by Yasmine El-Geressi
With the UK elections looming, Majalla spoke with George Grant, Conservative Party candidate for Bradford West, a constituency characterised by it’s large Muslim population, clan-based political system, and passionate contests.
Why did you choose to get into politics?
Well, that is a very interesting question. I was a foreign correspondent in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi and through that I got to know the former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind. I already had a strong interest in politics and I was planning on standing at the tender age of thirty which I did in 2015 but he very much convinced me that I should do so. In terms of why actually politics – basically I have a set of views, a set of values, about my country and the sort of society that I want to see. I know that if you don’t step up and fight for those things then someone else will fill the space that you vacate and they may well have very different views to yourself.
Bradford West is home to a large Pakistani Muslim community, what are the needs and interests of the local people and how do you intend to address them?
I don’t try to operate on the basis of the Muslim community and their needs and interests, or the Hindu community and their needs and interests, or the Christian community and their needs and interests, or the white community. I find that very counterproductive. That is completely the wrong way to go about politics and in fact part of the problem that we have in Bradford is that people operate on those communal, religious lines. I offer to represent my constituents on the basis of their membership of the United Kingdom as British Citizens and on the basis of their shared values with everybody else. I very much encourage everyone in Bradford and particularly from the Pakistani Muslim community to think in those terms because I think that is a much more productive way to build social cohesion in our country and get over some of the divisions that undoubtedly exist in our country.
The Biradari clan-based system was imported in the 1950s by the first Pakistanis that arrived in Bradford and has been exploited by the clans and the political party system to mobilize a block vote. How much does Biradari politics still have a hold on people in Bradford? What has your experience been and how have you managed to navigate the system?
Well look, it is dirty, dirty politics. I understand the historical routes of it and why it came about. When you have people coming to a country in which they are not familiar, they don’t understand the language, the customs, so on and so forth. People can guide and advise them in that new environment, it makes sense. However, today everyone in Bradford, whether they are of Pakinstani origin or any other, they all mostly speak the language and are every bit as empowered as everyone else. They can make their own decisions. You see it with Salma Yaqoob, the so called independent candidate. She claims to be an independent candidate fighting for Jeremy Corybn but the Labour candidate herself claims to fight for Jeremy Corbyn – so why is she standing? She is standing because the Biradari clan politics and the Biradaris don’t like Naz Shah for a whole host of reasons. It is all about personality. In fact, the way that they have conducted themselves in this campaign has been absolutely disgusting and every bit as bad as when George Galloway tainted Bradford West with his presence in 2014/2015.
Do you think that personality politics has deflected from the more serious issues?
Unquestionably. And what I would say to everyone in Bradford West, although I doubt there are many amongst your readership, is actually that if you want to have more influence from your MP for the benefit of your constituency, not only does the MP need to ideally be part of the governing party – because it is at government level that things really change, be it tax, health, education, so on and so forth – but also they have got to take the interests and needs of their constituency out into Westminster where those decisions are being made.
Throughout the years Bradford West has been largely dominated by the Labour Party. What are you are offering your constituents to sway their votes?
When all is said and done what matters most at the end of the day is the economy, it is no less true for being said so often. If you haven’t got a strong economy then everything else is a moo point frankly because you can’t pay for the essential public services on which so many people depend. So, what are we offering. We are offering a party that has helped generate the strongest growing economy in the developing world for the past three years, that has helped bring unemployment down to the lowest level in 42 years. You compare that with Labour where unemployment has ended higher than when it began under every single Labour government in history. But also, at the other end, there have been massive increases in the minimum wage. The second part of this is what I already mentioned to you. The people of Bradford want to have an MP who can have influence and that MP needs to be part of a team, and the only team that matters in parliament is that of the government. Whatever these jitters in the polls say I think it is almost certain that we will have a Conservative government in Westminster. So, the Bradford people have to ask themselves who is going to better have the ear of the Prime Minister – A Conservative MP with a Conservative Prime Minister or another opposition MP? And as for the so called independent candidate, the ex-Respect leader Salma Yaqoob, her motto is a strong independent voice. I say to people in Bradford that that is just a lone voice in the wilderness which if she were elected it would be exactly what she would be, singing on some forgotten corner of the opposition backbenches, eloquently perhaps, but her predecessor George Galloway was eloquent and was able to achieve nothing because no individual MP can on their own.
You mentioned the polls. When Theresa May called the elections, a landslide victory was expected. Over the past few weeks the polls have been tightening, why has that been the case in your view?
Look, I think that the Conservatives have made a few mistakes with the way that we have run this campaign, but also what has frightened me is that people always say that they want honesty from their politicians, well quiet often, and I say this humbly, I dispute that. Whenever politicians try to be honest with people such as the Prime Minister was with the hard decision over social care, people turn around and bite her arm off. Jeremy Corbyn has specialised in promising absolutely every conceivable thing to everyone. I mean he is going to borrow an extra quarter of a trillion pounds, he is going to nationalise everything in sight, he is going to abolish tuition fees, he is going to raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour. He is going to do all these things and he is going to eliminate the deficit within five years. It is just so fanciful but it seems that there are a number of people who are willing to believe whatever it is that they want to hear. I think finally I would say that if you consider the Prime Minister began this campaign at her zenith and Jeremy Corbyn at his nadir, there really was only one way they could travel – one up and one down. I think we are in a situation where you know the positon is not as strong in the polls as we would like. That being said, you can’t take anything for granted. I am confident that we will emerge on Friday morning with strong majority.
Following the recent terror attacks in the UK, ethnic minority integration has shot up the political agenda. Theresa May has called for better integration of minority communities as one of the solutions to combating terrorism. Considering Bradford has been named one of the least integrated areas in the UK, what will you do to promote social cohesion?
Following Saturday’s bloody terror attack in London, the second against our country in as many weeks, it is absolutely right and proper that election campaigning continue and that the General Election not be postponed. If I have learned one thing about these people in the experiences I’ve had – observing them, talking with them, being targeted by them, and speaking to those of them who have renounced that path – it is that they hate us for who we are, nothing less.
What they want is to divide us against ourselves, to the point where Muslims feel they can no longer live in peace with those from other faiths and none in the United Kingdom, but that a state of war must necessarily exist between us. This we cannot let happen.
According to their retrograde and barbaric interpretation of Islam, only by exterminating every single aspect of what they deem ‘un-Islamic’ can their envisioned society be brought about. And make no mistake, that means everything about our country that almost all of us consider of any value, not to mention almost all of us.
And do not be taken in by the lies that it is our foreign policy that has caused all of this. They don’t want to exterminate us because of our foreign policy, any more than they wanted to exterminate the Yazidis because of their foreign policy, or the Kurds, or the people of Sweden and Germany because of theirs. Certainly, our foreign policy has made many people angry, and in many parts of the world it has failed (although its many successes go largely ignored), but do not believe that they wouldn’t want to exterminate us if we changed our approach.
Nor do they hate us because of any single aspect of our domestic policy agenda, albeit there are many areas in how we are presently attempting to confront terrorism as a society that are deeply flawed.
It is simply all of us that they hate, and everything about us. And if you profess to be a Muslim, then they hate you even more. Because even worse than the enemy is the collaborator, and to them anyone willing to coexist in a state of peace and friendship with their fellows in our country is most assuredly a collaborator.
And that is why it is so important that at times like these we emphasize our common values as a society and do not allow the rhetoric of ‘them and us’ to take hold. It is also why we must resist any encroachments on our civil liberties that are not absolutely necessary.
But it is also why we all need to play our part. It is no good saying, “these people are nothing to do with us”: they quite clearly are. They quite clearly are to do with all of us.
That is why the most important and practical reaction to this threat – and this is not a platitude – is to learn to trust each other better. To do that we need to better recognize not only our shared values as citizens of this country, but also our shared interests.
That means trusting the security services are there to protect you, not to persecute you, and reporting anything or anyone you deem suspicious. It means trusting that there is more that unites us than divides us as citizens of this country, whatever our faith or political persuasion, and that is far too often forgotten.
Finally it means celebrating our shared interest in life, because whenever anyone is tempted to offer any kind of quarter to these people, never forget that they want you dead.
The Labour Party have pledged to abolish tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats have proposed policies to get young people on the property ladder. What are the Conservatives offering to appeal to young people?
We are offering young people a life, that is what we are offering young people. Unemployment in this country is at its lowest levels since records began and that includes youth unemployment. Now you look across much of Europe and you see youth unemployment hitting 50% so ultimately the most important thing for young people is having the prospect of a job to go into. I think it is the most important thing that we can offer any young person. Beyond that, Labour said that they are going to abolish tuition fees, as I say I think they are promising all sorts of things that they can’t deliver. Don’t forget when Nick Clegg made his famous apology for the Liberal Democrat u-turn on tuition fees, people think that he apologised for raising tuition fees, in fact he didn’t. He apologised for making a promise that he couldn’t keep in the first place. He made a promise in opposition, he got into government, and he realised it was untenable and he u-turned. That was what he was apologising for and it doesn’t surprise me that someone like Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t learned that lesson and he has been an activist all his life. What I will say on tuition fees is that I actually think that it is a fair policy because what we are not asking is for people to pay the money upfront, we are only asking for people to pay once they have graduated on the basis of what they can afford it. So, if you leave University and you start a job in a charity say, and you are earning under £18,000 you will not pay a penny. If you earn £24,000 you maybe pay £5 or £10 pounds a month. Only when you land a dream job with Goldman Sachs and you are earning a significant amount do you pay it all back and I think that is absolutely fair. You know there are studies that show that graduates earn over the course of their lifetimes half a million pounds more than non-graduates, and I think that should be paid for by the beneficiary. But as I say we do it in a way that they can afford it, it is not something that the bailiffs come knocking on your door demanding money whether you have it or not. You only pay if you can afford it and so wealthier people will pay more and people who are on lower incomes will pay less and I think that is absolutely progressive and it is a policy that I am proud to stand behind.
With only two days to go, what is the feeling on the doorstep?
I think that the mood is solidifying towards the Conservatives. I had exactly the same thing last time. You speak to undecided voters and they say I can’t make my mind up between Labour and the Conservative, and you ask them -you don’t lead them on – but you ask them who do you trust on the major issues, which are the economy, Brexit, defence and security, Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn? The answer comes back, well not Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May. So, I think that the pollsters may need to get ready to apologise to a second time.