George Grant was Parliamentary Candidate for Bradford West at the 2015 General Election.
You know there’s something out of the ordinary when your first significant statement as a Conservative Parliamentary candidate is in defence of your Labour opponent. But then Bradford West is no ordinary constituency. This is the seat that flung George Galloway to power in a spectacular by-election in 2012 only to depose him still more spectacularly on 7 May.
Understanding this phenomenon, including its subtleties and subtexts, is important if we in the Conservative Party want to start winning seats like Bradford West in future.
It’s no secret that Bradford West has one of the highest concentration of Muslim voters in the country. Galloway played relentlessly on issues that resonated within the Pakistani-Kashmiri community of Bradford, specifically wars in the Muslim world, Gaza, and perceived Islamophobia.
We must be alive to these concerns, but we also need to recognise the bigger problem that binds them altogether and opens them up to manipulation by men like Galloway: the siege mentality. This is born of the relentlessly negative coverage of Islam and Muslims in the press, combined with a perceived rise in disdain for Muslims generally.
Not only is this state of affairs poisonous for social cohesion, it also makes it much harder for the government to deal effectively with actual extremism where it exists. One of the main things Islamophobes and Muslim extremists have in common is their wilful conflation of the religion of Islam and the political philosophy of Islamism. Irrespective of their true intention, Government strategies like ‘Prevent’ are hitting the buffers in Bradford because they are almost universally perceived as ‘anti-Muslim’, not just anti-extremist.
The same goes for the 2012 law requiring applicants wanting a visa for their spouse to be earning £18,600, above the average wage in Bradford, before they can bring her (or him) into the country. Irrespective of the fact that this applies to everyone outside the EU, it is seen as targeting Asians specifically, and of thus being racist.
The blunt truth is that the government, and Conservatives in particular, have a perception problem here that requires urgent attention. Get this right, and the dividends could be significant – not least because of the comparably conservative dispositions in Asian communities across many other areas.
Of added benefit is that the qualities of an individual candidate can count for just as much as the colour of the rosette pinned to his or her chest. Stick a red rosette on a dead donkey in some parts of England and it’ll romp home with a landslide. Not so in Bradford West, the constituency that slashed Labour’s majority by over 60 per cent in 1997 and elected George Galloway in 2012.
Galloway came unstuck because he failed utterly to represent his constituents on any issue that actually mattered to them in Bradford, believing his self-professed ‘championing’ of international causes and Islamophobia – on neither of which he made a blind bit of difference, incidentally – would see him over the line. His pathetic voting attendance record of 11.19 per cent, the lowest of any MP eligible to vote in Parliament, speaks for itself.
It goes without saying of course that his stock among non-Muslim voters couldn’t have been lower. As one farmer put it to me: “I wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire. Unless I was pissing petrol.”
By way of substitute he specialised in attempting to take credit for other people’s achievements and personal attacks towards his Labour opponent (and now successor), Naz Shah.
And yet there was more to it than that: it was the way he treated his constituents as homogenous – even static – entities, rather than as the deeply complex and interwoven communities of individuals they actually are.
“Immigrants”, was how one Kashmiri answered my question about what concerned him most about Bradford. “Coming over here and taking our jobs”.
I recall another occasion when a group of young Pakistani men offered their views on one of our local council candidates: “We can’t vote for him, George, he looks like bloody Taliban!” When I once asked this same candidate if a good coat and warm pair of trousers might not offer better protection against the horizontal sleet we were at that moment experiencing his answer was equally revealing: “The truth is George, I dress like this because I need to pray five times a day and I’m too fat to get up and down in belt and trousers!”
Galloway would instantly have assumed these individuals would have been on his next aid convoy to Gaza rather than ready to stand for the Conservative Party – and perhaps they would have been; it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to do both in Bradford.
Sadly, my own experiences in Bradford West taught me this lack of understanding also extends to our own party, at the local level as much as on the national stage. We need to think hard about how we engage with the more Asian-dominated inner-cities.
Our Asian supporters in Bradford offer a quite fantastic resource at a time when our traditional supporter base is growing in age and depleting in numbers. We were lucky to muster half a dozen weary souls to canvass in our so-called ‘English’ areas in the fortnight running up to Election Day. The contrast in the Kashmiri wards could not have been starker: fifty volunteers or more round the clock; gatherings almost every night; loudspeakers strapped to cars; and a level of enthusiasm and community engagement that should have been every Party organiser’s dream.
And yet it was no such thing. On the contrary, the prevailing attitude towards these superb amateur enthusiasts tended to be suspicion, itself the product of a lack of integration and shared experiences. This has to change both for the good of the Conservative party and for the good of society. Looking forwards 20 years and more, our electoral future may depend on it.