British Muslims and local democracy: after Bradford

A by-election earthquake in the post-industrial northern English city of Bradford saw a high-profile politician with a strong appeal among disaffected urban Muslims win an overwhelming victory. This "Bradford spring" reflects the changing attitudes and concerns of Muslim voters in a democracy that many feel does not properly represent them, says Parveen Akhtar.

The result of a parliamentary by-election in a previously "safe" seat does not usually command wider national, far less international, attention. An exception is the one that took place on 29 March 2012 in the constituency of Bradford West in Yorkshire, northern England, where over 50% of those eligible to vote chose George Galloway of the Respect Party to represent them as their member of parliament (MP).

By overturning the majority won by the Labour Party candidate at the general election in May 2010, by winning more votes than all the other candidates put together, and - most of all - by gaining the support of huge numbers of the constituency's Muslim population, Galloway succeeded in making Bradford West a major British political story. What does his victory reveal about the way that political participation and political attitudes among British Muslims are evolving?

An instant explanation of what Galloway himself called the "Bradford spring" was offered by some politicians and journalists who with equally instant expertise began to talk about the clan and kinship (or so-called biraderi) politics of British Pakistanis. The assumption they often made was that kinship or biraderi-based political participation is a hangover of the pre-migratory political practices of Pakistanis, a sort of incorporation into the British context of the way things had been done "back home". Kinship networks are indeed an important form of social organisation amongst British Pakistanis, a type of internal welfare system for family and blood relations. However, the biraderi referred to in comment pieces and online forums discussing Bradford West describes a very British phenomenon - the long-established practice of British politicians building links with the leaders of substantial British Pakistani communities, and using them to secure a "bloc vote".

This difference between what is often assumed to be happening politically among British Pakistanis and the actual realities was already apparent to me when (between 2005-07, and again in 2011) I conducted ethnographic research in the city of Birmingham for a research project on political participation and the British Pakistani community. The first interviews in this project took place immediately after the 2005 general election, when George Galloway (who had been expelled from the Labour Party in 2003) had won another seat with a high concentration of British Muslims, this time largely of Bangladeshi origin: the seat of Bethnal Green & Bow, in east London. The interviews and participant observation that were at the heart of the project inform much of my understanding of the issues discussed in this article.

The generational shift

Much of the migration from Pakistan to Britain from the 1950s onwards took place along kinship lines. Most of the early migrants were young, single men who saw opportunities to make money in the UK’s manufacturing and textile industries, and then sent word to their relatives to encourage them to follow. They thus acted as the "first loop" in a process of chain-migration which saw members of the same kin migrate and settle in urban Britain.

The ensuing development of ethnic "enclaves" in turn drew the attention of the mainstream political parties to the emergence of a numerically significant - and thus potentially influential - Pakistani electoral constituency. Most Pakistanis were working class and therefore tended to support the Labour Party, though on social issues their values bore closer resemblance to those of the Conservative Party. For their part, both parties viewed the community as impenetrable without the help of community mediators, but they also came to realise that if kinship (biraderi) elders could be got "on side" this would be helpful in securing both their votes and the votes of their wives and voting-age children. The relationship with these elders thus led them to use the internal community kinship structure as a means of accessing a potentially election-winning bloc vote.

The consequence was a system of patronage whereby local politicians of all political parties (but especially the Labour Party) built links with community leaders in the Pakistani community, who became their gateway to the Pakistani vote. (Labour's former deputy leader Roy Hattersley, who long held the Sparkbrook constituency in Birmingham, once remarked that whenever he saw a Pakistani name on a ballot-paper he knew the vote was his). The local leaders were given minor positions of power and help in figuring out the political system, so that they could stand for council seats or influential roles as subaltern aides. Some community leaders negotiated for community provisions such as neighbourhood centres, whilst others were content with the status conferred on them in the eyes of their compatriots.

Biraderi or kinship-based politics had a successful run for nearly forty years. But the children of the pioneer generation, born and bought up in the UK, do not identify with biraderi politics. The state's welfare system provides the functions that traditionally would be organised by kin in Pakistan, and friendships in school and relationships at work are not kin-based. In the political arena, the association of kinship networks and patronage relations with politicians is seen by young people as antiquated and far removed from their lives. The patronage relationships between community leaders and local politicians meant that they did not have to "work" for the vote, but could be guaranteed election even without addressing the issues facing their constituents (including those of great concern to younger generations, such as graduate unemployment, low educational attainment, drugs, gangs and housing).

The result was a generation gap, where the older generation were not aware of the frustrations of the young - something clearly highlighted by reactions to the wave of riots in northern English cities in 2001, and by the radicalisation of some young people in colleges and on university campuses. Much of the alienation and marginalisation from mainstream electoral politics felt by the young can be traced back to the way the biraderi system became a means of political exclusion.

This generational evolution helps explain why young British Pakistanis in an area like Bradford West were drawn to vote for George Galloway. Some have suggested that Galloway’s oratorical skills and adopted role as something of a "standard-bearer" for British Muslims (including their foreign-policy concerns) mean that Bradford West is likely to prove a one-off result produced by a one-off politician.

This argument reminds me of an occasion when in 2006 I presented my "work in progress" on a Muslim radio station in Birmingham and asked listeners about community representation and leadership. One of the respondents was a teenage girl who wanted to nominate George Galloway as a true leader - and she was not alone, for many young British Muslims believe that he champions their concerns and challenges the status quo with regard to Iraq and other issues of Muslim concern. Yet it would be misleading to conclude that Galloway won in Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005 or in Bradford West in 2012 because young British Muslims are preoccupied by wars and middle-eastern politics. More relevant than Galloway's stance on these matters is that he is talking positively about Muslims. In a political and social climate that many Muslims view as anti-Islamic or Islamophobic, he is on their side.

Pakistani Muslims, like their co-religionists from other regions, certainly do have an interest in middle-east politics, but they are also deeply concerned with what are often seen as unglamorous local-level issues: the economy, housing, work and life opportunities, street-lighting, children’s schools, rubbish-collection. It may be then that in electing George Galloway, at least some Pakistanis have made a cognitive leap by calculating that if Galloway is speaking positively about Muslims abroad he will care about them here and help to "fight their corner" - a fight which they believe the older generation of Pakistani community leaders has abandoned, by accepting patronage roles from mainstream politicians.

The way forward

Imran Hussein is the Labour candidate who was defeated by Galloway in Bradford West, Khaled Mahmood was an MP in Birmingham at the time of my research in the city. Both shared a Pakistani Muslim origin with many of those in their respective constituencies, but both were also seen as politicians, with all the negative connotations now attached to that term. This means that they were tarnished by the "deep-rooted malaise" seen to affect British politics and institutions, of which scandals over MPs' expenses and a a decline in participation in elections and political parties are among the manifestations.

In Bradford West, all the main parties suffered a marked reduction in their vote since 2010: -20% in the case of Labour, -23% of the Conservatives, and -7% of the Liberal Democrats. This trend is part of a wider context of disaffection with mainstream politics and politicians which in areas like Bradford is reinforced by the association with patronage, kinship and biraderi. Galloway's victory is to a degree that of an "anti-politician" who goes against the grain of a self-serving and self-interested political culture.

In the aftermath of the Bradford West result, John Mann - Labour MP for Bassetlaw, in Nottinghamshire - argued that the problem had been that Labour had no strategy in the constituency; in particular, "no Muslim doorknockers, no Urdu speakers, no hijab-wearing women talking to Muslim women voters". In fact, the party did have a strategy, but it was an old strategy based on the belief that the backing of community leaders of a Pakistani "enclave" constituency would automatically guarantee a win.

Bradford West exploded that belief, and shows that the practice of relying on patronage-based relationships with the older generation of Pakistanis may be finished as a route to political success. After this historic result, politicians must learn to engage in new ways with the local concerns of people in their constituencies.

About the author

Parveen Akhtar is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bristol. She is the author of a forthcoming book, Political Participation amongst British Muslims (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

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Parveen Akhtar is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bristol. She is the author of a forthcoming book, Political Participation amongst British Muslims (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)