Friday, May 05, 2006

Respect in Tower Hamlets

The Socialist Workers’ Party’s strategy in Tower Hamlets centred on getting revolutionary Marxists into the council chamber on the back of the Muslim vote. It failed.

I’m not quite sure what they thought this would achieve by this, anyway. As an activist in the Labour Party in the early 1980s, I knew many Trotskyists that won local government contests standing on a Labour Party ticket.

Some acquitted themselves well. Others were pulled to the right. But one thing was underlined by the experience. Town halls are not natural political territory for Trots.

At that time, you could at least pass a resolution in solidarity with the Sandinistas, declare the borough a nuclear free zone, and then push through an 89% rise in business rates and pump the money into schools and social housing.

Nobody is allowed to get away with that stuff any more. So many powers have been stripped from municipal authorities over the last two decades that these days, the main job is vote on which outsourcing provider gets the wheelie-bin contract.

True, at the time of writing Respect had 11 seats in Tower Hamlets. But as far as I’m aware, all of them won as a result of their standing in the predominantly-Bengali Muslim community and none have a background in organised socialist politics. I could be wrong on this. If you know differently, please feel free to correct me.

But it’s noticeable that in wards where Respect stood candidates with both Muslim-sounding and white-sounding names, the former typically picked up 25-40% more votes than the latter.

That’s not to say that the Respect vote is entirely communalist. The majority of its voters are backing the policies the party put forward. But it is a pointer that it contains an unhealthily large communalist element.

Its councillors will naturally be more concerned with consolidating their base of support than following the counsels of a bunch of white middle-class lefties. They will be amenable to deals with Muslim councillors of other parties.

Some of them may prove to be out and out careerists. Remember that both London and Birmingham have seen instances of Muslim local politicians joining Respect and then defecting almost instantly when the Lib-Dems came along with a better offer.

So the question is, what happens if they pursue policies that revolutionary socialists would not want to be associated with?

When I was in the Labour Party, there were mechanisms of accountability. Labour councillors were supposed to pursue the policies mandated by the activist-dominated general management committee. Not that most of them ever did, of course.

But the SWP has been so keen to keep George Galloway on board that Respect lacks even the theoretical means of making sure its elected representives follow the party line.

A lot of good young activists that put a lot of time and money into the Tower Hamlets campaign could be in for a serious let-down.

UPDATE: It's been pointed out elsewhere that all of Respect's white and female Muslim candidates in Tower Hamlets lost to ... male Muslim Labour candidates.

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