There has been some discussion in the comments threads of the intimidating atmosphere which marked the election in Bethnal Green and Bow.
A reader of this blog sent me an account of his experience of the campaign, and of its effect on voters. Its a pretty disturbing one. He has kindly agreed to let me put it up.
There is bound to be discussion below of the extent to which the sort of voter intimidation reported by Dr P is the “responsibility” of Respect. Just to make my point absolutely clear: I would be astonished if there were any evidence that the SWP/Respect had organised or at any point advocated violence and the threats of violence by their supporters. Gangs of leery lads are a long established feature of East End life and are self directed. A friend of mine who worked until recently in youth clubs in the area has a stock of tales involving gangs of “youfs” in their late teens and early twenties who roam around the area in a fuzz of testosterone and spliff, generally kicking off, sometimes with the aim of policeing the mores of muslim girls who are seen to have “westernised”. These lads are not the core of Respect: they are simply their hangers-on.
I imagine that there will also be some discussion of the extent to which the intimidatory tone of the campaign was contributed to by the conduct and rhetoric of the candidates, and whether peace deals to keep supporters a certain distance from polling stations were ever entered into, let alone broken. Frankly, I doubt whether peace deals between candidates would have influenced the behaviour of the people described below.
It will be interesting, though, to see the flavour of the responses by SWP/Respect posters below, and what steps are taken by SWP/Respect itself to ensure that this sort of conduct does not remain a feature of politics in the East End in future.
I expect some posters to argue that this behaviour, though regrettable, needs to be understood before it is condemned, and that in any case it is no concern of Mr Galloway’s. The truth is, it is every concern of Mr Galloway, just as it is a matter of enormous concern to every politician, and every person interested in the political future of Bethnal Green and Bow. Galloway is also, for better or worse, the MP for the area, and intimidation has been used on his behalf, though not at his behest. SWP/Respect has the same sort of responsibility for the behaviour of the groups of youths who stand in the street chanting “Re-Spect Re-Spect Re-Spect” at voters that football clubs have for the hooligans who follow them.
It is therefore doubly important for SWP/Respect to address these concerns and to play its part in ensuring that threats of violence, and actual violence, do not remain a feature of the politics of the area.
I really have no beef with anyone who voted Respect and I believe many did so for very sincere reasons but I have a very great problem with some of the things that went on in Respect’s name in the campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow.
I am actually a Labour activist in Poplar and Canning Town, where campaigning was orderly and proper. An affable atmosphere existed between activists and I was able to shake hands with and speak to the Respect candidate Oliur Rahman – who came across as thoroughly charming. Likewise on polling day, the atmosphere in P&CT polling stations was calm and amiable. I chatted with a thoroughly decent Respect activist on the polling station I was assigned to and saw that the same was going on at the other polling stations in Bromley-by-Bow.
My beef is not at all with the campaign in our constituency and nor with the very many voters who cast their votes for Respect.
However, on Monday – having completed the campaign in our ward we offered our services to Bethnal Green and Bow. A group of us went to their party rooms and were set to voter ID in Bow East. This is a non-confrontation exercise that all parties undertake to identify their core vote in each area.
In the afternoon we were in the Alfred Street/Malmesbury Estate area when a large group of teenagers started harassing us. Waiting for us to be separated on stairwells or not in proximity to other activists. I was surrounded at one point on a doorstep and pinned against the wall and barraged with questions about what I felt about the Iraq War. I answered as honestly as I could and they left me alone although I was spat at. Really quite frightening. They then moved on to another activist and before he had even turned round they had pelted him and the Asian woman he had been speaking to with eggs.
The police were called, and we had to abandon campaigning. Many of the residents told us that they also had been intimidated by this group.
On polling day, as I said above, things were calm in Poplar and Canning Town. But we started to get calls from the campaign in Bethnal Green and Bow in the afternoon calling for bodies to man polling stations. After ensuring all our stations were manned we cycled over to offer our support.
I was positioned on a polling station with a wodge of leaflets to hand out. There were about six Respect activists on the polling station who, although they were not particularly friendly, were nevertheless orderly and not intimidating voters at all.
However, there was a large group of teenagers that circled the polling station at a distance chanting Respect and trying to obstruct voters from getting to the station. The policeman on the station was a bit freaked out by this and radioed for help and a van came with extra police who dispersed the group. Almost as soon as the police had gone, they came back. The policeman told me that it had been like this at many of the other polling stations. The atmosphere was very hostile and many of the voters arriving at the station looked frightened.
At about 8pm I was sent out knocking up. I was given a list of names and addresses of people who had not turned up to the polling station. I really only had an hour to give to this as I had to get to the count at Canary Wharf. Nearly every door I knocked on the people would not answer. People called through the letterboxes or from upstairs windows and told me they were not going to vote. Two told me that they felt ashamed but were too afraid to go to the polling station with the gangs lurking around.
What I witnessed seemed to me to amount to the kind of bully boy tactics normally associated with Northern Ireland politics or the BNP.
This is why I am angry.
Dr Douglas P