On a miserable Sunday night in late February, more than 200 people huddle in Quwwat-Ul-Islam, an all-girls Muslim faith school in Newham, east London. 'Salaam aleikum,' says a man dressed in a white robe, once the crowd has settled into the dilapidated hall. 'We will start with a reading from the Koran.'
But this is not a religious meeting. It's a fundraising event and dinner for the anti-war electoral coalition Respect. On the platform sit Lindsey German and Abdul Khaliq, respectively Respect's candidates for Newham's West and East Ham constituencies, Oliur Rahman, the party's first councillor (for neighbouring Tower Hamlets) and former Daily Express journalist and Muslim convert Yvonne Ridley.
The meeting is just one of a series put on by Respect in the lead-up to the general election; this one, like many others, is specifically targeted at the Muslim community. Word of the fundraiser spread through the Newham Muslim Alliance (NMA), a coalition of leaders from 25 local mosques, and the similarly and confusingly named Alliance, a political lobbying group made up of young, male, second- and third-generation Muslims, roughly half of whom are Respect members. Little other advertising was done.
As a result, the audience is overwhelmingly male, and mostly dressed in religious garb. There's a smattering of familiar faces from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Even three Labour councillors have attended, and are invited to 'cross the floor'. George Galloway, the former Labour MP and Respect's A-list celeb, couldn't make it, we are told, as his election campaign has taken him as far afield as Bangladesh.
For many present, this is the first time that any political party has reached out to them so directly, and not just taken their votes for granted. 'Labour hasn't done any meeting like this,' remarks NMA coordinator MA Sheikh. 'For a long time, they have ruled Newham and no one has challenged them. And they think - wrongly - they will keep on winning this way.'
Across the country, of course, Respect is still an Aretha Franklin song, not a realistic left challenge to Labour. Founded in January 2004 from an alliance of Galloway, the SWP, a number of independent leftists and anti-war Muslim organisations in an attempt to build a broad-based left alternative to New Labour, its first election results last June (local, London Assembly and European) were uneven. In east London, Birmingham and Preston its share of the vote was impressive. But not a single Respect candidate was elected anywhere; in the Euro elections across England and Wales Respect secured a paltry 1.7 per cent of the vote. Many on the extra-parliamentary left are dubious about how democratic, broad-based and politically serious it really is.
But sceptics from both left and right take note: if any party is going to beat Labour in Newham this May, it's Respect. In the London Assembly elections it came a shock second in the borough with 21.4 per cent of the vote; the Tories and Lib Dems were a distant third and fourth, and have never really been a challenge to this Labour stronghold (in the 2001 general election, Labour secured more than two thirds of the vote).
Respect is in many ways the model of how a new party with little money can break into a system protected by electoral rules highly unfavourable to small parties. Much of its success in east London is due to its playing up its appeal to anti-war voters, and working with organisations with influence in the community (especially the local mosques). Newham is fertile ground for its message: in excess of 50 per cent of its inhabitants, including 60,000 Muslims, are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Soon after the Iraq war began, more than 10,000 people marched on Newham's streets, the biggest ever demonstration in the borough. These people have not forgotten that the MP for East Ham, Labour minister Stephen Timms, betrayed a promise to them that he would not vote for war in Iraq without a second UN resolution. The Lib Dems, besides not having a single councillor in Newham, are considered fence-sitters. The war and its knock-on effects - Islamophobia, the anti-terror laws, the crackdown on asylum and immigration - touch this community deeply.
Since its inception, Respect has worked hard in east London, throwing in its biggest players and plenty of resources trying to connect with this disenfranchised community mainly through Stop the War networks.
'The anti-war movement politicised a large number of Muslims and brought us together in a way that hadn't been done before,' says Alliance member Saddiq Khan. 'The other parties don't even acknowledge the problems in our community.'
Abdul Khaliq claims that at last count (three months ago) Respect had 250 dedicated workers in Newham ('maybe double now'). He says: 'We don't have big financial backers who could help us get our message across to the wider community through advertising and the media. Our wealth is people, and word of mouth is more convincing than any flyer.' Every two weeks, Khaliq and German do a 'walkabout' in key areas of the borough to give voters 'personal presentation'.
Then there's Galloway, whose prophet-like presence in east London cannot be underestimated. Although he's not even running in Newham (but in pro-war MP Oona King's Bethnal Green and Bow constituency) he's a big pull for Muslim voters. Khaliq says: 'I get my inspiration from Galloway - the way he speaks and stands up for his principles. He is the only MP who spoke for Muslims, and other ethnic communities as well. All the others, including those with ethnic backgrounds, are stooges of their party.'
Respect's strategy in Newham seems to be working. Three teenage boys I speak to recall Respect visits to their school and seeing the party's Saturday stalls; one student doesn't even know who the Tories are. A recent Bangladeshi immigrant says that the restaurant where he works allows the party's leaflets to be left at its door. Stallholders acknowledge the party's support in fending off a council threat to knock down their ever-bustling market. Respect's most recent localised tabloid calls for an end to 'pensioner poverty' and draws attention to local housing issues.
In appealing to the wider community, Respect plays down its socialist roots. 'I don't think of it as a radical party,' says Khaliq. 'We're a democratic party, so we attract all kinds of people from any party.' Perhaps this is the only way to build the mass base necessary to win in a first-past-the-post system. But it poses a problem even for progressive Muslims. 'Respect has provided a voice for the Muslim community, but I don't know if it is the best vehicle for that,' says a young, female Muslim activist. 'I'm not sure if Respect is reaching widely enough in that community. The NMA, for example, is mostly men, and mostly Pakistani.'
The waverers need to be won over if Respect is to sustain itself. Kevin Blowe, a longstanding local anti-racist campaigner, doesn't know yet if he will vote for Respect. He says: 'Respect is supposed to be a radical, progressive party. But it runs the risk of trying to mobilise a communal vote that is not necessarily radical. I don't know how long-term a strategy that is. It needs to do a lot more than turning up at a ballot box to effect change.'
There is also fear that Respect's dependence on the Muslim community could backfire. 'The way I view Respect is that they sit on the Muslim vote way too much,' says Newham restaurateur Zu, who still plans on voting for the party. 'There's a danger that it will have negative effects if people see it as solely Muslim, which it is not.' Respect is trying to reach out beyond Newham's Muslim constituency: last month it held a Ken Loach film night that packed out a local theatre. But if you remove its strong Muslim base, it does look very fragile.
A few miles to the northwest of Newham is Tottenham, considered the most ethnically diverse constituency in Europe. Respect has just announced longstanding justice and anti-racism campaigner Janet Alder, whose former soldier brother was killed in a Hull police station, as its candidate for Tottenham in May. Alder looks forward to challenging the Blairite local MP David Lammy for the traditionally safe Labour seat. 'It has been nearly seven years since my brother died, and Labour hasn't done anything about it. The same government has taken us into an unjustifiable war.'
Respect has little chance of winning in Tottenham, so it is not devoting too many resources to the constituency (just £8,000 for the general election). Last year, Respect stood Sait Akgul in the London Assembly constituency Enfield and Haringey (which includes Tottenham). He polled 5.5 per cent; the party got significant support from the local Turkish and Kurdish communities. Akgul is now Alder's agent. So, why the change? 'We were conscious that we weren't getting a big black vote, and we were conscious that we were running against a black MP,' says Simon Hester, Respect's convenor in Tottenham.
It's early days, but Alder has a lot of groundwork to do. Along Tottenham High Street, in community centres, the local college and shops, no one really knows what or who Respect is, never mind that the party is standing in Tottenham. The best we could muster up is: 'That's Galloway's party in east London, innit?' At a pub quiz fundraiser, the 20 people who turn up are mostly Respect members and 'stalwarts of the left'; not a single one is from an ethnic minority, and many aren't local. The pub's punters are not enthused.
Although disillusionment with New Labour and the political system is enormous in Tottenham, it's not easy to rally the electorate round another banner. Even those campaigning for an end to deaths in police custody are not necessarily supportive of Respect: knowing that Lammy will most likely retain his vice-like grip on his seat some do not want to rock the boat; there is a perception that council-funded projects would be financially punished.
Respect's Tottenham activists have been trying to build links with existing campaigns to widen the party's base, but mostly as individuals who do not necessarily wear their political allegiance on their sleeve. Members are working with campaigns like Haringey Against ID Cards and the local branch of Defend Council Housing. How their activities will change closer to the elections remains to be seen.
The problem with this approach is that Respect is perceived as a party working solely around elections. Jaamit Durrani, who campaigns on the issue of deaths in police custody, says: 'I don't see Respect as much more than an anti-war party. I don't see a grass-roots party at all. I need to be convinced that it is a force for working-class people.'
It is not too surprising that the Green Party plans to contest most of the London constituencies in which Respect is standing, refusing to enter a local pact with Respect. 'We have tried hard to do a deal with the Greens; we asked if they would stand down in Tottenham and in return we would work with them in Hornsey and Wood Green [where the Greens have a bigger base] but they won't agree,' says Hester, sighing.
A Green Party spokesperson responds to this by saying: 'If you can't convince the left of the Green Party, you're not going to convince the rest of the party. There's a perception that the Socialist Alliance fell apart because of the SWP, so it doesn't give us confidence that Respect would be successful and democratic.'
In Newham, Respect is making a valiant attempt to break through and win; in Tower Hamlets, too. But in the process is it becoming a single-issue, almost single-constituency party? Questions remain about how far it can go beyond its anti-war mandate and still stay true to its main base of support - not least on the issues of gay rights, faith schools and abortion.
And what will it do beyond the general election? It does not have a strategy for replacing Labour on anything but a limited and localised basis. In Tower Hamlets, it even risks splitting the anti-Labour vote to make way for the Tories or Lib Dems, as the gap between Labour and the other two main parties is much smaller there.
In Tottenham, Respect's individual members are trying to establish themselves more generally outside electoral politics, as well as inside. Perhaps this is a shrewd, long-term game plan. But if the party can't raise its profile soon it risks 'not seeing through the summer', according to one member.
Respect also faces the issue of creating unity and trust across the left: it's not the only player. It will be hard for it to replicate its success in east London elsewhere. To avoid Newham/Tower Hamlets being a more radical version of the Kidderminster effect, it has to address the problem of building trust among a wide range of independent campaigns and movements, and finding, along with the rest of us, a way of building a united democratic alternative to New Labour.