Monday, April 18, 2011

Zuffar Haq: The ideal candidate for Leicester South

“It’s Lord Bonkers!” cried a voice as I entered the Lib Dem campaign office for the Leicester South by-election on Saturday. The voice had a Dudley accent, so I assume it belonged to my former Harborough District Council colleague Phil Knowles. He will be Spoken To.

A busload of activists had arrived from London earlier in the day and been sent off to the leafy suburb of Knighton. So I set off with our candidate Zuffar Haq to make sure they were not lost or dehydrated and lend them a hand.

It was a lovely sunny afternoon and most sensible people had gone out for the day, so I did not learn a great deal about the way the campaign is going. But I heard enough to know that in Zuffar we have the ideal candidate for Leicester South.

I first became aware of him when he started appearing on regional television news as a campaigner on Leicester health issues. This was before I knew Zuffar was a Liberal Democrat, but I was impressed even then by how calm and personable he was. Later I was to get to know him well when he became our parliamentary candidate in Harborough.

But in Leicester South he seems even more in his element. He grew up and went to school in the constituency – even in the short time I was with him we came across the father of someone with whom he had been at Lancaster Boys (the school that featured in Gareth Malone’s series “Boys Don’t Sing”). I also heard him slip into Punjabi to speak to an elderly Asian voter.

Zuffar is also a businessman and he is known across Leicester for his charitable work – for more on that see a blog post by Mark Pack.

While I was with Zuffar one Conservative supporter, quite unprompted, said he would be voting tactically for us. But then the Tory vote is soft in this constituency. Considering that the Conservatives held Leicester South between 1983 and 1987, their distant third place in the 2004 by-election was a poor result.

Leicester South is a very mixed constituency, but it does contain some of the most attractive suburbs in the East Midlands. These, at least, ought to be natural Tory territory. More generally, the Conservatives’ failure to make progress in attracting votes from the city’s Asian communities – with their beliefs in family and business – is a condemnation, above all, of that party’s lack of vision.

Labour voters, meanwhile, are surely being taken for granted. To the outside observer, most of the party’s energy in Leicester is devoted to its internal faction-fighting. And their candidate Jon Ashworth, Ed Miliband’s PR man, has been parachuted in from outside the constituency - worse than that, from Nottinghamshire.

This is a stark contrast with Zuffar whose grandfather came to Leicester in 1919 and whose father helped establish the city's first mosque. (And if you think having a local candidate is not an issue, you should ask the views of some of the Leicester Labour bigwigs who were kept off the shortlist to ease Ashworth's path to the nomination.)

Zuffar told me he believes that the Asian community’s previous automatic support for Labour is breaking down. I heard him tell younger Asian votes to google “Zuffar Haq health” or “Zuffar Haq charity” to see what he is about.

This is an odd by-election in that it is taking place in parallel with Leicester’s first Mayoral election, and that contest is getting more media attention. And there are only five candidates standing in Leicester South against eleven in the citywide Mayoral contest.

This suggests to me that, with a strong candidate like Zuffar Haq, there is a chance for the Liberal Democrats to slip under the political radar and achieve a better result in Leicester South than most commentators expect.

So do come to Leicester South to help Zuffar Haq. Your time will be well used. And it you want to know how to find the campaign HQ or where to eat and drink, an earlier post of mine can help.

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2 comments:

Sunder Katwala said...

Jonathan,

Good luck with your campaign, though I am confident Jonathan Ashworth will do very well for Labour, precisely by not taking the voters for granted.

Nice blog, and use of the local roots card for an Asian candidate against the Nottinghamshire "outsider".

However, I am rather sceptical, because there is an important and serious point about why the LibDems have retained an all white parliamentary party, and haven't been able to emulate the Conservatives in the last decade in breaking that pattern.

The LibDems (perhaps because of this localist argument) have a consistent pattern of selecting non-white candidates mostly where they reflect a large section of the local community - ie, ethnic faces for ethnic voters, with lots of candidates concentrated in East London, Birmingham and Leicester, and very few in places the party expects to compete and win.

This is problematic in various ways (and almost constituencies are majority/plurality white). One of the ways it is problematic is that the LibDems very rarely win such seats, excepting only the leicester by-election which was not retained at the general election. Overall, there is a meritocracy barrier, which the Conservatives have overcome by not being nearly so reluctant as the LDs apparently are to select non-white candidates in seats like Witham, Huntingdon.

Labour does win BME seats regularly, but has also had non-white MPs in Gloucester and Middlesborough, and selects BME candidates in over 10% of selections in all kinds of seat.

So placing so much emphasis on "he's not from round here" is a bit double-edged for the LibDems. I gave evidence to the Speakers Conference on this: this Guardian commentary contains constructive analysis of why the LDs are stuck on this if localism is always trumps so non-white MPs are seen as representatives of particular types of constituency only.

Jonathan K said...

I'm sorry, but I can't see how this focus on proportion of people being "white" or "non-white" helps anything. Either you are implying that the LibDems are openly avoiding giving places (like Gloucester and Middlesborough) to minority candidates due to some kind of desire to keep the party all white or that they should actively recruit people based on their racial self-description. The former option would be hard to prove as I'm utterly convinced it's not true, the latter would be running contrary to the principles of a meritocratic party.

What's more, doesn't it say more about the Lib Dems that Jonathan here focussed on Mr. Haq's ties to the area and his charitable work? The Lib Dems focus on local issues, they can't so easily act like Labour and parachute in someone from Westminster, because they know they won't automatically get a large chunk of votes even if a Yorkshire pudding was their candidate (well, maybe not in Lancashire).

But using statistics in this way seems to me that you're backing up an implication that the Lib Dems should use race as a campaign tactic, if not they look racist or at least fuddy-duddy and conservative.
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Comparing Lib Dems to Labour I find that Labours bare-faced refusal to back any candidate from an Estonian background appalling. A stubborn form of localism (or even nationalism) encourages them to plump for candidates with a far more British or at least Commonwealth background. Lembit Opik's former ability to appeal to a Welsh constituency is a credit to the Liberal Democrats.

(this is meant to be ironic. don't quote me, especially not on that last bit)