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15 August 2016

A city left behind: post-Brexit tensions simmer in Bradford

With a local council hit by cuts and long-running arguments about immigration, residents are struggling to find a positive response to racism in the Yorkshire city.

By Samira Shackle

Edmund Street sits at the centre of Bradford, not far from the historic City Hall. On this small street stands a Polish church, a few doors down from a Polish community centre. A Polish Saturday school runs here, as well as a veterans’ association. “We Polish have been here in Bradford many decades,” says Jaroslaw Andrwski, a 41-year old painter-decorator who was born in Bradford after his parents immigrated in the 1950s. “What happened on 23 June makes you wonder about the future.”

In the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, over 54 per cent of the people of Bradford voted to leave. This post-industrial city in West Yorkshire is part of the fabled Labour heartlands. Was it economic deprivation and disenfranchisement that led the city to choose Leave? And what role did the unusually high levels of immigration here play?

Bradford has one of the largest Muslim communities in the UK. The most recent census showed that nearly a quarter of the 500,000-strong population is Muslim, mostly of Pakistani origin. Bradford is often used as a byword for failed multiculturalism, thanks to its relatively segregated population and history of racial tensions. In fact, the city has quietly absorbed significant waves of immigration over the past two centuries. In the 1840s, Irish migrants moved in en masse. Around the same time, German Jews arrived. In the 1950s there was large-scale immigration from south Asia, as well as from Poland.

“Among people I went to school with, there was definitely a sense that they were voting to get the Asians out, even though those Asians have British passports,” says Vivian Bailey, a 24-year-old graduate who recently returned home to Bradford after university. “There are tensions between the white working class and the Asians. A lot of white people don’t like what Bradford has become.”

However, campaigners say that this was not the whole story. “Immigration was a factor, but we had support from the Asian community, too,” says Simon Cooke, a local Conservative councillor who campaigned for Leave. “I talked to one restaurateur who said, ‘The Italian restaurant can import as many workers as it likes from Italy, but I can’t import a chef from Bangladesh.’ It was a pro-immigration argument for Leave.”

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The tightening of restrictions on spousal visas during the last parliament affected many south Asians living in Bradford. When Ukip fielded candidates here in the 2015 general election, they argued that leaving the EU might lead to a relaxation of immigration rules for people moving from Commonwealth countries.

At a newsagent’s in inner-city Bradford, customers of all races browse for groceries and magazines. Mohamed Ahmed, who owns the shop, stocks a range of eastern European groceries, in addition to south Asian imports and more familiar British brands. “You get what customers want,” he shrugs. “I was an immigrant once, many years ago, but I don’t like what’s happening to Bradford now. The Romanians who have moved into our area are antisocial – they drink, they don’t have jobs. It’s not good for young people to see them like this, always out on the streets. There has to be a limit.”

Bradford was once known as the “wool capital of the world”, and its centre is full of beautiful Victorian architecture, a product of Bradford’s status as an international centre for textiles. In common with other cities across the north, it fell into decline from the middle of the 20th century. The old Wool Exchange building now holds a Waterstones and a coffee shop, indicative of the shift towards the retail and service sectors. Overall unemployment stands at 9.1 per cent, significantly higher than the 6.5 per cent national average.

The city’s schools are struggling: last year the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that schools here were “mired in mediocrity” and were “failing generation after generation with depressing regularity”. More often than not, young people in search of skilled work are forced to leave. “People who graduated with me in biomedical sciences are working in retail because the jobs aren’t there,” says Samayya Afzal, a recent graduate of the University of Bradford and a Remain campaigner. “It’s bleak. Bradford is my home – my family is here – but I can’t see a future here. It’s difficult to describe how that feels.”

The vote in favour of Brexit raises serious questions for Bradford. A recent analysis showed that the city receives roughly £13.5m in EU funding every year. Much of that goes to the university and towards schemes to help people into work. It is not clear whether there will be anything to replace this money. The local council, in common with most local authorities, is struggling financially after six years of austerity. Earlier this year, it launched a survey asking residents what their priorities were for front-line services, to help it decide what to cut.

While other regions have experienced a surge in hate crimes since the referendum result, Bradford police say that there were fewer reported incidents in the week after the result than in the same period the previous year. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been many incidents of verbal abuse. “It’s all very well for Leave campaigners to condemn the racism,” Afzal says, “but they aren’t the ones who have to renegotiate their walk home.”

For the time being, residents are trying to find a positive solution. In 2010, after a campaign to recognise its history of welcoming people in need from all over the world, Bradford was recognised as a “City of Sanctuary”. At the end of last month Afzal and other activists organised an anti-racism rally in Centenary Square, a recently built attraction centred around a large water feature. They weren’t expecting a big crowd. In the end, over 500 people turned up: white British, eastern European, Bradford Asians of all ages. They listened to speeches, held up placards and stood together, for that moment united in their desire to say that their city would do things differently. In front of them a sign displayed the title for the event: “Bradford Says Everyone Stays”. 

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This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq