must be pulling out all the stops to win back the seat.

Yes, it's a great challenge which I hadn't anticipated, with Labour putting in so much manpower.

What have been the main issues?

Basically we need a change. Labour has failed to deliver, particularly on housing. Labour want to sell off our council housing. If Michael Keith gets in he'll drive us out of the market - we won't be able to afford social housing. Labour are saying they have a good track record, which we can't see. They have a good track record of selling off housing - that's what we're telling people.

Labour doesn't have many local activists, so they are bringing in VIPs to help. Last week I saw council leader Denise Jones and people from Ken Livingstone's GLA team - they've all been down to Shadwell. But very few local people have been involved in their campaign. So on that count I think we are gaining - the majority of local people are with us.

Another big issue is the fear of crime in Shadwell. There have been a lot of gang fights, for example. Population-wise there is a high proportion of youth and they don't have sufficient facilities. We need to look at this problem and see how we can solve it. One possibility is early-hours youth clubs. Plus education to get youth back into jobs. At the moment they are hanging around late at night making a noise, and people are afraid. This is a problem for us.

So we are saying we'll get more funding to set up more facilities for youth - this is what we are promising.

Has Labour used the resignation of Shamim Chowdhury against Respect?

Oh, yes - that is the main thrust of their campaign. It's the only chance they've got and I think they're playing their cards right. At Friday prayers last week they distributed a lot of leaflets - it was all about Shamim Chowdhury - nothing else. Nothing about what Labour has done in Tower Hamlets. How Chowdhury attacked Respect - this is their game.

Chowdhury said Respect has been taken over by leftwing extremists. What's your view on that?

Well, personally I don't agree. I don't know why he said that. Why did he become a Respect member? It's a very naive statement. He was elected a Respect councillor and served for a year and now he decides to quit! But Kumar Murshid, a Labour member for 30 years and an advisor to Ken Livingstone, has decided to come over to Respect.

So why did Chowdhury really resign?

I did speak to him - he lives locally, just a few buildings away from us. He was brought up here and I have a good relationship with him. One reason could be that he's got a new job with the Islamic Bank of Britain. Plus he's a businessman - he's got a takeaway or two. So he doesn't have enough time to do local politics.

But why did he turn on Respect in such a way?

I'm sure he's been used. I'm confident that he's been used by others, especially Labour. The other Respect councillors - these are his friends and he's worked together with them, but now he decides to attack them. I don't think it's the right way to approach politics. If you don't like something it doesn't mean you back-stab people. I don't agree with a lot of the things he said.

He obviously got it completely wrong about Militant-type extremists coming over to Respect from Labour. But there is the Socialist Workers Party - some people might say they're an extreme leftwing organisation.

They're not extreme left. Of course, they're on the left, but that doesn't make them extreme. They have their agenda, I am sure, but together we can help each other. The Respect party, as you probably know, was formed by everybody. People from all walks of life came in and I'm sure we can all work together - there's no harm in that.

But some people say it's really the SWP who are driving the agenda and they are putting forward the politics behind it.

No, I don't agree with that. Policies are made by the high command - those people who have the experience. George Galloway's an experienced man - he's been a politician in Glasgow, for example, so he's not out of touch, as Shamim Chowdhury claimed. I think he was referring to Respect in Tower Hamlets and we may give him some credit for talking about inexperience, rather than a militant tendency, which was totally wrong.

There's no militant tendency here. Respect councillors are inexperienced, but so are some other councillors, including from New Labour. But through time they all gain experience - that's how politics works.

Talking about Respect's politics, 'socialism' and 'trade unionism' are part of its name. These are definitely associated with the left. What is your view on those two elements?

I do favour trade unionism. We need all the trade we can get, so we have to help them. In my nomination speech I did say that if I become a councillor then I'll support them wholeheartedly. So there won't be any hindrance on my part. Trade unionism is a good thing. There are a lot of trade unions in this country and we need to help them - that's clear to me. Obviously different councillors may have different ideas about this, but all those I've spoken to have similar views.

As for socialism, it does provide some sort of justice, some sort of equality. I agree with that. As long as it doesn't breach the rights of others. Of course, Respect has socialism as an element, but it's not the only element, is it? There are other concerns. But I don't mind.

Tell me about yourself. I believe you're quite new to politics.

Yes, quite new. I've been an observer here in Shadwell approaching 30 years and I've seen a lot of changes. I wasn't an expert, but I was keen and interested, so I thought now is the time to join in with the local politics.

Why Respect?

I looked at all the parties - Michael Keith is a friend of mine: I went to some meetings where he spoke. He was invited to various local community meetings as a representative of the council. I met him personally and he is a very nice man to speak to. But we did not agree on a lot of things, especially privatisation and housing choice. They were using a kind of blackmail to try and get their agenda through, but we opposed it.

Then I realised that to have a say I had to join a party. I looked at the Conservatives, Liberals and obviously Labour as well, but I found that Respect was one of the best parties for this time.

What in particular attracted you?

They were opposing the privatisation of our local housing - this is what I liked. Plus I knew a few of their candidates. For example, Abjol Miah, the leader of the Respect opposition on Tower Hamlets council, is a friend of mine. So I was influenced by him and a few other Respect candidates - they encouraged me to join and I did.

And I agreed with Respect policies on Iraq and the war - that was one of the factors as well. I've been to all the anti-war demonstrations in Trafalgar Square - I didn't miss one. It wasn't only Respect that was opposing the war - there were many others, including Labour MPs and Lib Dems - but Respect was the most prominent and outspoken.

But it's not only war. Wherever there's injustice, Respect takes the lead.

You mentioned going to Michael Keith's meetings. In what capacity were you invited?

I was invited as a local guest, because I have a business. I'm a businessman here, so people know me and when they have concerns they invite me to their events.

I have a shop next to the post office - it's a family business that my dad set up. When he passed away we took over and I've been running it for maybe 20 years. I just have the one shop, but my brothers have more - we have other businesses.

You say you've known Abjol Miah for a long time?

We actually went to the same school - he's just a bit younger than me. So when he joined Respect that made me think. As I say, I wasn't into politics that much, but I was a keen observer - I could see what was happening and what was going on in our area.

You'd be amazed at the overcrowding here - there's so much overdevelopment and we did object to planning permission for various schemes. This is a predominantly Bangladeshi area. But there are also white and black people, plus the new migrants from Europe and students. But unfortunately they are not registered to vote, so I think we'll lose a lot of votes that way.

Did the fact you knew Abjol Miah and some of the other councillors help you get selected as a candidate?

That did help. But I would say that the local people wanted me. They've seen how Labour's working and they're frustrated - they haven't delivered what they promised. So it's not about Abjol Miah: local people wanted me. They came to my house after Shamim Chowdhury resigned and they took the initiative. They said, you must stand for us, because their voice hasn't been heard in the town hall.

Of course, I did consult Abjol Miah because he has some experience. He didn't object. He said, "Welcome, join us." That's how it started.