A young man called Naweed Hussain, even more than George Galloway, is the key to the Bradford West by-election upset. I spent a couple of hours with him last summer when I went to Bradford to write a piece ‘ten years on’ from the 2001 riots. He was an angry and thwarted man; angry not so much about joblessness or discrimination (though he did complain about a ‘brown ceiling’ at the council and university) but about the control of minority representation in the Labour party by people from the Jats and Bains clans from the Mirpur region of Kashmir, from where so many of Britain’s 1.2 million Pakistanis originate. 

When Imran Hussain, a Kashmiri background lawyer and Bradford Labour councillor, was strong-armed into the Labour nomination for the seat by those clans it seemed to be the final straw for Naweed, who had worked closely with the previous Labour MP Marsha Singh. He is an articulate and well-integrated 30-year-old training consultant, but he is from a Punjabi background so was never going to thrive in Bradford Labour. When two weeks before the election he abandoned Labour and became, in effect, Galloway's agent the result was sealed. Of course it needed other things too—a charismatic candidate, an ethnic grievance culture to tap into that could be mobilised through social media and Muslim websites, the willingness of younger Muslim voters and especially increasingly well-educated young women to break with the Biraderi system of clan loyalty. 

So the Bradford West upset is probably most accurately described as the result of a minor civil war within the Pakistani elite in the town which resulted in a younger generation revolting against its elders. And a successful by-election campaign that loudly highlights the plight of the Palestinians is not likely to tell us much about, or have much impact on, national politics.

It does, however, show how ‘soft’ support is for all the main parties – especially in depressed places like Bradford – and also how Ed Miliband has failed to create much buzz around his leadership; it is hard to imagine this happening under a young Tony Blair in 1996. It may also help to revive the Respect party, a sort of Islamic version of the SWP, which after its great successes at the height of the Iraq war had dwindled to one council seat in Birmingham and two in Tower Hamlets. 

But there is another big reason why this apparently sui generis result will reverberate nationally—it may mark the beginning of the end of Labour’s ethnic minority bloc vote politics.

It is one of the open secrets of Labour politics that in large parts of the Midlands and the North it has acquiesced in the ‘wholesale’ vote gathering system offered by some minority leaders. And it is easy to see why an impoverished party with few activists and an old white working class base that seldom votes finds it hard to resist the implicit deal of a few hundred or few thousand votes that some minority community leaders can still realistically offer in return for political attention of various kinds from a Labour MP or councillor. 

The system has largely disappeared, if it ever existed, for successful and well-integrated minorities. But it is still very much alive for Kashmiris, who are the best organised voter group in many Labour seats in the old industrial areas and have the extra advantage of a hierarchical clan system which has been able to guarantee a sizeable bloc vote. 

Most Kashmiris would vote Labour anyway even if they weren’t corralled by the Biraderi system, so it probably makes little difference to actual voting outcomes. But where the clan system is particularly important is in selection of candidates for council and, to a lesser extent, parliamentary seats. And because Labour has been keen to increase its proportion of minority representatives it has turned a blind eye to how they have been chosen—often at the expense of more talented minority candidates who come from the wrong background (14 out of the 20 minority councillors in Bradford are Kashmiri).

Has that system (which pulls in the other main political parties too, though to a lesser extent) been mortally wounded by last Friday morning’s extraordinary result in Bradford? Many people from the Kashmiri world in Bradford will tell you so. It seems that the defection of Naweed Hussain and the galvanisation of the younger and female voters in revolt against the ‘bloc’ is likely to catch on. 

That is bad news for the Kashmiri elders and in the short term it could be bad for the Labour party too. Labour may lose a wave of council seats to a revived Respect party in May and possibly even more parliamentary seats. But in the long run it is far better released from the Faustian pact with community elders.

All politics should be retail not wholesale and all voters should be treated first as citizens not as members of a minority. The bloc vote has reinforced a lazy form of separatist multiculturalism on the left, which saw someone as a Kashmiri Muslim first with certain views and policies derived from that ethno-religious identity. It may also have encouraged too much concern with minority interests and a downplaying of the interests of poorer, non-voting whites.

Labour is the party that helped to integrate the Catholic and Protestant working class through a common social democratic politics in the first part of the 20th century. It has only partly repeated that achievement with Britain’s main post-war minorities, though they are still overwhelmingly Labour voters. 

Released from the grip of a conservative elder dominated politics, especially among Kashmiri voters, Labour might be freer to think more constructively about how it can create a common interest politics that unites poorer whites and Pakistanis in places like Bradford. Most of the city’s problems are shared (in slightly different forms) across the white and the minority communities—deindustrialisation, jobs, public sector retrenchment, only slow improvement in school results. The Labour party is the obvious vehicle for a politics that focuses on those things and brings people together to try to do something about them.

But it hasn’t happened. The native working class once took part in the politics of the town through unions and industry but when much of the industry closed it drifted into political apathy, and was also alienated by what was seen as Labour’s disproportionate focus on minorities from the 1980s onwards. The opportunity to create a common political culture was missed, instead a dogmatic multiculturalism united white middle class radicals and minority elites. And after the Rushdie affair in 1988/89 those, now religiously conservative, minority leaders did not allow the voice of the young and radical (and female) to come through in the Labour party. Or if they did, only in a very controlled way – Bradford does currently have a Muslim woman mayor.

So the election of George Galloway may be a kind of growing pain for both Labour and the Kashmiri minority marking the end of a multiculturalist ‘ethnic bloc’ mentality and the arrival of a more autonomous, individualistic politics. Many Kashmiri homes in Bradford West will have had different generations voting for different parties last week. That may be the silver lining in the black cloud of the Bradford result.

But black cloud in the short term it certainly is. It will surely make life in Bradford even more polarised, and might even revive the far-right in response. The idea that this result represented a radical cross-ethnic vote against the ‘neglect’ of Bradford by mainstream politicians is left-wing wishful thinking. Galloway probably got a few thousand white protest votes with his left Labour appeal in some areas, and also seems to have done surprisingly well among white Conservative voters in Allerton ward, but he was overwhelmingly elected by Pakistani Muslims in what is now a majority Asian constituency. And if your appeal is solidly based across all groups you do not start your victory speech at party HQ, ‘All praise to Allah… Long live Iraq, long live Palestine.’

How can Respect create a cross-ethnic common interest politics when its power base is firmly in one group and its campaigning was at least partly focused on Umma-related foreign policy issues that have little resonance with whites? Indeed the main connection that white working class Bradford has with these issues is through sending its sons to fight as soldiers in the British army in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on—fighting on the wrong side so far as George Galloway and his young Muslim voters are concerned.

Moreover, some of the problems of the Kashmiri community in Bradford (and elsewhere) are self-inflicted—first cousin marriage and the handicapped children it too often produces, the importing of non-English speaking spouses which holds back the educational performance of the young and so on—how likely is it that Respect will confront the community with its own failings? Instead it is likely ramp up a Muslim grievance culture blaming everything on supposedly anti-Muslim white Britain that will further divide poor old Bradford.

At least, released from the constraints of the Biraderi deal, Labour activists—both white and Pakistani—might now be able to have a more honest conversation about these matters. Naweed Hussain, an able young professional and veteran of British Council delegations, ought to be one of those activists helping to create a common interest politics. He seemed open to such discussions when I met him last year, and told me that he regretted the fact that conservative Muslims were increasingly wearing traditional dress because it made the town feel more segregated.

It seems unlikely, however, that honest conversations about how Pakistanis themselves have contributed to the failure of integration in Bradford will be top priority for a grievance-mongering party like Respect. It’s a protest party skilled at attracting a range of disaffected voters including both conservative and more progressive young Muslims—it can appeal at the same time to traditionalist Muslims with deeply reactionary views about women and Jews, younger post-Islamist radicals, white leftists and more liberal figures like Naweed who feel thwarted by clan politics.

Respect talked about local issues as well as international ones in the campaign but in some ways it represents the bad old communalist politics just as much as the old bloc vote system did, it just represents a younger, more radical version of it. The party’s victory is another manifestation of a divided town—in a line from the Ray Honeyford dispute, the Salman Rushdie affair and the riots of 1995 and 2001. But as an unintended consequence of its victory it may have done the Labour party and the country a big favour by calling into question the segregationist wholesale politics of the past two generations. One step back to go two steps forward?

Sean Dolat

A very good piece :)

Peter

Seems like a sensible piece but it should be clarified that first cousin marriages, while may seemingly produce "handicapped " children "too often", only result in children with congenital abnormalities in 6% of the time. This compares with a background rate of 3% for the children of unrelated couples. This is still relatively low, if double the risk. "too often" is subjective and a little inflammatory. I write this as a genetics health professional.

David Vinter

The truth is , neither main party offers anything but promises. Like the rest of Europe, they have little idea how to get jobs for the young unemployed. With sales being difficult, businessmen are very reluctant to take extra risks, and use automation wherever possible, [ machinery has a second hand value].
The west still has not realised just how cheaply goods can be produced in the third world, just look, who made your computer?
So why not give George a go, currently no other party offers much.
Best chance is build more cheap houses.

Tony Holdich

Finally a serious review of the fractured society in urban Bradford

zulfiqar Ahmed

Perhaps the author can expand on what it means to be well-integrated. I'm sure all of the UK's Pakistani's would be interested to know what the expectation is.

Diane Abbott

What a shame it didn't occur to Demos to get someone from Bradford to write about this. Instead we have David Goodhart, who seems to have appointed himself BME people's sahib. Unburdened by any real understanding of our communities he just peddles some of his favourite theories e.g."ethnic grievance" or the notion that racism only exists in the addled heads of us BME persons. Can I recommend an excellent blog by an actual Muslim woman who lives in Bradford http://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/speakerscorner/where-are-the-muslim-women-in-bradford-politics/ And Helen Pidd of the Guardian, who actually spent time in Bradford and was therefore the only national journalist to call the result correctly, has written another very good article http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/apr/04/how-women-won-it-for-galloway

oliver bennett

A good piece. I despise galloway but can see how his presence might bring a mood of uplift for voters in a town associated with decline - also, where dominant stories of Peter Sutcliffe and Shannon Matthews underwrite that sense of nativist loss, ceding public space to the Islamist ascendancy: the shameful burning of Rushdie books, the hounding of honeyford and so on.

Odd that Diane Abbott seeks to traduce a thoughtful piece by a/ suggesting that the writer not entitled to write about Bradford and b/ by reference to 'our communities'. What does 'our' mean in this context? Seriously, don't get it.

Simon

Some good insight here into the dynamics of Kashmiri politics which is a welcome contribution to the debate. However, David Goodhart shows a comprehensive and profound misunderstanding of politics in Bradford.

Perhaps the exclusive focus on the Labour Party is that reason. But then what would I know!

David Goodhart

Thanks for the mainly thoughtful comments. Though a bit unserious and ad hominem from Diane Abbott. All I can say Diane is that, no, I did not go to Bradford after the by-election but I have spent some time there and know a few people there - including GG supporters - and spoke on the phone to quite a few people before writing my comment, which has been well received by at least some people who know the town better than either of us. And I notice that your stricture about "being in Bradford" before writing about it does not apply to yourself, you wrote a post election comment piece in the Times without showing any evidence of having been there recently. Am I to presume that simply being black gives you an understanding of "our communities", in this case a mainly Kashmiri Pakistani one, that white people can never attain. This is very 1980s. Play the argument, Diane, not the skin colour. And by the way when did I say, as you imply, that racism only exists in the imagination? And are you saying there is no such thing as an ethnic grievance politics? I e-mailed your office a couple of weeks ago suggesting we meet up, as you seem to think I am some sort of scary monster, but have had no reply. The offer still stands.
Simon, you say I have something interesting to say about Kashmiri/Labour politics but misunderstand Bradford as a whole, but I was only really writing about the Kashmiri-Labour nexus, happy to be enlightened about the rest.
Zulfiqar, would love to talk about integration - big and complex subject - and not an "all or nothing" thing - many people are integrated in some areas of life and quite segregated in others.
Peter, I hope you are right about those relatively low numbers. I was told by a woman called Nuzhat Ali in Bradford that as many as 30 per cent of Mirpuri children in the town suffer from mild or severe disability as as result of first cousin marriage. She, for one, thinks that the debate about this is not inflamed enough in the Pakistani community.

Ishtiaq Ahmed

An excellent challenging piece of writing.

Diane Abbott MP

Diane Abbott MP
You have attributed to me views that I don't hold. I certainly don't think non BME/Bradford West people cannot write illuminatingly about Bradford West. That is why I recommended the excellent Helen Pidd article. But what made her piece compelling was that she didn't use her piece as a vehicle for own theories, but reported what actual Bradford West women did and said.

And I think that the notion of a politics of "ethnic greviance" seeks to minimise the significance of actual racism. For years people talking about police racism were dismissed by people like you as wallowing in the politics of "ethnic greviance" Now we are learning that it is still very much present and not an imaginary greviance at all.

Degad Abdul

"minority leaders did not allow the voice of the young and radical (and female) to come through in the Labour party. Or if they did, only in a very controlled way – Bradford does currently have a Muslim woman mayor."

Thanks for pointing out there is a female mayor, care to explain how she's being 'controlled and why you'd suggest she's a puppet.

Mohammed Amin

This is a very perceptive article.

While my first hand knowledge of Bradford is limited (I have spent virtually all my life living on the other side of the Pennines) the article is consistent with everything I know about Bradford.

I agree with the hope of "One step back to go two steps forward?"

New Comment