The Bethnal Green win for Galloway and the other strong showings from Respect elsewhere show that the crude communalist politics adopted by the SWP-MAB-Galloway alliance can get results. The notion put forward by the SWP and their allies that this was some sort of victory for an imagined ‘left alternative’ is a fantasy – Galloway organised ethnic voting to defeat a Labour candidate who sought to represent the entire community of one of London’s poorest areas.
It was not just the crude politics and the playing on reactionary stereotypes that exposed Respect’s strategy but also their method of organisation. I stood outside one polling station in a Bangladeshi populated area and saw the Respect activists on the street politely hand leaflets and have a quiet word with almost all of the Bangladeshis who arrived at the polling station. They ignored the non-Bangladeshi voters who turned up, not even bothering to hand them a leaflet.
I doubt that was a conscious policy instruction from the top: Respect’s leaders aren’t so stupid as to not even try to get an anti-war vote from non-Muslims – after all they faced a lot of competition for the anti-war vote from the Tory, Liberal Democrat and Green Party candidates. Rather it was just one example of the many unpleasant results of a communalist approach from a party that asked for support on the basis that Labour had “made war on Muslims”.
Communalism is a poison. Without wishing to over-dramatise, take a look around the world at places where politics are organised along communal lines – in fact you could start by just glancing over the water to Northern Ireland which would be a very different place if its politics were not still defined by religious identity.
The power of ethnic identity is tempting for demagogues seeking a support base – Slobodan Milosevic is an obvious, albeit extreme, example – a dictator who abandoned Titoist slogans about ‘brotherhood and unity’ and built up his support on the basis of Serbian ethnic communalism. The supreme irony in the light of all the rhetoric about ‘anti-imperialism’ from Respect supporters is that the old imperialisms famously used communalism as part of their divide and rule strategy.
The poison of communalism spreads quickly – I am sure the Labour activist in Bethnal Green who talked of ‘getting out the white vote’ would never have dreamt of using such terminology in previous elections. I wonder if those who talked of ‘leaving the constituency’ if Respect won, were really worried about Galloway himself.
The same polarisation occurs in areas which are targeted by the BNP.
The BNP are of course, very different from Respect in many ways and Galloway’s group do not publicly use open racism. But they do share a communalist approach to politics. The particular focus of British fascism has altered over the years. In Mosley’s days they emphasised their anti-semitism as a way of trying to gain favour. In the fifties and sixties, Afro-Caribbean’s were the targets of the far-right and now the BNP put their attention on the Asian community and try to whip up fears of Muslims. In each case the aim of the fascists was to boost their status as ‘defenders of whites’.
The strongest area of support for the far right in Burnley’s council elections came not from the few ethnically mixed areas (where one might have imagined there is some tension) but from the almost exclusively white suburbs. Immediately after the BNP’s strong results in Lancashire, politicians and journalists started to talk about ‘the white working class’ – music to the ears of the cleverer racists at the top of the BNP who know that once people start identifying themselves by race then they are on to a winner with slogans such as ‘rights for whites’. Whenever I have spoken to lads thinking of voting for the BNP they have shown that the message has got through, expressing the view that the BNP will “stick up for us”.
With communalist politics it is not the specific political programme -troops out of Iraq in the case of Respect or immigration and asylum in the case of the BNP – that is the defining characteristic, it is the creation of a communal identity and the exploitation of it.
For both Respect and the BNP are exploitative – seeking to use ethnic identity blocks to divide, polarise and radicalise.
The key to defeating both Respect and the BNP is to tackle their communalism head on with the politics of unity and not to fall into the trap of demonising their voters. There is nothing Respect’s leadership would relish more, at this moment, than criticism of those who voted for them just as the BNP lap it up when the media spout stereotypes of their support base as ‘white trash’.
The Bangladeshi youth who made up the active base of support for Galloway in Bethnal Green need to be engaged with seriously – not demonised. Their opposition to the war in Iraq may have been the primary reason they found themselves lining up with a Scottish carpet-bagger but they are not going to spend their entire lives raging about the war. There are plenty of issues where the left could offer support to the best elements in that community and start to build an alternative. No-one should let their disgust at Galloway’s behaviour lead them into wild generalisations about Muslim communities. The Respect voters need to be won away from the bile of the SWP and Galloway and the dead-end religious politics of MAB. That task can never be done by Islamophobes and the best way is surely to offer a workable left-wing solution to the problems facing that community.
In fact the entire constituency along with other ghettoised communities in Britain need to be the focus of a concentrated effort by the left to take on communalism and offer a progressive, unifying alternative.
Its hard for people who spend their working and home lives in successfully multicultural areas of big cities to understand how ghettoisation damages communities. The most difficult areas are those which are largely bi-cultural. I grew up in one such community where there has never been a serious attempt to deal with the divisions. Friends in London, who enjoy the great diversity of life in that city, shook their heads in disbelief at the riots in Burnley and the rise of the BNP in the area. The last thing similar towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire need is Respect turning up.
It may sound old-fashioned but the best way to tackle communalism is surely bringing people together to stand up for their common interests. Campaigns for better housing in all areas, campaigns for better jobs for all communities, campaigns for better schools and public services for all. All things worth doing in themselves, especially with a Labour government in power, but with the added bonus of crossing the communal divide.
If Labour is looking for some ‘big ideas’ for its third term then it could do much worse than announce a major effort to deal with the ‘forgotten communities’ across Britain. These are the areas that were decimated by Thatcherism and have yet to recover. They are to be found mainly in the North and the Midlands but they include the ‘pockets of poverty’ inside London such as Bethnal Green. In many cases these ‘left behind’ areas are divided along bi-cultural lines.
The communalist parties recognise there is potential for them in those areas – the BNP need whites to be angry and afraid and Respect need Muslims to feel they are ‘under attack’ – the propaganda of both parties reveals their strategy is one of creating that fear and anger. Poverty and alienation provide fertile ground for them.
The left needs to respond to this poison with the politics of hope – showing in practice that our old slogans still have some life in them yet. That unity is strength, that a democratic society offers a way of dealing with problems, that a social-democratic economy can provide a decent life for all and the opportunities that offer a way out of poverty and marginalisation.