London’s first Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan on his visit last year to Pakistan was received as nothing less than a celebrity in his homeland. The 45-year-old son of a bus driver was touted as an immigrant success story when he elevated himself to the rank of mayor of western Europe’s largest city.
Though he took a different route, his rise is rivalled only by Sajid Javid, coincidently another son of a Pakistani-born bus driver. Currently, Javid is Home Secretary but bookies’ favourite to become next prime minister. Such a high promotion within the Tory party for a Pakistani immigrant’s son or daughter has not been seen since Baroness Sayeeda Warsi became the party’s chairperson and the first Muslim woman in the British cabinet.
London has the most diverse workforce: 40 per cent of the population in London belong to a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BME is used to describe people of non-white descent in the UK) background. Whereas this diversity is not equally reflected in leadership positions, slowly but surely, progress is visibly underway .
Pakistani-origin Britons have a history of rising among the ranks in UK’s local bodies politics and the number of elected councillors has almost doubled recently
Recently, a large number of Pakistani-origin candidates were elected as councillors in all parts of the UK; a dozen of them were elected as mayors and lord mayors after recent local council elections. The number has almost doubled since the first Pakistani-origin lord mayor was elected in 1985.
Those elected include a directly-elected mayor of London Borough of Newham and a powerful leader of a council in another North London borough.
The rise in numbers is seen as a stepping stone for many Pakistani-origin politicians who want to emulate the success of Sadiq Khan.
The most significant among the newly-elected Pakistani-origin councillors is Rokhsana Fiaz. As Mayor of Newham, she has become the first directly-elected female mayor of any London borough.
Newham includes many areas which have substantial Asian populations, such as shoppers’ favourite Green Street, East Ham, Forest Gate, Stratford and West Ham — home to the Tablighi Jamaat’s London Markaz and the proposed site for a multi-thousand capacity mosque.
Backed by Momentum, a grassroots left-wing pressure group within the Labour Party which supports Jeremy Corbyn, Fiaz unseated Sir Robin Wales, who was deselected by the local Labour Party during the nomination process in March 2018.
Wales had ruled Newham for 23 years — first as a Labour council leader and then as directly-elected mayor when the role was created in 2002. Under his leadership, Newham has seen great transformation, not least because of the regeneration that came with the 2012 Olympics, which saw what is now known as the London Stadium built in the borough.
Fiaz, who won with 53,214 votes against Rahim Khan of the Conservative Party who got only 8,627 votes, hopes to hold a referendum during her four-year term and abolish the system of directly-elected mayors which she thinks is “too top-down, too hierarchical” and “may not necessarily be the best model.”
In the system of directly-elected mayors, which is implemented in some London boroughs, the mayors are the political leaders of the council and have overall responsibility for council policy and the delivery of services.
Mayors appoint a cabinet of no more than 10 councillors and decide their portfolios. The cabinet can be made up of different political parties. The London boroughs of Tower Hamlet, Lewisham, Hackney and Newham follow the system while in the rest of the boroughs, the mayor is elected indirectly by the councillors and does not have any responsibility for policymaking or service delivery. The leader of the council is instead responsible for that and it is the leader of the majority party in the council who appoints a cabinet.
The second important success for Pakistanis came in the London Borough of Brent where councillor Arshad Mahmood became mayor after last month’s elections. Brent already had Mohammad Butt as the leader of the council.
Similar successes were gained in: Luton, where Nasim Ayub succeeded her husband councillor Muhammad Ayub as the mayor; Doncaster, where Majid Khan was sworn in as the new mayor; and Worcester, where Jabba Riaz and Allah Ditta started their tenure as mayor and deputy mayor respectively.
When Mohammad Ajeeb was elected as Bradford’s Lord Mayor in 1985, it was big news among the Pakistani-origin diaspora living in the UK. Mohammad Ajeeb was the first Pakistani to rise to such a high office in British local bodies politics. His achievement were celebrated not only among the Asian community but the reverberations were felt back home in Pakistan, too.
Mohammad Ajeeb recalls his visit to Pakistan after he was elected Bradford’s Lord Mayor: he was given a protocol to match a head-of-state’s reception. Not only was he given audience by the then Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo but he was also invited by the then military dictator Ziaul Haq to the Army House.
With a higher profile in the council and party politics you can do your casework more effectively,” says outgoing mayor of Slough Ishrat Shah.”
Celebrating Mohammad Ajeeb’s achievement suited Zia’s domestic agenda as he sought to prop up national political leadership through local government elections in 1979 and 1983 and the non-party national elections in 1985.
Despite the presence of a fairly large number of Pakistani-origin families in the industrial town of Bradford, the election of Mohammad Ajeeb in the Labour Party-dominated Bradford council was mainly due to his own work in trade union activism in British Rail.
Mohammad Ajeeb was not an isolated example of the rise of the Pakistani diaspora to the office of the first citizen of a borough council. His rise was soon followed by the election of Mohammad Khan as mayor in the London Borough of Waltham Forest in 1986, an East London council with a substantial Asian population.
After a gap of one year, Raja Mohammad Razzaq was elected Mayor of High Wycombe in 1988. While Mirpur-born Mohammad Ajeeb was elected Lord Mayor from the platform of the Labour Party, Bhimbar-born Razzaq was the first Pakistani-origin Conservative Party mayor in England. Both of them belonged to the generation of British-Pakistanis who arrived in Britain in the 1950s. While trade union activism brought Mohammad Ajeeb to mainstream British politics, it was close associations with the Conservative Party leadership, which made the Razzaq’s journey easier.
After arriving in the old English city in 1959, Razzaq had married a local girl and factory co-worker in 1962. Razzaq, who was first elected as a councillor in High Wycombe District Council in 1975, remained active in local bodies politics for around 10 years after completing his term as mayor before retiring in 1999. His widow, Valerie Razzaq, was elected to the mayoral office of High Wycombe in 2007, around 20 years after her late husband.
“In the 1980s, political parties encouraged more and more candidates from Asian backgrounds to stand for local council elections,” writer and poet Mazhar Tirmizi who saw it all happening tells Eos. “And when the number of Pakistani-origin councillors started increasing, local leaders of both Labour Party and the Tories felt the need of giving them some kind of recognition. Their election as mayors and deputy mayors was a result of that consideration.”
“Initially, councillors with good communication skills and those active in the community were given preference but, later, the influence of biradari politics started playing a role in the election of mayors in parts of England. In some cases, like in Derby, Jatts and Rajputs — two major biradaris among the British-Pakistanis hailing from Azad Kashmir — took turns in election to the office of mayor,” he says.
The election of Pakistan-origin Britons as mayors and lord mayors continued in the 1990s. Raja Qurban Hussain was elected the Lord Mayor of Sheffield in 1993. He was followed by Meher Khan, a Karachi-born British-Pakistani, who was elected as Mayor of Waltham Forest in 1994, and Kotli-born Mohammad Ashraf who became the first citizen of Luton in 1995. Councils like Waltham Forest, Luton, Oldham and High Wycombe saw many more Pakistani-origin mayors.
In Bradford, the election of Muhammad Ajeeb was followed by that of Ghazanfar Khaliq (2001), Naveeda Ikram (2011), Khadim Hussain (2013) and Abid Hussain (2017), while Birmingham — Europe’s biggest local council — saw the election of Mahmood Hussain (2002), Chaudhry Abdul Rashid (2008) and Shafiq Shah (2014) as Lord Mayors.
Muhammad Afzal Khan was the first Pakistani-origin Lord Mayor of Manchester and was followed by Naeemul Hassan who was elected Lord Mayor of Manchester in 2013.
In nearby Rochdale, Sultan Ali and Zulfiqar Ali remained mayors in 2003-2004 and 2010-2011 respectively. Similarly, in Derby, Abdul Rahman, Fareed Hussain and Shiraz Hussain were elected to the office of mayor in 1998, 2013 and 2014 respectively.
The story of those Pakistani-born Britons who tried to convert their mayoral honours into a parliamentary career begins with Muhammad Ajeeb, the first Pakistani-origin Lord Mayor in England and Wales. He was an aspirant for a Labour Party ticket from Bradford North parliamentary constituency when it became vacant after the death of Pat Wall in 1990. But he was narrowly defeated in the selection meeting by Terry Rooney. Though Muhammad Ajeeb was unfortunate in this regard, many British-Pakistanis made this journey successfully. Labour Party politician Muhammad Afzal Khan became Lord Mayor of Manchester in 2005 and succeeded in getting elected as Member of European Parliament to represent North West England in 2014. When House of Commons constituency Manchester Gorton became vacant after the death of Gerald Kaufman, Khan was given a Labour Party ticket and he won the seat comfortably.
Qurban Hussain was elected a deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat Group in the Luton Borough Council in 2003 which brought him into the political limelight. He was subsequently made a member of the House of Lords in 2011 after the Liberal Democrats party joined the coalition government with the Conservative Party in 2010.
Imran Hussain, member of the House of Commons from Bradford West was also deputy leader of the Labour Group in the Bradford Council before his election as a member of parliament.
House of Lords member Lord Nazir Ahmad and House of Commons member Muhammad Yasin could not get high offices of mayor or leader of the council but both of them started their political careers as councillors in Rotherham and Bedfordshire councils.
Jhelum-born Rafique Malik was elected Mayor of Burnley in 2000 and completed his one-year tenure successfully. He could not make it to the parliament himself but his son Shahid Rafique Malik won a House of Commons seat from Dewsbury in 2005. In 2007, Malik became Britain’s first Muslim cabinet member as International Development Minister. Subsequently, he served as a Justice Minister, Home Office Minister and, most recently, as Minister for Race, Faith and Community Cohesion at the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Lord Mayor and Mayor are ceremonial titles as the holders of these offices don’t wield any real authority in the running of the borough in terms of control on its functionaries and development funds, as is the case in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia. However, election of immigrants to these ceremonial offices gives them a sense of belonging and the confidence to aspire for higher political goals.
“Though ceremonial in nature, the office of mayor suited them [the office holders] as it gave them a lot of prestige back home and they rubbed shoulders with the high and mighty when they visited their homeland,” says Akbar Dad Khan who runs a community group called Building Bridges.
“It also suited local leaders of political parties as they were satisfying their urge without giving them anything meaningful,” he adds.
But Ishrat Shah, the outgoing mayor of Slough and councillor for Farnham Ward, disagrees. “With a higher profile in the council and party politics you can do your casework more effectively,” she says. “Your status as the first citizen of the borough opens new doors for you, in whichever capacity you want to serve your community.”
Things seem to be changing fast in British politics at the local level and this is evident from the enthusiasm among the local party activists.
“While the people from the first generation of Pakistani immigrants were happy with the ceremonial offices in local councils, the second generation, or the children of the early immigrants who were born and educated here, want real power to run their communities,” says a Birmingham-based local activist. “While the generation of my father and uncles was happy with the bare bone, the young people of my generation are not happy with this tokenism. We want meat on that bone as well,” he says.
The writer is a former Dawn staffer
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 8th, 2018