Critical vote for Abjol

Respect's general election challenge is warming up in east London. Back from the campaign trail, Ben Lewis takes a look at Respect's politics and the people involved

One of the few areas in the country where Respect has managed to gain a foothold is Tower Hamlets in east London. The height of its success came with the election of George Galloway as MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, when he ousted the warmongering New Labour hack, Oona King.

On his election Galloway promised that he would give way after his first term to a “local candidate” and so, with Galloway himself now standing in Poplar and Canning Town, it is Abjol Miah - “Bethnal Green and Bow to the core” - who hopes to replace him as MP for the constituency. Miah is currently the leader of the six-strong Respect group of councillors in Tower Hamlets.

But what are Respect’s chances following the acrimonious split with the Socialist Workers Party in 2007, not to mention the defection of several councillors to other parties and the decline of the mass anti-war protests? And what are the politics of the campaign? Quite clearly Respect still has a chance in Bethnal Green and Bow, but Rushanara Ali is tipped by the bookies to take back the seat for Labour at odds of 1-4, with Miah in second place.

For this reason, Respect’s campaigning material unsurprisingly focuses on New Labour and the crisis that has engulfed it locally. Two Labour councillors - Fazlul Haque and Salim Ulla - have recently crossed the floor from Labour, to Respect, and there has been a huge backlash following the scandalous comments of Labour’s campaign manager Graham Taylor, who recently described Tower Hamlets town hall “as a centre of Islamic fundamentalism”.

Down in Poplar and Canning Town, Galloway is actually expected to come third in what is thought to be a two-horse race between Tory banker Tim Archer and the Labour incumbent, Jim Fitzpatrick. Despite Fitzpatrick’s 2005 majority of around 7,000, Archer is the favourite following the redrawing of boundaries. This head-to-head between Labour and Tory - something that will doubtless be seen across many other constituencies - will not necessarily bode well for Galloway. Fitzpatrick epitomises the career politician seeking to get his nose into the New Labour trough. Elected in 1997, he writes: “I aspired to be a professional politician in the way that other boys aspired to be professional footballers”.[1]

His legacy? Votes against a transparent parliament and for the Iraq war, ID cards, anti-terrorism legislation, replacing Trident, foundation hospitals and student top-up fees. As with the Tories, he would almost certainly support more cuts, increased imperialist aggression in the Middle East and the rest of the plans the major parties have in store.

Who’s in Respect?

I went along to leaflet for Abjol Miah on Saturday in Bethnal Green. If the numbers out canvassing on the weekend are anything to go by, Respect certainly appears to have lost foot soldiers. Although we are still some time from the election and the campaign is certain to hot up, a comrade involved in the 2005 campaign told me that the numbers out at the weekend were much smaller by comparison.

The reception I received from the activists on the ground was mixed, but most were happy to take a copy of the Weekly Worker. One comrade - Harold - said he had been for the exclusion of the CPGB right from the inception of Respect (nice to see you too, comrade!) but was actually very friendly. One person who seemed less than pleased to see me was George Woods - a leading member of Socialist Action and long-standing comrade from our days together at Sheffield University. Socialist Action comrades now help run a number of Respect branches - they seem to have found a nice new home following the departure of Ken Livingstone as London mayor, who was served so loyally by so many of them. A leading SA member, Bryony Shanks, will be standing in the local elections in Bow East. SA may have bureaucratic experience to offer, but it certainly cannot mobilise as much leaflet fodder as the SWP.

Abjol Miah himself is a complex character. Although he appears never to have said so publicly, Miah has been linked to both the liberal Islamic Forum of Europe and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami. Indeed, in their trip to Bangladesh in the run-up to the 2005 general election, “George Galloway and councillor Abjol Miah met former prime minister and leader of the opposition Begum Khaleda Zia, former president Hussain Mohammed Ershad, leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, coalition partners in a previous government and a number of MPs and ministers from the ruling Awami League party, including very fruitful discussions with Awami League presidium member and MP Sheikh Fazlul Karim Salim.”[2]

I did not get the chance to ask Abjol about his affiliations on Saturday, and we have been unable to confirm an interview with him for the Weekly Worker. We still hope to. In the past he has been happy to call himself a socialist, but has defended the role of local businessmen like Azmal Hussain, Mathabir Ali and others in the Respect project. Miah often talks of “uniting the white working class community and the Bangladeshi community”. Although I do not live in the area, my impression from the couple of hours leafleting Roman Road market was that of ‘two communities’ - an impression that was reinforced by speaking to residents and hearing their concerns.

However, whilst it is excellent that Miah has this unifying aim, why make a class distinction within the ‘white’ community but not in the Bangladeshi one? It is undeniable that the anti-Muslim sentiment whipped up by the likes of Labour functionary Taylor is a form of racism that weighs upon all of the Bangladeshi community regardless of class. But there are obviously class divisions within this community too. Is this just a slip-up in the formulation? Or does it reveal something else? Maybe an attempt to keep the businessmen on board?

It does seems to me that, to have any real chance of getting either Miah or Galloway elected, Respect will once more need the support of the Bengali businessmen and ‘community leaders’ who helped shape the win in Bethnal Green in 2005. That is why in the prelude to the split, Galloway had no thought of alienating his supporters by backing the SWP in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham. Indeed, this is in keeping with the local politics of Bethnal Green. Politics and elections are closely tied up with the local business and religious communities, which is perhaps one reason why there are numerous defections between all of the parties on the local councils, with many switching merely on the basis of which party seems most likely to advance their career and community following.

And indeed, while symbolically it would be good to see a Bangladesh-born MP, what matters is what politics they stand on. Indeed, all of the mainstream parties in Bethnal Green and Bow are standing candidates with Bangladeshi names - as well as Labour’s Rushanara Ali, there is Zakir Khan (Conservatives) and Ajmal Masroor (Liberal Democrats).

Miah’s concern about division between and amongst communities was echoed by expelled SWP member Kevin Ovenden in his address to campaigners on Saturday. He said that the real culprits were to be found in Canary Wharf and parliament. True, of course. But what are the priorities then?

Jim Fitzpatrick is quite explicit: “I am here to promote the East End of London. My chief aim is to assist local businesses [my emphasis - BL] in any way that I can, because the future prosperity of my constituents hinges on the success of local business ... The challenge is to bring the wealth generated at Canary Wharf to the local community. We need to introduce the local workforce to the thriving business community that is Canary Wharf.”

What is clearly needed in opposition to this New Labour agenda is a class appeal across communities. We should primarily judge Miah not by the forces which are backing him economically, but by the political platform he is standing on and hold him to accountable on this. And his politics essentially amount to left Labourism.

Left Labourite programme

Comrades will doubtless remember the infamous words of the then leading SWP apparatchik, Lindsey German: gay rights and a women’s right to choose should not be regarded as “shibboleths”. This was the classic method of the (un)popular front - the left consciously limiting its programme and aspirations in the hope of winning (usually phantom) forces to its right.

So what about some of the old shibboleths now the SWP has gone? Presumably those phantom forces to the right have buried them for good? Actually, no.

Miah’s campaign site (abjolmiah.com) gives us more demands. Women’s and gay rights (not to mention secularism, which the SWP believed was also too hot to handle in view of the role of the mosque in Respect’s formation) are all addressed by the commitment to “Opposition to all forms of discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs (or lack of them), sexual orientation, disabilities, national origin or citizenship.”[3]

It is disappointing that a women’s right to choose an abortion has been omitted from the manifesto. Attacks on our hard-fought economic rights are inexorably bound up with an onslaught on the democratic rights we have won, and women are often the first to suffer. It is in the interests of the working class movement to fight to defend and extend women’s reproductive freedom. In 2005 the Respect manifesto talked of “a women’s right to choose”, but did not spell out what the choice referred to. The hijab? Their partners?

The rest of the platform is really your standard left reformist common sense. It is almost indistinguishable, for example, from that of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. There is no reason why we cannot critically support it. The list of demands is quite familiar: “Jobs and homes for all”; “Good-quality services”; “An end to all privatisation and the bringing into democratic public ownership of the railways and other public services, such as fuel, water and care for the elderly”; “A free, comprehensive education system that gives an equal chance in life to every child, no matter how wealthy or poor their parents, from nursery to university”; “A publicly owned, fully funded, democratically controlled NHS, free to all users”; “A decent life in retirement: pensions linked to average earnings”; “Raising the minimum wage to the European Union decency threshold of £8 an hour”; “Taxing the rich and big business to fund welfare and public services”; The repeal of the anti-union laws”, etc.

High politics and democracy are of course absent. But that is also true of the left more generally: Tusc, Scottish Socialist Party et al. Whereas the platform does not call for open borders and the free movement of people to live where they see fit, again this is something about which the left has a consistent record of keeping schtum. Substituting for this is a call for the “defence of the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers” and “Opposition to the European Union’s ‘Fortress Europe’ policies”.

The culmination of these demands is deliberately vague: “We want a world in which the democratic demands of the people are carried out; a world based on need, not profit; a world where solidarity rather than self-interest is the spirit of the age.” This can mean many things to many people. But again this is not far removed from other left groups standing against Labour in the elections - none of them is exactly calling a spade a spade and trumpeting the communist future. Or standing on a minimum platform of demands that logically culminate in the radical extension of democracy and the workers taking state power.


Although the precise influence of local businessmen remains unclear, the current Respect platform is actually in some ways to the left of 2005 - when again it was correct to vote for Galloway against Oona King.

We are certainly not dealing with Respect candidates who espouse “clerical fascism”, as the increasingly deranged Alliance for Workers’ Liberty claim. As an aside, the AWL candidate for Camberwell and Peckham, Jill Mountford, stands on a similar left economist shopping list. Whilst calling for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords (good), Jill’s vision is one of bourgeois republicanism. Instead of calling for the abolition of the standing army, she makes the plea to “cut arms spending”. After all, the forces of the British state just might have brought democracy to the Afghans, but “On the evidence, sending troops to Afghanistan does more harm than good; they should be withdrawn”.[4] By contrast, Respect candidates are unambiguous in their opposition to imperialist military aggression.

To get involved with Abjol Miah’s campaign email voteabjolmiah@gmail.com or call 07505 742522.


  1. Both quotes accessed at his personal site: www.jimfitzpatrickmp.co.uk/history.htm
  2. towerhamletsrespect.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/respect-visit-to-bangladesh
  3. It calls to “Welcome diversity and oppose racism, fascism and discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, disability, sexuality, age and all other forms of prejudice” and to “Defend the right to asylum. No scapegoating of migrant workers.”
  4. www.workersliberty.org/story/2010/02/28/awl-election-campaign-why-we-are-standing-and-our-policies