Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Brotherhood. A political story.

So you arrive in a foreign country. A 'welcome to some but not to others' arrival. You've a few words of the language remembered from the smattering of English lessons you received in your all too brief elementary education. And you've a job. A dirty, unpleasant, poorly paid and anti-social job. But a job nonetheless and a better one than you'd have had back in dusty, crowded and poverty-ridden Mirpur.

The factory helps find you a place to live and you move in - sharing the drafty, unheated and damp terraced house with a dozen other workers. All men and all recently arrived from places not so far from where you came from. You miss your wife and the two little kids but keep telling them (when you can afford to send a letter or make an incredibly expensive phone call) that it's great, that England's a good place and will provide a better life for all the family. You don't mention the hacking cough from the factory, the routine racial abuse and that the food is awful. Back home they have to believe you made the right decision.

After a year or two, you find you're helping other new arrivals - men coming from your home village - to settle in. Showing them the ropes, how Bradford works, where to shop and where to get somewhere to live that doesn't rip you off. In the factory, you help those men get adjusted, protecting them from the worst that the supervisors throw at all the immigrant workers. So when they've got the routine down all the men can, with their heads down, get on with the work.

One day the big, loud man who's something to do with the Union (the Union you were told to join by one of the white day shift workers) came into the canteen. "Hey, Mohammed, can I have a word?" the man shouts. And you have that word - he wants you to be a shop steward, to "represent your lot - you speak the language and we need you on board."

So you become a union man, you sit on the works committee, and you do what you're asked - representing the concerns of the men from Mirpur working the night shift. Not long after you - along with a lot of others - decide to bring the family over. There's a terrace to rent and you can set up - get some decent home cooking rather than the cafe food you've been eating for the past few years. The family arrives and joins the growing community - a community with a mosque, a little restaurant and the shop selling vegetables, spices and such that Imran Akhtar opened.

You've not paid much attention to politics and elections. They came and went - posters, leaflets and the loud union man sounding off about "f*****g Tories". It didn't mean much to you but you knew the union guys were angry because those Tories were running the Council and "they don't care about working men like you, Mohammed". But then, one day, the loud union man came to see you and brought another man, a man in a suit.

"Mohammed," the union man says, "your community are important to us now." It seems that, with the influx of workers, the arrival of families and the growing up of children, the Mirpuri people now had enough votes to make a difference. And the bloke in the suit - he was from the Labour Party - wants you to stand for election as a councillor. And because you want to represent the men and women in your growing community, you agree. It's not an ideological decision, you're not a socialist, but the Labour Party asked and why not?

To get elected you concentrate on your family, on the network of friends and connections from back home - the biraderi, a brotherhood, as some call it. You know that the heads of families can make sure their wives, sons, daughters, nephews and nieces vote for you - you've helped them out, now it's time for them to return the favour.

You get elected. And soon are joined by other Mirpuri councillors - all Labour - who've done the same. Different networks, different families, different biraderi but the same process and the same reason for being involved.

This story - a story repeated by every immigrant group in one way or another - is the story of how family, clan, caste and a network of historic links help determine elections in Bradford. Some want to cast those biraderi in a bad light - just as, in another time and place, the same was said about the South London 'Irish mafia', about Catholic Priests telling congregations who to vote for and about the link between the Town Hall and a certain sort of businessman. There will come a time when those links stop mattering quite so much, when elections will become more 'normal', and when it won't be a dreadful thing if a son or daughter goes against fathers and uncles in the way they vote.

But in the meantime those biraderi matter. And because they matter we should respect them, where they came from and why they are important in our politics. Ideologues might cringe at people voting for someone because they're family, friend, caste or clan but is that really a worse reason for political choice? Some would say it's more honest, honourable and gets a better politician. Whatever the right or wrong in this though, it remains a fact of immigrant life - and will be so for those new immigrant groups, Poles, Somalis, Greeks, Romanians, Kurds. They will all have their 'community leaders' because these people are essential to the integration and inclusion of their community into the life of our nation- and politics, for all its faults, is part of our nation!



Lysistrata said...

Simon, I enjoyed reading this post. I first came to Bradford in 1965 and it very much echoes the true situation then.

By and large I agree with you - except where personal corruption has crept in. The same is true in Greece where I lived for 10 years (I'm still talking locally).

When does the exchange of 'favours' become corruption? Your shop gets its pavement mended, a rival's doesn't. Your bid to the local council for this season's sunbeds concession wins, others' don't. Your son manages to get a coveted local authority job even though he doesn't quite match the specs...

And then sometimes money becomes involved, not just favours. And those 'Little Infamies' become larger scale corruption, affecting not just those who take part but those who know about it and keep quiet.

Heaven knows, this doesn't just happen only in Mirpuri and Greek communities (Poulson? T. Dan Smith?) but communities that have struggled are more susceptible.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I always believed our franchise was based on one-person-one-vote, not one-group-many-votes (for sale).
People, particularly the young and the immigrant folk, will never adopt personal voting responsibility, and thus political awareness, if the process of selection is taken from them, either by force or family pressure.
The abhorrent postal voting system substantially aids this corruption, as the vote is no longer a secret personal matter, the ballot form is completed in full view of others. Makes Sepp Blatter look honourable.
First step should be simply to ban all postal votes for anyone not holding a Blue Disabled Badge. Then see how the wicked family pressure system, and its associated corruption, survives.