Dead Men Left

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Poplar and Populism

Daniel Brett has very quickly responded to my comments on his extrapolation of Respect's election results. He suggests voter registration may not be quite such an issue amongst the large, well-established Asian populations in Tower Hamlets, East London. I'm not so sure; my suspicion is that registration is still lower than it might be amongst well-settled ethnic miorities, and that amongst recent migrants it is a serious issue. However, a cursory bit of research - on Google, the lazy blogger's favourite - doesn't bring up anything more substantial on the topic.

Daniel also makes this point:

I think the South Asian Muslim population in particular will be vital to RESPECT's capacity building in Bethnal Green. Once a party has gained the loyalty of a significant part of the Asian population, it has a strong base for building support. George Galloway is a politician who suits the Asian style of tough street politics, strong rhetoric and energetic campaigning. Unlike many scruffy beard-and-sandal left-wing types, he is also presentable, successful and clever - qualities that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis admire. At the same time, the white community will not feel alienated by him. Like it or hate it, white people in the East End are more likely to vote for a white candidate than an Asian candidate.

The first part I broadly agree with: the anger with New Labour in Bethnal Green (one of the Parliamentary constituencies in Tower Hamlets) amongst long-standing Asian supporters is palpable. This is a large, overwhelmingly working-class community that has been betrayed by both national and local Labour governments, and they have every right to demand an alternative. Equally, I think the white working-class in Bethnal Green have been thoroughly messed around by New Labour, locally and nationally: as they do not bear the brunt of "war on terror" racism, the break with Labour has been less dramatic, but it has emerged nonetheless. A socialist appeal such as that made by Respect, focusing on the inadequacies of local services and placing it in the context of the "war on terror" - money to bomb Iraq, no money for hospitals and schools - has a great resonance. I am particularly glad that we stood up to the three-party consensus on crime that demanded yet more (ineffective) authoritarianism: more ASBOs, more police, tougher sentences. We talked instead about being tough on what Blair once used to call the "causes of crime": the absence of opportunities for young people locally in particular.

Where I do not think Daniel is quite right is in the second part. Galloway's appeal to white East End residents is not boosted simply because he is white: Oona King, a black Jewish woman, was elected by a large majority in 1997 (with, it seems, Daniel's help) and without an obnoxious, racist campaign against her in 2001 having any noticeable effect on either Asian or white voters. Rather, I think Galloway's appeal is because he is "not a politician": the cigars and flash suits are one part of this wide-boy image, but more importantly he encapsulates a set of political beliefs in a way the classic machine politician does not. Galloway stands for something, and stands out because of it: there are few unaware of his opinons on the Iraq war, for instance. This is a comparison I make very warily, but Robert Kilroy-Silk, a UK Independence Party MEP, is also "not a politician" and summed up a set of political beliefs: in his case, too many refugees and too many Muslims. Both are placed in opposition to the "political class", Galloway to the left, Kilroy-Silk to the hard right. The decisive difference is the nature of the organisation around them: UKIP exists as an example of what Gramsci once described as "populism", of a very pure variety: a "non-political" political organisation that, since it has so few active members, exists solely in the ephemeral zone between the approved dialogue of the "political class" and a popular dialogue it has helped foster. It floats on a miasma of media hype, bouyed up by continual attacks on refugees, Europe and Muslims.

Respect is something different: lacking the media attention, and placed in direct opposition to the racist discourse the British media has promoted, it has of necessity relied on, first, a principled and relatively comprehensive alternative programme to neoliberalism of a classic socialist type; and second, the rapid creation of effective local organisations. Neither would have been possible without the anti-war movement, the breach with Labour it forced open, and the new networks it has thrown up; the first would have been very difficult without a clear figurehead like Galloway. The classic model for building successful left organisations in opposition to Labour is provided by Phil Piratin, Communist MP for Stepney (also in Tower Hamlets), in his Our Flag Stays Red. Piratin, a well-known local campaigner, was elected on the back of assidious work in the community performed by the Communist Party before WW2, for which they reaped the rewards afterwards. He helped organise rent strikes, campaigns against Mosley's fascists and all the rest of it. There are far greater demands placed on political organisations outside the big three: voters are much less inclined to be taken for a ride by smaller parties, and Piratin's book makes it clear just how much effort went it building and sustaining the Stepney Green organisation. Respect faces a similar challenge.

(Daniel ends with an appeal to bloggers in India and Bangladesh for their thoughts on voting in South Asia. I'd particularly like to know what the CPI and CPM did to build their - it seems unexpected - recent election successes, if
anybody has any information.)

(I'd further add that Piratin's account has been challenged by others: Joe Jacobs' Out of the Ghetto is one autobiographical description of the Communist Party's pre-war work that disagrees Piratin's on a number points; a more recent historical narrative explicitly argues that the Communist Party played up to "communalist" politics in the East End's large Jewish community, though its title temporarily escapes me.)