Friday, 15 April 2011

Why there should be a left challenge in the GLA elections

The Respect party announced today they will be standing for the London Assembly and approaching others to form an anti-cuts slate for the May 2012 election.

Party Leader Salma Yaqoob said:

"There is a democratic deficit in London. There is a large constituency who want to see Ken beat Boris but are deeply uncomfortable with the Labour party choices for the assembly, marked as they are by a tepid opposition to the spending cuts, support for a decade long war in Afghanistan and now a new war in Libya.

There are many fronts on which this governments military wars abroad and economic war at home can be contested. The forthcoming GLA elections is one arena. We will be approaching others in the student and anti-cuts movement, those opposed to war and the tide of Islamophobia it has generated, and others on the left, to discuss standing a united slate with the aim of defeating the Tories in City Hall and putting into the assembly the strongest anti-cuts, anti-racist and pro-peace voices".

Statement from the RESPECT Party Officers Group
Why there should be a left challenge in the GLA elections

The Respect Party has decided to stand candidates for the London Assembly in the GLA elections in 2012. We believe that it is important for a powerful left-wing, anti-racist and anti-imperialist voice to be heard. And we believe that a strong campaign can make an impact in these elections.

But there is no doubt that we are more likely to be heard if we speak with one voice. Our impact can only be greater if we can find a way to bring together the many people who share our values into one campaign.

So, as we prepare our campaign over the next few months, we will also be talking to others who share our commitments to peace, justice and equality. We want to see the widest possible left wing challenge in these elections, and we are willing to explore every possibility of achieving such a united campaign.

Of course, the elections are 12 months away and the political situation is fluid. The full impact of the Tory-led government's unprecedented austerity offensive and attempts to use the deficit as an excuse to roll back the welfare state, shifting wealth from the working class to big business, are only beginning to be felt. In the last month, Britain has become a leading force in the Libya war, which has marked the forcible re-entry of the Western powers into the Arab region after they suffered such a major setback with the fall of long term allies Ben Ali and Mubarak. And we have seen David Cameron escalate the underlying scapegoating of Muslim and BME communities with his speech in Munich attacking multiculturalism.

How all of this plays out in the coming months remains to be seen. But Respect's view is that there is scope for the left to make a significant political and electoral impact in London in 2012.

Labour is now in opposition nationally and in London. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is the main recipient of feeling against the ConDem coalition - a major political fact that was apparent already at the general election. That has a pronounced impact on the electoral space that exists for forces to the left of Labour. But it is important to assess the political space that exists before considering how that might be turned into significant electoral gain, something which is far from automatic.

A political space

Notwithstanding the election of Ed Milliband and the replacement of Alan Johnson by Ed Balls, the Labour Party's opposition to the Tories and Lib Dems remains hamstrung by the immense shift to the right inherited from the Blair years. In central policy areas, Labour remains to the right of a considerable body of public opinion.

1) Austerity - the Labour position is that the cuts are too big and too early; not that they are unnecessary and should be fought across the piece. The argument that the response to the crisis triggered by the financial collapse in 2008 should be to invest not to cut is, however, gaining some important ground among commentators, in the labour movement and on the left of the political spectrum. So is the call for coordinated action by trade unions and communities against the austerity offensive. We will see how far the major unions go in taking such action following the great TUC demonstration of 26 March. But the call for a full-blown struggle against the cuts at the TUC rally was much more popular than Ed Milliband's speech. The arguments made by Mark Serwotka on Question Time had a resonance. Our experience is that there is a similar resonance when George Galloway or Salma Yaqoob are in the media making the same kind or arguments. The response to the inspiring campaign by UKUncut suggests the same. Labour is not making these arguments and will not foreseeably be doing so.

Our campaign will put the positive case for investment not cuts, but will also be the voice for all those who think that this austerity offensive needs to be stopped in its tracks.

2) War and imperialist intervention - there is little enthusiasm for the Libya war or for the on-going war in Afghanistan. Mobilisation against the Libya war may be muted, but the opinion polls show a persistently high level of opposition and scepticism - more so even than at this stage in the Iraq war. That is not reflected in parliament or by the Labour Party. Just 15 MPs voted against the Libya deployment, 11 of them Labour. Again, how this plays out in terms of potential for campaigning and agitation remains to be seen.

Growing numbers of young people are seeing a connection between their struggle against cuts and for free education and against cuts, and the struggles against war and imperialism throughout the world.

The events organised by Lowkey and Jody McIntyre, for example, have drawn young people on a clear anti-imperialist basis. There is a political space for expressing principled opposition to war, especially at a time of austerity.

3) Racism and Islamophobia - David Cameron chose the week that the Tories' support in the polls dropped below their general election percentage to make a speech in Munich ratcheting up scapegoating of the Muslim community. The right wing papers are already highlighting spending on asylum seekers and on BME communities - such as the Roma - to drive through a consensus around cuts. Despite Labour's desire to re-engage with disaffected Muslim and BME voters, it remains wedded to the framework that generates Islamophobia and racism. At the same time, Muslim and BME organisations are responding vigorously over these attacks and over the European racist wave, evinced in Sarkozy's burka ban.

In the election for London Mayor, of course, Labour has a candidate, Ken Livingstone, who is articulating a clear left response on all these issues. He is seen as not only the Labour candidate, but the left candidate - someone who, for example, spoke out directly against the Libya intervention even when it might have been electorally advantageous to soften such opposition and bend towards the Labour Party's position. It would be an important step forward if Livingstone can beat Boris Johnson and provide a focus across Britain for opposition to the ConDem government. Respect, and we imagine all the serious left, will be supporting Ken for mayor.

But for the GLA, Labour is not putting forward a left alternative. And it is not possible to win support for these kinds of policies simply by supporting Labour against the Tory and Lib Dem GLA candidates.

Respect believes that standing in the GLA can help to shift the political argument to the left, notwithstanding the formidable difficulties in fighting the election seriously.

Electoral prospects

Labour in opposition naturally creates a great squeeze on the left of Labour vote. All sections of the left experienced that at the general election. But rooted and sustained campaigns have been able to achieve modest electoral success. The electoral space might be diminished, but it is far from non-existent as people still remember the disappointments of the Blair/Brown years. And who knows what the balance will be in 12 months’ time.

Respect was able to win a byelection in Tower Hamlets in December. The circumstances were specific - a highly right wing Labour machine going to war with sections of the Bangladeshi community and with Labour's voting base. But there are Labour figures elsewhere who are engaging in similar attacks on traditional bastions of support. The campaign to hold our council seat in Birmingham in May will be hard fought. So will Michael Lavalette's campaign to hold his seat in Preston. At the same time George Galloway is heading a list - Respect, Coalition Against Cuts - in Glasgow. It would be a remarkable result if he could be elected. There will also be other left wing candidates standing in council elections who are seeking to galvanise opposition to the cuts in their area. We wish them well.

But already the electoral intervention in Glasgow is having very positive results. It is voicing, as no one else in the election can, the left positions outlined above, and with them imaginative policies for the Scottish Parliament, over disability benefits for example, that point to how it could become an instrument for UK-wide opposition to the ConDems. It has also succeeded in getting a significant amount of left unity around a common electoral campaign. It is connecting with newer activists against cuts. Of course, the test is in the votes counted on 5 May. But there is already some success which is of benefit for the left as a whole. And should George get elected, Respect would regard it as a success for the left as a whole and not merely for our part of it.

It's in that spirit that we wish to discuss in the month of May with all those serious forces who not only want to see a left-wing mayor in Ken Livingstone but who also want to see the left make an impact in the GLA elections.

New campaigns and new movements are growing out of the youth radicalisation and sentiment against big business making the rest of us pay for the bankers' crisis. There are established organisations on the left too. We would be stronger if we were united in this election campaign.

Respect was able to get 67,000 votes three years ago in the GLA election. We are all well aware of the difficulties of nearly doubling that and winning a seat. But in the fast developing political situation in Britain this cannot be ruled out 12 months in advance. An imaginative campaign established in the next few months - rather than few weeks before polling day - does have the potential to connect with some of the radicalisation that has been evident over the student revolt last December, the turnout for the TUC's march and the deepening opposition to Condem scapegoating and vicious social policies, such as the targeting of disabled people.

We would therefore welcome such discussions in May, after the results of the Scottish and local elections are known, with a view to launching a campaign for the GLA as soon as possible.

Yours fraternally,

The Respect Party officers group