BRADFORD — Naz Shah has had a pretty crazy week. Since writing a personal essay about her harrowing life experiences and how she overcame them, the recently selected Labour candidate for Bradford West has been inundated by interview requests. "We had camera crews here the other day," Shah tells BuzzFeed News in her home, just outside of Bradford city centre. "It was quite surreal."
Shah's backstory is far from standard for a prospective parliamentary candidate. During her childhood, Shah, her mother, and her siblings moved more than 14 times in two years, living out of bin bags and staying in slum accommodation.
Her mother, Zoora, was later subjected to physical and sexual abuse by her partner, a gangster and drug dealer whom she eventually killed, after failed attempts to take her own life. Subsequently, she received a 20-year prison sentence, in which during that time, her 12-year-old daughter Naz was sent to Pakistan for safety, only to be forced into an abusive marriage when she was 15. Zoora was eventually released from prison in 2000, after Naz's years of campaigning with the activist group Southall Black Sisters.
"Because of my background, and because it's so chequered, I knew everyone would have something to say about it," Shah told BuzzFeed News.
"So rather than have everyone else write about it, I thought if I own it, then at least I'll have control over it."
But it's not only Shah's backstory that has made her the centre of attention. She's also standing in what is very probably the most controversial election race in British politics.
Bradford West was once a Labour stronghold; when the sitting MP Marsha Singh died in 2012, the party's candidate, Imran Hussain, was expected to win the by-election easily. Instead, it was captured by the larger-than-life figure of George Galloway, leader of the left-wing Respect Party, with one of the biggest swings in British electoral history.
Since then, things have only got worse for Labour.
Although Ed Miliband promised to reach out to disillusioned voters following the by-election defeat, most Bradford residents spoken to by BuzzFeed News insisted that this promise never materialised.
Last month, the party finally chose its election candidate – Amina Ali, a councillor from Tower Hamlets in London, who was part of one of Labour's all-women shortlists. But just 72 hours after being selected, Ali pulled out of the race, claiming that a move to Bradford would impact the education of her children.
While this continues to be the official line, a source close to the local Labour party, who preferred not to be named, told BuzzFeed News that "Ali realised she'd been played by senior members of the party".
"They selected her because she was the weakest candidate," he said. "You know, they knew she [wasn't] going to win."
When BuzzFeed News asked why this happened, the source said: "Because they didn't get their first-choice candidate in. A lot of the elders in the party were already annoyed about the all-women shortlist. Some felt it was done deliberately – to punish the regional party."
Shah came second in the original ballot, so was chosen to be the party's candidate a week after Ali's withdrawal, after being interviewed by senior Labour party members, including the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz.
The situation is further complicated by the influence of the Biraderi – the Pakistani kinship network with roots in Kashmir that has long dominated local and national politics in Bradford.
This is a controversial topic among politicians and activists within the city. Biraderi, which translates as 'brotherhood' in Urdu, refers to the extended clan and tribal networks that shape sections of Britain's Pakistani community. Some Biraderi communities in the UK even have close ties to influential figures in Pakistan.
Some say the system has corrupted politics in Bradford, by allowing people to see political office as a birthright, and by turning local politics into what one source called a "reflection of an outdated Pakistani class system". Critics also say that rather than the best candidates being chosen to run as MPs or councillors, those chosen tend to be ones with the strongest relationship to "elite" Biraderis.
Others, including Shah, insisted that the Biraderi network still has its benefits, particularly in the way it enhances community politics in the area.
"The problem is when it's not inclusive," Shah said. "The Biraderi system is no different to how unions stand behind a candidate. The issue comes when that is used to keep someone in power, rather than for the good of the people. Biraderi is actually a good thing – it's like a network.
"Clan politics can be really, really good if you use it for the right reasons – when it becomes separatist and divisive, that's when you've got an issue. But when a clan system pulls together resources and people to tackle an education problem – that's brilliant."
Speaking about the selection process, Shah said: "There were lots of allegations … of block voting, Biraderis, and I'm not going to sit here and confirm or deny it."
"What I am going to say is that in terms of my campaign, I want it to be a very inclusive campaign. I want it to be inclusive of all people, all races and genders."
But while Shah may have a good reputation in her community (she has long been a community activist and chaired Sharing Voices, Bradford's leading mental health organisation), with around seven weeks until the election, can she really be a credible challenge to Galloway – even with prominent local Labour MP Khalid Mahmood "preparing the groundwork" for her?
"What George Galloway does is he plays on people who aren't very involved in politics and brings out a narrative that plays into that," she insisted. "One of the biggest narratives he uses is foreign policy, and uses that platform. Because he is very vocal – you can't deny that the guy is a world-class orator – and he has that respect. But beyond that there's nothing else, there's no substance."
She added: "He was divisive in his approach, and he was pretty poor – he has no leadership at all."
Shad actually voted – and even campaigned – for Galloway in the 2012 by-election. She told BuzzFeed News that disillusionment set in when she "didn't see him" in the constituency: "He's the second highest-paid MP, and his salary doesn't come from Bradford. Bradford is just a platform for him."
It's a story that isn't uncommon for many former Galloway supporters.
Less than a year after he won in the constitutency, all five of the Respect party's councillors resigned, accusing Galloway of absenteeism, defamation, and not being open about his political ambitions. Some former Galloway voters, including a number of young women, told BuzzFeed News that Galloway was "a joke" and that he had "let all the people who voted for him down. He's done nothing."
Yet some within the Labour camp admitted that there was still "not a lot of confidence" about the party's chances. One source, who didn't wish to be named, said: "You can have the most amazing candidate in the world standing for Labour, and they'd still have no chance. The regional party is very angry at the NEC [National Executive Council] and a lot of Labour supporters have already admitted they're going to support George."
Indeed, while Respect may not perform as well this time around, many of Bradford's residents said they'd still vote for Galloway again. Ahmad, a local accountant who voted for him in 2012, told BuzzFeed News: "I like the man, you know. He says a lot of things no one else will say. Not Conservative, Labour, none of them."
Aaliyah Sadiq, a recent graduate, said that while she hadn't made her mind up yet, she'd likely vote for Galloway again.
"I don't really know who the other candidates are, to be honest with you," she said. Referring to Galloway's campaigns against Tony Blair, she added: "I'll probably vote for Respect, mainly because I believe in what they're saying about Iraq and Afghanistan."
Shah, however, seems unfazed, and believes it will be both her unique personal history and her passion to "inspire leadership" that will be the key to victory on 7 May.
"I think now, we just have to get on with it," she told BuzzFeed News. "I grew up in a harrowing environment, but even by my standards our kids won't be able to get on the property ladder. Their tuition fees will kill them. Let's look at those practical things. So what I'm saying is, look, I'm real, I'm a local person with a track record. It's not about the money, it's not about the big bucks, it's about making change in Bradford."
Hussein Kesvani is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Hussein Kesvani at Hussein.Kesvani@BuzzFeed.com.
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