Published on Progress on 21st July 2015.
The Labour party leadership contest is a hot mess. What began as a promising debate about the future has now become a political middle that Labour has always been prone to in its century-long history. As the Tories capitalise on their famous victory with ‘tanks on Labour’s lawn’, these are desperate times for the Labour party.
Back in the 1980s, when Labour was just as desperate – suffering successive defeats at the hands of Margaret Thatcher – the right proclaimed victory for conservatism. So when New Labour emerged in 1990s, the left impulsively perceived it as ‘Thatcherism 2.0’ and attacked its advocates for conspiring against socialism.
Yet it was not small-state conservatism that destroyed the socialist left. Rather, it was a rejection of the future – technological advance and globalisation – that prompted the public to ditch socialism. As a result, millions who sought a progressive alternative, or merely a government with a heart, were left stranded in a society defined by Thatcher.
It took the emergence of New Labour to reverse that logical error and for Labour to be trusted to govern again. Today, trade unions ask not how we would reopen coal mines, but how we can work with businesses to create the jobs of the future.
Much of this ‘centre-ground’ rationale has been accepted by the mainstream candidates. To different extents, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall all recognise that, if Labour wants to win again, it can no longer be anti-business and must be trusted to run the economy.
But being credible on the economy is not just about winning elections, it is about putting the country first.
As Tristram Hunt argued in Progress last week, the Labour party, like declining social democratic parties worldwide, is losing that emotional touch with the people.
Our Labour values must connect to a more obvious sense of national identity.
That obvious sense of national identity, I believe, begins with having common sense with the national finance.
Labour lost the 2015 election because it conceded the centre-ground which, as much as the hard left (or the hard right) refuses to believe, is not an ideological construct. It is a political space occupied by those who simply say: You wouldn’t trust a dodgy car salesman with your money, so why should the taxpayer trust a political party that cannot look after public finances?
Labour must present a sensible business plan for Britain if it has any interest in governing. The trouble for some on the left is that they are losing sight of government as they endorse Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, they return to their comfort zone, utter buzzwords that would win applause but never an election, and speak a language of ‘solidarity’ and ‘struggle’ that the country does not understand.
This takes us back to the beginning of the contest – what seems like years ago already – when Burnham said ‘the party comes first always’ in the BBC Newsnight debate, and Kendall quipped instinctively, ‘the country comes first.’
Instincts say a lot about leaders, still more about political leaders. Kendall’s campaign has been by far the boldest and most credible of all so far – the backing of the well-regarded Alistair Darling further confirms that. Yet, even if Kendall fails to win, she will have done the party a service by reminding them ‘the country comes first.’ It is a basic condition for a party of government, one that Labour has forgotten for far too long.
Until Labour puts the country first, the country will never put the party first on the ballot paper.
Whatever it takes, the Communist Party will not let Chinese capitalism fall
Published on Backbench on 20th July 2015.
‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ was how Deng Xiaoping, the leader who reformed and opened up China’s economy, described his vision for the country.
Earlier this month, with the stock market in meltdown, China’s economy was closer to capitalism with socialist characteristics. With trillions of dollars down the drain, the government fisted its very visible hand at the market violently. Over 50% of stocks were suspended, as state-owned companies were barred from selling their shares. The Communist Party was fighting to save capitalism.
Some have compared today’s China to the Wall Street Crash in 1929. I believe Chinese investors will seek comfort in an example of successful state intervention closer to its historic and geographical proximity – Hong Kong during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis – when the government there took decisive action and protected its currency from speculators led by George Soros, who ‘broke the Bank of England’ with currency speculation just five years before.
For sure, China’s heavy handed approach has deviated from its expected direction of travel towards a more liberal economy. However, as the Chinese Communist Party legitimises itself by performance, the political incentive to intervene always overrides the economics. With more stock traders than Communist Party members now in China, the Party cannot afford to upset a market that only expects gains, irrational as it may be, for the sake of its survival.
When I visited China just over a month ago, it was a different world. The China Dream was going global, with the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the emergence of ‘One Belt, One Road’. We were told about the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ as we were greeted by officials. 2015 was destined to be China’s year.
In particular, the establishment of the AIIB itself was a resounding political win for Beijing. Britain’s determined entry to the AIIB, against the wishes of Washington, was the game changer, as only then did other western countries follow suit. This is a personal achievement no smaller for Chancellor George Osborne than his landmark Budget last week.
By contrast, last week’s intervention by the Chinese government will damage confidence in the nation, and cast doubt over President Xi Jinping’s ability and seriousness about carrying out essential economic reforms, the building block of his China Dream. In a recent report published earlier this month, the World Bank warned China over its ‘distorted incentives’ in the financial market, and highlighted that 95% of high-level bank assets were owned by the government.
Pundits hostile to China have long expected an economic meltdown, followed by a political upheaval marking the collapse of the Communist Party. David Shambaugh, an authoritative academic on Chinese affairs, boldly claimed in January, that ‘the endgame of Chinese Communist rule has now begun… its (the Communist Party’s) demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent.’
The China Dream is too big to fail, and the authorities in Beijing know that their fate depends on it. A slump in the stock market will not kill the Communist Party, but a lack of reform in response to its deep rooted problems might do. The future of the Chinese Communist Party future will depend on which way it turns at this crossroads.
An edited version was published on Independent Voices on 4 June 2015.
As night falls, our tour bus races on to Chang’an Avenue. The streetlights are slightly dimmed and tainted yellow. Barriers are everywhere, as if this country is perpetually on guard. Despite the neon lights and buzzing nightlife, it is a stomach churning feeling as I entered the city Beijing.
I have never been to the Chinese capital before, but these surroundings paint all too familiar a picture. This is the Beijing I recognise through documentaries and history books, the Tiananmen Square I travelled to many times through word of mouth and collective memory. This is the Beijing of 1989, where the People’s Liberation Army indiscriminately murdered students who protested for democracy during that feverish season.
I am in Beijing as part of an overseas Chinese delegation, invited by the Chinese government to exchange ideas over how best to support overseas Chinese. In truth, we all know there is a wider agenda at play, the narrative of ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ or ‘the China Dream’ – a phrase repeated at any given opportunity during the week-long trip, as we are showcased China’s latest innovation and most stunning sceneries.
This is President Xi JinPing’s flagship policy goal. It prioritises economic development and national strength over all other concerns, including human rights.
China’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate remains imprisoned, as rights activists are accused of overthrowing the state. The students of Tiananmen fall into the trashcan of history, and June 4th (known as ‘6.4’ in Chinese) propagated as an insignificant event in the shadow of the great achievements of the Communist Party.
Almost 2,000 kilometres away from Beijing, another battle for history and memory commences.
Over half a year since the beginning of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, the only place in China where Tiananmen vigils can legally take place, splits over how best to commemorate June 4th.
The younger generation of activists, some of whom refuse to be defined as Chinese, reject their predecessor’s alignment of Hong Kong’s democratic movement with China’s, and instead see June 4th as a caution of the Chinese government’s brutality, rather than a common struggle with their mainland counterparts.
But back in mainland China, the freedom to debate how or if we should at all remember June 4th is an extravagance. In recent days, messages started flowing in on my WeChat (main social media app in China), warning people that the internet police and Baidu (China’s largest search engine) are joining hands in censorship. These messages cautioned users not to share any satirical images to avoid sanctions against individual accounts or groups.
This is the Big Brother state, only cooler and richer than George Orwell could ever envisage. Worse, people actually believe in it.
Across China, people are content with the Communist Party’s legitimacy by performance. China’s economic growth lifted millions out of poverty and put pride back in the nation’s soul. However, as the tides of nationalism sweep across history, the memory of Tiananmen is slowly fading away, before eventually being wiped out of existence altogether.
That is why, 26 years on, it is all the more important that we learn the lesson of history, and to one day fulfil the dreams of those brave souls that sacrificed in Tiananmen Square – a freer country where people can fill their stomachs as well as speak their minds, with no cruel choice presented between the two.
Co-authored with my fellow co-founder at Quorum, Jonathan Lui. Published on Neehao Magazine on 8th April 2015.
The forthcoming election is the most unpredictable in living memory.
With the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck in the polls, and the ‘rise of the rest’ – emergence of smaller parties as contesting forces, British politics has never been so competitive and chaotic at the same time.
This presents an opportunity for all minority groups to have a voice, including the British Chinese community, of which we are from, whose concerns we want to highlight.
THE ‘SILENT MINORITY’
The Chinese community has a rich history in Britain. With over 400,000 citizens, the community represents the third largest ethnic group in the UK. Moreover, we are a community of high achievers. Recent sociological studies illustrate clearly that we perform exceptionally well in predominant sectors of society, including educational attainment and employment.
Yet for too long, British Chinese have been apathetic towards politics – more so than wider society. Only 35% of the British Chinese community are registered to vote compared to the national average of 92%. More significantly, there is only one British Chinese in the 750-strong House of Lords, and not a single MP in the democratically elected, 650-strong House of Commons.
Absent in the arena of debate and decision making, British Chinese fail to contribute to the policy making process. Be it in healthcare, education, law and order, race relations or any other area of interest, British Chinese is truly the ‘silent minority’ in our society.
That’s why we got together and founded Quorum – an online platform that visualises the power of the British Chinese vote through the medium of infographics, powered by our co-founder James Lo and his team at Tamar.
In this momentous election, we want to empower voters by providing all that you need to know in order to make your decision to vote, which could swing this election one way or another.
By creating cutting edge infographics, Quorum pinpoints where the British Chinese people hold the balance of power, converts complicated electoral and parliamentary procedures into simple diagrams, and reflects on the British Chinese community’s history and achievements in an interactive timeline.
BUILDING ON WHAT IS ACHIEVED
Quorum strives to serve as a facilitator – to enhance ongoing efforts on voter education and empowerment of the British Chinese community.
Through our varied and respective roles, we came to the realisation that it takes something refreshing to appeal for new audiences within the British Chinese population.
While existing British Chinese groups have done plenty of fantastic ‘on the ground’ work in local communities and Chinese community centres across the country, it is very difficult for these campaigns to speak to the younger generation, many of whom are first time voters and young professionals.
You, the ‘Google generation’, belongs to the online world. That is where we are meeting you.
Yes, politics is important. But it is very often a dull business to deal with. That is why we want to simplify complicated procedures, crunch through loaded facts and figures in all the party manifestos, and explain them in plain English at your service – what we call ‘Manifesto crunch’.
Whether you represent a political or non-political organisation, whether you are speaking on behalf of a business or just as an individual, so long as you back our idea, we are happy to share our infographics with you to further our cause.
START SMALL, THINK BIG
Every great idea begins with something trivial, often with just a handful of people. It is the many supporters who are inspired by the idea that make the idea great.
That is our vision. First hundreds, then thousands, Quorum will empower British Chinese voters across the country. With your help, we will change the course of political apathy in the British Chinese community, and achieve the political representation we so desperately need.
Are you with us? Join us on our journey today.
After uploading a video criticising the late leader, Amos Yee found out what freedom really looks like in Singapore
Published on Independent Voices on 31 March 2015.
Published on Progress on 23 March 2015.
This week, Labour’s progressives convened in parliament, to discuss an emerging political agenda that is rising on the horizon – the politics of empowerment and ‘let it go’.
‘Let it Go: Power to the people in public services’ came on the back of a pamphlet of the same name co-authored by Liz Kendall, shadow minister for care and older people, and Steve Reed, shadow minister for crime prevention. The pamphlet is an attempt to lay out a new and radical vision, where government trusts and empowers people to make their own choices in public services.
Lessons of the Big Society
Every government talks about ‘power to the people’ and often falls short of this grand objective.
But none is as farcical as David Cameron’s ‘big society’. The temporarily ‘compassionate’ Conservatives flirted with the flagship programme, before ruthlessly sinking the ship in the early years of the coalition government.
The attempt to substitute ‘professionals with volunteers,’ as Steve pointed out, was an ideologically driven project to roll back the state. And as Lisa Nandy, shadow cabinet office minister argued, empowerment is a ‘huge challenge’ and a simplistic solution in the shape of big society was merely inadequate.
Ultimately, while the Tories wanted to utilise every opportunity to scale down the state, Labour’s progressives envisage a smarter state that is actively empowering people. Whereas the last Labour government enabled choice in the public sector, the next Labour government will need to empower people to make choices that shape services.
Start small, think big
We need to start small and think big. As Josh MacAlister, chief executive of Frontline, reminded us: change in public services will only come along with the ‘concentration of great ideas and great people.’ The academy programme only started with three schools, after all. Should we just take politics out of it all together, and let private and third sectors get on then?
No, said Hilary Cottam, founder of Participate. Although Hilary is a social entrepreneur, she does not believe politicians should just get out of the way, as the Tories claim. Instead, she argues that moving resources to where they need cannot be done without politics, and leadership from government is essential in order ‘to make change happen.’
Changing politics to change public services
In the end, politics needs to change in order for public services to change. For too long, we thought we could deliver orders down the pipeline, and the bureaucrats would transform the country accordingly. But unless we understand the centrality of politics of delivering big changes, ‘[Parliament] is full of levers with no strings attached. This cannot go on, and outside politics is changing,’ said Lisa, who was part of the 2010 parliamentary intake.
The politics of empowerment is therefore also about bringing politics to the contemporary world, where real people live and work, where they have no time for ancient parliamentary procedures. It is, as John Prescott would say, putting ‘traditional values in a modern setting.’ Both politicians and professionals need to learn to ‘let it go’ and let people make choices that fit their needs. That is the new politics of empowerment.