Doing politics differently: Glyn Robbins in Bethnal Green and Bow

Continuing our ‘Doing politics differently’ series of interviews with activists and candidates of the left, Sybil Cock interviews Glyn Robbins, who is standing as a Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and Left Unity candidate in Bethnal Green and Bow.

Glyn Robbins

Glyn is a well-known figure on the left in Tower Hamlets.  He was Chair of Respect for some time, stood as a Socialist Unity and Respect candidate, and more recently brought together many different groups in United East End, which saw off attempts of racist organisations to march through Whitechapel with massive local demonstrations in 2010, 2011 and 2013. He is fighting in the 2015 election for the Labour seat of Bethnal Green and Bow on behalf of TUSC and Left Unity.

The sitting Labour MP and candidate is Rushanara Ali, a local woman who was the first Bangladeshi in Parliament.  She won the seat when the previous MP, George Galloway, declined to stand again in 2010, saying that the area deserved a Bangladeshi MP – although arguably we got the wrong one! George Galloway of course famously defeated Oona King, a Blairite who supported the war in Iraq, to the fury of most of the local population.

Tower Hamlets politics is complex – the legacy of the anti-war movement means that we have a local council and directly elected Mayor, run by a minority group, Tower Hamlets First (THF), which is well to the left of Labour.  Labour locally was incandescent that the Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, won re-election in 2014, and is currently in a group taking the Mayor to the archaic ‘Electoral court’ for electoral fraud.  At the time of writing there is no outcome, and very little or no evidence of fraud but we can be sure that Tower Hamlets will be in the headlines again soon.

It is in the middle of this, very exhilarating, period of political debate, that I talked to Glyn about why he is standing for TUSC and broader questions of left unity.

Sybil: tell me a bit about your political background.

Glyn: I was born into a Communist family, so I didn’t really have a chance. My parents were rank and file trades unionists, with no political ambitions. The big moment was hearing Ken Livingstone, with his safari jacket, speak at East Ham Town Hall in 1980 – I was 16, and hooked. I joined the Labour party there and then, not realising that Labour Party Young Socialists meant being in the Militant tendency……. But that’s where I was for the 1980s. I was active around Newham and Redbridge, became a shop steward.

I always worked in East London (now I manage a council estate in Islington). In 1991 I went to the Isle of Dogs housing office (Jack Dash House) and was there when Derek Beackon (BNP and ‘rights for whites’)  won his by-election on the Island in 1993. I remember being the one who called out the local town hall on strike. (*)

I was in the Socialist Alliance for a while, on their National Committee (not difficult to achieve if you were an activist) and stood for a local election in Bethnal Green North – I got 116 votes which was typical at the time.

You were very central to the successes of Respect in Tower Hamlets – tell me a bit about how that came about and the lessons for the left.

The Socialist Alliance became aware of George Galloway’s likely exit from the Labour party. The news of the new Party – Respect – was welcome but we all thought the name was daft!  In retrospect, it was a masterstroke and it’s a shame that we couldn’t keep control of it locally.  The Respect election campaigns were exhilarating – we all learned so much.

I will be proud until the day I go to my grave that the only Labour politician who was punished electorally for supporting Blair’s war in Iraq was Oona King here in Bethnal Green and Bow. The others who lost their jobs were journalists – but she paid the price in the right way – at the ballot box.

I think that the achievements of Respect have been underestimated.  There were lots of cracks and problems and differing motivations, but winning 12 councillors changed Tower Hamlets politics fundamentally.

We should have worked harder to foresee some of the difficulties, but we were largely an electoral organisation, moving from one big event to the next. It was so exciting; perhaps we rather avoided the details. After George and the Councillors were elected it became apparent that we didn’t have democratic accountable structures in place – we had a lot in common, mainly the anti-war movement, but that was not enough to prevent the breakup. We were naïve and put a brave face on it. We were just beginning to move into other areas, speaking up for the marginalised, and doing great stuff on housing. Respect and the movement it spawned helped to keep hundreds of homes in council ownership.

George Galloway’s appearance on Big Brother was a big problem on the doorstep – we couldn’t anticipate how much damage it did. There were conflicts breaking out all over the place, attempts to marginalise the SWP and other socialists, hidden agendas.

You always said you would not stand against Tower Hamlets First (Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s local party) and now we know that they are not standing. How much support are you getting from them?

The job is to make sure that his local supporters (he got 36,539 first preference votes for mayor in 2014) know that I am their man. I have the potential to give them a vote that will express their ongoing anger with New Labour. I have been outspoken about the attacks on Lutfur – this is nothing more than a witch hunt. It feeds the strong current of highly prejudiced islamophobia that we see in the press and from the Tories and racists. Theresa May talks of Tower Hamlets as a place of rampant anti-Semitism – this is a lie. Eric Pickles has sent in unelected commissioners at vast expense to us in Tower Hamlets. The political establishment, including Labour, is furious with Lutfur Rahman and THF because they took them on and won, twice.

I’m getting good and increasing support from THF and I’ve been invited to speak at several events in the Bangladeshi community. THF will be able to give New Labour a bloody nose by supporting me – and their fingerprints won’t be on it!

However the outcome of the electoral court case, expected any day now, may change everything. The evidence for electoral fraud is very flimsy indeed – nothing that might not happen in any local authority.  What is wrong does need sorting out, but we are sure that the outcome, however favourable to Lutfur, will be used against him and against all Muslims.

what sort of organisation is TUSC?

Well, all the major organisations of the left are supporting my candidacy.  That is a major achievement.  I was very pleased that Left Unity has adopted me as a joint TUSC candidate.  I’m dreaming of a United Left – something like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. If we are going to do something like that we need to learn to put some of our differences aside; using the formula we had in Respect which was that we use the 80% we have in common and work on campaigning around that. In Respect we made the mistake of forgetting about the 20%; we didn’t find ways to talk about it and plan for disagreements. We can’t allow the 20% to dominate – no-one outside the left cares about that bullshit.

The best thing is to make this campaign work and build on what comes out of it. I’d hope that some sort of inclusive political formation will result. It has to have an existence beyond the election.

You are best known for your campaigning and journalism around housing. How can we generalise from housing into other issues – outside the election period?

The recent struggles over housing, like Focus E15, have been fantastic.  But they are like guerrilla warfare. We need to generalise it. People are spending huge proportions of their income on housing, living in places they don’t want to because they have no choice in horrible conditions. Every aspect of people’s lives is dominated by housing. The whole economy is dependent on the fortunes of the housing market. It’s a crazy recipe for cyclical disaster. I firmly believe that we could have a housing system that works; that doesn’t treat housing as a commodity or a vehicle for investment.  The German and Scandinavian model of private rented housing is romanticised, but it works a lot better than here.

Nothing will change until we rediscover the true value of publically owned council hosing. We only have to go back one generation to a time when 30% of people lived in council houses; tenants weren’t stigmatised, in fact a council house was something you aspired to in the 1970s.  Some of the most energetic advocates for council housing have been Tory Councils – in fact more houses were built under Tory than Labour Governments.

I don’t think you need a Revolution to sort out housing and get 5 million people off waiting lists! If I was Housing Minister I would sort it tomorrow. The Housing crisis is reformable.

So you aren’t a revolutionary?

I have considered myself to be one at different times in my life, but not now. I’d settle for some decent reform, for an organisation like Syriza or Podemos. In fact right now, I’d settle for Scotland!

I was brought up an Internationalist – although in a CP family this meant facing east. Now I stand unconditionally with any International struggle – Palestine, Greece, anything.  Yes, I believe in ‘Workers of the World Unite’ – but now I wonder if it’s not just class – People?

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