Biradari, Ed Miliband and Bradford
Having not visited the Bradford West by-election when it was happening (sorry!) I’ve been chatting to those that campaigned there, looking back at coverage and at George Galloway’s own campaign website. You see video here of George Galloway, campaigning in the street, attacking his Labour opponent Cllr Hussain, as a man who “can’t string two sentences together” and is “never out of the pub”. “I’m a better Muslim than he is … I’m a better Pakistani than he is,” George Galloway claimed. Just a personal attack? Definitely not.
George Galloway sensed that an entire social system in Bradford was in decline. The young voters who seem to have turned out in surprising numbers yesterday rose up, in part, against the Biradari system of elders and deference which has dominated many wards in Bradford and has its origins in the Kashmiri villages where many families were originally rooted. Elders expect their deeds to be done. The young feel these elders aren’t up to much. At one speech in the student union during the campaign, George Galloway actually called for an uprising against the system.
And Labour had got itself deeply entwined with Biradari – in this by-election and in local politics here for decades. The outgoing Labour MP, Marsha Singh, who stood down for health reasons, is a Sikh, and so managed to side-step the rivalries within Bradford’s Muslim community. Councillor Hussain, the losing Labour candidate, was at the epicentre of those rivalries and the old system. He was seen by many Muslim youths as one of the underperforming elders that Labour connives to keep in charge of the community, regardless of merit. One source told me that Cllr Hussain seems to have taken particularly presumptuous approach to the mosques – have a few conversations with the imams and thinking they will decree “vote Labour” and the worshippers will follow the edict. They didn’t.
There also clearly was a wider, collective Labour intelligence failure on the ground, on a scale it’s hard to remember happening in recent times. The wave of support that pushed George Galloway back into parliament seems to have really taken off in the last week of the campaign. The Labour Party didn’t keep tabs on people who had told them early on that they were voting for them. Late on, the ground shifted massively and the Labour team didn’t hear the earthquake. At 10.30 last night Labour’s high command still thought they’d won and the plans for Ed Miliband to do a victory lap of interviews in Bradford were still in place. Add to that, Marsha Singh, the former MP, had been seriously ill for a while so the constituency probably hadn’t been getting the attention it would normally get.
Other mistakes may have included a campaign that some think didn’t send out an inclusive signal to white voters in the seat. Lib Dem MP for Bradford East, David Ward, told Radio 4’s “World at One” that he thought the outer boroughs of the seat, the more suburban areas with more white voters, didn’t turn out in anything like the strength that the inner city wards did. One Labour MP who campaigned in the seat thought the Labour literature he saw had no white faces in it at all.
So there are lots of possible local factors that you can point at to explain the shift of votes to George Galloway, without even going into his formidable campaigning and rhetorical skills (in the street in Bradford campaigning you can hear him on his website citing Spectator magazine and Channel 4 parliamentary/debater awards as reasons for voting for him – expect a front page “It’s the Speccie What Won It” headline in the next edition). But, all that said, there are senior Labour figures who think this isn’t just local.
Ed Miliband was meant to be the “change” candidate for Labour leader but one-and-a-half years into his leadership you’re still getting revolts against the Labour establishment (Bradford, Scotland) and the Blair/Brown legacy. A man whose first utterance as Labour leader was to distance himself from the Iraq war is getting hit in a by-election by a candidate invoking its memory.
There is a danger for Ed Miliband that if Ken Livingstone loses to Boris Johnson in London and Labour loses Glasgow (quite possibly to No Overall Control, the SNP gaining but not enough to control the council) you’ll get calls for him to be put “on probation” and similar mutterings. One Labour frontbencher said to me today “David Miliband’s supporters are clearly on manoeuvres” and “smelling blood”.
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