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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

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.