Confidence and conscience clauses

Around 120 people attended the 'Women's question time' organised by Tower Hamlets Respect on Wednesday April 21. Ben Lewis was among them

Selling papers outside the meeting, I bumped into Bethnal Green and Bow Respect candidate Abjol Miah, who had just been giving a television interview. I told him about how we had also been trying to interview him for the Weekly Worker, but had been fobbed off by his election agent, Socialist Action member George Woods. He told me how busy everyone had been and then proceeded to chat for a good five minutes - almost long enough for the interview we wanted.

Unlike the arch-bureaucrats of SA, however, Miah is quite a skilled politician - approachable and always willing to tell you about his “vision” for Tower Hamlets. He talked about trying to control business rates locally, putting pressure on the Labour Party to force them to return to “old Labour values” and the prospects of the Respect project “mushrooming out” from areas where they have a base.

When we finally made it inside, Yvonne Ridley was opening up from the chair, stating that it was good to see such a number of people from “so many parts of the community” (in reality the crowd was not hugely diverse, being mostly composed of Muslim women, largely of Bangladeshi and Somali origin) and how this embodied Respect’s approach and what it represents. She spoke about the significance of holding a meeting for women, given that 51% of the electorate are female, and that women had given birth to and raised the other 49%. She re-emphasised how George Galloway was standing down in order to give way to a local Bangladeshi candidate. She affirmed that both Galloway and Miah held women in very high regard.

Galloway, who had obviously recognised me from the audience, began by saying that it was a great pleasure to address a women’s event, but that the few brothers in attendance were also very welcome - even the “scribe for the Weekly Worker”. I waved to acknowledge such a warm greeting.

Galloway started by reminding us that Respect is the “only party with a woman leader”. Indeed, if Salma Yaqoob - described by Galloway as “a hijab-wearing, psychologist mother of three” - wins, which looks increasingly possible, since she now has the backing of the retiring Labour MP in her constituency, after May 6 it will become the first party to have a female Muslim MP. In view of this Galloway slammed The Guardian for claiming Respect is male-dominated.

He also went on to excoriate the official Labour view that Iraq is no longer a “toxic” issue, as it had been when New Labour hack Oona King had been ousted from Bethnal Green by Galloway in 2005 (this time George is standing in neighbouring Poplar and Limehouse). Was it no longer “toxic” that one million Iraqis were dead, with mothers nursing deformed children in Fallujah due to the bombing? What about the three million people exiled?

Galloway dismissed the competition both he and Miah faced with characteristic fluency. Why should local residents vote Respect? Well, the Tories weren’t going to make an issue of Iraq: on the contrary. Additionally, while immigration was not a campaigning point in the East End, out in Barking and Dagenham the Tories were competing with the BNP under a ‘No more immigration’ banner. The Lib Dems, too, were quickly dismissed as a party that plans to “intensify” the aggression in Afghanistan. Cuts-wise, he declared, votes for Labour or Conservative were votes for “Tweedledum or Tweedledee”.

Meanwhile Respect had come of age as a party with “policies on nuclear weapons, housing … as well as chicken and chip shops.” The ever-poetic Galloway waxed particularly lyrical on the subject of cuts. How could Britain not have the money to keep its pensioners warm, while the money was there to “light up” pensioners in Afghanistan? One thing Galloway failed to flag up was how Respect supporters should use their vote outside the constituencies where the party is standing: what about the Labour left or even Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidates?

Fielding questions from the audience handed in on slips of paper, Galloway ran quickly through a number of ‘broad’ issues, leaving the purely local matters to Miah - apart from advocating an electable, recallable local mayor. In the event of a hung parliament he foresaw greater parliamentary power for parties such as Respect, and committed himself to fighting for council housing and unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Just before he left for another meeting, Galloway moved on to ‘women’s issues’, unashamedly drawing the audience’s attention to the presence of his wife and son and listing the domestic chores he performs on a regular basis: “I am not a model man, but I am better than most.” He criticised the ridiculous attacks on women wearing the hijab and underlined his commitment to fight against the oppression of Muslims in the UK and elsewhere.

My own question about the possibility of an attack on the abortion time limit by the Tories or even the Labour right did not interrupt the rhetorical flow. He reminded us that Respect regarded abortion as a “conscience matter” and as such “not political”. Galloway was able to bring his “conscience” into the political arena for long enough to “encourage families to have children and not to kill them”. Openly against abortion and especially “late” abortion, Galloway fully supports a reduction in the upper time limit to ban terminations where (that old rightwing chestnut) “life can be sustained”. Galloway recognised immediately that the question was from me, stating that “I am sure my response will be of great interest to the Weekly Worker”. Contrary to what Galloway thinks, this is not a case of a “Weekly Worker scribe” engaging in some cheap point-scoring: the prospect of attacks on reproductive freedoms is something that the workers’ movement as a whole must take extremely seriously.

Miah largely played to his strengths - ie, local issues. He pointed to the connection between poverty and crime in Tower Hamlets: as a former youth worker he criticised the lack of publicly funded provision, and spoke of the need to “politicise” Muslim youth, drawing them away from the kind of Islamic extremist groups that had launched an attack on Respect in Bethnal Green. In a constituency where large numbers live in overcrowded, insecure housing, he vowed to fight for more secure tenancies and improve social housing provision. He emphasised his commitment to individual residents’ problems, and claimed his local constituency work was guided by the Respect values of “peace, justice and equality”. Miah dubbed Tower Hamlets the “borough of Tescos” and demanded that local enterprises should benefit more from the 2012 Olympics. In line with Respect’s history of demanding a crackdown on ‘raunch’ culture, he promised a continued battle against the strip clubs springing up across the borough. (One wonders, by the way, whether this is a political or “conscience” matter).

Miah’s answer to the same abortion question was more carefully phrased than Galloway’s and his opposition to abortion more moderately expressed: “I am for life ... I have my own personal faith.” Reminding the audience that Respect must deal with many “different people with different backgrounds”, he called for a “healthy debate and discussion on the issue” within Respect. However, he thought we ought not to waste too much time on abortion, as there were “other, bigger issues” to consider.

Speakers following Galloway’s impassioned rhetoric and Miah’s local knowledge, struggled somewhat, including Socialist Action’s Bryony Shanks. She brought up the question of a woman’s right to choose … what she wears, which she described as a “fundamental principle of feminism”. This was clearly not the time for comrade Shanks to discuss a woman’s right to control her own reproduction - despite the fact that the Abortion Rights campaign is run by SA comrades.

Clearly, this event was intended more as an election rally than a genuine exchange of ideas on the role and rights of women. However, one got the distinct impression that in east London Respect remains a vibrant project with realistic hopes of victory on May 6, and the general emphasis on drawing women into politics was certainly encouraging.

For all its many weaknesses, not least on abortion, Respect candidates are standing on a platform of pro-working class demands and should be critically supported against the establishment parties.

To get involved with the final days of campaigning call or text 07919 843870.