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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: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation