Saturday, 6 December 2014

Does 'Gangs of New York' shed some light on Bradford politics?


You remember the film 'Gangs of New York'? What I hadn't fully appreciated was that the film wasn't just about the battles between Irish immigrants and 'nativists' in New York during the Civil War but was set at the birth of 'boss rule' in US cities - in New York's case, Tammany Hall:

Gangs of New York (Gangs) takes place in New York City during the Civil War. Its plot concerns the war between Irish and nativist gangs for control of lower Manhattan. Both lose, leading to the rise of Tammany Hall, whose innovative manner of conflict resolution laid the foundation for modern New York. The ward heelers replace the warlords and the rigid identities of immigrant and nativist are dissolved. That’s how New York was tamed.

So writes Steve Eide in New geography and he reminds us that Boss Tweed's 'innovative manner of conflict resolution' involved thievery on a grand scale. Eide goes on to look at a couple of other films that shone a creative light on boss rule in US cities. Both the good (that people living in poverty can use the machine to rise to positions of power and influence) and the bad (murder, extortion, vote-rigging and graft). At the heart of this system was the means by which immigrant communities - and in America's case this meant the Irish - secured power and influence.

It is always dangerous to draw parallels in history - times are very different to 19th century New York, Boston or Chicago. But I sense that communities make a choice - between trade and politics - in the search for power. In New York and Boston this meant that the Irish dominated politics while the economies became the domain of Jews and the older protestant community. And this didn't matter to those in power - for sure there were strong words about prejudice, arguments that more should be done for one or other minority, but these were less important than using ethnic loyalty and the politics of community to sustain control.

So it's worth - for the sake of analysis - making the parallel with the biraderi ('kinship') structures within Pakistani, and especially Mirpuri, social systems. As Parveen Akhtar has observed these structures brought about:

...a system of patronage whereby local politicians of all political parties (but especially the Labour Party) built links with community leaders in the Pakistani community, who became their gateway to the Pakistani vote. (Labour's former deputy leader Roy Hattersley, who long held the Sparkbrook constituency in Birmingham, once remarked that whenever he saw a Pakistani name on a ballot-paper he knew the vote was his). The local leaders were given minor positions of power and help in figuring out the political system, so that they could stand for council seats or influential roles as subaltern aides.

Today it is almost certainly true that the majority of Labour votes in Bradford come from the City's Pakistani community. And, just as with Tammany Hall politics in the USA, this leaves the party vulnerable to two challenges - the insurgent candidate who captures the passion of the poor immigrants and the switching of middle-class second generation immigrant voters away from candidates seen as marking the old system.

George Galloway was that first candidate:

Much of the alienation and marginalisation from mainstream electoral politics felt by the young can be traced back to the way the biraderi system became a means of political exclusion. This generational evolution helps explain why young British Pakistanis in an area like Bradford West were drawn to vote for George Galloway.

It is ironic that, in America's boss system the idea of 'perfuming the ticket' existed - an approach, however dodgy, that would have guarded against Galloway-esque insurgency:

Wise bosses were highly sensitive to public opinion. They sometimes had to run candidates who were just distant enough from the machine to be considered graft-free. This practice was known as “perfuming the ticket.”

The second problem - that men from the core community (who speak with a thick accent and are better known as fixers than creators) have less and less in common with the growing part of the community that is educated, more affluent and consequently feels less oppressed. The Eide argued resulted in the old boss system collapsing as the educated switched support to people more like them and less like their grandparents.

Akhtar feels that the biraderi system no longer holds so much sway, that Galloway's victory changed all that. However, a glance at Bradford's politics suggests that these relationships - the biraderi system - remains very influential within the Pakistani community. It's not just that the councillors elected in 2012 on George Galloway's coat-tails have deserted him but that it's reported their connections with Labour councillors through the kinship systems mean it's a matter of time before most of them find a comfortable seat on the Labour benches - the ticket, suitably perfumed, resulted in rebels, but not too rebellious a bunch of rebels.

Earlier this week I was on Sunrise Radio in Bradford for a question time session. And, during a period off air, the matter of birideri came up - two fellow panellists, both Asians, saw it as a barrier but disagreed as to whether the solution lay in mainstream politics (a Bradford version of Tammany Hall) or something more disruptive, springlike - to borrow George Galloway's designation. For me perhaps the answer lies in the passage of time. After all New York, Boston and Chicago are less plagued by the politics of group, ethnicity, clan and family than they were and, in part, this is because people from the poor, immigrant communities were given a role in the politics of the city. I just hope we do it with less corruption, less deception and more open-ness than was the case with American cities.


1 comment:

Lysistrata said...

This is a brilliant analysis. Thank you.

I worked professionally with (not for) Bradford Councillors and Officers between 1986 and 2003 and watched as all this was developing.

The public burning of the book "Satanic Verses" in Centenary Square - and the identity of the individual leading the protest - marked for me a tipping point for Bradford politics, both at community and mainstream levels.

Then I lived abroad for a decade, during which time Bradford underwent Galloway, among many other fleeting developments.

I can't tell you how helpful it is to me for you to have posted this article - purely selfishly, as it has filled in the gaps that many will still not talk openly about.