By Ratna Lachman
Political pundits are currently abuzz about the implications of Labour’s imposition of an all-female shortlist in Bradford West where the Respect MP George Galloway and the Labour candidate will no doubt be locked in a bitter electoral battle for votes in the upcoming 2015 general election. On the face of it, Labour’s decision is being presented as an attempt to clean up local ‘biraderi’ politics where clan leaders stack up the selection process to ensure that their preferred candidate secures the nomination for political office. The appeal to the ‘biraderi’ vote is particularly prevalent in areas where ethnic minority voters of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage from particular clans can affect the outcome of the electoral process.
In Bradford, the status quo prevailed, until the 2012 by-election in Bradford West, when George Galloway, the Respect MP struck a mortal blow to the ‘biraderi’ bloc by trouncing the Labour candidate Imran Hussain with a 10,140 majority. Young people and women buoyed by the rhetorical grandeur of George Galloway’s promise to ‘clean up’ politics and give the marginalised a voice, flocked to the polling stations in their thousands to deliver Galloway his election victory.
Barely two years on, the ‘Bradford Spring’ that Galloway promised, has turned into a Bradford winter of discontent. He has delivered precious little for the voters of Bradford West; his local councillors have abandoned him; his rape comment has distanced female voters; and his announcement of a potential candidacy as London mayor has cocked a proverbial snook to those who placed their faith in him.
Despite the fact that Galloway’s star is on the wane, the current consensus is that none of the known crop of local female candidates for Bradford West, who are likely to throw their hat into the ring, is up to the task of clawing back the gaping majority that Galloway enjoys. The recent Israeli-Gaza conflict has given Galloway a fillip, particularly in this Muslim-majority constituency where Western foreign policy in the Middle East has both angered and alienated many voters.
There is an acute awareness within the Labour leadership that it only has one sitting MP from Bradford in Parliament, despite the fact that the district’s poverty, deprivation and diversity profile should make it prime Labour territory. With key marginals in Keighley and Bradford East – where Labour has a fighting chance of winning those seats from the Conservative and Lib-Dem incumbents respectively – Labour stalwarts have questioned the party’s wisdom in alienating the ‘biraderi’ bloc vote by imposing an all-female short-list. Far better, they argue to have them on side at a time when the electoral stakes are so high.
Despite the prevalence of such arguments it is tempting to interpret events in Bradford as the dawning of a new progressive politics that reaffirms democracy. After all in the aftermath of Labour’s colossal 2012 by-election defeat, Ed Miliband promised the Bradford electorate that he would rid the district of the ‘stain’ of clan politics and deliver quality candidates. Perhaps the recent culling of local Asian councillors and the imposition of an all-female shortlist marks the fruition of Labour’s bold promise.Or it may be an act of pure political opportunism: a clearing of the decks, calculated to rid the Party of candidates who are likely to scupper its chances in the general election.
Wherever the ‘truth’ lies, one thing is certain: the Faustian pact between the Labour Party and the ‘biraderi’ is coming home to roost. Since the system depends on deals being brokered between patriarchs, the lack of openness and transparency has been to Labour’s detriment. If the Labour leadership thought it had checkmated the ‘biraderi’ candidate in Bradford West by imposing an all-female shortlist, it had not quite reckoned on the resilience of the clan network. The rumours are that that they are set to defy the Labour leadership by standing their ‘man’ in Bradford East – a key marginal where the current Lib-Dem MP, David Ward is sitting on a slim 365-seat majority. There is also talk of the ‘Pathan’ lobby trying to position its own candidate in Bradford East over a rival trade union candidate for the Labour nomination. While over in Bradford West there are corrosive rumours swirling around that the ‘biraderi’ patriarchs intend to ‘throw’ the 2015 election in Bradford West to George Galloway, by supporting the weakest female Labour candidate, just so that their ‘man’ can secure the Labour nomination in the 2020 election should he not win Bradford East this time round.
Whether these developments are grounded in fact or are the stuff of fiction is irrelevant because it has resulted in the alienation of many young voters. A young female Respect voter said that she hated the ‘biraderi’ system and had supported Galloway initially as a protest vote: ‘My friends and I were fed up with older men making deals and deciding who will represent us – Bradford has so much young talent and there is just no space for them. I am not going to vote for Galloway or anyone else next year cause they are all as bad as each other. ”
The difficulty for Bradford is that the biraderi system is weaved tightly into the economic, social and religious life of the district. As one local politician told me ‘ the problem is that it’s not just the competing clans who are fighting for power but leaders sitting in Pakistan are determining who the local candidate should be. It infects our politics, our mosques, our neighbourhoods, even our public institutions.”
This disaffection with the current political status quo is growing because younger voters are aware that the problem of patriarchal patronage is not unique to Labour: all political parties sip from its poisoned well. Consequently democracy is undermined, as postal votes are hijacked and young people and women’s votes are effectively ‘stolen’ by male relatives.
While it may be tempting to see the corruption of democracy through the lens of race and religion, the biraderi system ultimately mirrors the political patronage that riddles our national political life. Whether it is the allocation of lucrative contracts to private businesses linked to the political class through the old-boy network; the political prize of Cabinet positions distributed to a predominantly Eton-Oxbridge elite; the titles conferred to ‘friends’ who have enriched party election coffers in the Honours list – all these are variations of the ‘biraderi’ network writ large. The system that reproduces inequality, was recently highlighted in a damning report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, entitled ‘Elitist Britain?’, which highlighted how power, privilege and money conspire to create a political, economic and social underclass.
So will the Labour Party hold its nerve in Bradford and take on the clan network or will the political exigencies of winning the election cause it to duck the issue?Locally, Labour might calculate that its 4622 majority in Bradford South – the only Bradford constituency with a Labour MP – may be at risk if UKIP decides to stand a candidate in the area. If its traditional supporters from less affluent White areas such as Wibsey, Tong and Wyke desert them for UKIP, then taking on the ‘biraderi’ may not seem such a sensible option, particularly as they are likely to be crucial in bringing out every one of the 11,565 potential Asian votes on Election Day.
Nationally too the outcome of the Scottish referendum may also have significant implications. If the Cameron government insists that the timetable for Scottish devolution is contingent on home-rule and a constitutional settlement for England, then Labour is seriously at risk of being seen as a lame-duck government-in-waiting, without the support of its 40 Scottish MPs.
The choices for Labour are stark. If it really wants to change the political culture of Bradford it should either impose a strong external female candidate who is not mired in local politics or at least it must ensure that there is an independent local candidate who will not draw her legitimacy from the swamp of vested interests or identity politics, even if this means losing Bradford West. While over in Bradford East, the Labour Party has to lance the ‘biraderi’ boil through ensuring that the selection process identifies the best candidate for the job.
Ultimately, Labour can either play the short game of winning the 2015 Elections through ‘biraderi’ patronage or the long game of presenting a credible political alternative to a younger generation of voters who are more likely to support any political party that stands on the platform of social justice, equality and human rights.