Bradford West: politics comes alive

A fusion of history, politics and personality gives the electoral contest in one British constituency a unique flavour.

Parveen Akhtar
23 April 2015

The northern English city of Bradford, a major site of textile manufacturing during the industrial revolution and a place with a rich social and cultural history, is also known for its vigorous political life. Barbara Castle and Denis Healey, two 20th century giants of the Labour Party, are among the figures associated with the city. More recently, Bradford has experienced the same challenge to traditional allegiances that has been a feature of British politics in recent decades, and this is evident in local constituency campaigns for the UK-wide general election on 7 May. 

Bradford, with a population of over half a million, has five parliamentary constituencies: two held by Labour, two by Conservatives, and one by the Liberal Democrats. Each has its special character and personalities, but one of them - Bradford West - has acquired a particularly high profile in recent years. A "hustings" on 16 April, where seven of the candidates gathered for a public meeting, brought many of the ingredients of that profile into focus.  

Bradford is a young city. Data from the 2011 census for parliamentary constituencies in England and Wales (the latest available) shows that 57% of the population in Bradford West is under the age of 25 compared to a national average for England and Wales of 42%. It was therefore fitting that the hustings was hosted by the University of Bradford and open to staff and students of the university and the adjacent Bradford College. To add to the educational theme, Bradford West includes City ward, which contains the city's proposed "learning quarter". 

The event was eagerly anticipated, not least because the first hustings - in the Carlisle business centre - had made international headlines.

From 1955, when it was reconstituted after half a century, to 2012, the constituency had an unremarkable history. For two decades it elected Conservative and Labour members of parliament (MPs) by turn. Then, in 1981, Labour's Edward Lyons, the MP since 1974, defected to the newly created Social Democrat Party. In 1983, Lyons stood in his new colours but was defeated by Labour’s Max Madden. He served for fourteen years before being "de-selected" as a candidate in favour of Marsha Singh, who won the seat in the 1997 election and went to serve for fifteen years.

At the general election in 2010, Singh won his fourth straight victory, polling 45.4% of the vote on a constituency turnout of 64.9%. But in 2012 he stepped down for health reasons, meaning that there would be a by-election.

The Labour Party, by then confident that Bradford West was very much a "safe" seat, anticipated that their man Imran Hussain would sail to victory on the back of the 5,763 majority secured in 2010. Instead, it had a huge shock. The Respect Party, whose candidate had polled just 3.1% of the vote last time - less even than the 5% threshold needed to retain the £500 deposit - won by over 10,000 votes.

The main reason for the difference was that Respect's 2012 candidate was none other than the party leader himself, George Galloway, a prominent former Labour MP who had been expelled from the party but was elected under his new party banner for an east London constituency in 2005. Galloway, using both old and new electioneering techniques, and deploying his familiar impassioned rhetoric, galvanised the electorate. His open-top bus toured the streets, booming out a message of change to the people of Bradford West, whilst social media coordinate the campaign's logistics. In the end, he polled more votes than the other seven candidates put together.

Can he repeat the success this time?

In 2012, Galloway’s supporters cut across the diverse population of Bradford West, where Pakistanis make up 43.3% of the constituency and whites 37.1% (the rest are various other minorities). In terms of religion, Muslims constitute 51.3% of the population. The support of young British Pakistani Muslims was crucial to Galloway’s victory - especially women, who had until then been effectively disenfranchised from elections in Bradford West through biraderi politics.

Biraderi, or kinship networks, played a significant role in the arrival and settlement of Pakistanis in the UK. It was through such links that many newly arrived Pakistanis found work and accommodation, and more broadly navigated the rules and bureaucracy of life in their new country. In the political sphere, kinship networks eventually served as an effective mechanism for electoral mobilisation. Prospective politicians viewed minorities more widely, and Pakistanis in particular, as impenetrable communities. A consequence of this was that politicians sought to build relationships with Pakistani community elders whom they viewed as "gatekeepers" to the community. 

As a result, there developed a system of "patronage politics" whereby Pakistani community leaders, often biraderi elders, promised to deliver bloc community votes in return for local positions of power and prestige. This system of clientelism became embedded within the local political landscape in constituencies with significant Pakistanis populations. The patriarchal and hierarchical nature of biraderi politics meant that young people and women were, in effect, bypassed in the decision-making process. This does not sit well with a new generation of young British Pakistanis interested in politics, who feel alienated from electoral politics.

It was in this larger context that George Galloway arrived in Bradford and offered an alternative to the biraderi system in politics - and many young British Pakistanis grabbed it with both hands. Three years on, however, much of the optimism visible in the aftermath of the 2012 by-election has dissipated.

Naz Shah is now the Labour Party candidate in the constituency and Galloway’s only real rival in the 2015 campaign. The process around her selection was unusual:  the first choice of candidate, Amina Ali, stepped down after three days in a haze of local Labour in-fighting. Shah nonetheless seemed a good replacement: Bradford-born, she claims to have voted for Galloway in 2012 and even helped in Respect's battle, but quickly became disillusioned, and that this led her into politics.

Shah has a remarkable back-story, and when she wrote about it in the Urban Echo it caught the media imagination. When a 6 year-old child in Bradford, Shah’s father eloped with the next-door-neighbour’s 16 year-old daughter, leaving her pregnant mother to fend for herself and her two small children. Shah’s mother was illiterate - she had only come to the UK from rural Mirpur a few years earlier - and struggled to make ends meet. When Shah was 12, her mother sent her to Pakistan from fear that the girl would be sexually abused by the man who was abusing her, the man she would eventually poison to death. Shah claims to have been forced into an arranged marriage in Pakistan at the age of 15. Her story of struggle and survival against the odds, so far removed from the traditional template of many Oxbridge career politicians in Westminster, ignited the election atmosphere. 

At the first hustings, Shah started on the offensive, calling Galloway the "absentee MP" and questioning his voting record in parliament. Galloway fought back hard, and made it personal. He alleged that Shah had asked to stand as the Respect Party candidate in Bradford East after coming bottom of the first Labour Party selection contest in Bradford West. He also claimed that Shah lied about the age of her nikkah (Islamic marriage), and produced a document to that effect. Shah did not deny the defection claim but stated that she had been joking. She accused Galloway of sanctioning the impersonation of her dead father to obtain her nikkah document. She pledged to take Galloway to court after the election.

Such political drama has ensured that the Bradford West campaign has received a great deal of prominent media coverage, much of it focusing on the personalities of Galloway and Shah. In the event the university hustings - chaired by Donna Lee, a professor and dean of the faculty of social sciences - was a much more policy-oriented and orderly event.  The issues raised by the student-heavy audience ranged from voting age, rogue landlords, tuition fees, and disability rights to an evaluation of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy.  

An exit poll taken at the end of the night put Naz Shah in first position, followed by the Green Party candidate Celia Hickson, with Galloway third. Even the chair managed to get some votes!

There is a real sense of political engagement amongst young people in Bradford: a desire for a better Bradford. The university will, for the first time ever, host a polling station on election day. All the prospective parliamentary candidates know only too well the importance of capturing the young city’s support. Democracy is alive in Bradford.

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