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Electoral intrigue in Bradford

13 March 2015

THE election in Bradford West, where George Galloway is trying to defend the seat he won for the Respect party in a by-election against the Labour Party, is turning into a perfectly fascinating story.

Galloway's 2012 victory was originally interpreted as showing the rise of a Muslim vote, which was more swayed by considerations of foreign policy and religion than by conventional domestic politics. The journalists who travelled to Bradford heard a different and subtler story, however: that it was essentially a vote against the older generation, and the Kashmiri political system which has transplanted itself whole to Bradford and some other cities with large Mirpuri communities.

This clan-based political and social system, known as biraderi, works underneath and subverts entirely the British party apparatus.

What that means is that there is no such thing as "the Muslim vote". Instead, there are contending factions within the Muslim communities, who put on and discard the cloaks of British party allegiance. In Bradford, the Labour Party had been captured by a particular Kashmiri clan network, So the overwhelming vote for Galloway was in essence a vote against being told what to do by the elders in Kashmir.

That is certainly one of the ways that Galloway spun his victory. But in February this year he tweeted a picture of himself embracing the father of one of the most prominent biraderi figures in Bradford, who is standing this year for the neighbouring constituency of Bradford East. This clearly symbolises a detente.

THE Labour Party attempted to get round this by imposing an all-woman shortlist in Bradford West to stand against Galloway. There were three candidates, and at a meeting of the biraderi elders a week before the primary, the decision was made to support a complete outsider, Amina Ali, a Somali from Tower Hamlets.

This looked from London like a victory for diversity. It looked from Bradford like a triumph for Galloway, who would beat her easily and keep the seat warm for a biraderi candidate in the next General Election. It may have seemed that way to her, too, for she stood down after three days.

The new candidate is Naz Shah, whose inspiring life was written up for a local news site, and picked up by The Guardian and The Daily Mail. To quote Suzanne Moore, in The Guardian: "Shah has fought against extremely high odds her entire life, and she is from the area. She grew up in squalor after her father abandoned her pregnant mother already with two small children. Shah's mother, then in an abusive relationship, sent Shah aged 12 to Pakistan to escape the abuse.

"Aged 15 she was forced into marriage. Meanwhile, her mother, after several suicide attempts, snapped and poisoned Azam, her abuser. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Supported by groups like the Southall Black Sisters, Shah survived and went on to care for children with disabilities, worked for the Samaritans, and went on to commissioning work for the NHS. She is now chair of the mental-heath charity Sharing Voices."

This omits one really important fact about her, from the point of view of the Bradford West electorate. She is a Shia, not a Sunni. So, I'm told, she stands no chance at all of winning the seat. It's a kind of elementary point of religious literacy without which you cannot understand politics in some cities today.

THAT wasn't, however, the oddest story of the week, though it is certainly the most important in the development of religion in England at the moment. The strangest came from Japan, via Newsweek. It is the story of funerals for robot dogs.

In 1999, Sony started marketing a robot dog called aibo - an actual, physical, four-legged robot of limited cognitive capacities but enough to please frustrated dog-lovers. It had a microphone and a speaker, and the capacity to modify its behaviour in response to commands, something some real dogs are less certain about. Also, the aibo, like an angel, neither ate nor digested. I don't know whether it needed exercise.

About 150,000 were sold in both Japan and the US. But the market moved on, and in 2006 Sony stopped making them.

In 2014, the company stopped repairing them as well; so now, faced with a shortage of spare parts, their grieving owners are having to come to terms with their death when the originals fail. A photo essay shows a line of elderly Japanese men holding their defunct pets outside a temple. Within, each dog is tagged with its name, and a priest says a prayer to liberate its soul.

The story is actually a horribly poignant reflection on loneliness and the way in which love can make anything come alive, and so be capable of death. The Buddhist priests are doing the right thing there.

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