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Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Muslim voters are creating a new political order in Britain

One of the most remarkable, and yet least remarked upon aspects of the Bradford political earthquake, is that George Galloway and his supporters broke through the old clan system of the "Biraderi" to win the Muslim vote.

Bradford, in England's West Yorkshire, was once a famed textile town. Its mills imported cotton and cloth under rules of "imperial preference" from the Indian subcontinent, in order to sell back the finished product. After the Second World War, those same mills began to be filled by a new workforce, often drawn from that same subcontinent. Today the mills are long closed and many of the industrial jobs of the city are gone with them.

This city, with its imposing mock gothic town hall, also played host to the birth of the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of the modern British Labour Party, back in 1893. And it was in this same city, this month, that a former Labour MP and noted Arabist, George Galloway, won a sensational by-election victory, beating his old party by more than 10,000 votes, garnering some 51 per cent of the vote in the process. In doing so, George Galloway borrowed heavily from the Arab street, claiming his victory as evidence of a "Bradford Spring". Galloway had been expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 for savagely attacking the then prime minister Tony Blair and President George Bush, accusing them of "acting like wolves" in attacking Iraq.

This isn't the first time that George Galloway has worsted his old party. He did so in London's East End in the aftermath of popular opposition to the Iraq War as a candidate for the party he helped form, and which he called Respect. In both Bradford and Tower Hamlets in London's East End, the charismatic and controversial Galloway benefited from a large ethnic minority vote, and one largely consisting of Muslim immigrants and their descendants from the Indian subcontinent.

Lazy British media shorthand has attributed these extraordinary series of reverses for Labour in its traditional heartlands as a Muslim reaction to unpopular foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the sharp and unpalatable truth for them is that a majority of all races, all classes, ages and genders voted for Galloway in Bradford, disillusioned by a Labour Party that they felt had let them down and no longer spoke for them.

But it is also the case that the established political parties in Britain are particularly vulnerable in areas with a high ethnic minority population, essentially because they tend to vote. This often provides a sharp contrast to a low turnout in elections amongst white working class voters. In short, Galloway ran a distinctly old-fashioned Labour campaign, with Islamic characteristics, demanding an end to high unemployment, an end to tuition fees, and an end to British forces serving in Afghanistan.

Galloway's critics - and they aren't simply confined to his old party - say that he is exploiting anger and resentment in deprived communities. They say that he is simply using their disaffection for his own devices, and as with Tower Hamlets, will not be a good local representative and will eventually leave the area in more of a mess than he found it. In the immediate aftermath of his historic win, Galloway unfortunately played into the hands of his critics by texting about winning in "Blackburn" instead of Bradford, later claiming his phone had been hacked into.

Yet one of the most remarkable, and yet least remarked upon aspects of the Bradford political earthquake, is that either through design or default, Galloway and his supporters broke through the old clan system of the "Biraderi" as it is known. Biraderi loyalties have allowed influential figures in the community to claim control over blocks of votes that can run into hundreds. In places such as Bradford, where the immigrant community originated largely from Kashmir, or rather one part of Kashmir, these clan loyalties have in the past proved difficult to break.

For generations, the Labour Party has effectively manipulated the Biraderi system to its advantage, foisting safe, trusted candidates on "safe" seats.

Speaking to The National, the young, charismatic leader of the Respect Party, Salma Yaqoob, said; "For too long, Labour has taken people for granted. Its colonial era politics saw all too many candidates simply being imposed. This time, people rebelled. Young people, women, old people; they all rebelled - and they voted for the candidate who most represented the best of what Labour once stood for."

Yaqoob has been a councillor in England's second city, Birmingham. In the 2010 general election, she ran against a sitting Labour MP, Roger Godsiff, who she says has practised the old colonial politics for decades. Then she achieved an 11 per cent swing against him. Now, with the prospect of another by-election in the same city in November, which Yaqoob could well win, the Labour Party is trying to prevent the sitting member of parliament, a former government minister, from vacating his seat. This is a pattern that could now be repeated in a whole range of working class, Labour parliamentary seats, where there is also a high ethnic minority population.

Britain is now home to the third largest Muslim population in Europe, largely composed of communities that originally hailed from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 2001, Britain's national census put the country's Muslim population at more than 1.5 million. That figure may now be in the region of two million, although the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life calculates that the real number is more like 2,869,000, a figure recently seized upon by the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper in warning of a "demographic time bomb ticking in Europe and Britain".

An undercurrent of Islamophobia laps around newspapers such as the Telegraph. It reflects a sharper, even more hostile attitude from some of the tabloid media and some politicians, largely of the political right, who have shown a willingness to play the race and religion card when it suits.

Most recently, this has taken place in London during the hotly contested Mayoral elections between two colourful political characters, Boris Johnson for the Conservatives and Ken Livingstone for Labour. Some newspapers have chosen to target the independent mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, linking him to a mythical "Islamic extremism", while attempting to tar his old political ally Livingstone with guilt by association. Yet the more sections of the media round on Rahman and others, the more local electors seem to rally around them.

There is a new-found confidence among many of Britain's Muslim communities. In 2010 in Tower Hamlets, for instance, Rahman was blocked by the Labour Party, of which he was a member, from running as the area's first directly elected mayor and first British Bengali mayor. So he stood as an independent and trounced the official Labour candidate by more than 10,000 votes.

All of this, according to Salma Yaqoob again, shows that "old loyalties are dying, and people are making up their own minds as opposed to be being told how to vote". Once upon a time, in cities with a high ethnic minority population such as Bradford, Blackburn or Birmingham, the saying was that Labour votes were weighed, not counted.

Despite the Bradford result, which confounds those who wish to paint it as a "one off" revolt, there are dangers of future segregated voting patterns, partly along racial and religious lines. The new generation of radical politicians such as Yaqoob will resist this, but the more the British political establishment feels that it is losing control, the more intense the reaction will be against upstarts such as Galloway and Yaqoob.

Mark Seddon is a journalist and author. He is the former UN correspondent for Al Jazeera English TV and before that, editor of Tribune magazine. His latest book, Standing for Something, is published by Biteback Publishing

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