No alternative for workers

As the Left List gives its Respect rump a grandiose new name, Jim Moody talks to some of the 'unity' coalition's disgruntled former councillors

Meeting on June 28, the national council of the Left List, the Socialist Workers Party’s version of Respect, decided on another name change - ‘The Left Alternative’ was born. As I write, no official announcement of this second change of name in a couple of months has been made, but the website that was originally headed ‘Respect, the Unity Coalition’, then ‘Respect-Left List’, now displays the new, grandiose title decided on by the SWP.

Unfortunately for the comrades, however, their Respect rump is looking less and less like any kind of viable entity, let alone a potential force to be reckoned with, as the new name would suggest. Take Tower Hamlets. In October of last year four Respect councillors, egged on by the SWP, announced they had resigned the Respect whip and were soon part of the Left List - Oliur Rahman and Rania Khan were amongst its candidates in the May 1 London assembly elections. Now they, along with Lutfa Begum, are Labour councillors. Respect/Left List/ Left Alternative has been wiped off the council at a stroke.

Now there are just half as many Respect councillors as the number elected in 2006. Late June saw the resignation of Shahed Ali from George Galloway’s Respect Renewal group, reducing its numbers on Tower Hamlets council to six. Now he too has defected to Labour.

London Labour Party, and the Tower Hamlets section in particular, is understandably cock-a-hoop at successfully wooing away five of Respect’s 12 councillors. A sixth, Ahmed Hussain (an SWP member!), joined the Conservatives in February of this year, with the result that the Tories took over from Respect as the official opposition after recruiting him directly from the then four-person Respect-SWP group (see Weekly Worker February 21).

Local Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick used his considerable charm to help wean these latest recruits to Labour’s ranks, swelling its council contingent to 33. As the Respect project fractures and its fragments disintegrate, those of its members in such public positions have been seeking ways in which to continue their involvement at this level of politics. This has been the impetus that has led to the three remaining Respect-Left List councillors deciding to call it a day and join Gordon Brown’s Labour Party.

Putting a brave face on it, the Left List national office issued a statement that blithely declared: “The recent split in Respect has created conditions in which New Labour can seek to regain the initiative in Tower Hamlets, but Respect/Left List supporters will continue to oppose New Labour and the other establishment parties” (www.respectcoalition.org/?ite=1965). On the ground in Tower Hamlets it was a different story, however. Regret and recrimination reign. At the Left List branch meeting there earlier this week, chair Jackie Turner (SWP) reported to the six other members present that both Rania Khan and Lutfa Begum were very sorry to be leaving. But not as sorry as the comrades at the meeting, who were clearly in some disarray about what to do next.

Some bitterness broke through the official optimism that is the normal SWP hallmark. Contradictorily, although SWPer Paul McGarr thought his grouplet could still work with the three councillors (but would the councillors still want to work with them?), he considered that joining Labour was beyond the pale. Comrade McGarr advocated cutting all political and personal ties with Oliur Rahman in particular; he declared that he would not even spare the time “to piss on him”. And so, as Respect-Left List sinks slowly below the horizon, a new, Left Alternative is (still)born ...

Still left

Oli Rahman this week spoke frankly to the Weekly Workerabout his reasons for leaving the Respect-SWP rump and joining the Labour Party. He was aware that some of his former SWP comrades would now turn against him: “One person even went as far as suggesting that I support the war in Afghanistan and Iraq because of going to the Labour Party.” He found this curious, because “I am not selling my principles. And the people that are attacking me, these same people are more than happy to work with Labour Party members and representatives who are on the left.” Comrade Rahman insisted: “There are many councillors, many parliamentarians who do not support the government position. In our case, they are saying that by joining the Labour Party we are no longer on the left: well, I strongly disagree with that. I still fight for everything I have believed in.”

What turned it for him was the “very poor” results in the GLA elections - it was clear from those results that, following the Respect split, Oli could not hope to be re-elected in 2010. As far as Respect’s two fractions are concerned, “The crisis wasn’t addressed and therefore we are where we are. So I looked at my options in terms of Respect and I thought it’s going to be with the Labour Party. It’s not going to be easy and there are many policies that I disagree with. But I can work internally and publicly to serve the community in Tower Hamlets. I can stand up within the party and say, ‘No, this is the way it should be done.’”

Oliur Rahman harbours no grudge against the SWP, though neither does he offer any critique of its gravely flawed methodology: “John Rees has been a good friend to me and I wouldn’t say anything other than that. They have been very supportive. I have many good friends who happen to be members of the SWP - although I personally never have been a member or tempted to join them. So the SWP wasn’t one of my reasons for leaving.”

In fact, comrade Rahman puts forward technical reasons for the winding up of the Respect-Left List group. “Trying to conduct your full-time employment and at the same time trying to be effective councillors without any help … we happened to be the smallest councillors’ group and we didn’t get any support from the council.”

When asked why he did not resign and fight a by-election, emulating David Davis, comrade Rahman did not see any parallel of principle: “I wouldn’t like to compare myself with David Davis, although I do agree in terms of the 42 days legislation. But no, I won’t resign. I feel that by going into the Labour Party I can contribute my knowledge and my experience for the better, for the community, to be more effective. If you are not within the ruling party, if you do not fight to change the politics internally, you will never be able to change it. You have to be in that place, to actually fight within it.”

He went on: “Whether it is about the war, whether it is about housing, whether it is about privatisation - our job is to persuade our colleagues within the Labour Party of the things that will make a difference.” He expected to be able to speak his mind inside the Labour Party as he is “not a ‘yes sir, no sir’ person”. He added: “I will continue to be vocal. They will not be able to control me.”

Despite his move to Labour, comrade Rahman did not agree there was no potential for a party to its left: “If there was a credible left of Labour and if people were able to fully see that it was successful, then I am sure that we would as well. Those on the left of the Labour Party - people like John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Austin Mitchell, and others - they will actually work with people from Respect, the SWP, people from your organisation.” However, “For the time being I don’t believe we have a credible left. There are huge divisions - everyone in the left needs to come together. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen at the moment.”

Make a difference

Another of the Labour defectors spoke briefly to theWeekly Worker. Rania Khan was optimistic about her new home: “Gordon Brown has said that he will reform. Let’s see if I can make a difference, if I can be part of that.” In a statement issued in her name by the Labour Party she went further, stating: “I became involved to help make a real difference. The best way to achieve that change is by being part of the Labour Party which is rebuilding in Tower Hamlets and going from strength to strength.”

Councillor Shahed Ali was deputy leader of the Respect Renewal council group until his recent resignation. He has in fact rejoined Labour, where he was previously an activist for 16 years. Shahed told me that he thought matters went downhill for Respect in Tower Hamlets following George Galloway’s appearance on Big brother. Respect was “a once in a lifetime opportunity”, but “it was unfortunately not to be”.

Ali explained the tensions within Tower Hamlets Respect: “The leader of the group is elected by the membership, rather than among the councillors themselves. A thing I didn’t agree with. I felt that the councillors are the ones that are doing the day to day work and certainly they are the ones in a position to evaluate who has the strengths and weaknesses among the group to take on the relevant portfolios, the committee positions. My argument was that you cannot expect a bunch of a people that get together once a year without having any background knowledge of the work in the council to make a decision.

“Unfortunately, certain people began recruiting members and the leader’s election was somewhat engineered, rather than being made by informed choice. The SWP wasn’t happy and wanted to make Oli the leader. They tried to ensure that their numbers turned up on the day as well. Resentment started building up from that point onwards.”

“Then obviously the GLA elections came up, and once again Mr Galloway decided he was going to be heading the list. I don’t know which meeting or what membership actually made that decision; I certainly wasn’t part of it. And then they decided that they would be backing Ken Livingstone as well. Are these decisions made by one individual or by a party? I felt really frustrated and by the time the GLA elections came round I had decided I had to get out.”

Now he does not see any mileage in anything to the party’s left: “I don’t think as a separate entity the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Alliance, or Militant Labour or whatever is going to be able to form a left alternative to Labour that will stand any chance of electoral success. Certainly not in the near future anyhow. Which is sad. I am optimistically hoping that enough people on the left of Labour will organise themselves.”

Councillor Lutfa Begum was not available for comment. But in a statement this week she allowed the New Labour spin doctors to put words in her mouth. Begum, who was an SWP member, says: “Respect is totally split and incapable of delivering anything positive for the people of Tower Hamlets. I stood for the council to help make things better for my local community - particularly to improve healthcare and to fight for a better deal for women. I know that our prime minister, Gordon Brown, is working hard to deliver on the issues that concern people in Tower Hamlets. It is clear today that the only party that can change things for the better for ordinary people is Gordon Brown’s Labour Party. I have been encouraged by the vast majority of local residents in my community to join the Labour Party.”

These councillors’ defection to the Labour Party symbolises the end of the Respect project. What an indictment of the SWP and its leaders, John Rees and Lindsey German. These are the people the SWP promoted as solid working class partisans and even welcomed into their own sect. Left Alternative? These misleaders have nothing to offer workers.


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