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Respect: ‘the fourth force in British politics’?

George Galloway's party owes its isolated successes to the disgruntlement of Muslim youth.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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The election of Respect candidate George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow, east London, was one of the headline-grabbing features of Britain’s largely lifeless General Election.

For newspaper and TV reporters, the unseating of New Labour MP Oona King boiled down to one issue – Iraq. The Socialist Workers’ Party, which has put considerable resources and energy into Respect, believes that Galloway’s victory represents a seismic shift in British politics. ‘Respect has come from nowhere to become the fourth force in British politics’, reckoned the Socialist Worker (1), seemingly oblivious to the party’s minuscule percentage of the overall vote.

Leaving aside the questionable maths, how accurate is Respect national secretary John Rees’ assessment that his party is the ‘political embodiment’ of a new anti-war, anti-privatisation mood that was ‘previously visible only in opinion polls’? (2) An inspection of Respect’s electoral results suggests that anti-war sentiment probably isn’t as strong – or as significant – as it claims. The biggest influence on Respect’s electoral fortunes appears to rest on the proportion of Muslims – and in particular young Muslims – living in an electoral ward.

It was in areas with a significant Muslim population that Respect managed to capture a sizeable chunk of the vote. For example, in Bethnal Green, Respect won 15,807 votes; in Sparkbrook in Birmingham, it got 10,498 votes. In East Ham, London, 8,171 people voted for Respect, a respectable 20.7 per cent of the total vote cast. All this contrasts rather dramatically with electoral wards that don’t have a large Muslim population. In Dorset there were a paltry 219 votes cast for Respect. The same pattern emerged in Cambridge (477 votes), Hove (268 votes) and Plymouth (347 votes), with an average of 0.6 per cent for the total vote cast (3).

The justification for establishing Respect was the belief that the big anti-war demonstrations of 2003 could be translated into a broader political movement. But if opposition to the Iraq war galvanised a wide spectrum of the electorate, why has Respect’s electoral tally been so uneven? Why didn’t it do as well in Dorset as in east London?

It seems that Respect has almost exclusively courted Muslims in inner cities, believing that young Muslims have been radicalised as a consequence of the ‘war on terror’ and the war in Iraq. There is no doubt that young Muslims are disgruntled, but the expression of this isn’t political or even consistently anti-war. After all, on those very same Stop the War demonstrations in 2003, some radical Muslims were calling for military intervention against Israel.

A vote for Respect seems to be more an expression of Muslim estrangement from British society, than a decision to change it for the better. Some of the young Muslims I spoke to during the election voted for Respect out of a vague identification with being a Muslim. Islamic extremists, by contrast, generally opposed Galloway, not because of his politics but because he ‘wasn’t one of us’. The radical left becomes a confused vehicle for an alienated and particularist Muslim outlook.

If Respect could engage this audience and transform personal disgruntlement into a political stance, it would be a start. Creating a mandate for an anti-war or socialist programme first demands convincing others of your politics. But this is unlikely to happen with Respect. Indeed, part of the organisation’s appeal is precisely that it has identified a ‘ready-made’ audience, without the need for arguments or persuasion. Judging by the overblown assessment on Respect’s website, the left seems to be compensating for years of bitter isolation.

In truth, however, Respect instinctively appreciates how fragile its relationship with its newfound constituency is. This is why political issues that may cause offence to Muslims, such as abortion and gay rights, are quietly shelved. Indeed, some reports indicate that Galloway’s appeal in Bethnal Green was as much due to his anti-abortion stance as to his opposition to the Iraq war (4). Elsewhere, Respect is notably silent about tackling New Labour’s proposals for laws against the incitement to religious hatred. Perhaps all those years canvassing for the Labour Party weren’t a waste for SWP activists – they’ve learnt how to eschew important principles for the sake of electoral expediency.

Even by the standards of the radical left, declaring Galloway’s electoral success as a ‘new force in British politics’ is enormously deluded. Respect has provided a vehicle for alienated young Muslims, but has failed to connect to a wider electorate. And as Respect hasn’t convinced young Muslims – or indeed anyone else – to adopt a consistently anti-war or socialist programme, any level of support is likely to be short term and shortlived. Far from being a ‘new dawn’ for British politics, Respect’s trawler net of anti-Blair cynicism, misanthropic environmentalism and municipal socialism is about as conservative and as spineless as it gets. Surely the electorate deserves more respect than this?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2005

(1) Socialist Worker, 9 May, 2005

(2) Socialist Worker, 9 May, 2005

(3) See Respect election results

(4) ‘Masked protest as Muslims set out their guidelines for Islamic voters’, The Times, April 20 2005

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Topics Politics

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