Dead Men Left

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

East London rocks (Phil Piratin would be proud*)

(I should never have moved.) First the bad or infuriating stuff: so close on the GLA, with 100,000 spolit ballots acros the city; and I have no idea what went wrong in Wales: presumably the left vote was just deeply split between Greens, the Plaid, Forward Wales and Respect. All around, an exasperating example of how very hard it is to overcome media exclusion in the exceptional unevennes of the Respect poll: whilst the major urban areas granted Respect huge, unprecendented votes - 9% in Leicester, 7% across the whole of Birmingham - these disappeared into those great chunks of the country that our army of campaigners simply could not reach, quite distinct from the desert of "Middle England": the poorer suburbs, the smaller towns, the pockets of rural radicalism. Respect beat - actually topped the poll, actually won more votes than - Labour, Lib Dem, Tory and all the rest in Tower Hamlets, with 20% of the Euro-vote across the constituency. In Newham, always home to a staggeringly solid Labour vote, we came second on 21%. Waltham Forest and Hackney also scored dramatic votes. Lindsey German beat the BNP and the Green Party to come fifth on the mayoral poll. This wasn't simply an automatic "Muslim vote", as many wish to imply: people should remember the frantic efforts of both Greens and (particularly) Lib Dems to appeal to Muslim voters, with Respect fighting them every inch of the way - and those attempting to organise a Muslim boycott of the elections; whilst it is equally clear from campaigning that large numbers of the white, non-Muslim inhabitants of East London voted for Respect. Campaigning was incredible: I have never seen such a response - young men running out to cheer on Whitechapel Road, spontaneous, tooting cavalcades behind the bus through East Ham High Street...

Respect achieved a vote it took the Greens and UKIP a decade or more to achieve - and without the media encouragement. Across the country, it received 250,000 votes, far more than the Communist Party ever managed at the peak of its support; and received them with every expectation of advancing from this point. For the Greens appear to be hitting a glass ceiling, failing to advance across the country; as it says below, the current sectarian bellowing from certain prominent members aside, a Red-Green alliance is the obvious way forward for them, if they are to advance at all. Respect's current support in the inner-cities, and those areas with large ethnic minorities especially can be built upon: not least through the organisation's appeal to the trade unions and disillusioned Labour voters in a way that the Greens cannot match. The Stepney Green by-election, taking place in a previously solid Labour ward in the heart of Tower Hamlets, is the next obvious target.

More fundamental, though, is the steady collapse of the two (and a half) party system. A great degree of polarisation away from any of the major parties is currently taking place; in electoral terms, this has so far benefitted the right, aided and abetted by an astonishing media campaign for UKIP, but the non-Labour left vote was not too far behind. Of course, UKIP's prominence can be overstated: whilst the non-Labour left is evidently divided at present, UKIP is not a stable party formation, even as it appeals to a core, largely racist vote of disaffected Tories. Single-issue politics can take an organisation only so far, as the UK Greens found to their cost in 1989, whilst reinvention as a conventional political organisation imposes significant challenges; the recent tensions within UKIP, as shown by Alan Sked's defection, are one example of this. Kilroy-Silk is not enough to overcome these critical problems. Identified so closely as it is with the war on Iraq, Respect will face similar dilemmas, but I have two reasons for thinking it more likely to be overcome: first, because there are significant, ideologically-motivated left currents within Respect that have the political clarity to steer the organisation around the more obvious teething problems - where the Greens have been more successful, as in Germany, it has been at least partly through reliance on a core of dedicated ideologues of the generic left, generally former Maoists, with great organisational experience; and second, more significantly, because Respect has a strong appeal to a layer of deeply disillusioned former Labour voters and members.

Of course, this isn't easy: the demands of the election somewhat precluded assembling a thorough manifesto, beyond the broad statements Respect have already made; equally, clumps of new members need to be turned into new branches. Stepney awaits.

*except there would be one Trotskyist too many involved for his liking...