By Ratna Lachman
The decision by the Labour NEC to impose its next prospective parliamentary candidate for Bradford West, following the withdrawal of Amina Ali from the electoral race, is nothing less than a spectacular shambles. Its decision to bypass the local membership highlights that the Labour leadership recognises that its local party structure is no longer fit for purpose. Nothing less than a disbanding of its party membership in those constituencies, where the insidious ‘biraderi’ or clan politics has taken a stranglehold, will restore faith in local democracy.
Against the background of the political storm in Bradford West, progressive Labour voters had hoped that the Labour leader, Ed Miliband would calm voters’ nerves, when he visited neighbouring Leeds last week. Rather than assure them that he would grasp the nettle of clan politics, what they got was a denial that there were deep-rooted problems, despite having acknowledged in the wake of Labour’s colossal by-election defeat to George Galloway, that he will ‘listen and learn’ and implement “real, deep, genuine change”.
In 2012, the Labour leader had been told in no uncertain terms by women and young people, that they had abandoned Labour for Respect as a protest against the ‘biraderi’ system that they believed Imran Hussain, the Labour prospective parliamentary candidate represented. Instead of instituting a root and branch reform, the Labour leadership prevaricated and imposed an all-woman shortlist as a sop to the promises Milliband had made to Bradford West’s voters. The resulting chaos was predictable.
I don’t know anyone who believes that Amina Ali – Labour’s PPC who was chosen from an all-woman shortlist – withdrew because she realised belatedly that she was a mother first and an aspiring Westminster politician second. On the face of it, Labour has always defended its all-woman shortlist as a progressive attempt to create gender parity in politics. However, if the Party is really honest, it was a cynical manoeuvre, many believe to neutralise Imran Hussain, who was intent on a parliamentary career despite being routed by George Galloway in the 2012 by-elections.
In a political milieu where the patriarchal ‘biraderi’ network is known to use the party’s membership rules to lever its own candidate through mobilizing a bloc vote, the expectation was that their female candidate would secure the PPC nomination. However, her failure to make it to the Labour shortlist effectively left three seeming outsiders contending for the position. Naveeda Ikram, a long-standing councillor, Naz Shah a political novice making her first foray into politics and Amina Ali, a Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets and a newcomer to Bradford.
It is an open secret that Amina Ali secured the Labour PPC nomination because of the tactical support of the ‘biraderi’ bloc vote – not because they believed she was the best candidate, but in an attempt to stop the two local candidates from securing the PPC nomination. The word from Labour insiders was that ‘biraderi’ members were calculating that as a Londoner with no local connections, Amina Ali would lose to George Galloway, and this would give their preferred candidate a second bite of the cherry at the next general elections.
Amina Ali’s decision to withdraw from the electoral race in Bradford West is a loss for a number of reasons: she might not have come with any local credentials but as a Black woman who has survived the rough and tumble of Tower Hamlet’s political life and as a Somalian taking a stand on difficult issues such as female genital mutilation, Bradfordian women deserved the opportunity to know if she could speak to their hopes, fears and aspirations.
Amina Ali’s departing statement that “Bradford West needs a candidate who is going to live in Bradford and be involved in the campaign for every moment of every day” is instructive. In reality, Bradford deserves the best candidate, wherever they come from, otherwise, the parochialism that informs ‘biraderi’ politics will continue to exercise its stranglehold over future generations. As Dr. Parveen Akhtar, lecturer at the University of Bradford points out, it is already the case that: ‘After decades of patronage, a generation of British Pakistani young people is disillusioned with the political process’.
The problem with an all-woman shortlist is that it engages in the rhetoric of gender equality but fails to recognise the very practical support that aspiring female politicians need. Bradford West is not a target Labour seat and Amina Ali would have had to raise her own monies and resources to mount an effective campaign. Equally leaving the nomination process to the end of February was a profound mistake, particularly as it would have taken a gargantuan effort to garner the votes she needed against her electoral opponent George Galloway. There is no indication that any of this was in place.
I never knew Amina Ali personally but I did take note that she had the support of anti-racists such as Diane Abbot and Claude Moraes MEP. Her twitter feed shows genuine well wishes for her campaign in Bradford West from people who wanted her to carve out a political career as the first Somali female MP. It is a shame we never got to see Amina’s political mettle or how she might have performed against Galloway in the election hustings.
There is no doubt that that Amina Ali’s experience will bar good women from entering politics. The fall-out from the Bradford debacle means that Labour’s PPC will always carry the stigma of being second best. In truth Labour has already lost the 2015 general elections in Bradford West due to Labour’s failure to grasp the ‘biraderi’ nettle. If the Party is serious about its commitment to democracy, its first task must be to disband its local party structures where there is even the slightest whiff of clan politics and start the process of recruiting members afresh.
It is clear that George Galloway has alienated the very constituency of women and young people who shifted over to Respect, following his refusal to apologise over his rape comment and his inability to deliver on the promises that he made to disenchanted Labour voters. Had Miliband signalled his determination to take on the ‘biraderi’, he might have given the female Labour potential parliamentary candidate a fighting chance against George Galloway in Bradford West.
For all Miliband’s talk on taking on established interests – the Murdoch press, the gas companies and the bankers – he has proved himself incapable of taking on the vested interest in his own backyard. It is a shame that Ed Miliband has not been able to tap into his Party’s historical roots and apply those lessons to Bradford West. It wasn’t too long ago that Neil Kinnock took on the militants who were threatening to destabilise the Party and his efforts made Labour electorally respectable. Miliband needs to do the same in those constituencies where its membership is using the ‘biraderi’ bloc vote to undermine democracy.
Even if Labour loses Bradford West – as it is likely to do – It would have enhanced Miliband’s authority as a leader willing to take tough decisions. Meanwhile there is a large abandoned floating electoral constituency adrift in Bradford West desperately seeking a political ‘home’.
Ratna Lachman is the Director of JUST West Yorkshire an organisation that promotes racial justice, civil liberties and human rights.