Election experts

The local candidate taking on George Galloway for Labour’s lost seat

Can Naz Shah win Bradford back from Respect? Facebook

A number of recent polls have shown the Conservatives slightly ahead of Labour or the two main parties level pegging.

All these results are within the range of sampling error, but at the very least they suggest that Labour will not get an overall majority in the House of Commons and may not even be the largest party. It is therefore important to the party that it gains every seat it can. And Bradford West is one particularly high-profile target.

For many years this was a safe Labour seat but it was captured by George Galloway for the Respect Party in a 2012 by-election.

In the 2010 general election, the Labour vote generally held up better in constituencies with a large proportion of Muslim voters. But Galloway particularly appealed to Muslim voters who harboured resentments about the way Labour candidates were selected.

These were the voters who objected to the role of a hierarchical clan system known as biraderi in the process. This system of kinship, which originated in Pakistan and rural Kashmir, sees community gatekeepers promise to deliver block votes in return for influence. Many voters, particularly younger people and women, felt disenfranchised by such a system.

Biraderi appears to have been in operation in Bradford for some time and Galloway saw an opportunity. He took 55.9% of the vote in his by-election. Beating him in 2015 was never going to be easy so it was important that the selection of the Labour candidate went smoothly. To win back the seat, the Labour candidate would need to win broad support.

Galloway knows Bradford. PA

Initially, there was turmoil. Much to her surprise, Amina Ali, a Labour councillor from the London borough of Tower Hamlets, was chosen as the candidate. An all-woman shortlist had been imposed and this was seen by clan leaders as an attempt to exclude Imran Hussain – the candidate defeated by Galloway in 2012 – because he was associated with clan-based politics.

Some observers felt that the local team had opted for Ali precisely because she was an outsider with less chance of winning, the aim being to punish the Labour leadership for barring the favoured male candidate. Ali would have been the first Somali woman to contest a parliamentary seat in the UK, but within 72 hours of her nomination, she had stepped down, saying that she could not move her children to West Yorkshire without massive disruption to their education.

The Labour leadership then had to intervene and Naz Shah, a local resident with an appealing back story, became the candidate. Shah was born and raised in Bradford and is bringing up her own family there. She suffered a childhood of real deprivation and anguish. First, her father abandoned the family, forming a relationship with a much younger woman. Then her mother found a new partner who abused her. Eventually, her mother killed her abuser and served 14 years in prison.

If Labour wants to show that it can select candidates who have experienced real hardship and have personal experience of the effects of violence against women, it could not have made a better choice.

This does not mean, however, that it will recapture the seat from Galloway and Respect. Shah may offer a fresh perspective at a time when parliamentarians stand accused of being out of touch with reality and the needs of their constituents, but she has a fierce battle ahead of her.

Not only is Galloway coming to the fight with the confidence of a man who secured a 36.6% swing in his last campaign, he knows where Labour’s weaknesses lie in the wake of this very public saga.

However worthy Shah – or indeed Ali – may be, the imposition of candidates has not gone down well locally in Bradford. Some Labour supporters may now switch allegiance and campaign for Galloway instead.

All told, Bradford West is a very unpredictable contest – which is the last thing Labour needs at this stage in the campaign. However, it is an example of the way in which many contests will be decided by largely local considerations.