Dear Bradford West

The general election is upon us and a burning question that I am constantly asked is who am I going to vote for?

I am a born and bred Bradford West girl and as a constituent I find it disheartening to see how our constituency is once again in the local, national and international spotlight seemingly for all the wrong reasons. The 2015 election campaign has been marked by personality politics, personal self-glorification and claims and counter-claims that have side-lined the real challenges that the district that we all love face.

Therefore, for the first and final time as the Editor for Asian Sunday, Bradford I am writing this open letter to voters, to share my experiences and understanding of the political scene in Bradford West. I have made it perfectly clear that if I am true to my city, I will be voting the prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) who I believe has the right policy credentials for the job at hand.

Bradford West first came into the national media spotlight in the run-up to this election following the debacle of the selection process for Labour’s parliamentary candidate. After months of rumours and speculation, members of Bradford West Labour Party selected London’s Amina Ali as their chosen candidate. In a dramatic twist of events, within 72 hours of being selected, Ali stepped down citing childcare issues. For many, the reasons given by Ali did not appear to be credible, as she had presented herself as a potential candidate for Bradford West just weeks earlier at the beginning of the candidate selection process.

Within days of her departure Naz Shah was imposed on to Bradford West by Labour Central, despite coming last and only securing 13 votes during the member selection process in the first round.

So is Naz Shah the right candidate for Bradford West?

Whenever I have attempted to answer this question I have been attacked and subjected to bullying and intimidation especially since the publishing of her backstory. Anyone who questions her capability as a political candidate is seen as criticising the account of her personal life. Shah’s personal story has become so tied up with her candidacy that anyone dares question Shah’s credibility as a potential MP, has allegations of misogyny and being anti-woman hurled at them. Although Shah has made the issue of her childhood and her forced marriage prominent, I have not known her to champion the issue despite the fact that it has blighted so many women’s lives in Bradford.

Shah’s claims that she is committed to Bradford West and wants to turn the constituency’s fortunes around ring hollow as she informed me and a number of our mutual friends that she was planning to move to Manchester, as Bradford had nothing to offer her, prior to applying for Labour’s Bradford West parliamentary candidate

My first encounter with Naz following her nomination as a PPC, was at her first public appearance on 8 March at the BME women’s hustings jointly organised by Womenzone and JUST West Yorkshire. Her political inexperience was clear from the confused positions she articulated, particularly around the Preventing Violent Extremism policy. The frustrated reactions of the audience to many of her responses raised clear questions about her fitness for purpose as a parliamentary candidate.

What was even more striking to many at the hustings was Naz Shah’s open boast to us that she had written an article that was going to be released that day (International Women’s Day) to the Guardian and Urban Echo. She was clearly gleeful and told us that she expected the article to go viral. Little did we know the impact the article would have on the district in the coming weeks of the election campaign.

Overnight Naz Shah became a national and international press and media darling, as she opened up her heart-wrenching past to the world. Here is a woman who has by any standards had a horrendous childhood and had battled back and come out on the other side. The world including myself sympathised with the story and we became intimately acquainted with Naz Shah’s personal life. The niggling question that would not go away is: what did any of this have to do with the elections? Surely, what is pertinent to constituents is a candidate’s political vision, their agenda for change and not the PPC’s backstory.

As a Bradford voter I was looking for someone who has an action plan for getting inner-city Bradford out of the bottom of the educational league tables; someone who has a business and jobs growth-plan for the district; someone for whom politics is not about me-me but about us the constituents.

Instead what I was getting was a Naz Shah and George Galloway engaged in a highly personal attack and counter-attack against each other that has deflected from the real problems we face. Galloway’s preoccupation over whether Naz Shah had her nikkah (Muslim marriage) at 15 or 16 1/2 is irrelevant because a forced marriage can happen at any age.  We cannot deny Shah the fact that she was very likely subjected to a forced marriage, but the problem with this debate is that the election appears to hang on a single issue and that is unfair to Bradford voters.

What I have also been surprised at is how the issue of her nikkah has side-lined an issue that is more pertinent to me as a voter. If Galloway’s allegation that Naz Shah had approached the Respect Party to stand as the party’s PPC for Bradford East after she failed to secure the Labour nomination in the first-round of the PPC selection process, then that raises important issues about her trustworthiness. What I cannot understand is why the press and media have made light of this, particularly as Naz Shah did not refute Galloway’s claim and instead said she was only joking.

Those of us who were there to witness the incident first-hand were not convinced. The question that keeps raising its head is: why contact the Respect Party in the first place and who jokes about such an important issue anyway? Naz Shah has openly acknowledged that she supported Galloway in the 2012 by-elections and two of the workers from Sharing Voices – an organisation she chairs – were from the Respect Party.

Furthermore if she was offering to stand in Bradford East against her current Labour colleague Imran Hussain, it highlights the depths that politics has plunged into. This is the tragedy of modern-day politics where those aspiring to political office appear to be more concerned about their personal advancement rather than their desire to serve the public for the greater good.

What is not common knowledge is that just as Naz Shah has a backstory, so does George Galloway. He broke his silence around six years ago when he shared with the world that he had been sexually abused as a child. The story broke in a column defending Harriet Harman’s support for the government’s controversial “barring and vetting” proposals for those whose work brings them into contact with children. So in that respect both PPCs have my sympathies. However, my problem lies when both Galloway and Shah are defining their campaigns in terms of personal attacks against each other rather than giving us an agenda for positive change.

My interpretation of George Galloway is that he has been an absentee MP; he ranks third in the outside earnings league of MPs; he has made offensive comments about rape; he takes a strong line against UK foreign policy; he is vocal on the issues of Palestine and Israel; and he is a staunch defender against state Islamaphobia. Love him or hate him at least voters know what he represents, warts and all and as a voter I feel I can exercise my democratic choice accordingly.

However despite the elections being imminent, I am still none the wiser about Naz Shah’s policy platform. Yes, we have been treated to a train of high-profile London MPs paying lightning visits to Bradford supporting Naz Shah’s campaign, but beyond the razzmatazz, the twitter posts, the facebook likes, how is this relevant to constituents like me?

I am deeply concerned that Naz Shah’s selection has created wide cracks between Labour Central and the local party who feel undermined because they feel that they were sidelined in the candidate selection process. If local Labour Party members and councillors are saying they do not support Naz Shah’s candidacy, how is Bradford West’s interest going to be served if she wins the elections in the face of a divided local party?

My greatest fear about the present election campaign is that cohesion within the communities of Bradford West and across the district is being undermined. Whilst Galloway is pandering to the sentiments of the Muslim community and the Palestine issue, Shah is courting the liberal white community, who sympathise with her back story and want rid of George Galloway. As a voter I reject the view that I am hearing from some sections of the Labour party that a no-vote for Shah is a vote for Galloway. I think it is just not good enough for me to exercise my vote on this basis. This is not what I want in my city. I want an MP that will represent and unite us all.

Personally I feel the national (and international) press and media are to blame for presenting the electoral race in Bradford West as a choice between Shah and Galloway. I have felt despair watching people from outside the district taking to social media in the Shah versus Galloway mud-slinging match. It may come as a surprise to outside observers that we have eight candidates standing as PPC’s, which is the highest number of PPC’s in any constituency in Bradford District so they need to stop presenting this as a two-horse race.

In the three local hustings that I have witnessed, both George Grant the Tory candidate and particularly Celia Hickson, the Green’s candidate have proved themselves to have a strong command over a range of issues that affect the constituency. It is a shame that their voices have not been heard above the shrill screams of Shah and Galloway.

My message to Bradford voters is to consider each candidate on the basis of what they have to offer to lift Bradford West out of the sad state of affairs that we have experienced historically. It is not good enough that while we face poor outcomes in education, employment, health and poverty, our neighbours in other parts of the district are progressing. We need to see beyond narrow party horizons and start voting for our family and children’s future and that means giving every candidate a fair hearing.

Yours Sincerely

Fatima Patel

Editor, Asian Sunday Bradford