By Ratna Lachman

As political parties start declaring their prospective parliamentary candidates for the forthcoming 2015 General Elections, JUST West Yorkshire’s Director, Ratna Lachman assesses the emerging political landscape in her second feature for Asian Sunday.

If anyone wanted to enter the Alice in Wonderland world of politics, Bradford is the district they should come to. As sitting MPs and would-be political hopefuls limber up for the 2015 general elections, Bradford’s political scene is beginning to resemble a Mad Hatter’s tea party where everything is becoming “curiouser and curiouser!”

city hall image copyright Studio 68There has always been a deep sense of unease and disenchantment among voters at the political disunity and division that has damaged Bradford’s long-term prospects. The economy is in need of urgent resuscitation; the health outcomes in inner-city Bradford are among the worst in the country and the district is losing out to its neighbor Leeds, which is steaming ahead, sucking in investment and vital infrastructure monies from central government.

Instead of developing a clear cross-party consensus that challenges the Coalition government’s paltry financial settlement to the district and Bradford’s exclusion as one of the flagship cities in the vision for Northern devolution, many of the district’s MPs appear to be engaged in internecine warfare, pursuing their narrow party interests instead of working for the collective Bradford Good.

Kris_Hopkins2013Kris Hopkins, the Conservative MP for Keighley and also and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made no secret of his wish to divide Bradford so that the wealthy parts of the district are split from the poorer inner-city ethnically diverse areas of Bradford. Furthermore, his polarising comments on street grooming as an Asian men-on- white girls-crime – despite clear evidence that Asian girls are just as likely to be victims – has not only racialised the issue but provided succor to the English Defence League who have made frequent visits to the city.

In Shipley, the Tory MP Philip Davies has made a career of targeting travellers and proposing racist measures such as calling for the fingerprinting of all overseas visitors; banning children’s Urdu books from Bradford’s libraries and removing council obligation for providing gypsy sites. Despite being an MP for a district that is built on migration, his overtly pro-UKIP stance and his support for the Daily Express’ inflammatory anti-migrants campaign have been extremely divisive.

In Bradford West, George Galloway the Respect MP, has delivered more in rhetorical flourishes and enhanced his personal income from outside earnings than deliver on his electoral promises of attracting inward investment into his desperately deprived inner-city constituency. His comments about Bradford being an Israel-free zone might have earned him local plaudits among his followers, however when the Israeli ambassador turned up in Bradford openly defying Galloway’s call, it made the district a laughing stock nationally and internationally. More recently, the news that Councillors Mohammed Shabbir and Ishtiaq Ahmed – two of the five former Respect councilors, who left Galloway’s party amidst accusations of lack of ‘transparency, accountability and equity’ – are set to join the Labour Party, will undoubtedly strike a further blow to Galloway’s already diminishing authority.

Imranhussain003GBAs if the erosion of voter-trust in Bradford’s existing political representatives was not bad enough, recent political shenanigans in Bradford East has plunged the district even further into the political mire. The news that Imran Hussain, the Labour candidate who had been routed by George Galloway in the 2012 by-election, has secured his party’s nomination as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) in Bradford East has been greeted with genuine incredulity.

The general consensus was that Mohammed Taj, the union-backed candidate had the right credentials to win the Labour nomination. He was a former TUC President who had worked his way up from being a textile mill worker, a bus conductor and a bus driver and was widely respected for being a powerful advocate for workers’ rights.

Many believed that Imran Hussain’s dismal electoral performance in 2012; his bumbling performance on the BBC Look North televised elections programme and his no-show at a major hustings at the University of Bradford, had marked the end of his political career. Instead Imran Hussain has won Labour’s PPC nomination for Bradford East and will be fighting the current Lib-Dem MP David Ward, who is sitting on the slimmest 365-majority in next year’s general elections. So how did Hussain succeed in securing the Labour nomination, following his dismal performance in Bradford West?

A Labour member of Pakistani heritage believes that ‘biraderi’ politics – a system of Asian family and tribal patronage – continues to exert a stranglehold over Bradford’s political life, particularly in those areas that have a significant Asian electoral constituency. He claims that candidates are anointed on the basis of ‘bartering’ that takes place between community leaders of the district’s ‘Jhat’,  ‘Bain’ and ‘Choudhury’ clans and the ‘biraderi’ bloc vote then falls behind the ‘chosen’ candidate.

In her book, ‘British Muslim Politics’, Dr. Parveen Akhtar, lecturer at the University of Bradford argues that:

‘Local politicians realise that if they have the support of biraderi leaders they can secure Pakistani community votes en masse … local politicians act as patrons of biraderi leaders, conferring status on them … in turn, such leaders mobilise electoral support for their patrons.

A White Labour insider believes that the system has had a detrimental impact on local democracy and it has prevented young talent from coming through. He points out that of the 238 members who were eligible to vote for their preferred PPC in Bradford East, the majority of white members did not bother to turn up because ‘the white membership expected the selection to be a ‘bun-fight’ among Asian candidates’. He also believes that ‘scheduling the selection on the day that the local rugby team was playing, sent a signal that the White vote did not matter.’

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the outcome in the Bradford East selection process has diminished Ed Milliband’s standing in Bradford as the ‘biraderi’ bloc has effectively cocked a proverbial snook at the Labour leader. In the immediate aftermath of Labour’s massive by-election defeat to George Galloway in 2012, Milliband had visited the city and urged those who had abandoned the party, to keep faith with him as he intended to ’clean up’ Bradford politics.  Many believe that the imposition of an all-women shortlist in Bradford West was an attempt by the Labour leader to neutralise the ‘biraderi’ bloc vote.

Unfortunately Ed Milliband’s failure to affect the root and branch reform he promised has left voters like Sabrina Khan feeling cheated: ‘I feel so let down because the male clan ‘leaders’ are already lining up behind potential female Labour candidates in Bradford West. I was really thinking of going back to Labour, but now I feel as if we have all been taken for a ride with empty promises’.

There is no doubt that the fall-out from Bradford East has had unintended consequences. Owais Rajput, one of the Labour hopefuls and a long-time activist who did not make it to the Bradford East shortlist announced that he has ‘defected’ to UKIP. In a press release issued by UKIP, Mr. Rajput declared that ‘ I wanted to join a political party that … can build the trust between Bradford’s local communities … my values and principles of empowering people fit perfectly with UKIP policy and I look forward to helping UKIP to fight for local people’.

According to UKIP’s Bradford Chair, Jason Smith, disillusioned ethnic minority members from the mainstream parties have recently joined UKIP and it expects to field its first Black candidate in the 2015 local council elections. He also boasts of a UKIP victory in the white majority Labour-held Bradford South, where the sitting Labour MP, Gerry Sutcliffe is standing down. The Party is equally bullish of its chances against the sitting Conservative MP Kris Hopkins in the marginal ward of Keighley and it believes it has a fair chance in Shipley where it reckons that the Eurosceptic Tory Shipley MP, Philip Davies will not be able to out-UKIP its stance on Europe and immigration.

In this surreal world of political musical chairs, it is incomprehensible why ethnic minorities would want to join an overtly racist, Islamaphobic and xenophobic party that has won over one-third of BNP voters and is in partnership with a holocaust denier in Europe?

On the face of it, although the malaise that typifies Bradford’s political life, appears to have Asian antecedents, the truth is that the political culture of the district mirrors the White ‘biraderi’ politics that is writ large in Westminster. If the Conservatives see no conflict of interest in allowing a Russian oligarch’s wife to bid £160,000 for a tennis-double with the two most powerful politicians in the land – the Mayor of London and the UK Prime Minister – then the ‘deals’ that are done between clan leaders and Asian voters in Bradford are small change in comparison. In a political milieu where the Ministers of the Realm are happily filling their election coffers with tax-exiled monies from millionaires and billionaires who receive future peerages and government preferment in turn, we are rather like Alice in Wonderland trapped inside a world of Mad Hatter politics. The disillusionment with politicians is already corrupting voters’ faith in democracy and it is more than likely that the verdict voters will deliver in the 2015 elections’ will have strong echoes of Alice’s frustration at the topsy-turvy world she finds herself in: ‘Of all the silly nonsense, this is the stupidest tea party I’ve ever been to in all my life’.

You can read Ratna Lachman’s first article on ‘biraderi’ politics for the Asian Sunday here.