Millwall is another area where Respect can gain.
Respect has received an enthusiastic response while campaigning for the 9 September by-election in Millwall, east London. This comes on the back of Respect's first victory, in the nearby ward of St Dunstan's and Stepney Green, where Oliur Rahman was elected on 29 July. The political climate is clearly very different from 11 years ago, when Millwall was at the epicentre of shock waves sent all over Britain, caused by the election of the first BNP councillor, Derek Beackon.
At the centre of the old docks, Millwall is an area that has suffered from inadequate housing, social, health and transport provision. This has been presided over by Thatcher and Tory governments, Labour and Liberal councils, and more recently a New Labour government.
In the early 1990s the BNP was able to capitalise on the bitterness and anger in the mainly white working class estates. The Nazis hoped to make their one seat a starting block for building not only in the local area, but nationally as well. However, Derek Beackon's election sparked a revival of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) movement both locally and nationally. It was followed by a protest outside the BNP headquarters in Welling, a strong TUC demonstration through east London and a massive turnout at the ANL carnival. This, coupled with a massive local campaign, managed to oust the Nazis at the next election.
Since then the population of Millwall has changed massively. The growth of the Canary Wharf complex has brought in an influx of people, from the fairly affluent to the very rich. Recently on a new yuppie housing development there was a slogan saying 'One day everyone will be able to live like this'. Prices start at £795,000. This is across the road from some of the poorest working class estates. This development has been actively encouraged by the Labour council which at the same time has done very little for working class people. It has consistently failed to properly represent those who elected them.
Paul McGarr, the Respect candidate for the September elections, told Socialist Review, 'There was a proposal to close the local Barkantine health clinic on the edge of a working class estate and sell the land to developers. We were able to pull together a broad campaign, with meetings and protests.' This ended in victory and there are now GPs in the clinic with plans to start building a health centre.
Local Bengalis have long been asking for cultural and prayer facilities, as there are none in Millwall. These requests have all been blocked by the Labour council, which fears it would cause a racist backlash. These are the kind of campaigns that members of Respect have been involved in.
Millwall wasn't an area where Respect was able to plough in many resources for the 10 June elections, but nevertheless it succeeded in getting 257 votes. The Tories won with 727 votes and New Labour trailed with 520. Labour are clearly very rattled about the possibility of losing their seat. But the turnout was only 22 percent, the lowest in the whole of Tower Hamlets. Many people are disenchanted with all of the mainstream parties.
This is where Respect can gain. The canvassing has begun in earnest. There are important political discussions to be had with people. It is now clear that Respect can start to win seats and that New Labour are not a real alternative to the Tories. Local people have seen the Labour council doing nothing for them and so many have stayed at home. Paul McGarr says that Respect is 'trying to reach out to the disaffected and saying to them that Respect can be "your voice"'.
Paul says that he is 'hoping to win a credible vote on 9 September', but whatever the result, a major victory has already been won. The BNP aren't standing in Millwall this September. Respect is providing a very different alternative to that which was offered to the people of Millwall 11 years ago. It is an alternative that will fight for more affordable council housing, for better social and health provision, against privatisation and cuts. And it is an alternative not based on lies, racism and scapegoating, but one that places the blame where it really belongs - with big business.