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Labour candidate hands back the poisoned chalice of Bradford West

George Galloway, the scourge of biraderi patronage. Dave Thompson/PA Archive

Amina Ali had only been the Labour Party parliamentary candidate for Bradford West for three days before she tweeted her intention to stand down on February 25. While the tweet was later deleted, the next day she released a statement confirming her withdrawal from the contest.

Her explanation invoked personal reasons, but that was met with scepticism: the incumbent MP, Respect’s George Galloway, chalked Ali’s resignation up to Labour Party infighting.

Social media was ablaze with rumours of Machiavellian tactics, and the night of the long knives. But all the focus on personalities takes away from the real problem in Bradford West: the major parties have systematically failed to engage properly with minority communities, and have relied instead on self-appointed gatekeepers.

You scratch my back …

In 2012, Labour’s Imran Hussain lost the seat to Galloway, who swept into power with a stunning majority of more than 10,000.

What Galloway called the “Bradford Spring” in his 2012 victory speech was, according to him, the work of young Muslims of Pakistani descent rising up against a local political establishment dominated by biraderi, a system of kinship common in South Asia, especially strong in the rural Kashmiri communities from which the majority of Bradford’s Pakistani population is descended.

Biraderi networks can function as a system of welfare, helping individuals and families connect and share resources in times of hardship. Indeed, it was through chain migration, facilitated by kinship networks, that a significant population of Pakistanis ended up in urban centres in the UK in the first place.

Biraderi networks provided a buffer for new migrants, helping them find work and accommodation. By the 1970’s, these networks were embedded in the British political system in time for mainstream political parties to start courting minority votes after years of benign neglect.

But instead of engaging with minority communities at the grassroots level, mainstream political parties have instead focused on building relationships with community leaders. In the case of Pakistanis, this was often with biradari elders. The relationships that resulted were pure patronage: prospective parliamentary candidates conferred status and local positions of influence on biraderi leaders or “clients”, who in return delivered community votes in solid blocs.

Many Pakistani communities traditionally observe a high standard of deference towards biraderi elders, and this lends itself to mass electoral mobilisation, as individuals (and families) take their lead on who to vote for from the elders.

… I’ll scratch yours

This system held sway for many years among the pioneer immigrant generation in concentrated areas such as Bradford – but cracks have now started to emerge.

Biraderi’s patriarchal and hierarchical nature has led to a number of Bradford’s British Pakistanis, especially young people and women, to feel increasingly disenfranchised from a local politics dominated by what has been termed locally as the “biraderi brigade”.

This is what made Galloway’s promise to curb the influence of biraderi in local politics such a key part of his 2012 by-election victory. Defeat came as a shock to the highly complacent local Labour Party, which had expected to sail to victory in Bradford as it had done in all the previous elections there.

Ever since Galloway’s spectacular victory, Labour has mounted a centrally planned effort to reclaim the seat. Ed Miliband paid a visit and vowed to clean up politics in the city. An all-women short-list was imposed – meaning Imran Hussain, who became the top target for Galloway’s anti-biraderi campaign, could not stand again.

Will take more than a Saturday stroll. Rui Vieira/PA

This backfired somewhat when Hussain was selected as the official Labour Party candidate for the neighbouring constituency of Bradford East, standing against Liberal Democrat MP David Ward.

Too little, too late?

With Ali’s departure, the poisoned chalice is up for grabs once more. Miliband will once again make a trip up to Bradford on February 28, exactly one week after the party had thought it had wrapped up the selection process. But the effort may be too little, too late.

After decades of patronage, a generation of British Pakistani young people is disillusioned with the political process, a sentiment which matches young people in British society more widely. And in Bradford and places like it, people are doubly disillusioned – both with politicians in general and with the kinship networks deeply embedded in and entwined with local politics.

MPs and candidates will appear and disappear, be selected and step down, but the structural factor of patronage politics desperately needs to be addressed if younger British Pakistanis are ever to re-engage with politics. And that will require more than Miliband taking a Saturday afternoon stroll around town.

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