If first impressions are anything to go by, I shouldn’t be writing this post about Sophia Cannon, the woman who wants to take Bradford West off Gorgeous George. I first found out about her in a Grauniad piece, “Is Labour scared of George Galloway?” What raised my ire? When asked why she wanted to stand in Bradford West, she told the Guardian “Two words: Bethnal Green, 2005.” Great! I thought to myself This is just what we need – another ego who’s using us for self promotion & settle a score from London. This morning, Saturday, I got a Twitter DM: a phone number and “Call me!” which I did. The first thing Cannon told me: “I need you to stop using your infographic” on education. Who the fuck are you? sprang to my lips but she was already on to the next sentence and I didn’t get a chance to do much bar listen for quite a while. So, why am I writing a post about some pushy carpetbagger who wants a dust up with Gorgeous George? Education.
Recently, I’ve been banging on and on about education on Twitter, writing to MPs and Lords and councilors and all sorts of people. Why? Bradford’s education is awful. I’ll write more anon but Bradford’s the second worst local authority in the country for GCSE performance and was named and shamed by Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw as being one of only 13 LAs in the country which had less than 50% of schools rated as Good or better. It was this issue that put me on Sophia Cannon’s radar.
“Education’s my baby,” she told me, before launching into a potted history of how she was part of the team which devised, implemented and delivered the London Challenge through her work with the Canary Wharf Foundation, a scheme which saw London’s schools moving from amongst the worst to the best in the country. When’s it our turn? has been my burning question. Cannon’s answer is simple: as soon as she’s elected.
Speaking with her, it was immediately obvious that education is her passion. She told me about how education saved her life, the trials of being a bright but bad lass who went on to become a barrister thanks to the luck of being placed in a neighbouring authority’s good school which supported her, nurturing her talents and widened her horizons. She knows the benefits of a good education because she’s lived it.
What impressed me most, though, was her knowledge, understanding and experience of taking an area with a failing educational system and transforming. That is exactly what Bradford needs. And she doesn’t just know what the problem is, she fixed it elsewhere and is determined to replicate that success in Bradford.
George Galloway knows there’s a problem with education in Bradford: he campaigned on it in 2012, he’s said a few times that we need a Bradford Challenge, similar to London’s, and he’s a go-to-guy for quote whenever Bradford’s bottom of the pile again. But what’s he actually done?
Cannon, on the other hand, was part of setting up London Challenge, spoke passionately about getting finance, getting support, getting the politicians on side, getting sports teams, universities & business to play their part, and, most of all, getting education sorted. Galloway’s spoken about the London Challenge, no doubt, but Cannon’s done it.
Confronted by a mouthy firebrand with seemingly less than perfect reasons for wanting to represent me in parliament, you can understand my feeling of déjà vu – I’ve been there with George and, for me, it just hasn’t worked out how I expected. I saw in Galloway an opinionated, passionate man who would get in front of the camera and bang the drum about what’s great about Bradford, understand how it could be improved and get things changed. I’ve been disappointed. In Cannon, I see the same, but many differences. Sophia Cannon told me a lot about how she intends to represent Bradford West, and the differences between her intentions and Galloway’s style are stark.
Stressing that she’s not just about the party and will plough her own trough, she was blunt, even indiscreet, about her thoughts on other politicians, but it was her working relationship with key members of both front benches which impressed me: no matter what the make up of the next government, she knows the next education secretary, has worked with them and is able to influence them. (I know, I know, she says she is but is she really? – but we know that Galloway is firmly and proudly outside the tent pissing in and is not able to influence any party in that way; he told me as much when I wrote to him about education, stating that, clearly, he is powerless as Respect is not in government nationally or locally.) She is confident that, in parliament, she will be able to influence others, from the backbenches of the Labour party to the education secretary and up to the Lords, where her former boss, Oona King who endorsed her candidacy, sits.
Another way in which she differs from Galloway is that she has a good relationship with the press, both right and left wing. Galloway has complained, possibly with some justification, that, as an outsider, the press leave him alone or set him up. I wanted a known face with a strong voice to talk Bradford up and ensure we got what we need: what I’ve found is that, whenever Galloway’s in the press, it’s for reasons which make me disappointed, even ashamed, to have him representing me: angering rape victims, spats with former employees, stating Bradford’s an Israel-free zone, and telling the world not to come to Bradford to see the Tour de France all pissed me off. Have I heard him sing our praises, advertise our best bits or stamp his feet about our falling educational standards, unfair government cuts or show up the government for the way it treats us and the wider North? No. Cannon says she can and will.
My final points in favour of Cannon are odd to explain and justify: location, race, religion.
Firstly, she’s not a Bradford lass. To many, this is a negative – after all, shouldn’t Bradford’s future be in the hands of a Bradfordian? I think it’s a positive that she’s an offcomedun. The biggest thing the Labour Party could do to woo me back is to send in a serious candidate with experience and nous, to send in not the best Bradfordian but the best person – and, of course, she is free from the stain of Biridiri which, as we all know, is about all the national media knows about voting in Bradford. Known in political, educational and legal circles, Cannon wants to improve Bradford and leave a legacy. We’ve had empty shirts with a Bradford accent before – she’s something new and different and that’s what I want.
The second part is more touchy: I’m tired of the national media, when they hump their way up the M1 every election time, believing that Bradford is a city divided (viz Jemima Khan ‘outing’ Galloway’s supposed conversion to Islam). In part, it’s true – but does any multicultural city not, at least in part, struggle with diversity? What angers me is they come up with the firm idea that we’re ruled by Kashmiri clans who’ll never allow anyone but a favourite son get near the ballot paper, find a story to ‘prove’ it, take a gritty pic & piss of back down South for Pimms. What every commentator on Galloway’s election win said was, basically, that the whites won’t vote for an Asian and the Asians won’t vote for a non-Muslim (unless the other chap’s a drinker, nugdge, nudge). Bollocks. What nobody noted was that Bradford West’s last and very successful Labour MP was Marsha Singh, and he was neither white nor Muslim. What better demonstration that we vote on merit for the candidate we want, for the person and party who shares our ideals and rubbishing these harming, shameful claims of racial and religious divide than by returning once again a non-white, non-Muslim? You shouldn’t be voting for a person just because they share your skin tone or your God, but by returning Sophia Cannon, at least London’s papers will have to find another stick to beat us with.
In short, Sophia Cannon knows what the problems are, has been in similar situations before and has worked hard to fix them, and she’s not weighed down by Bradford baggage. Rude, brusque and demanding – yes – but maybe that’s what Bradford needs… but it’d be nice if she’d say ‘Please’.
But what about George? Perhaps he’s been just what we need in Bradford West. Like many other Respect voters, I cast my ballot for him in part to teach the local Labour Party a lesson: stop taking us for granted and send us someone worth voting for. Maybe Sophia Cannon could be George’s greatest legacy, after shocking the party, ensuring they never take us for granted again.
There are, of course, others in the running. I don’t know much about Nasreen Karim, and I’ll write more if find out; I was impressed with Naz Shah, a local campaigner on equality and domestic violence, as well as chair of a local mental health charity, for her pieces in the Urban Echo about the differences between reciting and understanding the Koran. Cannon, Karim or Shah would, probably, get my vote in May (especially as I’m disenchanted with and banned (seriously, he banned me) from voting for the incumbent).
On the other hand, Shakeela Lal and Naveeda Ikram, both serving Labour councilors in Bradford, are firmly in the mould of what’s come before and would demonstrate that Labour’s learnt nothing from Galloway’s victory. Although Ikram’s a former mayor (and Britain’s first female British-Asian to hold such a post) so has kudos , they are both party, local party and Bradford politics through and through… and we know how that faired last time. Surely even Labour, even Bradford Labour, couldn’t be so daft as to fall back into old ways after the damning Rowntree Trust report which slated it and its selection practices. Actually, when it comes to Bradford West, maybe it could.