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Imran Khan still has an important role to play

The UK has long enjoyed a rich relationship with Pakistan.

Pakistan often finds itself in the world news for the wrong reasons. Attempts to promote its rich history and culture cannot seem to shake off its reputation as a hotbed for extremism, the historic tensionswith its neighbour India and a political system too often associated with corruption, elitism and cronyism.

In a significant number of terrorism-related trials in the UK, the defendants have some sort of link to Pakistan. It speaks volumes about the country’s poor standing and reputation on the world stage that some of its most misguided citizens are also regarded as its international symbols. Yet Pakistan should not be viewed solely through this prism.

The UK has long enjoyed a rich relationship with Pakistan. Until 1947 it was part of the British Raj and today the UK and Pakistan are fellow members of the Commonwealth. Thanks to post-independence migration to the UK, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, Britain now has an estimated 1.2 million citizens of Pakistani ancestry – the second-largest overseas Pakistani population after Saudi Arabia.

As one of those 1.2 million, I was astonished to discover that the general election on Saturday 11 May was a milestone in Pakistan’s political history – it marked the first time that a democratic government had served a full term, with a democratic transfer of power from one civilian administration to another. As an international election observer, I had the privilege to observe Pakistan finally abandoning the cycle of military rule and failed alternatives.

I was the sole politician among the UK group of observers in place across the country, which visited over 40 polling stations in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Multan, Murree, Hyderabad and Faisalabad. The day began with busy, often chaotic scenes and several polling stations opening late. However, things gradually became more organised. The crowds were calm but excited and determined to exercise their right to vote.

The sheer numbers of those waiting to do so, including a huge turnout by female voters (which overwhelmed many polling stations), was inspiring. Of the 86 million registered voters, 36 million were voting for the first time. Imran Khan has rightly been credited with encouraging a significant proportion of the country’s vast youth population to take part.

Yet a sizeable number of first-time voters I spoke to were middle-aged or older; many had brought their children along with them to witness this moment. Turnout has been estimated at around 60 per cent and the majority of the local observers I spoke to reported significantly less fraud than in previous elections.

The polls were due to close at 5pm local time. I was in a part of Rawalpindi where the perimeter gates to the school that temporarily doubled as a polling station closed shortly afterwards. All who had joined the queue before this time were allowed to vote. A text message then came through from the election commission authorising voting to continue until 6pm. In one polling booth, ballot boxes had already been sealed. With the agreement of the party agents and the returning officer, the seals on two boxes were broken to let voting continue – an inspiring display of democracy in action.

At the time of writing, the full results have yet to be announced officially, although reports strongly suggest that Nawaz Sharif will be forming the next government, with Khan’s Movement for Justice jostling with the Pakistan People’s Party for second place. For democracy in this country to succeed, there needs to be a vigilant and effective opposition and so Khan and his party have a crucial role in ensuring that the country does not drift towards one-party rule.

As a Labour MP, I know that being in opposition involves determination, perseverance and hard work that is rarely rewarded in public. However, it is a necessary and fundamental part of the evolution of democracy.

Credible elections will help to increase the legitimacy of the civilian government, strengthening its mandate at the national and provincial levels and endowing it with the authority that only democracy can provide. More than that, they have shown to the world what sort of country Pakistan really is: one with a bright and democratic future. Furthermore, the increasing independence of the media and judiciary and the emergence of a vibrant civil society should be a source of optimism for all.

Let’s hope that in the coming days, weeks and months, Pakistan’s new government brings about the changes that the country so desperately needs.

Sadiq Khan is the MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London

Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.