By John Bloxam
The Respect coalition’s electoral prospects on 5 May are increasingly focussed on George Galloway, who is standing in Bethnal Green and Bow, east London. The electoral “breakthrough” that the Galloway-SWP alliance have been predicting for their “radical fourth party” has now narrowed to getting Galloway, a sitting MP with a high public profile, elected in a seat with a 50% Muslim vote. “Imagine the impact if Respect wins a seat…” (Socialist Worker, 9 April, emphasis added). Respect’s footsoldiers, the SWP have made this seat their priority.
Galloway/Respect have targeted the bourgeois media, both locally and nationally, with some success. Galloway has had extensive and sympathetic coverage in the local paper. Both nationally and locally, journalists see a possible Galloway victory.
Respect talk this up, claiming they already have a majority in the constituency. This is based on Galloway’s vote in the Euro elections last year, where he polled 4.79% overall, but claimed a leading vote in all Bethnal Green and Bow wards. Since then Respect have stood in two Tower Hamlets Council by-elections, in Labour held seats. In both they took significant votes from Labour, pushing them into third place. They won one seat, and came second in the other behind the Tories.
A flavour of Galloway’s campaign came out in a Radio London debate between the candidates on Sunday 10 April. One of the questions concerned the widespread problem of drug abuse in the area, particularly among young people.
Galloway’s response was that he was against all drugs, “unlike the Liberal Democrats”, and that the British navy should be withdrawn from the Persian Gulf to patrol British waters, as part of a “war on drugs”, not a “war on Muslims, a war on Arabs”.
In the Euro elections last year Galloway/SWP put out a leaflet in the area saying he was a “fighter for Muslims … recognised by the Muslim world…married to a Palestinian doctor… deep religious principles… teetotal.”
As part of his campaign Galloway has recently spent two weeks in Bangladesh to “earn valuable support”. To garner votes, this “champion of injustice” was quoted as saying, in a country riven by oppression, poverty, injustice, that “I don’t want to run the political affairs of Bangladesh — that would be colonialist. I don’t want to interfere in the political situation in Bangladesh”.
According to Bengali press reports, he espoused the cause of restaurant owners (“I want to represent them and champion their interests in the UK”) and spoke warmly to the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The “anti-imperialist” is quoted as saying: “I would urge the British business people to come and invest in Bangladesh to exploit its full potential”, to which the Senior President of the FBCCI responded: “An extremely favourable condition for investment is now prevailing in Bangladesh. Foreign investment up to 100 per cent is allowed, and the repatriation of capital and profit is ensured by the rule.” (Quotes from Independent Bangladesh Feb 28 and Mar 2; and Private Eye 1-14 April).
The Bangladesh trip has been warmly applauded by Oliur Rahman, Respect councillor and candidate for the neighbouring Poplar and Canning Town seat. He reports that families are getting phone calls from Bangladesh for a Galloway vote.
Forty per cent of the electorate in Bethnal Green and Bow are from Bangladesh, with a proportionally higher election turnout than other groups. Fifty per cent declared themselves Muslim in the 2001 census.
Since returning from Bangladesh Galloway has been publicly quoted as saying that, if elected, “he will stand only this once in the constituency, and will campaign for a Bengali candidate for the seat in the next election” (Guardian, 4 April). In part such comments must be designed to take the sting out of the Liberal Democrats’ charge that Respect is splitting the Bengali/Muslim anti-war vote, and failing to back a Bengali (i.e. Lib Dem) candidate.
Has a deal been done with sections of the Bengali community to get votes for this election — our turn now, yours next? As for Respect — this is not their officially announced policy. Has it been made up by Galloway with the SWP meekly following on?
Side by side with the blatant pitch for the communal vote, Respect’s campaign consists of the predictable Galloway self-promotion (“the best speaker in the House of Commons … when he speaks the world listens”), opposition to the Iraq war and a list of radical demands, supposedly “the ghost of Labour’s past”. The list will get wide support (pensions, minimum wage, against PFI, privatisation of council houses and top-up fees) but is both limited — properly funded, comprehensive, secular education predictably does not appear, let alone abortion or gay rights — and not socialist. Respect has also been active in local community campaigns (against Crossrail tunnelling plans and the threat to a local fire station) and supported school students wearing the jilbab.
Tower Hamlets is one of the most economically and socially deprived areas of the country. Unemployment is quoted as 70% among sections of the Bengali youth. And the New Labour dominated council is an easy target, with a bad record and air of indifference to the area. Labour councillors are noted for their absence from any of the local campaigns.
The Liberal Democrats have 13 councillors (against Labour’s 34) but lack the community campaigning, door step politics they once had before they ran the council in the 1980s. Some of the old white working class vote, which had previously hived off to the Liberals from the old Labour Party for largely racist reasons, may go back to New Labour now that the Liberal Democrats have selected a Bengali candidate for the constituency (explicitly standing on a Bengali/Muslim basis).
The sitting MP, Oona King, is an open Blairite, voting for the invasion of Iraq, and publicly supporting PFI schemes and the privatisation of council estates. Although more publicly active than Labour councillors on local issues, she is damaged by the Council’s record and clearly lacks some of Bengali community/business links that had been built up by her Labour predecessor, the right wing Peter Shore. There is still some reported resentment against the way New Labour secured her selection in 1997 against local Bengali candidates. Her present majority is 10,000, on a 50% turnout.
Blair has written a letter for the Bengali papers saying that New Labour will not ban halal meat if re-elected. The New Labour hierarchy now seems to be rallying to King, with photo calls and closed meetings clearly designed to try and rally disaffected Labour supporters, many of whom have left the Party. In the same vein, and to her left, there have been members-only meetings with Labour Friends of Iraq, or with Johann Hari and Nick Cohen speaking, and a Billy Bragg concert.
Again, a flavour of the campaign is the competition between New Labour and Respect/Galloway to appeal to local backwardness and conservatism. At the start of the campaign Oona King made allegations about Galloway’s past sexual conduct to the Bengali media; Galloway’s lawyers have forced her to publicly withdraw, apologise and pay money. But Galloway’s own Respect broadsheet has laboured the point about Oona King and the alleged offer by a Labour MEP of sex for money, and their latest broadsheet comes with a picture of Oona King in what many local voters would regard as “immodest” dress.
Oona King has now alleged that “I have been told by several people that members of Respect have told them not to vote for me because I am Jewish.” John Rees’s response for Respect was predictable: “She had really better have signed depositions to that effect because we will issue writs against anybody who says that… We would not dream of arguing this kind of rubbish on the doorstep…”. (London Evening Standard, 11 April) Whether this response is followed up with a clear and prominent denunciation of anti-semitism in Respect’s local, glossy broadsheet, and a statement that action will be taken against anybody associated with Respect if proper evidence is produced, remains to be seen.
Respect has already produced a lot of expensive publicity, unlike New Labour, who have managed little more so far than individual letters about Oona King’s/New Labour’s “achievements”. Oona King has debated Galloway and the other candidates on a number of occasions, at times effectively labelling him an “opportunist on skates” who went “grovelling” to Saddam Hussein. But against Galloway’s demagogy her defence of New Labour is unconvincing and tinny.
Increasingly New Labour are resorting to the line that “If you vote Respect in Tower Hamlets, you’ll get a Tory”, and point to the Millwall council by-election last September. Billy Bragg was got to the area on this basis. In fact, in Bethnal Green and Bow the Tories came second in the last general election and are standing a Bengali candidate again, but they have no organisation on the ground and Bethnal Green is much less yuppified than Millwall (Isle of Dogs).
Clearly there is a soft “sympathy” for Galloway that says more about the weakness of politics in the area than anything else. One letter in the East London Advertiser was from a woman who said she had been a feminist and a socialist all her life, fighting for abortion rights over the years, and that’s why she’s supporting Galloway! Unison, the biggest union in the area, passed a committee resolution in December congratulating Galloway on winning his libel case against the Sunday Telegraph with only one vote against.
The more general opinion, at this stage, was probably summed up by a “local resident” quoted in the Guardian (4 April) — “Oona is a Blair patsy and supports the war, but I don’t trust George either; he comes across as a self-promoter and I am not sure he will support the local area. I have been thinking hard about it. But I still have to make up my mind”. This fact, together with the ugly contest for the communal vote, underlines the political tragedy of no alternative working class, socialist candidate, able to appeal to all sections of the area on a clear class basis.
In the absence of such a candidate socialists have a responsibility to at least register and publicise what is going on. And on 5 May the only alternative is the advice in the last issue of Solidarity: “Where you can, vote socialist; where you can’t, vote Labour and get involved in the trade union fightback.”