Turned down by Politico Europe for being too local
The populist threat is on everyone’s mind, whether from Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, or the AfD. In the UK, it’s been argued in a classic twitterstorm that Labour’s Northern heartlands are especially threatened, precisely because they’re “the heartlands” – ultra-safe parliamentary seats and city councils where it’s very difficult for anyone but a Labour candidate approved by the local Labour establishment to get elected. So why bother voting?
The people who don’t vote haven’t gone away. They are still out there, and the potential exists for them to be reintegrated into the political system by, say, the Scottish Nationalists, the Leave campaign, or George Galloway. And in fact we can see this in action. Out of the top five local authorities by net Leave votes, one of them is notoriously corrupt and generally dysfunctional Doncaster, another, Dudley, is the scene of these bizarre shenanigans at the last election, and yet a third is Rotherham, now sadly renowned for its child abuse scandal.
And then there’s my home town, Bradford. Since 2012, Bradford has gone from a classic safe-seat cartel, through a populist insurgency, and out the other side to a Labour revival tainted by allegations of anti-Semitism, which further led to Ken Livingstone’s bizarre public meltdown.
It is true that Bradford Council isn’t permanently Labour, but it has been either Labour or no-overall-control since 1980. When the council is hung, it usually has a Labour leader. As such, the least important Labour councillors are swapped for the most important Conservatives within a permanent ruling group.
This group’s key claim is that it’s presiding over the post-industrial regeneration of Bradford, which would be fair enough if they hadn’t been at it all my life without achieving much. As someone said, Bradford folk talk about failed regeneration projects like other people talk about the weather. This is a city where the main motorway access ended in a line of traffic cones for two decades, and where half the city centre was pulled down to build a giant shopping centre and left as a gaping hole for years.
Of course all of this cost money and somebody got paid, while basic measures of poverty like infant mortality remain atrocious, things burn down, and school funds disappear.
If regeneration was the key claim, the key strategy, bridging the gap between promises and performance, was working the family patronage network. How this developed, and how it helped to secure an enduring Labour establishment, is well described in this BBC Look North piece by Sabbiyah Pervez. Irna Qureshi describes the doorstep processes well here, and makes the interesting point that Labour came to rely on the easy wins it provided so much, they weren’t that good at it any more.
The populist challenge arrived in 2012, with Marsha Singh MP’s retirement and George Galloway’s candidacy. Galloway presented himself nationally as a challenge to the Bradford political system (try here) but on the streets, he relied on key actors in it to get out the vote. He actually recruited Marsha Singh’s election agent to do the same job for him. If anybody knew Mirpuri patronage politics, he did. Importantly, signing him up also denied him and his contact book to the Labour candidate, Imran Hussein.
It may be a common feature of populists, almost a defining one, that they present themselves as revolutionaries but exist to prevent real change. Galloway’s tenure as MP for Bradford West, which was paralleled by the election of a dozen councillors on his ticket, had all the problems of Bradford politics, just more so, louder, more dramatically, and on TV, rather than in the cloistered privacy of someone’s best room in Manningham.
His solution to the regeneration problem had a simplicity, and a style, worthy of Donald Trump. He would just do it.
His policies were quite simple: regenerate the Odeon. Sort out Westfield. Sort out education. He either succeeds, in which case, great. Or he fails, in which case, we’re not exactly losing out are we?
If pressed, he said he would make a deal. He knew people in the Middle East.
I have big plans for Bradford City FC. With my connections in the Arab world, I am actively speaking to and seeking out sovereign wealth funds and Middle Eastern princes to pump investment into the club. There is massive potential. I’m also tapping up sovereign wealth funds to invest in the Odeon building”
As well he might – the Odeon, abandoned for two decades, is indeed both huge, and classy. It goes without saying that not a penny of this supposed investment ever showed up.
Old-school Bradford pols have often been accused of being soft on anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism. George rarely missed an opportunity to sail close to that particular wind. They have often been accused of sexism; he really nailed that one. A certain patriarchal authoritarianism might also be a concern. George tried to put a brewery out of business because they dissed him on Twitter, and this farrago of thuggishness defies summary.
The Labour Party meanwhile did what it does best these days – have a vicious internal feud. The problem was, in a sense, whether Galloway was a manageable populist with Bradford characteristics, or whether real change was necessary.
The losing candidate from 2012, Imran Hussein, wanted to stand again, and as the Bradford West party chairman, he, his friends, and his family had the advantage of controlling the process. His candidacy would represent either “one more heave”, or else, waiting to see if a boundary review would get rid of Galloway. Alternatively, it would leave the power structure intact in case it was possible to integrate Galloway back into the party, as happened with Ken Livingstone.
A lot of people suspected he would just lose again and keep losing, and the populists wouldn’t be as easy to manage as all that. One of those was then Labour leader Ed Miliband, who eventually decided to invoke a party rule that permits the leadership to require an all-women shortlist. That ruled Hussein out, but also ruled out an insurgent candidate backed by the trade unions, ex-bus driver Mohammed Taj. Hussein’s allies settled on councillor Shakeela Lal, but she failed to make it through the hustings to get on the shortlist, leaving them with the awful prospect of losing control of the process. In this kind of politics, control of the selectorate is everything.
It seems they settled on the following strategy: throw their support to national Labour’s candidate, Amina Ali, knowing that her Somali background would do her no good in the general election, precisely because they would then pull their support and make sure it didn’t. This would stop Ali and warn off the Labour leadership, but more importantly it would keep women’s rights activist Naz Shah off the ticket. Enjoying enormous respect in Bradford, her personal popularity menaced their control of the process. That the unions’ man had already been disposed of was a happy accident.
Galloway getting a second term was a price worth paying, especially as a boundary review was coming, his own flakiness might cause a by-election at any time, and perhaps they might come to some arrangement. Amina Ali seems to have seen through this, and resigned, thus disrupting the whole neat scheme and leading the Labour national executive committee to take over.
It was a shambles, they said. Nobody would vote, they said. An undemocratic stitchup by those people on the NEC, they said. As it turned out, though, the warnings were so much hot air. Naz Shah took Bradford West back with a wet sail, flipping Galloway’s 10,140 majority to a Labour majority of 11,420. The campaign was brutally tough – and there is no mystery why. It was a front-on challenge to a really rather unpleasant entrenched elite. As Naz Shah put it in a BBC TV interview:
“It’s family loyalties, it’s clan loyalties, it goes back to a Pakistani model of doing things,” she said, explaining that this resulted in women blocked from political office. “The kind of misogyny that exists is quite shocking. It’s a culture of gatekeeping. It’s a culture of power politics for the sake of having power, and that power resides with men,” she said.
Bradford politics is still reeling from the shock. In a follow-up move, the NEC took control of candidate selection in six more council wards, while Imran Hussein’s assistant during the campaign has been suspended from the party. Naz Shah’s intervention in the case of Samia Shahid, apparently murdered by her family in Punjab, led to the arrest of both a suspect, and a cop.
The first lesson here is that it can be done. The populist threat can be beaten. The second lesson here is that in the face of the populist challenge, the local organisations that delivered majorities for the national politicians for years are often as much part of the problem as they are of the solution. The third lesson is that the only way to do it is to do it – a political party that claims to want renewal must be willing to look elsewhere for candidates and for ideas.
And the fourth lesson is that it’s risky. First, there was that offensive Facebook meme and its astonishing cascade of consequences. That, by the way, happened immediately after Naz Shah outed a fairly important local Conservative for giving anti-Semitic speeches in Urdu. There’s a problem here, and it’s precisely one that grew in the long political stagnation, in the absence of competition, scrutiny, or self-criticism. The only way forward, though, is to confront it openly.
Meanwhile, a recent vote to replace the mayor saw someone in the council’s Labour group vote three times. To defeat the populists, Bradford Labour may have become more like them: coarser, more strident, and authentic for both good and ill.
Alternatively, this story can be seen as the process by which a whole population either excluded from politics, taken for granted by politics, or simply never addressed by politics, was integrated back into democracy, stumbling and finding its feet. For clues, try some of the blogs I’ve used as sources for this post.