A radical new electoral force emerged in the May general election in Britain. Formed 16 months earlier, Respect—the Unity Coalition recorded some extraordinary results. George Galloway captured the headlines and the imagination as he was elected MP for the east London constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow, taking the seat from the Labour Party, which had expelled him for his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. But this success was mirrored across east London in the boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets, where Respect eclipsed the Tories and Liberal Democrats to come second to Labour in both East Ham and West Ham, and managed a notable third place in Poplar & Canning Town. In the Midlands, in Birmingham Sparkbrook, Salma Yaqoob came within 3,000 votes of unseating Labour, taking 27.5 percent of the poll.
How was this level of support achieved, and can it be repeated more widely? Ian Taylor spoke to some of the candidates and their supporters who fought the election in east London:
Abdul Khalik Mian, Respect candidate, East Ham (community organiser)
Andy Brown, Respect treasurer, Newham (teacher)
Ghada Razuki, Respect campaign manager, Newham
Lindsey German, Respect candidate, West Ham (convenor Stop the War Coalition)
Maggie Falshaw, Respect election agent, Poplar & Canning Town (health worker)
Oliur Rahman, Respect candidate, Poplar & Canning Town, and Respect councillor, Tower Hamlets (civil servant)
Ron McKay, press officer for George Galloway, Bethnal Green & Bow (journalist)
Sarah Ruiz, former Labour, now Respect councillor, Newham(voluntary sector supervisor)
Sean Doherty, Respect election agent, Bethnal Green & Bow (teacher)
Sean: The first thing to say is that the circumstances in Bethnal Green & Bow were exceptional. We had an exceptional candidate who had the courage to get expelled from Labour for opposing the war, and the courage to take on New Labour electorally. He stood in what was the most winnable seat, and we had a very high media profile. In some ways Respect’s results in East Ham, West Ham and Birmingham Sparkbrook are more impressive.
Lindsey: East London was obviously Respect’s strongest area. We thought we should put George Galloway in a seat he was most likely to win. Respect supporters were keen that the other candidate in Tower Hamlets should be Bengali, and Oli Rahman, who was already a Respect councillor, was chosen. In Newham I was put forward because I had stood for mayor. Abdul Khalik was put forward by the Muslim Alliance. We went in with the view that the Lib Dems and Tories would not get a look in—the main contest would be between Labour and Respect.
Abdul Khalik: The Muslim Alliance was set up in Newham in 2003 after the war. We realised the ethnic communities in Newham were going backwards. The council was doing nothing for them. We founded the organisation for the underprivileged, to try to resolve some of their problems and bring them into the political arena. It was set up by the Islamic community, but it’s open to everyone. It’s not exclusive.
We called a demonstration in Newham about the war, and 10,000 came. We thought if we can do that we can tackle other problems. We had invited George Galloway, and he spoke for all the communities. We could see we might be able to do business with him. So we approached Respect in Newham and had a series of meetings. We shared many of the same aspirations. We decided to ally with them. It was a mutual marriage. The momentum was built through talking.
Andy: Respect stood in Newham in the GLA elections in June 2004 and got a considerable vote. The votes were recorded electronically, which meant we could gauge our strength. By January 2005 we had some sort of committee and a bank account, but we hadn’t the slightest idea what we were taking on. We organised across East Ham and West Ham from the beginning. I was one of a dozen or so around the organising committee, which varied in size. We’ve had meetings of 20, which is too large. At general meetings about once a month we would have 40 to 50. The organising meetings were more ad hoc. During the election we had one most days.
Oliur: I got involved in Respect through the Stop the War Coalition and stood in the GLA election in 2004 for City & East London. I polled about 20,000 votes and came third. Straight after that there was a council by-election in the inner east London borough of Tower Hamlets in St Dunstan’s ward, and I was nominated. I couldn’t believe it when I won. Being a councillor helped, and I was known by people I dealt with through my union, the PCS. A lot of people at the polling stations said, ‘Are you Oli Rahman? I’m going to vote for you.’
Maggie: We distributed a Respect tabloid across Tower Hamlets in January, and a second for Poplar & Canning Town for the election. We already had a membership database, organised by ward, and leaflets in different languages depending on the area—Bengali, Somali and Chinese.
Abdul Khalik: We didn’t just decide on a candidate, we asked people in the community who they wanted. Before I stood we called a meeting of the elders from the mosques and explained the process. They endorsed me. If they had decided I wasn’t suitable, we wouldn’t have gone ahead. The Alliance could have put up two people in Newham, but we wanted one candidate to be English, to show we are united.
Working across communities
Lindsey: We ran as joint candidates in Newham. We thought it very important to have a Muslim and a non-Muslim candidate. Our greatest appeal was that we were united. We wanted to send a message to the Muslim community, of course, but also a message to other communities that Respect was not a Muslim party. Newham is culturally and racially diverse, with large numbers of Afro-Caribbeans, and this was extremely important. The committee included people from the trade union left, some from the socialist left—mainly from the SWP—and some from the Alliance.
The chair of the council Unison branch chaired. We had a member of the civil servants’ union, the PCS, support from the T&G convenor at Ford Dagenham, and support from local rail workers. We had quite a good list of trade unionists, although it’s something we could have made more of.
Sean: George Galloway already had a lot of respect among Bengalis in Bethnal Green. If he walked down Brick Lane he was mobbed. This had an impact on a layer of local businessmen, one of whom donated our premises in Hanbury Street. It was a derelict building, but we did it up and it became the focal point of the campaign.
Maggie: We were relatively well known among Bengalis from previous elections and from Stop the War. We would leaflet and speak to the imams to try to get Oliur inside to speak. He spoke at a couple of mosques after Friday prayers. We had members in a Somali community association. A lot of Somalis feel badly let down by Labour, and we had some come into the shop and go leafleting. But we didn’t really break into the Chinese or Vietnamese communities, although Oliur was invited to speak at a Chinese association.
Abdul Khalik: Whenever you went in the Respect office you could see the community reflected in the people there—white, black, brown. There were no barriers between people—no discrimination, not the slightest. We just got along.
I didn’t give a thought to the fact that I was campaigning with a white socialist woman. I had the support of people, and they knew me, knew I wouldn’t favour only one group. Some in the Muslim community might have been taken aback. But we wanted to be seen as a community, working for each other, working together.
I have been asked, ‘What kind of a marriage is it between Islam and socialism?’ I say, ‘We can always have differences of opinion. But we can discuss them and, where we mutually agree, we can move forward.’ We went into all the mosques and I said of Lindsey, ‘This is my colleague. Vote for her in West Ham and me in East Ham.’ We drew on each other’s experience.
Ghada: I’m proud of working with the Alliance. We didn’t know each other before the election. As a group we were overwhelmingly Western and predominantly women, and they were Muslim and male. We campaigned differently. They spent a lot of time in meetings and a lot of time going around the mosques. We concentrated on leafleting, canvassing and running stalls. We worked really well together.
Every night we would leave the office around 9pm or 10pm, and then they would start their meetings. They operated in a very broad way, to the extent that two members of the Lib Dems became part of our campaign and joined Respect. There was no friction. It was wonderful to work with one another. I had never met an imam before, and I met several. There was no bother about us being women.
Sean: There was a campaign committee which met sporadically, but day to day operations were left to the officers. The odds against George were 20/1 at the outset. That is what William Hill was quoting. The launch meeting in Bishopsgate at which we had 800 people created a bandwagon. The level of campaigning—of leafleting and canvassing—was phenomenal. I reckon we canvassed the whole constituency twice. It was done very efficiently.
We realised we had to canvass every area. Early on we canvassed an estate north of Bethnal Green Road, an area many on the left would remember as a battleground with the fascists. It has been transformed. The fascists didn’t feature. We got a detailed breakdown of voting patterns in the London elections and for the European Parliament in 2004, and held public meetings in the three wards where we did least well. We got about 60 people to each. We also had meetings in areas where we had got a good vote. Local meetings were held in all parts of the constituency.
We had a lot of volunteers. On the Saturday before the election 400 went out. That was exceptional, but there were regular teams from other parts of London. We had local Respect supporters and attracted more during the campaign, including lots of Bengali kids. They provided lots of canvassers. On the day of the election there were banners hanging from windows and across streets.
Oliur: A majority of Respect supporters went to George Galloway’s constituency, for obvious reasons. We looked at the results in the GLA elections and targeted areas. We didn’t have the resources to canvass Canning Town. But where we canvassed we did extremely well.
Maggie: We kept the Respect shop open in Poplar every day for four weeks. Canvassing takes time, so we selected four wards out of 12. We couldn’t cover the whole of these, so looked at the areas where we had people involved in local campaigns. The most we had out on any day was 40. We canvassed the whole of Bromley-by-Bow, which has a lot of council housing and a big Bengali population. After distributing the tabloids we had a lot of phone calls from white people who wanted to sound us out. Some couldn’t believe we were real. You would rarely knock on a door and find people not wanting to engage.
We did a sample of the ballot returns in wards we targeted. We got 26 percent of the sample in Bromley-by-Bow, 24 percent in Limehouse, 33 percent in Millwall East and 37 percent in Shadwell, which is partly in George’s ward. By contrast, we got few votes in Canning Town. We had a good response when went to the market and to schools in Canning Town, but we weren’t able to break people from Labour, and a lot weren’t eligible to vote.
Ghada: We only really started to campaign in Newham in April when we got the Respect office. From then on it was 24 hours a day.
Lindsey: The first thing we did was put out a tabloid paper saying we were the main challengers to Labour. That was important. You have to give people a reason to vote for you. We banged on about that. Second, we waged a psychological war. We were everywhere, and no one else was anywhere. We had posters put up in shops and restaurants. That became a constant battle.
Andy: We printed about 130,000 of the tabloids, and we started canvassing as soon as we could. We had Saturday stalls around the constituencies, and leafleted the railway and underground stations on Thursday and Friday evenings. People went out every night after work and every weekend, probably about 150 in all. The most we had on one day was 70. The two weekends before the election we probably had 100 out at least once over the weekend. We had some help from outside the borough, but we didn’t have resources poured in. We had one full-time volunteer and a couple of students. Everyone else was at work during the day.
Ghada: We wanted to be the first people anyone saw at their door, the people they saw on the street, and the last people they saw at the polling station before they voted. We wanted to give a sense of being here, there and everywhere. We managed to canvass almost all of both constituencies once. You’re talking about 110,000 to 120,000 households. We spoke to 11,000 people on the door. In April we had the biggest public meeting anyone in Newham could remember, with 350 people in the town hall.
Lindsey: We had to cover a fairly small area, but at the outset we didn’t have huge numbers of people. It’s not true that we got into all the mosques— there are 30 in Newham. We set out to do everything, but you don’t do it all. One of the most successful things we did was to leaflet primary schools. Abdul Khalik and I would go to a school every afternoon when people had more time to talk. The parents were great. We went to all the schools in the south of the borough, which is more white. We were told it would be difficult, but we got a good response. There was very little racism. People like to meet the candidates. They were surprised to see us. We were like celebrities. I think it got us a lot of votes.
Abdul Khalik: We had daily meetings in the office to discuss what to do, and then did it. No one was excluded. If you were in the office when we met you could speak. Things snowballed. We canvassed, gave out leaflets, spoke at the mosques. I think 100 to 150 people came into the office on some days, from across the community, from outside Newham, even from outside London.
Andy: The Respect office was crucial. It’s slap on the border between the two constituencies. People drop in all the time. It’s expensive—£600 a month—but we’re keeping it at least until the council elections in May 2006. It’s a material sacrifice, but politically it’s worth it. It gives a clear message of our permanence.
Lindsey: We would visit people at home. People got in touch with us and got us into meetings. Some meetings were fixed up with the Alliance, including hustings—one in a school, one in a sixth form college. At the school the kids were told not to applaud because they were only clapping us. They asked some good questions. We canvassed near the school the same night and were talking to a parent when a child came to the door and said, ‘You’ve got to vote for her.’ We went into two old people’s associations, a Gujarati women’s welfare association, a Bengali welfare association, a couple of churches. We had union meetings and a trade union hustings.
Oliur: We were involved in the firefighters’ fight to save a fire engine that was being removed from Bethnal Green fire station. In the end the authority took it in the middle of the night—they knew we would be there otherwise.
There was an amazing hustings meeting in Bethnal Green organised by the firefighters’ union. There were at least 300 people—others couldn’t get in. I spoke as a Tower Hamlets councillor. The sitting Labour MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, used to be a firefighter, but he has forgotten where he came from. A firefighter canvassed with me, and firefighters donated money to our campaign.
Sean: George’s involvement in the fire station campaign was important. He spoke at the meeting of 300 in support of the firefighters.
Sarah: What impressed me was that people wanted to make a difference locally. There has never been a choice before. Respect worked incredibly hard. I saw people genuinely working together to change things. That was an inspiration, along with the honesty of the campaign and the number of young people involved. Labour approached the election in Newham with total complacency. I’ve been a councillor for 14 years and was in the Labour Party for 30. I joined Respect in July 2005. It was a slow process for me. I began to question the war and joined the demonstration with 2 million other people in February 2003. I went to meetings where George Galloway spoke and questioned why I was in the Labour Party. But I thought Respect was a one-issue party. During the election I saw that it wasn’t.
Lindsey: There was a kind of agreement between the other parties that Labour was bound to win, and they didn’t really do anything. When we started, everyone was friendly. But by election night they hated our guts. They became nastier and nastier as it became obvious we were doing well. The Labour candidate in West Ham was in hiding most of the time. She did a few hustings with us, but Labour really had a strategy of ignoring us. At hustings the Labour candidates would just go on about the Tories—if they turned up. People were fed up about that. The number who said they would vote for us because we knocked on their door or turned up was quite high. It shows the level of disaffection with politicians.
Abdul Khalik: We made some inroads into the Afro-Caribbean community. I was interviewed on Voice of Africa radio, a local station in Newham. I saw black people canvassing for us. We visited Sikh temples and were given verbal support. The same with the Hindu temples. But we need to work harder with these communities. In white areas, in white houses, I received no negative response. One English lady rang and said she wanted to meet me. I went round and she said, ‘I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve never had a politician at my door.’ Her son had been knifed by a gang of Asian youths because of his sexuality. She asked what I had to say. We then talked about other things. She said she was going to tell all her family to vote for me.
Andy: A couple of us got to look at the election register. You can see who voted. It’s a partial view, but the Sikh vote appeared amazingly high. The Tamil vote appeared high too. A lot of Muslims didn’t vote. The vote among Afro-Caribbeans was high, and solid for Labour. I think the Sikh vote was solid Labour. We needed longer to build in these communities. We had a Tamil speaker and a Sri Lankan speaker at a rally. But we found it hard to break in. We had Tamil supporters on the ground, who leafleted with us. But that was a drop in the ocean. When we got on the doorstep talking to people we started to make progress. We leafleted several churches—which tend to be African—and we met lots of people outside schools. But the tradition of voting Labour among Afro-Caribbeans is very strong. I don’t know how we tackle that other than by being on the ground and showing we’re not a flash in the pan.
Ron: It promised to be a dull election, and Bethnal Green & Bow was the most interesting battle. Journalists came from everywhere, from Japan to Ethiopia. A BBC reporter told us about a press conference by Labour’s Oona King. Her story was that a pensioner had got into a verbal argument with a group of Respect supporters. One of them had followed him, beaten him up and broken his nose, leaving a Respect leaflet on his body.
We asked if we could see the reporter’s film of the press conference. It was ten days after the alleged assault, so we wondered why it had taken so long to come out. We noticed the leaflet produced at the press conference had not been printed at the time of the assault. It had been delivered two days later. The police confirmed that an assault had taken place, but in the pensioner’s statement at the time he had made no mention of Respect. We managed to nail the story. Everyone, including the Sun, had been on to it, and the Sun was out to get George. Only the Times ran it. The others concluded it was a set-up. That was the worst moment. If the story had run it would have been a catastrophe.
Sean: Once the campaign took off we were in the eye of the storm politically, at the centre of the media circus. Respect national secretary John Rees organised regular press briefings and press conferences. It raised the profile of the campaign dramatically.
Ron: There were various other allegations. Oona King’s tyres were allegedly slashed, but she never reported it to the police. The allegation of anti- Semitism died on its feet. It was clearly preposterous. At the start of the campaign, at a conference with the Asian media, Oona King alleged George had used charitable money to pay prostitutes. We got on the case and she agreed to withdraw the allegations, tell the media it was lies, pay our costs and pay a donation to charity.
Our policy was to give everyone access—we had nothing to hide and thought any publicity would be useful. Broadcasters are obliged to be even-handed. There was an incident early on when George went on ITV news and they had a real go at him. We blacked ITV after that and wouldn’t cooperate with them, even on election night. So we marked our territory—the others knew they had to play by the rules.
Labour’s campaign basically blocked everyone. The local press was hostile, but I don’t think that counted for anything. No one reads it. In the national press we got amazing coverage. The media ran with the story of Bethnal Green & Bow while Labour tried to vet everyone. We knew a lot of the media already, and we were the story. Locally George couldn’t walk down the street without being applauded.
Sean: Electoral politics is not a soft option. You need to be prepared for the attacks from New Labour and the media. We were accused of following in the footsteps of fascist leader Oswald Mosley and of fomenting violence. We had to respond. There were vitriolic attacks on George in the press—in the Independent, and from Nick Cohen in the Observer. But there was lots of intelligent coverage. We even got the press interested in the issue of the potential fraud involved with postal voting. They were sceptical about it when we called a press conference, but some began to realise it was an issue after we highlighted the problem.
The Muslim vote and the war
Abdul Khalik: People who say it was just a Muslim vote are trying to console themselves, to make excuses. We had support from everyone. A lot of Muslims voted Labour. One reason is that they have voted Labour all their lives. They feel they are working class, therefore they should vote Labour. But we have also had councillors intimidating people, saying, ‘Are you here legally?’ and, ‘Are you living here legally?’ Some people said they feared they would lose their housing benefit if they voted for us. We know there were threats.
Oliur: I spoke to many Bengalis who said they would vote Labour. They said they always voted Labour. Many said they wouldn’t vote for me. Then I talked to white working class people, to pensioners, who said they didn’t like Labour. It didn’t matter which community you were in. I’m from Bangladesh, and I can tell you Bangladeshis support different parties. We went leafleting parents outside schools, and in Canning Town I thought people might be more hostile. But at one school I had kids around me asking for autographs. I spent half an hour signing my name. I couldn’t believe it—I’m nobody. The school was overwhelmingly white, with some Afro-Caribbeans. To people who say it was a Bengali vote, I say, ‘Open your eyes.’ It’s simply not possible that every Bengali person voted for Respect and every white person voted Labour. I know Bengalis who voted Lib Dem, who voted Green, who voted Conservative, and I know white people and Afro-Caribbean people who voted for us.
Andy: Ask Labour if they believe our vote was a Muslim vote. Clearly it wasn’t. Labour managed to maintain the loyalty of key figures in the community, inside and outside the mosques, and that had a big influence. There wasn’t a huge turnout of the Muslim vote, and there is no way in parts of West Ham that a majority of our votes came from Muslims. We got a good response from many working class white people. The idea that people who are against the war all read the Guardian is rubbish.
Maggie: The Labour Party is incredibly strong in the Bengali community. Of course, a lot of our votes came from Bengalis too. But Respect got a real resonance among white pensioners. When driving around in a car with loudspeakers we would get flagged down by pensioners. Oliur was contacted by a lot of older people who said they felt betrayed by Labour. Some of them were very enthusiastic about Respect. A couple came to Oliur’s surgery and said they were telling all their friends to vote Respect.
Sean: Both the Lib Dems and the Tories had Muslim candidates. Oona King will have got a significant Muslim vote. So will the Lib Dem. We couldn’t have won without the white working class vote. We had endless meetings on estates, and it was vital we focused on local issues such as housing and the firefighters, as well as the war.
Oliur: Those who say it was just about the war couldn’t be more wrong. When I stood in the council election no one asked me about the war. In the general election people did talk about it, but that was mainly because lots came out about the war during the election. People liked what we said about housing, education, young people, pensions. That is why they put a cross against Respect. More than 22,000 people in Tower Hamlets are on housing waiting lists. I know people who have to sleep in the hall of their home because they are living on top of one another. It’s nonsense that it was only about the war.
Abdul Khalik: For Muslims it was not only about the war—it was about pensions, housing, hospitals, schools. There are many issues Labour should be judged upon.
Lindsey: One big problem was that we didn’t start early enough. You can’t overestimate the residual support for Labour. There were 59 Labour councillors on the polling stations in Newham on election day. That was a strong voice for Labour. We could have got deeper into the trade unions. We could have got deeper into the communities. We need deeper roots.
Abdul Khalik: We need to work even harder with other communities. We need to open more into the Sri Lankan and Afro-Caribbean communities, and have a dialogue with the increasing number of east Europeans— Romanians, Hungarians, Polish, Czechs, Bosnians.
Ghada: We made few inroads among Muslim women, although we went to a couple of women’s meetings. But the biggest weakness was that we didn’t start early enough, especially in terms of the networks. We did not crack the Sikh community or the Hindu community. I think Sikhs turned out in force for Labour, as did Afro-Caribbeans in Newham. Canvassing, we saw a lot of white people. They were the most disaffected group we met. Large numbers of them didn’t vote at all.
Maggie: Canvassing is what pays—we have to get that message across. On the days we got a mix of different languages in the canvassing teams the results were spectacular. We stand a good chance of winning a significant number of council seats next year, but we have to canvass. Another lesson is that you can’t start too early. A third is that it’s going to cost a lot of money. We have to raise about £60,000 in Tower Hamlets to stand across the borough.
Ron: The media presence was important. You look important with camera crews trailing behind you. People thought of George, ‘He must have a chance.’ But it was the organisation on the ground that was really important, that created the feeling we were the favourites, that we were going to win. We were able to blanket the constituency and knock on doors. And we had the open-top battlebus. We got into every nook and cranny of the constituency. Organisation was what won it for us. We put in a massive effort.
Oliur: A lot of people say you can’t win in a certain area. If you have that attitude, you’ll never win. You have to target every area.
Lindsey: We discovered how undemocratic the whole process is, how it discriminates against small parties. The major parties don’t try to involve people—they don’t want a political debate. They rely on inertia. A lot of people are not on the electoral register, and there are all sorts of irregularities. On polling day one family found they were registered as postal voters and someone had taken their votes. When you go canvassing you find houses don’t exist, or you come across a flat with 20 or 30 electors, but there is never anybody in. The powers that be are not interested. They say, ‘No one has ever complained before.’ That is because no one has canvassed.
Sarah: There are maybe half a dozen to a dozen councillors who might be encouraged to switch to Respect now they have seen one person do it. But most don’t want to lose status in the community, and they are afraid to lose money. An ordinary council member gets an allowance of £9,800 a year. In Newham there are 25 council cabinet members appointed by the mayor. One is on £34,000 a year. If you’re the lead member of a community forum you get an extra £4,000. People are also in full-time jobs. You don’t have to buy anything. There are 59 Labour councillors—25 are in the cabinet,, six are scrutiny chairs on an additional £10,000 a year, ten are community forum leaders. There is also a council business manager, a chair of planning and a chair of licensing who all get a minimum additional £4,000—that comes to 44 of the 59 councillors. It was different before. When I first became a councillor no one apart from the council leader received more than £2,000 a year to cover expenses.
Andy: The main lesson is that this is an ongoing project, and it can work. We got 15,000 votes on a platform that did not compromise. We were completely honest, completely democratic. It’s possible we can really go places. The second lesson is that any party outside the big three is at an enormous institutional disadvantage. Labour can raise £20,000 from its central office. We have to raise funds from individual members. It means a real sacrifice. Knowing the mechanics of the electoral process is important, such as putting people on the polling stations. And canvassing is all-important. You can put out leaflets till you’re blue in the face. You’ve got to talk to people.
Abdul Khalik: Not everywhere in Britain is like Newham. But I believe people elsewhere are beginning to realise Labour has failed them, failed them over 100 years. Respect has picked up the values which Labour has dropped. Many people are turning to us because they feel abandoned and betrayed.
Lindsey: The biggest lesson is that there is big audience for socialism and radical ideas. It also showed the way to counter the BNP. You’re not going to counter the Nazis just by saying, ‘Vote for someone else.’ The BNP didn’t stand in Newham or Tower Hamlets. But you can’t address the problems people have over housing, transport, pensions, schools, and wider questions like the war, without offering an alternative.
Abdul Khalik: We haven’t stopped since the election. We’re still meeting people, giving out leaflets. More people are getting involved. Every week there is some event. After the bombings in London the BNP painted ‘Muslims go home’ and ‘Blacks go home’ around a school in West Ham. We went to the police, who said they couldn’t do anything. We asked the council to remove the graffiti, They said they would come in 24 hours, but didn’t. So Respect organised a team of people. We knocked on people’s doors and offered to paint out the graffiti. Everybody came out and joined in, black and white, all together. It turned into a rally, and we removed the graffiti.
Andy: Painting out the racist slogans made the front page of the local paper. When the Jewish cemetery was desecrated just after the election we had Muslims come to express their support and an imam came to speak. The front page of the Stratford Guardian reported ‘Muslims Support Jews’. Respect organised that.
Sean: The difference between knowing you have done well and winning is phenomenal. Getting George in parliament means we have a voice. He has spoken in parliament on Iraq and on the London bombings. It’s very important we have an elected representative. His appearance in the US created a global impact. The important point is the election has not finished. They are going for George every day. But even one councillor in one town can make a phenomenal difference. It’s a platform to reach an audience.
Lindsey: We provided an alternative. The way we were formed and the way we campaigned was a new way of campaigning. We reached out to everybody. I feel we speak for a lot of people who feel disenfranchised, who don’t have a voice. No one addresses their problems.
Canvassing and getting into the local networks created a quantifiable change. If you win over small groups it opens doors to a lot more people.
Andy: We challenged the lack of democracy in the council and in the government, and it rocked them. We want to mount a genuine challenge in the council election next year. We have to convince people they can be councillors. We need candidates and spokespeople in the community.
Sarah: We have to get organised. We need more discipline, and more people and money. We can’t stand in 60 seats across the council if we’re not organised. It’s no good making decisions if no one acts on them. I think it’s right to field 60 candidates. It’s ambitious, but if we only field 30 Labour will target those seats. Part of my role is to give people information on being a councillor and reassure them. It’s not rocket science.
Labour’s success in Newham has been based on it being a one-party state. We can give people a choice. If there is a big enough challenge, change can happen. Labour councillors were outwardly complacent about Respect’s result but inwardly shocked. They recognise the threat now. Housing is the big issue—the lack of it and the treatment people receive from homeless services. People are living in very poor conditions. The whole time I’ve been a councillor, my casebook has only ever involved housing.
Andy: The office is paid for by individual and collective donations. People agree to sponsor it for a month. Sometimes we ask a ward to do it—with perhaps four donations of £100 and four of £50. People won’t be asked again for a year. Raising money is a constant battle. But it’s interesting the number of people willing to give.
Lindsey: The level of support for us has gone ahead of the structure and finances. Because of the way we were born, we had a huge impact without necessarily having the roots to sustain it or to make a uniform impact across the country. It’s something we’re still trying to rectify. People said, ‘How can one MP make a difference?’ After George’s performance before the US Senate, and as the only MP to speak out in parliament about the London bombs, you can see the difference one MP can make.
Oliur: George going to America boosted our profile. People are still talking about it. More people are joining Respect. They don’t see any other politician with the courage to go to Washington and call its rulers liars.
Abdul Khalik: I’m proud of Respect. We speak the truth. We speak out of principle. We stand up for people. No one in Labour is speaking the truth. I know Labour in Newham is worried. Privately, Labour leaders expect us to win ten to 15 council seats next year. I think we can win more.