On the election trail – can a leopard change its spots?

I was in Birmingham yesterday, by coincidence the Leaders debate was taking place at Birmingham University, being hosted by my Alma Mater, Aston University, where I was delivering the keynote address on entrepreneurship at an event organised by the excellent Aston India Foundation & Deloitte.

In conversation with a few guests who’d been invited to the Aston event, one person expressed an opinion which over the past few weeks has been aired but not really hit home with me, as I was too naïve and (perhaps) young to remember the last Tory government.

The gentleman, who’s a small business owner explained that he’d either be voting for Clegg or Brown, when I asked him why he wouldn’t consider Cameron, he said that it didn’t seem to him that they’d do anything to support SMEs – an argument I’ve heard several times, but the killer blow to me was that he went on and explained that he lost his house under the last Tory government. He relived the experience and took the time to, very painfully, explain what happened.

Similarly, I was talking to a hospital doctor, who spoke about how Labour’s done an amazing job in rebuilding hospitals and under the last Tory government, the situation was very bleak – as if they just didn’t care about the NHS. I’ve been expecting nurses and support staff to tell me these kind of stories, but not a doctor.

I’m a Governor of my local school, and in line with this duty, a parent approached me to echo exactly the same theme. He went further to point out that at least there some sense of normality out there – where we live – restaurants seem busy on Saturday nights, shops seem to be trading etc – during the last recession, he remembered reading the headlines in newspapers of people committing suicide because they couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages.

It strikes me, that after all this, can the Tories change the perceptions of being the so called, “nasty party” that people have been relaying stories about to me?

It may be cool and hip to jump on the bandwagon, but can a political ideology and set of values really change that much in such a short span of time?

Election diary of an immigrant

As much as I want to believe that those who display the St. George’s flag are proud, fair-minded, and patriotic people, the truth couldn’t be further. Let me explain…

Last week on St George’s Day, I went canvassing for a friend of mine who’s contesting a parliamentary seat in North West London. As those who’ve knocked on doors before will recognise, you’re provided with a sheet of names and door numbers of those who may vote for your party, so that you can (once again) confirm their voting intention for polling day. Should they confirm that they’re interested in voting for your candidate (e.g. my friend), you do everything possible to ensure they leave the comfort of their home to cast their vote on May 6th.

Knowing this, you come up with all kinds of ways to ask them the most important question – “Will you vote for x, y, or z?” and unsurprisingly each person reacts in their own way, but as far as my experience shows, no one’s nasty – some are rude – but never nasty.

So, for this reason I’m prompted to write this post. It just so happened that every house that displayed the St George’s flag happened to show their total dis-regard, ignorance, and lack of respect – which bordered on being nasty and racist. One lady, even brought her dog (a bulldog!) to the door to tell me she wouldn’t be voting for my friend. She let rip on every single problem that “the immigrants” are responsible for. Right from litter on her street, missing light bulbs on street lamps, all the way through to the recession – it seemed that we were to blame.

Normally, I’m not flustered so easily, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d heard the same kind of stuff at all the houses that I knocked on which had the St. George’s flag displayed in their window or on their car. I’d love to believe this was a coincidence, but other houses, in this otherwise aspirational suburb, didn’t express such views when I engaged them!

As the son of an immigrant, I consider this my home (not India or Kenya, where I was born) and I believe that our diversity is also our biggest strength. We live in a country that is facing challenges that it’s never had to deal with. Take the challenge of emerging economies like China or India and their impact on us in the next 50 years, or of as an island nation tackling the threats posed by global warming – I believe we need to embrace new ideas, new ways of developing solutions to face these issues, and for this reason, to believe that immigrants who bring varied experiences that contribute to our society are fundamental to our future success.

I know that the vast majority of people will think that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill out of one bad day at the doorstep, but it’s important for all of us (red, blue, and yellow) to reclaim the St George’s flag from these nutters (not just for the upcoming World Cup), who’ve hijacked an identity that is so respected all over the world.

Back to door knocking tomorrow…

My naked p(P)olitical ambitions

For the past ten years or so – since I’ve been on the fringe of British politics, there hasn’t been one week where I haven’t been asked about my political ambitions. At times, I’ve been asked this question on a daily basis – usually coinciding with local and national elections.

The starting point behind every response in the last decade has been to thank the person who’s raised the question. It’s always flattering to hear that someone somewhere believes that you may be good at something. But, at a very early stage I point out that public service is in my community’s DNA, and that Westminster politics is merely one channel to serve.

I speak about my association with local causes, charities, temples etc who day in day out provide phenomenal service to the community – all of whom are working for the wider good of our society. I’ve been part of the founding team of an initiative called ‘National Sewa Day’ which seeks to mobilise thousands of people to do good deeds on 21st November. We hope to have nearly 5,000 people sign-up in the first year, which will grow in leaps and bounds in future years.

Despite my best effort at concluding this discussion, I often get told “there’s so many ethnic minority people in x,y,z constituency, who’d welcome you as a candidate” – in fact, I received an email yesterday from someone who I don’t know asking me to consider standing for the Crawley seat which Laura Moffatt is retiring from, along these lines.

Let me be crystal clear about my position on this. I think it’s a retrograde step to think on these lines and puts back all the progress made, by a couple of decades. We have plenty of examples of fantastic MPs who represent their diverse communities effectively – the likes of Steve Pound, Barry Gardiner, Gareth Thomas, Dawn Butler all come to mind – especially as I live in their neck of the woods. They’ve grasped the issues that my community faces and made effective representations on our behalf. All of them are decent people, who probably understand more about my cultural heritage than I do, and use it to speak on my behalf in the House of Commons.

Let’s also not forget that we also had Ashok Kumar, who represented a largely white constituency in Teeside, Parmjit Dhanda who serves the people of Gloucester, and Shailesh Vara who represents a rural farming seat in Cambridgeshire.

Surely this speaks volumes about our confidence and demonstrates the progress we’ve made.

On the issue of making Parliament more representative, how can any sane person argue against such an ideal in today’s age. I, too, believe that we need more Hindu / Indian / Asian MPs, but I’d want them selected for seats not just because of the “colour of their skin, but because the content of their character”. Let’s put our effort in achieving a more representative parliament by funding and cultivating candidates who are best placed to serve the people of our country, the United Kingdom.

I’m also asked to participate in various discussions regarding representation of ethnic minorities in the boardrooms of our largest private sector companies, which again is an ideal to aim towards, but a friend of mine – who’s a very senior banker in a large investment bank – rounded off his comments on this issue by saying “I actually don’t know whether there is a glass ceiling, as I’ve not been looking up, but rather, have been looking forward.. in achieving my goals.” In the same vein, rather than whinge about the so called glass ceiling in politics, we owe it to future generations to promote participation in the structures that exist – at every level.

As for me, I do believe that Parliament matters greatly. It offers the greatest opportunity to affect change. At this point of my life, I can neither afford – financially – to pursue a political life, nor have the traits required to excel in this sphere. This may change over time, but for now, there may be others who are much better suited.

In the upcoming election, I’m going to actively work to increase civic participation, encourage politicians to fully represent and listen to all their constituents and more importantly to get the communities to vote – because this is the biggest and singularly the most important issue that needs to be addressed in politics today. At such a crucial and close election, the electorate have to exercise their right to vote, a right that many people fought for.

I read on Iain Dale’s blog that in the next Parliament, nearly 50% of Labour MPs will be first-timers and that given the public mood, the Conservatives will also have a huge intake of their own – which presents a huge opportunity to civic groups to inform new MPs, who’ll hopefully be less prejudiced than the current lot to new perspectives on debates and legislation.

A role that I believe to be as important as anything else in modern politics.

For the time-being, thanks for your support and I’ll willingly take your goodwill and money to help fund National Sewa Day.