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Voting Respect lays the basis for a politics of hope

Michael Lavalette


As the election campaign gets under way one issue we have to address is the idea that a vote for Respect is a 'wasted vote'. The argument can be summed up as 'I like what you say; I agree with you on the war but you can't win - and even if you win a seat what impact can you make?'

We should not underestimate the extent to which ideas such as this prevent organisations like Respect breaking into the three party system that dominates Britain. It's important to know how to respond:

Let's start with the idea of the wasted vote. This is being put about by Labour supporters to try and stop people voting Respect.

But in the British electoral system the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of votes are 'wasted' in the sense that the majority of the electorate do not vote for the winning party. The Labour party has never gained the votes of more than half the electorate.

I live in Preston, a traditionally solid Labour city. Yet the part of the city I live in has been carved off into the Ribble Valley constituency - one of the safest Tory seats in the country. The only way my vote would not be waste is to vote Tory - and there is no chance of that! But you don't hear Labour supporters in my part of Preston suggesting a vote for them is a 'wasted vote'.

The big three parties push the 'wasted vote' argument because it benefits them. But it leaves us with no choice. Voting becomes reduced to putting a cross besides tweedledee, tweedledum or tweedledummer; each of them a party of big business, privatisation and war.

Voting Respect does three things. First it emphasises that the anti-war majority will not and cannot be silenced. Blair and the rest of his lying cabinet should pay the political price of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. A good vote for Respect will mean Blair will continue to be haunted by the Iraq war.

Second, elections are obviously about winning - but a good vote can lay the basis for future elections.

In Preston last June we stood in five wards at the local elections. We did not win any of the seats but we were second in three and third in two. We got an average of 30% of the vote. We are now the main challengers to New Labour in central Preston.

But on the basis of our 'second place' we are taken much more seriously in the community. Respect gets lots of local media coverage. Various community networks are working with us to ensure that at the next election we can challenge New Labour in many more seats.

The success of this project depends on getting votes this time round. So we are asking people to vote Respect in May and in the process, be part of an exciting new project to re-shape the political landscape of Britain.

But what if we do get someone elected (as we all fervently hope), can we make a difference?

Let's start by asking some questions. Has the anti-war voice benefited from having George Galloway as an MP? Or the fight to defend our civil liberties? Has our national profile (both as Respect and as an anti-war movement) been strengthened or weakened by having an elected representative? The answer is obvious.

But more importantly getting elected means we can start to initiate a different type of political engagement from that offered by the mainstream parties.

First, we want to encourage a grass roots political engagement. This may seem awful grand but we want to make politics real and relevant.

We don't want MPs who disappear for 4 or 5 years then reappear at the next election wanting a vote. We want to use our position to strengthen and deepen our contacts with the local trade union movement, with local community and cultural organisations and with local youth and campaigning networks. We want to become, and to be seen as, their representatives in Parliament.

This means that our second aim is not to get caught up in the interminable work of Parliamentary or council committees. Rather we aim to use Parliament and council chambers as tribunes to raise issues that promote a more radical and engaged politics.

To use our elected position to defend communities who are under attack; to support trade unionists in struggle; to defend civil liberties, to promote the anti-war and anti-imperialist cause; to build the movement against neo-liberal-globalisation.

That is what George has done over the last 18 months and , in a small way, it is what the Respect councillors have managed to do in Tower Hamlets and Preston.

In Preston we have managed to use the council chamber to raise issues about Palestine, the tsunami and global warming. We have voted consistently against cuts in jobs and services. We have spoken out against councillors paying themselves increased allowances and pensions at a time when they are sacking local government workers.

In Tower Hamlets Respect has managed to raise support for strikers, stand up against the attacks on workers' pensions, cuts in the local fire service and raise demands for improvements to local housing.

Respect is a new organisation. But we already have a record in Parliament and in the council chambers that we can be proud of.

Voting Respect on the 5 May not only reflects the political aspirations of the anti-war movement in Britain - it also lays the basis for an engaged politics of hope. It's something we should all fight for over the next month.

 

Michael Lavalette is a councillor in Preston, where he is also the parliamentary candidate for Respect.
 

April 2005

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