Petite and unassuming but with an assertive style and a powerful voice, Naseem Shah came to the podium and gave the audience her best three minutes as to why they should vote Labour.
We were in the Carlisle Business Centre, your standard gathering room, parquet floor, white roof tiles, and the place was packed, 400 people, every seat filled, standing room up the back and to the sides.
Bradford’s finest, the crowd about 80% British Asian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi origin, some men in sharp suits and the occasional knitted cap, others in trakkies and jeans, and a very occasional outbreak of trad dress, the pistachio skirt and pants.
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On the podium, seven candidates, some as if from central casting. The Greens candidate, a no-nonsense middle-aged woman, schoolteachery; the Lib-Dem a thin man in natural fibres with a long grey ponytail; the Tory, a young blond man, like a partially deflated Boris Johnson sort of type who’d be shot by his own men in Aden.
And of course just off from the centre, George Galloway, the sitting member, for the Respect Party, bearded, in waistcoat and the black fedora he has affected since his hair began to thin, shorter than he appears on screen.
“Do you want a local member who can do something or who can just protest?” Shah had said for Labour, setting out the very good rationale why the seat of Bradford West should be back in the hands of a major party. She had her claque over to one side, hooting and clapping loudly.
Galloway had his, a larger group, right in the centre, jeering softly. Everyone waited to hear what Gorgeous George would say: would he start in on the Iraq War and Labour’s betrayal of the community here? Or about the importance of a local member who will punch punch punch for a community, for development and not take them for granted? He made the podium, looked around and announced in his Dundee accent:
“On the 8th of February, at 8.10am, the current Labour candidate for this seat rang me and asked if she could be the Respect candidate for Bradford East.”
And the hall went wild. People were standing in a second, yelling at each other, furiously. The chair banged the trestle table with her fist: “I told you I would cancel this entirely if there was any of this and I will! Stop this immediately.” And when she had calmed them down, Galloway continued.
“She has told everyone that she was the victim of an arranged marriage at 15.” Big pause. “She was SIXTEEN AND A HALF and it was a consensual marriage! I have the certificate! She has libelled this entire community and is not fit to represent it!”
And the hall erupted again. One-two, one-two, Galloway wasn’t going to get involved in any policy niceties. They quieted down. “Will she answer any of these questions!”
Shah wouldn’t. She sidestepped the question of whether she had tried to get on the Respect list and tried an outflanking move on the marriage issue. “Why should Mr Galloway be so interested in how old I was when I was married? It’s a little creepy!”
But she was on the defensive already, and the evening — and it was a tough evening — had only just begun. That’s how they do things in Bradford West.
Bradford, Bradford, one of those places. A proud northern Victorian city, entire of itself, it has now been largely drawn into the greater Leeds area. The guts torn out of it in the standard manner in the ’50s and ’60s, then such life as remained slowly squeezed with a pedestrian mall and a dire shopping centre at its heart.
It is a city that has become dominated by a British-Asian population, who took to it from the ’70s onwards when the place was so poor that the landladies couldn’t refuse them.
Contrary to the Fox News hysteria, it isn’t a wholly Muslim city where whites don’t go — it remains about 65% white — but its civic life is dominated by that community, energetic and purposeful, old-school politics run through six or seven large clans. For decades until 2012, it had been slowly mouldering, neglected and taken for granted by Labour, who let the centre of it slowly rot so it would be easier to tear down, and allowed developers to leave huge vacant lots in the city centre.
Then in 2012, Gorgeous George put his name down for the byelection here, and stunned everyone by winning, and winning big with 56% of the vote. No one saw him coming. Ever since, Labour have treated his presence with a barely controlled fury, the spite they reserve for anyone to the left of them whose sole job it should be to buttress Labour in power.
They should have realised they had a fight on their hands, the moment Galloway put his name down. The Labour member for Glasgow Kelvin until 2005, Galloway was a radical socialist with a sympathy for communism, though never a member of the party. The abolition of the USSR was, he once said, the saddest day of his life, and from the backbenches he assailed Tony Blair and the war party.
After the Iraq invasion, The Sunday Telegraph was handed documents allegedly taken from a bombed-out building purporting to show that Galloway had received payments through aid programs for sanctions-era Iraq, and Labour expelled him. The document were shown to be obvious forgeries, and Galloway took a rumoured 350,000 pounds off the Telegraph group in libel settlements.
He joined forces with a nascent group Respect, based around the British-Asian community in London’s east end, and they were joined by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, to create the Respect Party. As Iraq descended into chaos, Galloway took the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow at the heart of the east from Labour’s Oona King, a hapless New Labour rising star, who had used her mixed-race heritage to cover for a shameless right-wing Labour record.
Galloway had worked in the same party as Blair, a man who was about as socialist as a skintag under Ayn Rand’s armpit, but working with Trotskyists was something else. Besides George was George, and he did what he did. To build a coalition with the conservative British-Asian Muslim community around Brick Lane at the heart of that world, Respect had gone soft on gender and sexuality politics and associated with some pretty reactionary characters.
George wasn’t too fussed with that, but John Rees, the SWP rep who was Respect general secretary, was caught in a bind — a formidable Lukacs scholar having to deal with curry-house politics. But that was as nothing to the moment in 2006 when season four of Celebrity Big Brother premiered, featuring Michael Barrymore, actress Rula Lenska, and the MP for Bethnal Green, Galloway, who had entered the sealed house without telling anyone.
Galloway later said he thought it would be a way to reach millions of voters — it was. Sadly when he did he was in a red leotard pretending to be a cat licking cream from Lenska’s cupped hand, a difficult position from which to advocate the renationalisation of the railways.
Rees (Engels’ Marxism, 1994) had to appear on TV and defend it as a piece of “cheeky fun” like he knew what that was. The dialectic in action, and the SWP left Respect soon after.
In 2010, Galloway tried to win the neighbouring seat of Poplar, while a local Respect candidate went for Bethnal Green. Both lost, and Respect seemed finished. But Galloway has deep roots in the British-Asian community and appears to have been married about nine times, all to the same woman, a doe-eyed Levantine temptress who presumably gets wise to him quicksticks.
Catholic himself — he opposes abortion and holds a minimal line of sexuality politics — he passes for Muslim for many people. And he is, by universal acclaim, a stunning orator, a man of the old school, stump politics, who can turn an argument on a dime and advance unapologetic socialist and global liberatory politics in a few sharp sentences.
Thus, Labour are desperate to knock him off in Bradford West, but not for any good reason. Galloway is no Trot refusenik — he would always vote confidence to a Labour government against a Tory one, and take the heat.
Labour’s expenditure of energy on removing him, which could be spent on mopping up some northern Tory seats, is Labour Derangement Syndrome pure and simple. The Respect Party is going nowhere, and it’s no threat.
But Galloway’s barking assaults remind them of how much they betrayed themselves to Blair, a man without a skerrick of Labour tradition in him, and they simply can’t stand it. Hence a pouring of energy into unseating him. That has gone terribly, the first candidate a London Labour insider who had no plans to move to the area, and quit after a few days, with a suspicion that she had never quite realised how far Bradford was from London.
Shah is a local candidate and a real threat — and hence the torpedoes Galloway launched at her, scorning any petty notions that attacking a woman for being married at 16 rather than 15 might be seen as a bit off.That was the opening exchange, and, hustings being what they are, we had to wait through a plethora of pfaff before we could get to the main-card event again. Really, it’s frustrating. Galloway or Labour are going to have this seat, what do we need these other types for? But hear from them we must because Britishness.
The evening clacked on like it always does. Galloway aside, the best speaker a long way back was the Tory boy, George Grant, who looked like he was the first person in history to subject his whole body to the process of anal bleaching.
He’s no local doofus allowed to stand, but rather an operative of the Henry “Scoop” Jackson Society, a group of UK neocons named after a US Democrat whose politics were constellated completely differently to British alignments, a domestic New Dealer who would have scorned the twits who use his name.
They’re running Grant in Bradford West simply because Galloway is one of the most passionate advocates of the Palestinians, and they want to go toe to toe with him.
The crowd hear George out politely though they won’t vote for him, but they respect his balls in even being there. They listen to the Greens candidate because she’s a walking policy directory ticking off grants ward by ward, and they have the vague sense that such people now run the joint. But they won’t vote for her either.
And for the Lib-Dem, there is barely concealed contempt, a man flakier than the Greens yet part of a party that has imposed an austerity program that strangled the city. Of course he’s a GP. Of course he has a grey ponytail. Of course he’s interested in alternative and complementary treatments. The crowd let him live, while they listened to Galloway and slug it out on Labour’s record on imperialism.
But there is one other element, and that’s the UKIP guy, and he is funny and sad and funny at the same time. Harry Boota is a neat man in his 60s in a blue blazer and grey slacks with a knife-crease in them. He told us his story: his family had emigrated to the UK in 1964 when he was a child, and in the early 1970s he had joined the navy and spent decades there. Now he was out, and running for UKIP.
The Kippers have a fair number of these, the subalterns, British-Asian and black men and women, more than can be simply dismissed. What draws them to a party that down its middle is simply white Thatcherite racists? The answer is simply that they are people who get sick of a certain type of politics in ethnic communities, a certain type of attitude, of resentment and collectivity, of not accepting the raw deal.
God knows what it was like for a British-Asian man to join the navy in the 1970s, but you get the sense of someone realising that there were only so many options and taking what was there. Now the UK was the EU, and the position they had gained was being eroded.
Boota looked like a no-nonsense man, neat and fit, but I wondered how many racist slurs he had to put up with in one lifetime. Five thousand? Ten thousand? With the idea that you were building to the next level, to the acceptance, where your kids could walk in the street without that shit. Impossible not to respect that.
Sadly, Boota was an idiot. He was a glorious idiot. He was an idiot almost too good to be true.
By the end of the evening it had come down to what it was really about, the very local and the very global. The question of radical Islamist radicalisation of people’s children on the one hand, and of what was happening to the vacant lot that was soon to become a Westfield Shoppingtown on the other.
Galloway had an answer for both, one easy because it was true — that 15-year-olds were flying off to join Islamic State because of a decade of Western depredation on their cousins and families elsewhere. No one else could really say anything else, least of all Shah, now well out of her depth.
On the local issue, Galloway simply claimed credit for everything, to the rising fury of everyone else on the panel. “You … you … you … the council says you had nothing to do with Westfield,” Grant expostulated.
It’s impossible to tell whether he catalysed the long-delayed soil-turning on a new shopping town at the centre of town, or whether he lucked out. He smiled Cheshire-like, as people yelled at him. He is on firmer ground in claiming to have helped save the Bradford Odeon, an Art Deco masterpiece now being preserved and restored, and made a focus of the city centre, against the spitting hatred of the Labour-run council.
I have no doubt he was instrumental in that, because the grounded left know that history matters, in its material form, is life and love — and Labour would have gladly knocked it down to create another arid plaza in whatever the latest fashion is. It’s a difference between those who know what must be revolutionised — the relation between people — and that which must be preserved.
The tragedy of Labour in the modern era is that they get that exactly wrong, thinking that bulldozing all that people love is a short cut to real social change they don’t have the guts to push through.
Galloway finished. He’s a piece of work, a magnificent champion, a demented old fuck, who used his Russia Today chat show (!) once to praise North Korea: “They have an innocent culture, devoid of capitalism.”
Jesus fuck. But he is the last socialist in England, and he would speak truth to power. It would be a shame to lose him, just as he is about to be joined by 40 or so SNP leftists. And when he’s gone, it is gone, for a while at least, that old oratorical tradition, to summon people to a plain moral rejection of whatever shit-butty the powers-that-be are trying to serve them. That language, that way, will re-emerge as the world turns, and billions of us, the multitudes, have to struggle for the most basic things.
For the moment it’s all George — and I think the crowd knew it, though inevitably towards the end a fight broke out, the way fights do, that billowing and blossoming, which starts from two people having an argument and moves outwards like a stain in fabric, involving everything else.
Bang bang fists aplenty, and over before it had begun and then we were all out in the cold air. I vox-popped but quickly lost my patience: “What’s the array of forces here? Who’s with George and against him?” “Well, it’s a very diverse community …” “Oh, don’t give me that shit,” I said diplomatically, “What’s the deal?” No one would say.
A bit of research later suggested there were seven clans, all based around different regional groups, currently four for Galloway, three for Labour, and that was what gave him the edge. And that was why it was so hard fought. As I left, people were still out there, arguing with a few recalcitrants, trying to get the round.
I walked back to the hotel, through a half-destroyed city, with only the kebab shops still open, lights on in the gloom, the eternal flame. Boys were out in their cars, hot-rodded. They parked by mounting the kerb, coming up beside you, laughing as you jumped. Touch of LA. Brown guys, playing hell with the whites. Someone beyond Galloway, an old Scots Stalinist for chrissake, will emerge to harness that energy, and then they will roar like the lions they imagine they are.