The Labour Party needs to appoint a new candidate to take on George Galloway in Bradford West, where a clan-based system is key to local politics. But what is the “biradari” and how important will it be in the forthcoming general election?
The surprise withdrawal of Labour’s newly-selected candidate has brought fresh attention to the constituency where the party suffered a shock defeat to Mr Galloway three years ago.
Amina Ali, a councillor in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, quit the election campaign on Wednesday – just four days after she was selected – saying the campaign for a seat 200 miles away in Yorkshire would cause “massive disruption” to her children’s lives.
Her decision was pounced on by Mr Galloway who said: “The real reason is the war inside Bradford West Labour Party and she’s retreated from it, badly wounded.”
It was Mr Galloway who inflicted wounds on Labour when the Respect Party founder romped to victory in March 2012 in a previously safe seat for Labour, in what he called “the Bradford Spring”.
Many at the time were frustrated by Labour’s candidate Imran Hussein who had been criticised for failing to attend the hustings at which Mr Galloway connected with the electorate.
But the Respect Party candidate’s resounding win wasn’t just to the credit of his silver tongue; there were many other factors in play.
He mobilised the apathetic youth and the disengaged women – two sections of the community who had long felt ostracised by the biradari, or “clan” based system, which has been in operation for many years.
For one to truly understand the dynamics of this system you have to know the history of the Pakistani community in Bradford.
Pakistani men began arriving in Bradford from the mid-1950s. They were mainly single men who were encouraged to travel to the UK to work in the mills and factories.
They relied on each other for support and basic survival. In the 1960s Britain witnessed a chain of migration from the sub-continent, a result of the existing migrants inviting other Pakistanis into the country through means of employment.
This was operated largely through family networks. The single men who had migrated to the UK were reunited with their families by the 1980s.
The fantasy of returning home soon dwindled as families settled and grew in the industrial towns and cities across the UK.
Many recognized they had better job opportunities here, their children would receive quality education and generally an improved quality of life. But they soon realised that they needed advice to fill out certain forms, or to gain planning permission for building a mosque or halal butchers.
Thus they sought out from among them, the adequately educated who were literate and had a basic understanding of the political system. These men then acted on their behalf and became their representatives, most commonly known as “community leaders”.
It is important to note that women at that time played little or no role in any of the decision-making; many of them were new to the UK and were expected to care for the extended family and the children.
In addition, it was seen to be a man’s job to make the decisions and a woman’s voice was neither appreciated nor welcome. But also remember, this was the mood in politics in general at the time and it was not just a Pakistani phenomenon.
Politicians soon recognized the influence of the community leaders; they realized that these appointed men could effectively grant them a bloc vote akin to that of the unions.
The bloc vote was secured by heads of clans telling their families for whom to vote.
Fatima Patel, editor of the Asian Sunday newspaper, which is published in Bradford and London, points out: “If someone is offering you a number of votes, which politician wouldn’t take it?”
The issue was highlighted in a report by the campaign group Democratic Audit, based at the London School of Economics.
It noted that both Labour and the Conservatives were implicit in the political history of the Bradford West seat being “marred by patronage, neglect, bad organisation and even electoral fraud”.
Ratna Lachman, director of racial justice campaign group Just West Yorkshire, argues that while “in its initial genesis the biradari was set up so the Asian community got a fair deal, as time has gone on this positive context of the biradari has become corrupted and co-opted into politics”.
Once the biradaris realised they held a degree of power, they decided it would be ideal for them to put up their own man, who could relate to them and effectively become a puppet. Deals and bargains were struck between rival clans to secure positions of power.
Many I have spoken to liken it to the Etonian or Bullingdon clubs for rich white men who support and promote each other into positions of power. The only difference with biradari is that the men aren’t nearly as rich or educated.
Some of the women I have spoken to told me they had little interest in engaging with politics in Bradford; they said it was dirty, corrupt and they felt that even if they did participate, it wouldn’t make any difference.
Other women argued against this notion, repeatedly using the example of George Galloway’s win in 2012. They told me it was the mobilisation of women that helped secure his win.
He sent bilingual campaigners into the community so that even those who did not speak English could engage and articulate their concerns. They told me it was this that motivated and mobilised them, as candidates had previously never bothered with them.
Whether it was a strategic decision or not, Mr Galloway actively sought to involve them in his campaign.
But while he empowered women, some say he did little to encourage their new-found political enthusiasm.
Some were dismayed by his comments about the allegations facing Julian Assange, when Mr Galloway was criticised by anti-rape campaigners for suggesting the Wikileaks founder had been accused of nothing more than “bad sexual etiquette”.
Salma Yaqoob resigned as the Respect Party leader following Mr Galloway’s comments and later stated in an interview that “it’s been deeply disappointing, because I do feel that those women have been let down. [Comments like that] open the door to women being treated in a certain way.”
Mr Galloway responded by stressing that whatever his views on the Assange case he still believed: “No never means yes and non-consensual sex is rape.”
Mr Galloway also mobilised the youth of Bradford in their masses. One young voter I met at Bradford College told me “there was a real buzz around Galloway”. It appeared that the young people who were frustrated by clan politics, and their elders telling them where to place their vote, were rebelling.
As one young man wrote on Facebook: “2 fingers up at the ‘Mirpuri village politics’ imported to the UK, particularly Bradford… where voting is about who you know, financial and personal gain for the candidate… long live the youth that made this possible.”
The young people I spoke to told me they want to elect their MPs based on their commitment to issues such as education, employment and equality.
They stressed that biradari politics would soon fizzle out as the young replace the old and move away from clan-based loyalties.
One individual commented: “There is no place for it here any more. I want to elect someone who will make society a better place for me and my kids and not someone who asks for my vote simply because he is related to me or of the same colour.”
One businesswoman told me: “The politicians have let us down for so long, we need to pick this city up.
“There are some amazing people here doing amazing things, we need to provide them with more opportunities so it benefits the city as a whole.”