On the 22nd February 2015, a day after failing to secure her selection as the Labour Party Parliamentary candidate in Bradford West, Naz Shah asked to stand as the Respect Party candidate in Bradford East. This was the first of two accusations directed at his Labour Party rival by George Galloway in his opening address at last night’s hustings. The second was that Shah had lied about the age at which she had been forced into a marriage in Pakistan.
Earlier in the year, Labour’s candidate selection process had got off to a turbulent start. Shah was only selected as the parliamentary candidate second time around by the local Labour Party. The first candidate of choice, Amina Ali, resigned from post 72 hours after a victory marred in the unhappy mists of clan politics, patronage and Labour Party in-fighting. Shah was not the Party’s first choice and now it appears that Labour was not Shah’s only party of choice. The relationship was not monogamous; on either side. Shah did not deny the claim. Instead, she insisted that any suggestions of defection had been made in jest and that she had a whole whatsapp conversation to prove this. She also stated that once campaigning was over, she would sue Camp Galloway for obtaining her marriage certificate from Pakistan illegally through impersonating her dead father.
Joke or otherwise, the claim of possible exchanges in party allegiance certainly added another twist to the soap-opera politics of Bradford West. Previously, I have argued that the focus on personalities in the constituency detracts from the problem with Bradford politics, namely, the systematic failures of politicians to engage with individuals at the grassroots. Instead, politicians preferred the safe and, largely successful, strategy of relying on gatekeepers – ‘biraderi’ elders and community leaders to help secure bloc votes from British Pakistanis. ‘Biraderi’ in politics, or what I call biraderi politicking, is based on corporatist politics where group elites (community leaders) decide what is best for members within the group. The high level of deference in the Pakistani community, especially amongst the older generation, helped this kind of patronage politics to succeed.
This politics without policies is losing favour amongst a younger generation of British Pakistanis who do not want to be circumvented either by politicians or by community leaders. They want to be involved in the political process. The appetite for genuine engagement is there. Last night’s hustings was a testament to this. The hall was full to capacity with over 250 people present, many of whom had to stand for the 2-hour proceedings. The slips of paper with questions from the floor on the chair’s desk were piled high. Issues raised ranged from education (why Bradford schools were consistently good at being poor); radicalisation, tuitions fees, disability and austerity, investment in business and innovation. ‘We want to hear about your policies’ Shah was told, whilst Galloway was pulled up on his voting record in parliament.
Reflecting on the night’s proceedings, Alun Griffiths the Liberal Democrat candidate commented on how he had twice before been parliamentary candidate but had never previously attended ‘such a vibrant hustings’. Helen Pidd, journalist for the Guardian, tweeted that it was ‘very cheering to see a full house for a political event’. The vibrancy of the event was enhanced by some grandiose and striking statements from the prospective parliamentary candidates. Galloway took credit for the large media presence (as well as for kick-starting work for the Westfield shopping centre and saving the Odeon and National Media Museum). Naz Shah’s personal story of poverty, destitution, sexual abuse, drug smuggling, murder and survival had also caught the media imagination.
It is doubtful that Bradford West would have made it onto the BBC Radio 4 Today Program’s ‘100 seats in 100 days’, had it not been for the personalities in this contest. They have turned the national gaze onto Bradford politics – especially around issues of clan and clientelism, patronage and power. Galloway claimed to have ‘set politics alight in Bradford’. Certainly the discussion at the hustings were heated, if at times, a little too heated (someone was escorted out the building at one point). Fire or simply hot air? Only time will tell.
Parveen Akhtar, lecturer at Bradford University