Engage the grassroots

Galloway's victory shows how out of touch the three main parties are with young Muslims.

As the dust settles in Bradford West after a stunning victory for George Galloway, questions will surely be raised as to just how such a huge scale of victory was achieved. Not only only did Galloway regain his seat in Parliament, but he also sent a strong message to the 3 major parties that they have to do a lot more to connect with disenfranchised young Muslims - the main driving force behind Galloways stunning victory.

As Chair of the University of Bradford Union I saw how Galloway used all his political know-how to rally up support from young people and students alike, many of whom were Muslims from Bradford, capturing their hearts and minds and helping to cause one of the biggest recent upsets in British politics. Galloway gained a celebrity status as he casually walked around on campus after he stood for the seat, embracing Asian students as they rushed to take pictures.

These students and young people then went on to rally many other young Muslim voters in areas across Bradford such as the heavily Asian populated Manningham. Make no mistake about it, Galloway touched the hearts of the youth in Bradford especially in the last 48 hours before voting closed; hundreds of young people campaigned to make the unthinkable a reality.

The campaigners were oblivious of Galloway's track record beyond the war, or his reputation as an opportunist and one who "never delivers" for his constituent members. His supporters, many of whom have never voted before in their lives and who seem politically unaware, were now taking part in the democratic process for the first time - to see young Muslims participating in itself was inspirational.

There will be questions of how Galloway played on the "Muslim card", and his performance will be scrutinised over the next few years. The jury is out as to whether he actually delivers on his promises made to the people of Bradford. Indeed - will he deliver and sustain support for the seat come 2015, or follow his usual trajectory with the Muslim communities of East London?

The Labour Party is due an analysis of how we lost such a safe seat with a great local campaigner and activist. I met both Ed Miliband and Imran Hussian at the University last week and Ed Miliband commended Imran on his great local work and connection with people on the ground. Something went terribly wrong - the script of mainstream politics was not relevant to young Muslims.

On a turnout of 50.78 per cent we were crushed by a 36.59 per cent swing from Labour to Respect that saw Galloway take the seat with a majority of 10,140. In reality, this is further evidence that young Muslims feel alienated from mainstream politics and want to get involved and make a difference but they are unsure of how to make their voices heard when they feel neglected and let down. While Tories will always struggle to connect with ethnic communities, Labour must evaluate how it lost its supporters.

Ed Miliband and the leadership must work harder to engage with grassroots minority communities up and down the country - including Muslim communities, many of whom have strong Labour roots. Trust needs to be rebuilt, the time for reconciliation is now. Some may argue young Muslims need to do more on their part to engage, though there is repeated evidence that many young Muslims feel demonised, pushed aside and disregarded by the media and politicians. This election marks an entry point for many young Muslims into national politics; Westminster would be foolish to drift away from them any further.

Furqan Naeem is the Chair of University of Bradford Students Union, a member of the Labour Students National Committee and a Trustee for the Muslim Youth Helpline

George Galloway. Photo: Getty Images
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.