De-mystifying biraderi Politics in Bradfordon 7 January 2015
By Parveen Akhtar and Timothy Peace
When George Galloway won the Bradford West by-election in March 2012 he called it ‘the most sensational result in British by-election history bar none’. While this might be a slight exaggeration, it was certainly an unforeseen result that took most onlookers by surprise. We include ourselves in this category. Indeed, one of us had even written an article on the Respect party in 2011 suggesting that it might not survive much longer! Galloway did not simply edge out his Labour rival Imran Hussain, he trounced him with more than 55% of the vote. Clearly something very interesting had taken place in Bradford West. Subsequent media reports described the result as a revolt amongst younger Bradfordians and the biraderi system. Kinship-based bloc voting, a prominent feature of British Pakistani political engagement in UK politics, was being challenged. Given our previous research on British Muslim Politics, it made sense to work together on an article that would investigate how the Respect Party had managed to pull off such a stunning victory. Thanks to the generosity of the Moray Endowment Fund, it was possible to conduct some research in Bradford in 2013 and speak with some of the key players involved in the campaign as well both Labour and Respect local councillors.
Our aim in the article was to outline Respect’s mobilisation strategy, in particular, how they used their previous experience of campaigning in places like Birmingham and East London, areas with significant numbers of South Asian Muslim voters, to achieve this unlikely victory in Bradford. In the 2010 general election, the Respect candidate in Bradford West picked up just 3% of the vote so they were hardly starting from a strong position. Secondly, we wanted to investigate the extent to which the result was a sign of voter disillusionment with the use of the biraderi system. Respect had campaigned heavily on this issue, claiming that by voting for Galloway young South Asians could break the relationship between biraderi elders and the local Labour Party. Nevertheless, our research showed that Respect was not averse to receiving bloc votes. Its success was, in fact, due to the skilful manner in which it simultaneously circumvented and harnessed the traditional South Asian community structures.
Respect was, however, critical of instances of voting fraud involving other political parties. Dominic Grieve was criticised when he mentioned the link between corruption and the Pakistani community, although our interview partners were of the view that this problem needed to be acknowledged and discussed more openly. In a city like Bradford, speaking openly about such issues is difficult. Many young Pakistanis are reluctant to speak about the ‘problem’ of biraderi politics because they are accused by older biraderi members of ‘showing up’ the community; of washing its dirty linen in public. And, in a climate where public discourse around Pakistani Muslims is jam-packed with stories of separatism, extremism, grooming and sexual exploitation, few have the appetite to draw attention to ‘yet another problem with the Pakistanis’. Of course, keeping the biraderi bed-linen behind closed doors allows the status quo to prevail.
We used the interview data collected in Bradford along with previous data collected in East London on Respect and 7 years’ worth of research on local politics in Birmingham that specifically examined Pakistani biraderi networks. This allowed us to contextualise the result in Bradford West in the wider trends of British South Asian political participation. Data on ethnicity and religion from the 2011 census was used to look at how Respect candidates fared in the 2013 local elections in Bradford when compared against the percentage of Muslim residents and those selecting Pakistani ethnicity. It was notable, for example, how Respect candidates performed particularly well in those wards where the percentage of Muslim residents was over 40%. The Muslim population of Bradford West is just over half of the total number of residents, making it easily Britain’s ‘most Muslim’ parliamentary constituency. Nevertheless, the scale of Galloway’s victory in the by-election of 2012 shows that he managed to pick up support from across the electorate irrespective of religion, ethnicity and even social class. He won in every single ward and took votes not only from previous Labour supporters but also those who had previously voted for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
The result was a true indictment of the state of local politics in Bradford and Galloway managed to skilfully exploit burning political issues in the town. One of these was the stalled Westfield shopping complex, which at the time of the by-election was described as a ‘hole in the ground’. Indeed, for all the talk about the importance of the ‘Muslim vote’ and biraderi politics, Galloway was very adept at reaching out to all residents by focusing on issues that angered local residents. He set himself up to reap the benefits of a mass protest vote, whether the protest was against the incompetence of local politicians or the selection process of the Labour parliamentary candidate. Such was the anger at the manner in which this was done that even Labour Party members admitted to doing all they could to get Galloway elected. As described by the report of Lewis Baston Imran Hussain’s selection gave ‘the sense that things were sewn up by a particular subsection of the community by means of influence, organisation, family ties and shadows cast by Pakistani politics, and that victory in selection contests was a matter of successful organisation and manoeuvring rather than legitimately winning a political argument or having the candidate best suited to the task in hand’. Hussain was also given a lesson in political communication by Galloway when they appeared on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show.
The Respect campaign made great use out of such videos and their social media operation was vastly superior to the other parties. There was a genuine buzz on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter which meant that Galloway gained significant momentum in the run-up to the vote on 29th March 2012. Tragically the death of a key Respect campaigner just one week before the election helped to galvanise support as a way of paying tribute to this respected local activist. Yet, apart from the innovative use of social media, we argue that the tactics used by the Respect campaign in Bradford West were merely a reflection of their previous experiences in Birmingham and East London. The spectacular result cannot be explained by some secret weapon, rather the campaign team had a strategy based on communicating a clear message to voters who felt alienated by the state of local politics. Having a campaign manager who had worked for the previous MP Marsha Singh certainly helped.
Although the Respect victory was presented as a watershed moment signalling the end of the stranglehold of biraderi on Bradford politics, it would be naïve to think that this is the case. The Labour Party has taken steps to avoid the problems associated with selection in 2012 by imposing an all-female shortlist in Bradford West for its PPC in 2015. However, the Labour leadership’s attempt to clean-up biraderi politics in Bradford appears to be as successful as Ed Miliband’s party leadership thus far: not very. Moreover, the candidate who was seen as the face of biraderi politics in Bradford, the very same candidate who spectacularly lost the 2012 Bradford West by-election to George Galloway, has been declared as the official Labour Party candidate for the constituency of Bradford East, supporting assertions in the Asian press that the clans will aim to get ‘their man’ elected in Bradford East in light of the imposition of the all-women short list in Bradford West.
Whilst the idea behind the all-women shortlist was to avoid the power of the Biraderi clans who are more likely to support a male candidate (for Labour it also had the advantage of fulfilling the party’s stated aim of having half its selections from all-women lists), the end result has simply highlighted the power of local idiosyncrasies. The imposition of an all-women short list in Bradford West appears like a sticking plaster on an amputation. The political culture in Bradford in the last 40 years has been one in which women have been whole-heartedly excluded, not only from the political front-line, but from the public sphere more widely. The gathering for the launch of Imran Hussein’s candidacy in Bradford East paid testimony this. The Labour women hopefuls in Bradford West will have very little political capital or first hand experience of party politics, except through male relatives and biraderi-members. And, herein, lies the crux of the matter. The women who are now jostling for political office are those who have biraderi connections and support. The system of biraderi is as embedded as ever, only the clothes are different.
The point of cleaning up Bradford politics was to re-engage the young people effectively disenfranchised through biraderi networks. Galloway swept into power on a tide of youth disaffection and has failed to deliver the Promised Land. Labour has failed to tackle biraderi politics with any clout or consequence. For the General Election in 2015, it certainly looks as though it will be biraderi business, as usual.
Parveen Akhtar is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bradford. Timothy Peace is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Stirling. Their article ‘Biraderi, Bloc Votes and Bradford: Investigating the Respect Party's Campaign Strategy’ is published in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations and can be downloaded here.
Image: Vince Millett CC BY