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31 March 2012

Engage the grassroots

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

By Furgan Naeem

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.

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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?

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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