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Respect and the 'Muslim Vote'
Feature by Jacob Middleton, June 2006
Jacob Middleton picks apart the claims that Respect has set aside class politics and is instead pushing a "communal" agenda that will appeal only to Muslims.
Respect's stunning election successes last month have roused up a torrent of abuse. Some of it is predictable, lambasting support for Respect among British Muslims. In a piece that compared Respect to the Nazi BNP, Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer that, "Once again, we find a slice of the electorate in a poor part of Britain that is so lost in identity politics and victimhood that it will vote for those who stoke their rage, no matter how worthless they are." Cohen's fixation says much about the prejudices of pro-war hacks. If Respect inspires this level of vitriol from the B-52 liberals, it must be doing something right.
Disturbingly, however, some elements on the left have been tempted down the same path — one that runs directly to New Labour. Blair demands that Muslims support the "British way of life", his media supporters embellish as appropriate, and, finally, we find the Socialist Party claiming that Respect "unconsciously further[s] the beginnings of polarisation based on racial division".
They even go so far as to dismiss Respect councillor Oliur Rahman's record as chair of his PCS union branch as irrelevant to "the political character of Respect." Oliur joined Respect via the anti-war movement in 2004 and has been a PCS member for the last six years. He says, "I joined Respect because it was attracting support from all over and it looked like it could make a real contribution. I'm a left wing socialist and a trade unionist who wants to fight for the working class, and Respect is the organisation that can do that. We don't just fight for one community."
It is as if, by being a Muslim, he cannot be on the left; or as if, by winning support from Muslims, Respect itself cannot be of the left. Those on the left following Cohen's interpretation of Respect's election results are flirting with the racism the war on terror has engendered.
Respect stood in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Birmingham and elsewhere on a platform of solid, working class politics. Respect candidates opposed council house stock transfer, the privatisation of local services, and the criminalisation of youth, calling instead for investment in public services and an end to New Labour's free market policies. These are the bread-and-butter socialist policies that Labour itself, in its better moments, would once have endorsed.
Muslims and non-Muslims voted Respect on the basis that it was an anti-war, left wing alternative to New Labour prepared to oppose racism and fight for working class interests in local councils. Local Respect members gained their credibility from campaigning on issues such as defending council housing and opposing the war on Iraq. Those who have joined Respect and stood for election come from a range of different backgrounds — among them are trade unionists, with members of Unison, the RMT and Amicus standing as candidates. Many are longstanding former Labour Party members like Shahed Ali, who was elected in Whitechapel.
Shahed left the Labour Party after 18 years membership, with the last straw being the decision to prevent local Labour members selecting their own council candidates. "I'm Old Labour," he says. "Obviously I'm upset with Blair's foreign policy but we thought we could fight in the Labour Party for better housing and against what New Labour was doing locally. But the space to do that has been made smaller and smaller. There's no scrutiny or ways of changing policy, so when they denied local members a voice in selecting council candidates, I left."
Respect's "political character" should be perfectly clear. What makes it distinctive is the support it has won among one of the most oppressed sections of the working class in England. There has been a surge in Islamophobia across the country since 11 September 2001. Racist attacks against Muslims (or supposed "Muslims") have increased. Over the longer term, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis — who make up the bulk of Britain's 1.8 million Muslims — face dramatic levels of unemployment, as much as three times higher than their white counterparts. Support from such communities is something that any organisation of the left should be proud of. Yet it is treated by some as a matter of suspicion.
At the heart of the allegations is the suggestion that Respect appeals solely to Muslims. It is alleged that Respect appeals to "communalism" — that it privileges Muslims above other groups, and that it panders to presumed prejudices among them in order to win the "Muslim vote".
This claim ignores the single most important fact in British political life — the invasion of Iraq and its consequences. It should be no surprise that Muslims, faced with a hostile climate after 9/11, opposed the war most strongly. Around 85 percent of British Muslims voted for the Labour Party before the war. Following the invasion, that support has crumbled. The direct involvement of many tens of thousands in the anti-war movement, in particular, showed that a left wing politics not tied to the unpalatable demands of Labour loyalty was possible. For some, this meant not just opposing the war, but starting to look for alternatives to the entire programme of New Labour.
But the break with Labour among working class British Muslims is only a more pronounced version of the same break that has taken place across the British working class as whole. Attachment to the Labour Party, whether measured by votes or party membership, is weaker than at any time since the 1930s. Years of Blairism, and the drip-drip of its neo-liberal policies, had already eaten away at longstanding support. But it was the Iraq war that pushed New Labour into its current, prolonged crisis, and for many supporters provoked a decisive break with the Labour Party. This break is by no means even or complete. But that a breach in historic support has occurred is undeniable, and even dimly recognised by New Labour itself in its current talk of "renewal".
It would be quite unprecedented for a major upheaval of the kind resulting from the war in Iraq to produce a neat transition from old political structures to new. At no point in history has such a smooth change taken place, as the formation of the Labour Party itself shows. The arguments were continual, and the process often disjointed — formed as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, it was only by 1918 that a truly national party could be said to exist. Similarly, the growth of Respect reflects an unevenness in the politics of the working class. Because Respect emerged from a break with Labour over the question of the war, and is in turn shaped by that break, it has won its most significant support in areas where anti-war opposition to New Labour is sharpest.
Had the break appeared on some other issue, Respect (or whatever organisation emerged) would also look different. Because, after 9/11, Muslims have been the principal focus for racism in Britain, because majority-Muslim countries were lined up for invasion, and because it is a Labour government which launched those invasions and foments Islamophobia, it is working class British Muslims who have most dramatically broken with Labour and who offer, at present, the strongest support for Respect.
East London is well known for having well-established and confident Muslim communities. They have formed part of the backbone of the Labour Party in the area for more than two decades. And, it was here that Respect scored its biggest successes.
In Tower Hamlets, Respect captured 23 percent of the vote and won 12 councillors, making it the second party the borough. In neighbouring Newham, Respect got 26 percent of the vote but the first past the post electoral system distorted Respect's success. Three seats were up for election in each of the borough's 20 wards. In one ward Respect took all three seats. In 11 other wards the three runners-up were Respect candidates, In a further two wards, Respect had two of the runners-up, in two more the party had one runner-up.
The level of support for Respect was also evident from the mayoral election where Respect came second, winning 22 percent of first preferences.
It is clear that east London is one of Respect's heartlands. However, the political break that it represents exists to some extent in every area of historic Labour support. Where Respect has stood well-rooted local candidates, and run convincing campaigns, it has been able to produce dramatic results. In the Bristol Lockleaze ward, Jerry Hicks, a prominent local trade unionist, came second for Respect, pushing Labour into third place. Some 86 percent of Lockleaze residents are white, and just 4 percent Muslim. Jerry is clear about where his support came from. "This is a predominantly white, working class area that until a few years ago was rock solid Labour — the sort of place you'd think the BNP might target. But we won support across the board, from traditional Labour voters and first time voters, young and old.
"In sharp contrast to the other parties, we offered the politics of hope and optimism. The rest were all Asbos and CCTVs. We said, Asbos are very expensive, and wouldn't the money be better spent on amenities? Once the argument was presented, it was easy to win people over."
Similarly, in Ealing, Respect won significant votes from a largely Sikh community, building in part on the credibility it had won during the Gate Gourmet dispute at Heathrow. Local Respect supporters report that their biggest difficulty was in overcoming the impression that Respect was a "white party". In Haringey, where Respect has developed significant roots within the Kurdish community, Respect came second in the wards where it stood. Elsewhere in London, Respect candidates in Brent and Camden were also within striking distance of Labour.
Nonetheless, Respect has won the bulk of its councillors from areas with substantial Muslim populations. But claims that it depends on a monolithic "Muslim vote" develops from a (possibly malicious) ignorance about both how Respect campaigns there, and about the ethnic make-up of such areas.
Far from being the "Muslim dominated" areas of media myth, both Tower Hamlets and Newham have mixed populations. Around 36 percent of Tower Hamlet's population identified themselves as Muslim in the last census, and 40 percent as Christian. About 35 percent of the borough's residents are Bengali, not all of whom are Muslims. Over half the population described themselves as white, with the remainder being a mixture of Africans, African-Caribbeans, eastern Europeans, Chinese and others. In Newham, the diversity is even greater — 24 percent of residents described themselves as Muslim, while 48 percent professed to be Christians. About a third are "white British", while around a sixth are black African, Bangladeshi, and Indian respectively. It would be more accurate, if anything, to describe both boroughs as "white" or "Christian dominated", but of course this would not fit the stereotype.
It is not even the case that Respect returned councillors where there were the largest numbers of Bangladeshis. Only two wards in Tower Hamlets are majority Bangladeshi, but in one of those, Whitechapel, Respect returned two out of three councillors, while the other, Spitalfield and Banglatown, the historic centre of the Bengali East End, elected only one Respect candidate. Proof, if it were needed, that there was no such thing as a "Muslim bloc vote". The supposed bloc was clearly split between Labour and Respect.
Nor was it only Muslims who voted Respect. Limehouse, a majority white area with a population just 30 percent Bangladeshi, returned two Respect councillors. Newham has a proportionally smaller Muslim population than Tower Hamlets, but Respect actually won more votes there — 26 percent voted Respect in Newham against 23 percent in Tower Hamlets.
George Galloway's election last year demonstrates the point most forcefully. It was impossible to elect him without the support of white voters precisely because, across the whole of Bethnal Green & Bow, there are not enough Muslims voters to win an election on their support alone — even if they all voted the same way. The decisive issue was the invasion of Iraq. Oona King, the sitting Labour MP, stressed throughout her campaign, her reasons for supporting the war, going so far as to argue the case on her election leaflets. George Galloway, throughout his, stressed his reasons for opposing it. The election was polarised between a pro-war Blairite, and an anti-war socialist.
Some Muslims, though opposing the war, remained loyal to Labour, and some white voters, because they opposed the war, chose to vote Respect. The canvassing returns demonstrated that the split tended to emerge on class lines, with Bengali Muslims in better-off areas like Wapping being more inclined to stick with Labour, while white voters in poorer areas were more likely to support Respect. The supposedly monolithic "Muslim vote" was split, and therefore it was entirely logical for Respect to build a campaign that united all sections of the working class — the point of unity being over the question of Iraq. By focusing firstly on the war, and secondly on the broader issues of New Labour's rule, Respect was able to build support across working class areas in Bethnal Green & Bow, Muslim and non-Muslim.
Clearly, the composition of Respect's support in east London must be more complex than allegations of "communalism" allow for. Put simply, a directly "communalist" politics cannot win here. The demographics are stacked against it. To overturn a tradition of Labour support that is, in some wards, nearly a century old requires the creation of a united front on the broadest platform achievable. That can only mean standing for basic working class politics — anything else would divide and weaken Respect's support.
This has meant, for example, overcoming political traditions that have privileged (often elderly) men able to deliver votes in exchange for patronage. Respect has more Bengali women councillors in Tower Hamlets than all the other parties put together. One of these women, Rania Khan, is one of the youngest councillors in the country. Respect stood more Bengali women in winnable seats than all the other parties put together. These are not the actions of a party driven by "communalism". In fact, quite the opposite. Nor are they the actions of a party dependent on patronage and graft. Respect has struck a great blow against the unholy alliance of New Labour policies and old-school clientelism.
But it is quite clear from the results that Respect's Asian candidates in east London did better than others. Local elections encourage localised voting. Independents and those with strong local ties have always been able to gain a look-in they lacked at national level. Where party loyalties have weakened markedly, and local elections are closely fought, such marginal factors can become decisive — candidates with strong local ties through friends and family have an advantage.
But there is another factor. For a minority of Asian voters, race is an issue. It should come as no surprise to socialists that those who suffer the most racism in our society sometimes prefer to be represented by someone they know from their own community. In a closely fought contest, this generally marginal factor was able to make some difference. This need not be the case. In Newham, white Respect candidates standing together with two Muslim candidates in a ward often did as well, or better, than one of the Muslims. Socialists argue that the best defence against racism is unity of black, white and Asian and this is an argument that Respect needs to carry in east London. It has nothing to do with "communalism", and everything to do with understanding racism and its political impact.
If anything, it was the Labour Party that ran "communalist" campaigns in areas where it was threatened by Respect. Labour leaflets in Birmingham repeatedly used a picture of George Galloway and the gay Dead or Alive singer, Pete Burns. In Shadwell, Tower Hamlets, leaflets were distributed asking "Muslims" to ignore Respect's "lies" as Labour was the "true party for Muslims".
Abdurahman Jafar, Respect is mayoral candidate in Newham, says he was "completely unprepared" for the Labour Party's tactics there. "Respect fought for all the communities in Newham. We campaigned about the council replacing Queens Market with an Asda, for equality of public services across the borough, and against the replacement of a local school with a city academy. We received support across colours, genders, ages, and religions.
"But the really organised campaign against us came from Muslims in the Labour Party. They produced a leaflet saying that Respect wanted to convert Muslims. This was communalist, divisive politics."
For Labour to be resorting to these tricks is a sign of its desperate weakness. It is attempting to prop up its weakened — but still substantial — electoral base by appealing outside of left wing, working class politics. During the 2005 general election campaign in Bethnal Green & Bow, voters in more "white" areas were told on Labour leaflets that "the Scottish MP is stirring things up, especially in the Bengali community". The innuendo is obvious. This is "communalism" for white people.
If Respect is to build, such moves by Labour must be resisted. Where it has found success, it has been as a party capable of mobilising a broad base of support. Respect is at an early stage of its development, and socialists are rightly proud of its impressive achievements. But if the party is to grow, we must take the fight from our strongholds in the East End, Birmingham and Preston, and into every working class area abandoned by New Labour.
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