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Bradford’s revolt: Why I left Labour to back Respect

Bradford community activist Naweed Hussein had been a member of the Labour Party since his teens – until he left to join George Galloway’s victorious by-election campaign. Here he speaks to Jenny Pearce

August 22, 2012
11 min read

Jenny Pearce Tell me about your background.

Naweed Hussein I am 31, and was born and bred in Manningham [in Bradford], where I still live today. At 18 I became a Labour Party member. I held a number of little positions in the branch, helping the retiring MP, Marsha Singh, on three of his election campaigns. I got my basic organisational skills and political understanding from the Labour Party with very little help from my community. I also met two prime ministers though Labour, so it was quite exciting for me as a young man, but it was a very superficial way of saying thank you very much for your assistance in Labour and sticking with us.

JP Over the years you and I have talked quite a lot about the problems of the structures of power in Bradford. Tell me how you have understood these challenges.

NH The challenge for me has always been about inclusivity. As I was growing older and at the same time becoming more aware of social issues in my neighbourhood, I got involved in community work and volunteering. There was a major need. Politics plays a role in all of this, yet there was no nurturing of the talent in the district.

How can we make people understand how governments work? Politics is very complex. I don’t think the average man necessarily understands what needs to be done for traffic regulation on the road to reduce traffic or casualties and so on. How do we transfer this power and awakening to the individual for them to be able to help themselves? It later transpired that the party that I thought was the world didn’t particularly want that, because that takes power out of their hands. So for the last five to seven years I was very disgruntled.

I had these hurdles put up, and I became more forceful in explaining why my party couldn’t understand what I wanted it to do. It came down to the makeup of power in Bradford Labour. Anyone who wanted to poke their nose in there was chopped out. And that is what happened.

I attempted to stand four years ago as a Labour councillor in Manningham and had no competition until the last two weeks [in the selection process], when an individual double my age was put against me who didn’t even live in the ward, who I hadn’t even seen in the party before. He knocked on my door, and made out he was some relation to me. Then he pleasantly asked me to withdraw my name from the list. There were 18 members of the Labour Party at the time, but the numbers during that selection process grew to 155, to make sure they would block me. He got backing from those from the same neck of the woods, who didn’t want me sitting with them in the council chamber, because I am not from Mirpur and because I don’t share the same caste as them. They used those two points against me, despite me being a local soldier of the party for over a decade.

JP How far do you see what has happened with the Labour Party in Bradford as about very local factors of caste and kinship structures?

NH I do not think it is [just] Bradford. I think it is the same in Birmingham, in Scotland and in Manchester. It is to do with ethnic minorities. It is to do with the majority of the minority in these areas. If you look at the postal vote rigging, the people who got sentences were almost all from the Labour Party and the majority of them from Kashmir. In Scotland, one current MP in Glasgow [Anas Sarwar], his father was the MP.

JP This idea of dynasties in politics, of how class or caste impacts on who becomes candidates, isn’t only about ethnic minorities and it isn’t only about the Labour Party.

NH It probably isn’t, no. But, what I think is interesting is if one party puts up an ethnic minority, all the other parties follow suit. So if a Pakistani is put forward, all the other parties put a Pakistani forward. If they put forward a Bengali, like they did in Tower Hamlets, you get six Bengali candidates. So the mainstream parties are obviously using the race card to whatever advantage they can. I don’t think any of the main political parties are willing to tackle this issue head on.

JP Although you became very sceptical of the way the mainstream parties, particularly in Bradford, were operating, you did not abandon your faith in parties. Can you tell me why a party means anything to you and why the party you have just joined is different?

NH The social and political structures in the UK are such that if we are to be effective and have a political voice, then political parties are the way to galvanise support so people take you seriously. Movements are [only] there from year to year. That is why I stuck to a party rather than a movement. I think parties could be and should be inclusive. We need to breathe new life into them, and retake this territory, which we have left to an elitist group of individuals. The only people who can do that is the mass population. The mass population is a working class population who has a heart. It’s a population that cares.

Jenny and Naweed

JP A lot of people who looked at what happened when Respect won the by-election in Bradford say this was the mobilisation of the Muslim vote. Yet your approach is not just to work with ethnic minorities. So how do the ethnic and religious issues relate to the politics you are trying to put forward?

NH I don’t agree with that premise. The Muslims in this city have a vote, and their vote is no less valuable than anyone else’s. Why is it that the middle classes in this district only vote for a particular party? They always mobilise for the Tories. In this city we have a large Muslim vote, not a majority.

We [Respect] put up three candidates in the local election in Bradford that were not Muslim. One came second after a very strong Labour vote and another came third. They polled good votes. Okay, they didn’t win but they polled. And most of our national council, around 70 per cent, is made up of non-Muslims.

JP But maybe one of the factors in George Galloway’s victory was about young people in the district. The campaign was able to mobilise those younger Muslims precisely because they were excluded from power by previous generations. How can the party reach out beyond the perception that it has responded to a localised inner city issue?

NH If you look at the ethnic minority’s inner structures, the structures of mosques, the community centres, those positions of power are held among the elders. [Young Muslims] have never had the opportunity to be part of an establishment where they can share power. Therefore it was probably their first opportunity when they saw an individual like George Galloway stand up.

For him to talk, for him to connect with people, for him to go into community centres and do boxing with people, for him to respect each and every individual person and say to them, ‘Look, you are important to my party, you need to come on board. You have talent in Facebook; I would like you run our Facebook site. You have a talent in photography; I want you to be our official photographer for our campaign.’

So we gave a role to anyone we could give a role to. And not just a role – we empowered them. We made them feel important and we offered a place to make change. We had a meeting of 25 volunteers at the beginning of the campaign in a local cafe in Manningham and 400-plus volunteers on election eve. That’s what difference politics can make.

JP Would that work with white lads on some of the white estates on Bradford? Could you do the same thing?

NH I believe so. The issue is about aspiration. This is suppressed on some council estates in Bradford. They haven’t seen anything better. We are trying to nurture power and talent. We are trying to explore these neighbourhoods where we can find these people with passion because there has to be some torchbearer in these neighbourhoods. I don’t think we can impose because then we are no different to the traditional parties. We have to find committed individuals in those neighbourhoods. It may not be a quick fix, but in order for it to be a sustainable fix we have to find and nurture this talent.

JP I want to talk to you about electoral politics and the trade offs and tensions that emerge. Some of your criticisms of the mainstream parties are because those parties have adapted to electoral politics in a way you would argue is quite perverse. How do you prevent Respect going the same way?

NH There are trade offs obviously, but we are very clear about where we want to go, certainly in Bradford. Our motives and objectives are clear: our councillors will vote for anything that is beneficial for the district. Anything that is not good for for the citizens of Bradford, we will make as much noise as possible. Our key strategy is the communication between the electorate and our five councillors. Those five people have a huge job to do; they have to get the message out to the population, telling them what actually happens inside City Hall and how decisions are made.

JP So you are training people in basic political structures, how politics works in this country, which is something you feel people lost touch with or never knew?

NH They never knew because it is so complex. They never knew there were so many rules in politics. What is an electoral register? What’s a postal vote? What’s a ballot? How do we look at postal lists? How do we get the advanced information for them? How do you canvass, what questions do you ask? All these things have to be explained.

JP A lot of those tasks are fairly mundane and quite boring. They weren’t so mundane this year because you were in the ‘Bradford Spring’. How do you keep the excitement of radical change? What is going to make the things you are doing here different?

NH Our first priority is to organise a youth wing. And we are setting up a women’s wing of the party where women have the opportunity to organise themselves. We attracted a lot of women because they felt respected in Respect. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the Labour Party in Bradford. When we had our two major rallies, we had women and children equally involved, even four-year-olds knew George Galloway’s name because their mums took part in the campaign.

JP That brings me to the role of George Galloway in Respect. Clearly he is a controversial, larger-than-life, charismatic figure. So, some people may say, the danger is that this will remain a Galloway party, as opposed to a party of values and ideas. If you are looking for a different kind of politics, there is a risk. One of the problems is that you end up cultivating a sense that people cannot act without the leader rather than a horizontal politics.

NH The party doesn’t collapse because Galloway is in London. It continues its work when he is not here because there are forms of devolved power built into the party. Our councillors, who have never set foot in politics before, are being trained by some of us who know the ropes of local government. One of our councillors has decided he will purchase a caravan, and will do his surgeries in it, where he can sit down with four or five concerned residents, where he can make a cup of tea, with them sitting there, on the edge of the street, and say ‘How am I able to help?’ And I think that is a fabulous idea to connect to the people.

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