Is Labour making a mess of Bradford West?
- 5 March 2015
- From the section UK
Sometimes trying to fix one political problem creates another.
Labour HQ's interference could damage the party's chances in seats it desperately needs to win, in an election where one or two seats could determine who takes No 10.
After the bitter row over candidate selection in Bradford West, which Newsnight has been told was "absolutely fixed", some Labour members may even campaign for George Galloway's Respect party.
Blaming the interference of the leader's office for the mess, one source said: "They have no idea, they don't understand politics."
Another told Newsnight: "This was a complete disaster. The fault lies entirely with the party - we might end up losing both Bradford West and Bradford East."
One local councillor said: "People are shocked and angry - the feeling out there is that the Labour party wants to teach the Muslim community a lesson for voting for Galloway."
When George Galloway's political circus rolled up in Bradford West in 2012 and won the seat, Labour was stunned, and Ed Miliband made bold, if familiar promises to listen and learn and rebuild the party locally.
But local sources say that "nothing has happened - it is a simple as that".
Despite assurances from Ed Miliband's office that an all-women shortlist would not be imposed to find a candidate to fight Galloway, the party's National Executive Committee ultimately decided that only women could apply for the seat.
The party denies that such a promise was ever made and says they "make no apology" for imposing female shortlists.
But it was after the shortlist was produced in February that things begin to get very murky.
Newsnight has been told that that first contest was "absolutely fixed to choose the weakest candidate", with local members acting together in protest at central interference.
Others insist that Amina Ali, who was originally chosen, was the best performer at the hustings, and it was the national party who pressured her to withdraw.
On the streets of Bradford there are wildly varying accounts of why Ms Ali pulled out, rumours of deals involving George Galloway, and even politicians in Pakistan pulling strings.
She says she changed her mind as she did not want to disrupt her family who live in East London.
But in any case, embarrassingly she withdrew within days of winning the position, leaving the party without a candidate just weeks from the general election, fighting a seat against one of the most effective political campaigners around.
A selection panel this week then chose Naz Shah, who had come last in the members' hustings and supported Mr Galloway in 2012.
But the imposition of the candidate has caused deep resentment among some.
Local Labour councillor of 35 years Ghazanfer Khaliq told me: "It is not democratic. People are really shocked and angry with the Labour party - the way the candidate has been an imposition on them.
"Let's go back, the by-election was in 2012 and it's taken three years for the Labour party to impose this candidate."
He added: "I would say that the feeling out there is that the Labour party wants to teach the Muslim community a lesson for voting for George Galloway."
A Labour spokesperson angrily responded that that was "rubbish".
But it is certainly getting dirty.
We've seen negative material about the new candidate Ms Shah's past that's been circulating in the past 24 hours. We've been told some members are so disaffected they will now even fight for the Respect Party, Labour's rival.
'Sore and frustrated'
One source said: "There will be a very split party and some will campaign for Galloway." Another said: "Senior members of the Labour party are all going to campaign for Galloway or just sit it out."
Others insist the "core" campaign will be able to pull together behind the new candidate.
But even those who support Ms Shah express frustration with the national party at how this has been handled: "To leave our candidate such little time to campaign begs a lot of questions. There are a lot of people feeling sore and frustrated."
Another said: "The party nationally has put us in this position because of their delays." Newsnight understands that Ed Miliband's office was warned against imposing an all-women shortlist or a candidate, but pressed ahead, resulting in what can only be described as a shambles.
Labour denies that there was anything wrong with the selection process, and perhaps predictably say that Naz Shah will be a "fantastic candidate".
Unfortunately, they were not prepared to make her available to speak to Newsnight.
But in what, according to one party insider should be "rock solid" Labour seats, a mess, created in their view by the party itself, stands to lose them support and damage their party's chances across the city in a general election that is far too close to call.
After Galloway swept into town in 2012 taking a 10,000 majority and Labour pride with him, it is easy to see why Ed Miliband wanted to reshape how politics worked in Bradford.
Bradford West MPs:
- 1955: Arthur Tiley, Conservative
- 1966: Norman Haseldine Labour Co-operative
- 1970: John Wilkinson Conservative
- Feb 1974: Edward Lyons Labour (SDP from 1981)
- 1983: Max Madden, Labour
- 1997: Marsha Singh, Labour
- 2012: George Galloway, Respect
There was anxiety in many quarters that biradari, the influence of some clans in the city, was a fundamental problem that had to be challenged, and it was frustration with the way elders pulled the strings that pushed voters to Respect in the first place.
Local campaigner Ratna Lachman says Ed Miliband promised "root and branch reform. He didn't do it and therefore the shambles we have right now is a result of weak leadership."
This influence of the biradari is disputed by some others, who even claim it is racist to overstate the network's ability to swing votes.
But with just weeks to go before the general election, in seats that according to one source should be "rock solid" Labour, the party has arguably created a mess that will cost them votes they can ill afford to lose.
With this election so tight, a little local difficulty can quickly become a big national problem.