Making sense of Bradford West

George Galloway's Bradford West victory may change the shape of British politics
April 4, 2012
George Galloway won the overwhelming support of Bradford's young Muslim population. Here, at a pro-Palestine rally in Whitehall, 2009. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

Even more than George Galloway, a young man called Naweed Hussain is the key to the Bradford West by-election upset. I spent a couple of hours with him last summer when I went to Bradford to write a piece "ten years on" from the 2001 riots. He was an angry and thwarted man; angry not so much about joblessness or discrimination (though he did complain about a "brown ceiling" at the council and university) but about the control of minority representation in the Labour party by people from the Jats and Bains clans from the Mirpur region of Kashmir, from where so many of Britain’s 1.2m Pakistanis originate.

When those clans strong-armed Imran Hussain, a lawyer and Bradford Labour councillor of Kashmiri background, into the Labour nomination for the seat, it was the final straw for Naweed, who had worked closely with the previous Labour MP Marsha Singh. He is an articulate and well-integrated 30-year-old training consultant but he is from a Punjabi background so he was never going to thrive in Bradford Labour. When two weeks before the election he abandoned Labour and became, in effect, Galloway's agent, the result was sealed. Of course it needed other things too—a charismatic candidate, an ethnic grievance culture that could be mobilised through social media and Muslim websites, the willingness of younger Muslim voters and especially increasingly well educated young women to break with the Biraderi system of clan loyalty.

So the Bradford West upset is probably most accurately described as the result of a minor civil war within the Pakistani elite in the town which then led to the younger generation revolting against its elders. And a successful by-election campaign that loudly highlights the plight of the Palestinians is not likely to tell us much about, or have much impact on, national politics.

It does, however, show how “soft” support is for all the main parties, especially in depressed places like Bradford, and also how Ed Miliband has failed to create much buzz around his leadership (it is hard to imagine this happening under a young Tony Blair in 1996). It may also help to revive the Respect party, a sort of Islamic version of the Socialist Workers Party, which after its great successes at the height of the Iraq war had dwindled to one council seat in Birmingham and two in Tower Hamlets.

But there is another big reason why this apparently sui generis result will reverberate nationally—it may mark the beginning of the end of Labour’s ethnic minority bloc vote politics.

It is one of the open secrets of Labour politics that in large parts of the Midlands and the North it has acquiesced to the "wholesale" vote gathering system offered by some minority leaders. And it is easy to see why an impoverished party with few activists and an old white working class base that seldom votes finds it hard to resist this deal. After all, in return for political attention from a MP or councillor, Labour gains the hundreds or even thousands of votes that some minority community leaders can still offer.

The system has largely disappeared, if it ever existed, for successful and well-integrated minorities. But it is still very much alive for Kashmiris, who are the best organised voter group in many Labour seats in the old industrial areas and have the extra advantage of a hierarchical clan system which has been able to guarantee a sizeable bloc vote.

Most Kashmiris would vote Labour anyway even if they weren’t corralled by the Biraderi system, so it probably makes little difference to actual voting outcomes. But where the clan system is particularly important is in selection of candidates for council and, to a lesser extent, parliamentary seats. And because Labour has been keen to increase its proportion of minority representatives it has turned a blind eye to how they have been chosen—often at the expense of more talented minority candidates who come from the wrong background. (14 out of the 20 minority councillors in Bradford are Kashmiri.)

Has that system (which pulls in the other main political parties too, though to a lesser extent) been mortally wounded by last Friday morning’s extraordinary result in Bradford? Many people from the Kashmiri world in Bradford will tell you so. It seems that the defection of Naweed Hussain and the galvanization of the younger and female voters in revolt against the “bloc” is likely to catch on.

That is bad news for the Kashmiri elders and in the short term it could be bad for the Labour party too. Labour may lose a wave of council seats to a revived Respect party in May and possibly even more parliamentary seats. But in the long run it is far better released from the Faustian pact with community elders.

All politics should be retail not wholesale and all voters should be treated first as citizens not as members of a minority. The bloc vote has reinforced a lazy form of separatist multiculturalism on the left which saw someone as a Kashmiri Muslim first with certain views and policies derived from that ethno-religious identity. It may also have encouraged too much concern with minority interests and a downplaying of the interests of poorer, non-voting whites.

Labour is the party that helped to integrate the Catholic and Protestant working class through a common social democratic politics in the first part of the 20th century. It has only partly repeated that achievement with Britain’s main post-war minorities, though they are still overwhelmingly Labour voters.

Released from the grip of a conservative elder-dominated politics, especially among Kashmiri voters, Labour might be freer to think more constructively about how it can create a common interest politics that unites poorer whites with Pakistanis in places like Bradford. Most of the city’s problems are shared (in slightly different forms) across the white and the minority communities—deindustrialisation, jobs, public sector retrenchment, only slow improvement in school results—the Labour party is the obvious vehicle for a politics that focuses on those things and brings people together to try to do something about them.

But it hasn’t happened. The native working class once took part in the politics of the town through unions and industry. When much of the industry closed this group drifted into political apathy, and was also alienated by what was seen as Labour’s disproportionate focus on minorities from the 1980s onwards. The opportunity to create a common political culture was missed. Instead a dogmatic multiculturalism united white middle class radicals and minority elites. And after the Rushdie affair in 1988/89 those, now religiously conservative, minority leaders did not allow the voice of the young and radical (and female) to come through in the Labour party. (Or only in a very controlled way—Bradford does currently have a Muslim woman mayor.)

So the election of George Galloway may be a kind of growing pain for both Labour and the Kashmiri minority, marking the end of a multiculturalist “ethnic bloc” mentality and the arrival of a more autonomous, individualistic politics. Many Kashmiri homes in Bradford West will have had different generations voting for different parties last week. That may be the silver lining in the black cloud of the Bradford result.

But in the short term Galloway’s victory certainly is a black cloud. It will surely make life in Bradford even more polarised, and might even revive the far right in response. The idea that this result represented a radical cross-ethnic vote against the "neglect" of Bradford by mainstream politicians is left-wing wishful thinking. Galloway probably got a few thousand white protest votes with his left Labour appeal in some areas, and also seems to have done surprisingly well among white Conservative voters in wards like Allerton, but he was overwhelmingly elected by Pakistani Muslims in what is now a majority Asian constituency. And if your appeal is solidly based across all groups you do not start your victory speech at party HQ, "All praise to Allah… Long live Iraq, long live Palestine."

How can Respect create a cross-ethnic common interest politics when its power base is firmly in one group and its campaigning was at least partly focussed on Umma-related foreign policy issues that have little resonance with non-Muslims? Indeed the main connection that white working class Bradford has with these issues is through sending its sons to fight as soldiers in the British army in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on—fighting on the wrong side so far as George Galloway and his young Muslim voters are concerned.

Moreover, how likely is it that Respect will confront the Kashmiri community in Bradford with its own failings—first cousin marriage and the handicapped children it too often produces, the bringing in of non-English speaking spouses which holds back the educational performance of the young and so on. Instead the party is likely ramp up a Muslim grievance culture blaming everything on supposedly anti-Muslim white Britain that will further divide poor old Bradford.

At least, released from the constraints of the Biraderi deal, Labour activists—both white and Pakistani—might now be able to have a more honest conversation about these matters. Naweed Hussain, an able young professional and veteran of British Council delegations, ought to be one of those activists helping to create a common interest politics. He seemed open to such discussions when I met him last year, and told me that he regretted the fact that conservative Muslims were increasingly wearing traditional dress because it made the town feel more segregated.

It seems unlikely, however, that honest conversations about how Pakistanis themselves have contributed to the failure of integration in Bradford will be top priority for a grievance-mongering party like Respect. It’s a protest party skilled at attracting a range of disaffected voters including both conservative and more progressive young Muslims—it can appeal at the same time to traditionalist Muslims with deeply reactionary views about women and Jews, younger post-Islamist radicals, white leftists and more liberal figures like Naweed who feel thwarted by clan politics.

Respect talked about local issues as well as international ones in the campaign but in some ways it represents the bad old communalist politics just as much as the old bloc vote system did, it just represents a younger, more radical version of it. The party’s victory is another manifestation of a divided town—part of a line that runs from the Ray Honeyford dispute, on to the Salman Rushdie affair and the riots of 1995 and 2001. But as an unintended consequence of its victory it may have done the Labour party and the country a big favour by calling into question the segregationist politics of the past two generations. One step back to go two steps forward?