On Thursday 3 May Bradfordians will have the opportunity to go to the polls not only to vote in the local council elections, but also in a referendum as to whether the city should opt to elect its mayor. Now that George Galloway, through his dramatic victory, has demonstrated the potential of Islamic sectarian politics in certain parts of contemporary England, we may see wins for Respect in a number of Bradford wards now that he has declared that the party will field candidates in every ward. Galloway has certainly built up a head of steam for his party, and has generated much enthusiasm amongst the city’s Muslim population, even going so far as to win the backing of its mosques. Indeed, his efforts to tailor his message to this section of the electorate were quite remarkable, as is evidenced both by the letter reproduced below and the campaign speech at the end of this piece. If you possess neither the time nor the inclination to watch Galloway’s speech, you should certainly not omit to read his letter, for its content has to be seen to be believed.
Galloway has never been the shy and retiring type, yet his campaign speech took him well beyond exuberant confidence into the realms of messianic hubris, with him going so far as to invoke the divine punishment to be meted out on Judgement Day as the prospective fate of Muslim electors who chose to vote for a party of war – Labour – rather than for himself: “I believe in the Judgement Day. Not all of you do. I believe that one day we will have to answer to the Almighty for what we did and we did not do.” Galloway would seem to think that he has God, or rather Allah, on his side. He was also rather keen to imply that he, although not formally a Muslim, was a Muslim in deed, citing his teetotalism as evidence and stating that he shared a belief in the Ummah.
How then might Galloway, with his charisma and oratorical skills, support a breakthrough for other Respect candidates in May? Besides the canny honing of his pro-Muslim message, Galloway has also chosen to move the Respect headquarters from Manchester to Bradford, and in his main campaign speech made much play of the fact that he was also eyeing up the local elections “in six weeks’ time”. Connected to this was his statement that “I’ll be ashamed if I leave Bradford and there’s not a new generation of leaders stepping forward to take my place.” Quite clearly, he has plans afoot to develop “a new generation of leaders to come after me,” as was the case he claimed, in Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets sets an ugly precedent, and it ought to be a salutary warning to Bradfordians that Galloway intends to develop a cadre of Islamist politicians in the city.
Moving on to a rather more concrete electoral tactic that seemed to work well for Respect last week and will doubtless be employed again in the weeks ahead, Galloway asked of his audience “Every one of you has got at least fifty numbers in your phonebook. Send a text to them all and ask them to send a text to everyone in their phonebook and we reach thousands and thousands of people in Bradford.” This tactic was cheap, personal and effective. He also managed to secure the support of the innocuously named Chambers Solicitors, which not only provided him with the venue for his campaign speech gratis, but also paid for trailers displaying electoral posters. Will the same level of support be available in the weeks ahead?
Turning to the question of which wards Respect could stand a good chance of taking, two primary factors need to be considered: the ethnoconfessional composition of the electorate and Labour Party support. Where the two coincide – i.e. where the electorate is predominantly Muslim and returns Labour councillors – we can see an opening for Respect. Of the two factors however, it is the ethnoconfessional one that will play the determining role in the potential success of Respect, for it will not win votes in any significant numbers from indigenous voters of any political stripe. However, in Bradford West it was demonstrated that Muslims who had previously voted Conservative and Liberal Democrat were quite happy to switch their votes to Respect because of its overtly Islamist agenda. For these Muslim voters, faith trumped every other aspect of policy and personal identity.
Thankfully, we should not yet anticipate that Bradford Council will be transformed into an authority dominated by Respect, for it includes many outlying towns and rural areas that have not to date undergone the demographic transformation of many of the inner urban wards. Furthermore, Bradford Council is comprised of 90 councillors drawn from 30 wards, with one third of its councillors being up for re-election this coming May. Referring to the most recent set of electoral results from 2011, it is clear that there are a number of council seats that could be ripe for Respect. Each of the following wards can be characterised as ‘Asian’ (i.e. majority Muslim) and thus the only realistic targets for Respect: Bowling and Barkerend; Bradford Moor; City; Heaton; Keighley Central; Little Horton; Manningham; Toller. It is quite possible that all eight could return Respect councillors.
It is well known that Bradford West was a Labour stronghold, but some of the wards listed above are in a firm Labour stranglehold: Bradford Moor – 66.6%; City – 64%; Little Horton – 86.8% (Sher Khan – not the tiger from The Jungle Book surely?!); Manningham – 73.2%, and Toller – 80.5%. The question is: how strong are the networks of personal, clan and familial relationships within ‘local’ communities and businesses enjoyed by the men who control these wards? Furthermore, might not some of their colleagues be tempted to run under the Respect banner on this occasion, given that it has now successfully demonstrated its credentials as a viable Islamist party and is riding a wave of popular Islamic support in the city?
As illustrated in Bradford West, it was not only Labour supporters who deserted ‘their’ party for Respect, but also Muslim Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters. The same phenomenon could also characterise the local elections. Although of course non-Muslims will have voted for Muslim candidates in wards across the city – especially when only Muslim candidates were fielded – the following percentages of the vote were cast for such candidates in 2011, and provide a reasonable proxy for the Islamic character of particular wards. Thus, the bases of potential support for Respect are revealed to be much higher: Bowling and Barkerend – 74.9%; Bradford Moor – 100%; City – 91.7%; Heaton – 74.6%; Keighley Central – 85.5%; Little Horton – 86.8%; Manningham – 95.6%; Toller – 100%. Not all will transfer across to Respect of course, but these figures would seem to suggest that the party stands a very good chance of taking them, particularly if its candidates are endorsed by local mosques.
Turnout in local elections is notoriously low, which constitutes another reason for them being able to provide unexpected results for smaller parties. The average turnout across Bradford in 2011 was 40.63%, and given the lack of enthusiasm amongst voters for the traditional mainstream parties, it tends to be those who are the most motivated and passionate about their candidate who bother to turn out and vote. Thus, if last year’s turnout were to be repeated, Respect would on average need to secure the votes of only 21% of the eligible electorate in any ward to be able to take the seat. This is perfectly achievable. Galloway may have reason once again to purr with delight on 4 May.