Labour must learn ‘the country comes first’

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.

Quorum: Empowering British Chinese Voters

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.

WHY QUORUM?

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.

GOOGLE GENERATION

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.

CONTRIBUTE

Are you with us? Join us on our journey today.

Support Quorum by liking and sharing their Facebook and follow them on Twitter. Keep an eye on Quorum’s website, which will be constantly updated in the coming weeks.

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The Politics of Empowerment and ‘Let It Go’

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.

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Britain needs a Hong Kong policy

Published on Progress on 5 December 2014.

Seldom is Westminster this united. This week, as China threatens to bar British members of parliament from Hong Kong, parliamentarians condemn China in unison and urge the United Kingdom government to show more strength over Hong Kong’s democratic demands.

‘If you want to be a member of the G20, you have to behave like a member of the G20.’ Richard Ottaway, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, took aim at Beijing. The flame of fury burns across the political divide. China has ‘reneged’ on its commitments and ‘there is no other way of putting it’ said Tory John Baron, as Labour’s Mike Gapes mocked the Communist party for being ‘afraid’ ‘nervous’ and ‘worried’ over the MPs’ visit.

MPs are angry because this is not the first time China has insulted Britain recently. A week ago, China refused MP Richard Graham’s request for a visa over his unflinching support for the Umbrella Movement, forcing the cross-party delegation to abort their business trip. Even before the protests, China humiliated parliament by demanding MPs to halt their current review into post-handover Hong Kong, interfering in Britain’s ‘internal affairs’ – a phrase often used by Beijing to rebut criticisms by the west.

What are actually internal affairs of Hong Kong, however, are suffering from heavy interventions by China. Beijing barring MPs’ entry into Hong Kong illustrates once again the erosion of the city’s autonomy is not abating. As Ottaway stated, ‘immigration is a devolved matter … it’s not for China to ban them.’

China has, in effect, unilaterally declared the death of a solemn agreement it signed with Britain. As Chris Patten explained to the committee, whereas before 1997 Britain was obliged to China for a stable and peaceful handover, after this date ‘the obligations are now from China towards the UK’ on ensuring the completion of democratisation.

We need a Hong Kong policy, separate from our China policy. It must be clear and consistent in recognising Hong Kong’s unique status under the joint declaration. After all, Britain has an agreement with China over Hong Kong only, not Tibet or Taiwan. Hong Kong is a special case, where British interest does not amount to ‘interference’.

If David Cameron fails to deliver this policy, we should start thinking about this in the Labour party.

Hong Kong has been an awkward territory for Labour. It was Margaret Thatcher who signed the joint declaration, John Major who vowed to honour it, and Patten who threw himself into a tug of war with the Chinese for democratic progress in Hong Kong, of which many Hongkongers are still very grateful for.

For too long, we have turned a blind eye on China’s subversion of Hong Kong, as Labour ministers went along with Foreign Office officials’ strategy of avoiding conflicts with China at all cost. We, the party for the working people, should have been the first to denounce Beijing’s crony capitalism and the denial of Hong Kong people’s democratic rights.

We should also be creative in our foreign policy. For instance, why not get our message across via the European Union? As Tony Blair has repeatedly argued, ‘the rationale for Europe today is power.’ Surely we should leverage this power over an issue of this importance, and seek strength in our European allies?

Either way, Britain has a right and a responsibility to defend the seven million people it handed to China in 1997. Seventeen years on, with China breaking its promises, it is about time we remind ourselves of these obligations.

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Dave Whelan’s use of the word ‘chink’ is a reminder of the problems facing Britain’s Chinese population

We can no longer be the silent and invisible minority — we must have our voices heard, and faces seen

Published on Independent Voices on 24th November 2014.

Dave Whelan, the owner of Wigan FC, went out on a limb while defending his appointment of Malky Mackay as the club’s manager last week. According to him, it is “nothing” to call a Chinese person like myself a “chink“, or believe that “Jewish people do chase money more than everybody else“. As pressure piled from all quarters, Whelan eventually gave in and apologised.

This sounds all too familiar a script. Whenever a racist remark arises, it is defended as “banter“. Then the person involved would apologise to put out the fire. As a result, the right would grumble on about political correctness and the left would remain complacent in claiming victory over the episode.

Without belittling the extent of racism against other ethnic minorities, I have to say that our treatment has been particularly overlooked in the ongoing conversation regarding racial equality in the UK. Despite successive governments’ efforts to court the bureaucrats in Beijing, including a £14bn of trade and investment deals between UK and China signed earlier this year, local British Chinese are still being left behind.

While politicians call for more representation for Brits of all skin colours, British Chinese are somehow off the agenda. There are approximately 400,000 ethnic Chinese living in the UK, and large Chinese communities are found in many major UK cities. However, since Anna Lo, a Northern Irish Parliamentarian, announced her resignation earlier this year, there will be only one remaining MP of Chinese heritage in Parliament – Lord Wei of Shoreditch, the former Big Society tsar for the coalition government.

As well politics, the lack of Chinese people in areas such as the creative arts and the media is all too clear to see, especially on the silver screen. British Chinese characters are rare, and when they do appear, they’re almost always portrayed stereotypically. In the entire 30-year history of Eastenders there has only been one regular Chinese character – a young female DVD seller called Li Chang, who lasted just six months.

The British Chinese community is also thought to be one of the oldest Chinese communities in Western Europe, with the first Chinese having come from the ports of Tianjin and Shanghai in the early 19th century. Later on in the 20th century, the majority of net migration came from former British colonies such as Hong Kong and Malaysia.

But in spite of their numbers and history, British Chinese are not as recognised in the nation’s story as their British Indian, Pakistani and Black counterparts. For instance, the Chinese community in Birmingham, having rooted in the city for over 60 years, was only recognised as worthy to be part of the City’s history this year. Last month, the British Chinese Heritage Project was finally archived in the newly-built Library of Birmingham. It featured ordinary British Chinese people as well as Woon Wing Yip OBE, UK’s first Chinese tycoon; and Rayson Huang CBE, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. A first of its type in the West Midlands, it was created to capture the hidden histories of Birmingham’s Chinese community. The project was exhibited at the Picasso-housing Barber Institute of Fine Arts, prior to being permanently archived.

According to the BC Project, an ambitious programme that seeks to encourage participation of the Chinese community in politics, the British Chinese population accounts for 1 per cent of the country’s 60m in total. There has never been a Chinese MP in the House of Commons. The community also lags far behind other ethnic minorities when it comes to voting. It is estimated that 30 per cent of British Chinese people are not on the electoral register. This figure compares to 6 per cent of white Britons who are not registered. Without role models, it is difficult for young British Chinese to imagine themselves standing in Parliament, or casting as a lead character in a BBC drama. In turn, stereotypes of Chinese people will be indulged and further foster the stigma of racism.

As well as being thoroughly unpleasant, Dave Whelan’s comments remind us of how much more needs to be done on racial equality in this country – especially for “silent” communities like the British Chinese. If racism is to be reversed, the silent communities can be silent no more. From the halls of Westminster to TV studios to community centres, we need to hear a much wider range of voices be heard.

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A centre-ground alliance has re-emerged in Westminster, and there’s nothing unholy about that

Published on Backbench on 11th September 2014.

Progressives should welcome not fear the prospect of a Lib-Lab coalition

While all eyes are averted to Scotland, something strange emerged in London last week. An old alliance was made anew in Westminster, as Liberal Democrat MPs walked shoulder to shoulder with their Labour colleagues through the voting lobbies. Progressive politics is officially back in business.

Ever since Clegg jumped into bed with the Conservatives, there has been little love lost between Lib Dems and Labour. Indeed, last week’s collaboration in Westminster to strike down a policy the Lib Dems introduced would have been unthinkable just two months ago, before Danny Alexander performed a spectacular 360 degree turn on the ‘Bedroom Tax’, wooing Labourites by writing in the Daily Mirror. But now that the Lib Dems are embracing progressive politics once again, Labour should readily reengage with their old allies. Here’s why:

Think tactically: After five years of a Tory-led government, the idea of David Cameron as our Prime Minister for another five is not a pleasant prospect. Yet, our continuous acrimony against the Lib Dems could engender exactly that.Take Solihull as an example. It is the smallest Lib Dem majority in the country, where the incumbent Lorely Burt survived by the skin of her teeth in 2010 (with a majority of 175, 0.3% of votes cast). If Labour voters refuse to lend Ms Burt their support, the Tory candidate will seal the seat effortlessly. Now imagine this phenomenon occurring in all Lib Dem-Tory marginal constituencies where the Lib Dems enjoyed less than 10% majorities.This will amount to approximately 19 Lib Dem seats to the Tories, hindering the impact of prospective Labour gains. The logic is simple: we need to vote tactically in a First Past The Post system to have any meaningful influence. In Ed Balls’ words, we need to ‘bite our tongue’ to evict the Tories from Downing Street.

The travesty of betrayal: Many Labourites refuse to distinguish between Lib Dems and the Tories, and quite understandably so. At the last election, Lib Dems campaigned on a manifesto that was more left-wing than Labour, and then governed on the right of Labour. From the hypocrisy of Tuition Fees to the calamity that is the Bedroom Tax, the Liberal Democrats’ record in government amounted to one big betrayal. However, if we cast our mind back to the last general election, Labour was not in a position to offer the Lib Dems a deal for government; neither with its remaining number of MPs, nor the will to govern after 13 years in power. As Paddy Ashdown told Nick Robinson in Five Days that Changed Britain, “Our hearts went one way but the mathematics went another.” In the end, the Lib Dems opted for the difficult but practical solution of coalition, which in all fairness, is set to complete a full term in office against sceptical predictions. The Liberal Democrats may have compromised in certain policy areas, but they are not traitors of progressive values.

Coalition of centrists: Precisely because the Lib Dems have moved firmly into the centre (as this YouGov poll in July confirmed), the ground for a Lib-Lab deal is more fertile than ever. As David Miliband’s failed leadership bid demonstrated; the majority of Labour grassroots and MPs preferred a centrist alternative to his union-backed brother. The current Labour Party is therefore an uneasy coalition between centrist and left-leaning Labourites. This is why Ed Miliband is a proud advocate of heavy handed regulations in the energy market and the rent sector on the one hand and proponent of punitive measures on unemployed youths on the other. It is a complex mess of paradox that defies political gravity.

Conversely, in the parallel universe of a Lib-Lab coalition, Labour’s centrist majority will be able to tame the party’s left in the same way David Cameron attenuated the Conservative right over Same Sex Marriage. Even with just 40 Lib Dem MPs, Labour will have 40 more reasons to pursue sensible economic policies, such as keeping the top rate of tax at 45p and sticking to its commitment of running a surplus by the end of the next parliament. Labour will have 40 more reasons to reshape the state, but not according the left’s simplistic script of big government. It will establish an education programme that encourages competition and support for social mobility. It will begin a radical reallocation of welfare spending to those most in need; a redefinition of the welfare state that will save it from its contradictions. Labour will roll back the troublesome top-down reorganisation of the NHS, but increase the number of Foundation Hospitals, the success of which we hear so little from the frontbench today.

Notwithstanding Labour’s first and foremost commitment to a majority, if the electorate decide to deal Labour a bad hand next May (as it did with the Tories in 2010), it will be pointless to complain about the scarcity of Lib Dem MPs when we willingly surrendered their seats to the enemy. Besides, unlike the current coalition, there is nothing unholy about a Lib-Lab alliance. It will be a composed of conviction not convenience, and deliver both social justice as well as economic recovery. It is a cause worth fighting for. And if that involves voting with my head rather than my heart, let it be done.

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The freedom of Hong Kong is in Britain’s hands, and Cameron can only stay silent for so long

Published on Independent Voices on 3rd September 2014.

After 17 years of hunger for democracy, the bureaucrats in Beijing yesterday agreed to ‘one person, one vote’ for the seven million former British subjects in Hong Kong.

That is, of course, if you overlook the small print. While all registered voters will enjoy the right to vote for their leader in 2017, all candidates will be screened by a 1200-strong ‘nomination committee’, which will allow at most two to three candidates to compete. Furthermore, as the official press release stated, the elected candidate must be ‘a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong.’

In July, I criticised China’s assault on ‘One Country, Two Systems’ with its June White Paper, and suggested Britain has a moral responsibility for Hong Kong. Since then, the Deputy Prime Minister has promised to ‘mobilise the international community’ to hold China to account. Encouraging though it is, even this response now appears inadequate.

Human Rights Watch last week expressed its concern about Hong Kong citizens’ right to protest, as the police tighten its grip on the blossoming civil society. Still more alarmingly,People Liberation Army (PLA) armoured vehicles publically manoeuvred on busy streets, in stark contrast to the military’s conventional quiet existence. Attuned to the memory of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, China has long been cautious with its military presence in Hong Kong. This is therefore a significant chain of events that signals a policy amendment towards Hong Kong, the timing of which is both tantalising and threatening.

We would be mistaken if we consider this as ‘just another’ human rights issue where we agree to disagree with China. The orchestrated attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy is part of a package of what the Wall Street Journal called ‘Putinist politics’. The capital rich Communist Party is committed to its flirtation with Hong Kong’s oligarchs, whose loyalty is guaranteed via business opportunity. In fact, these cronies will sit on the ‘nomination committee’ that will reject any candidate who Beijing does not favour. The freest market on earth is in clear and present danger of being galvanised into China’s authoritarian system if the current trajectory of political affairs continues uninterrupted.

Given his supposedly pro-enterprise and pro-democracy stance, David Cameron should be Beijing’s most vocal critique. As Nick Clegg correctly pointed out, it was Margaret Thatcher who signed the Declaration and two other Tories – John Major and Chris Patten – who vowed to honour that pledge. In fact, there is something Conservative running in the blood of Hong Kongers: the emphasis on law and order, the obsession with small government, and the love of capitalism. That is why Hong Kong looked to Cameron with a hopeful heart, and became bitterly disappointed when he opted for salesmanship rather than statesmanship in his dealings with China.

With Islamist terrorist threat coming closer to home, and Vladimir Putin antagonising the West over Ukraine, the Prime Minister may be excused for temporarily drawing Hong Kong onto the periphery of his diary. But the inconvenient truth for Cameron is that he can only stay silent for so long. Unlike its democratic counterparts, Britain, as the co-signatory of the Joint Declaration, is legally bounded to express its views on Hong Kong’s democratic reforms. The Parliament at Westminster regularly publishes reports on the former colony’s democratic progress, and the Foreign Affairs Committee is currently in the process of gathering written evidencefor an enquiry marking 30 anniversary of the Joint Declaration, which as Newsnight’s Laura Kuenssberg has learnt, Beijing has categorised as “interference in China’s internal affairs,” warning MPs to “bear in mind the larger picture of China-UK relations.”

There is no way the British government can approve of Beijing’s erroneous definition of democracy without appearing shamelessly hypocritical and in abandonment of the very values it holds dear.

With the Chinese military flexing its muscle on the one hand, andcivil disobedience movements gathering momentum on the other,confrontation can only escalate in the coming months. The bureaucrats in Beijing will not be moved one iota by civilian casualties, as the world discovered in 1989. Hong Kong’s only chance for genuine democracy lies with the international community, which Britain must mobilise.

The freedom of Hong Kong is at Britain’s mercy. Let’s see if Britain will stand on the right side of history.

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