UK polls: Tough fight in an Asian-dominated constituency

In this April 22, 2015, photo, Respect Party Leader George Galloway visits Yaadgaar Bakery, in Bradford, England, as Britain's political parties campaign in the lead up to the parliamentary elections on May 7.  

Bradford city carries the unmistakable flavour of decline. Once the world’s largest wool manufacturing centre, the de-industrialisation of the 1980s and beyond has left it a shadow of its former self. The overwhelming colour of a once-elegant and dominant architecture is the brown of degeneration — even the tall chimney of the old Mannigham Mills that marks the Bradford skyline reinforces this aura. But for some pockets of renewal and new urban development in the city centre, the overall picture is that of a shabby and uncared-for urbanscape. Human development markers tell their own story. The Bradford constituency has an unemployment rate of 17.9 per cent, and it is categorised as “very high” in the Index of Multiple Deprivations. Nearly 55 per cent of its population is Asian.

It is in this constituency that one of the more interesting electoral contests of these elections is taking place. On the one side is the Respect Party leader, the firebrand socialist parliamentarian George Galloway. He won the seat in a by-election in 2012, held after the Labour incumbent Marsha Singh stepped down owing to ill health. Contrary to all predictions, Mr. Galloway swept the elections with a 10,000-vote margin over his nearest Labour opponent. Mr. Galloway had won the elections primarily on the grounds of his principled anti-war stand, and in particular, his opposition to western intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, and his campaign for the rights of Palestinians.

His opponent is a 41-year old Muslim woman who has worked for the last several years as a disability rights advocate and a Samaritans volunteer. She also chairs a mental health charity, and has worked in human rights. Naz Shah was selected late in the day from an all women’s short-list after the first choice Amina Ali announced she was stepping down.

A British-Pakistani and mother of three, Ms. Shah is already gaining considerable attention and support. She spent 12 years campaigning with the feminist group, the Southall Black Sisters, for the release of her mother Zoora Khan, who was jailed for the murder of a man who had raped, beaten and pimped her for over 10 years. It has been an uphill struggle for Ms. Shah who was herself marriage below the age of consent, and had to bring up her younger brother and sister through the period of her mother’s imprisonment.

At Darley Street in central Bradford, dressed in a bright red woolen coat that offers little protection against the cold and steady drizzle, Ms. Shah is distributing red balloons and Labour party stickers. Children clamour for a balloon and as she gives it to them and sticks the badges on their lapels she says: “And you tell your mom and dad for vote Labour ok?” They all nod their heads enthusiastically. A lot of people stop to congratulate her, or to talk about her campaign versus that of her opponent Mr. Galloway.

Ms. Shah and her supporters claim that there is a smear campaign against her because she is a Muslim woman whose mother was convicted of murdering a man. Even Baroness Warsi, a Conservative member of parliament issued a statement in her support, in which she said she was "appalled” at the vilification campaign against Ms. Shah. “I am appalled at the way she has been treated, not just by men, but by women in the community too. I think we need to look at how we handle women who adopt leadership positions.”

Speaking to The Hindu during a break in the campaign Ms. Shah said: “In terms of the personal smear campaign, I have done 20 years of activism and human rights, and at the moment my focus is on the people of Bradford, and that kind of depersonalises it.” She is aware that she has taken on a formidable opponent in Mr. Galloway but says that she is encouraged by the support she is getting.

“I thought it would be very hard to convince people but the response I am getting is that it is so obvious that he has let us down as an MP in two years. He hasn’t been here, he only comes around when the elections come up. In Parliament he has the second worse attendance record out of 650 MPs.” Mr. Galloway accused her of fudging her age of marriage, saying that she was actually 16 and not 15 as she claimed. Ms. Shah hit back saying that there are two Nikahnamas (marriage certificates) of her marriage, one dated 1990 and another, the real one, dated 1988. “He panders to the Muslim vote, but Muslims are not stupid. As a Muslim woman I feel he is very condescending , very patronising, because we can make our own minds up.

For both candidates education and jobs are crucial focus areas, as Bradford schools have performed very poorly at the national level.

Mr. Galloway campaigns from a bus that serves as a mobile campaign office. “We came out of the anti-war movement, and we are against racism, Islamophobia, war, austerity, privatisation and against the overall economic and foreign policy of the government. On Bradford’s needs, Mr. Galloway speaks of the “infamous” state of the city’s schools, and his determination to transform that. Secondly, the level of unemployment among youth in Bradford at 50 per cent is alarming, he says. On the question of the radicalisation of youth in places like Bradford, he argues that the 500 British Muslims who are believed to be fighting in Syria is a tiny percentage of the 2.7 million Muslim population. “It would be less than the number of white people drawn to nationalist and racist organisations for example. That is one of the reasons why we objected to the war in the Middle East. If you are locked in endless war against the Middle East then you are going to end up with a problem with some Muslims here,” he said.

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