Article: My interview in ShortList magazine

A couple of weeks ago, I received a call (from France!) from a journalist called Mike Peake (bymikepeake.com) who, by the looks of things, writes some pretty interesting things for a range of publications.  Anyway, he contacted me through UpRising regarding a piece he was working on exploring the existence of a “Class Ceiling”.  I, of course, had a perspective on it and, lo and behold, it’s made into the magazine.

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Blog: My interview for The Careers Group, University of London

In my capacity as Fellow of the UpRising programme, I have recently been interviewed by the University of London Careers Group. I’m an alumnus of the University of London (undergrad and Masters both from there) an I jumped at the chance to speak about UpRising – a programme that I am incredibly proud to be associated with.

The full transcript is here: http://www.careers.lon.ac.uk/blog/development/index.php/2013/02/06/the-uprising-leadership-programme/

The UpRising Leadership Programme is enabling 19-25 year olds to change their communities for the better as well as giving their CVs an edge. We spoke to Queen Mary and UpRising alumnus and Fellow, Eshaan Akbar about the impact UpRising made on him.

How did you hear about UpRising? I came across their leaflet during a brief internship for MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali. The internship was part of a process for me moving from the banking career I had gone into after my Queen Mary degree in economics,finance and management, into a more public policy oriented role. What impressed me about the programme – which Rushanara had helped create as part of The Young Foundation – was the way it combined a curriculum of support with a practical project which made a real difference in the communities participants wanted to engage with. I was particularly interested in the political context in which community change can happen and I was impressed by the fact that all three party leaders are patrons of the UpRising programme.

So what are the main elements of the programme? Well the web site gives the best summary but there are learning sessions, mentoring and networking events and a community project. The learning sessions include ‘inside view’ visits to key organisations such as parliament and the BBC, a leadership retreat (this was two days in Roffey Park – fantastic fun and transformational). The programme really helps you create far reaching networks of in myriad industries you simply aren’t aware of normally. In my banking career I had a network of high net worth celebrities who were my clients, but what I developed through UpRising was a network of purposeful and powerful individuals – powerful in the sense that they were people who were able to get things done.

What were the highlights of the programme for you? Well I was sufficiently impressed by the programme as a whole to continue to be involved as one of the selected ‘Fellows’. The programme had a really big impact. Firstly in introducing me to the whole arena of journalism. This came about from a visit to the offices of The Guardian. We were introduced to the ‘Comment Is Free’ editor who agreed to consider a piece I wrote. They then printed it which gave me the confidence to shape my UpRising project around the written word but also to develop a portfolio of articles published in newspapers like The Times, The Observer as well as The Guardian on issues like racism, economics and social issues. I’m due to do a placement at Sky News shortly and ITV news after that.

Other highlights of the programme included getting a talk on effective public speaking by Tony Blair’s speechwriter and having a roundtable discussion in The Cabinet Meeting Room with Nick Clegg The ‘Retreat’ at Roffey Park was brilliant. This centre normally charges corporate clients thousands of pounds for the weekend retreat and we got it for free. What it gave us was a brilliant developmental weekend that was both great fun and a foundation to our practical programmes – a key part of the UpRising experience. In my case I and a team of UpRisers had a project that was founded on using the power of the written word to help young people communicate issues of concern to them. The project had a strong after life and developed into the You Press initiative http://weareyoupress.blogspot.co.uk/, taken on by other members of the programme.

Is the programme hard to get on? Well, it is competitive but, on the other hand it is expanding to other cities in the UK. What they principally look for is passion and a commitment to making a difference in local communities. Just as they provide the networks for participants, it is up to participants to use these networks to better their own communities.

Blog: My fortnight at The Times

Some of you may be aware from my previous posts that some of the articles I wrote were during my 2-week internship at The Times newspaper, arranged by the UpRising programme.  Unsurprisingly, they’ve wanted me to write  a piece about my experience ever since and, embarrassingly, I’ve been incredibly poor at getting to them.  Better late than never I say and so, here it is.  You can now read the version on the UpRising website.

There are many organisations and initiatives that talk of “raising aspirations” for young people.  There are few that actually do it.   In my experience, the UpRising programme is the only one that has.

I was given the privilege of spending two weeks in the company of some of the biggest names in journalism with a placement at The Times newspaper. And it wasn’t just a generic work placement.

It is testament to the UpRising programme that the Managing Editor of an ubiquitous brand like The Times took time out of her schedule to not only speak to me at length about my aspirations, but deem it fit to place me on the Leaders/OpEd desk – the place which sets the tone for the paper on a daily basis.

As I was introduced to some of the most influential people in journalism – Daniel Finkelstein, Phil Collins, Hugo Rifkind, Oliver Kamm and others – it soon dawned on me that, for a while at least, these individuals would be my colleagues. And it’s all because of UpRising.

Sitting at David Aaronovitch’s desk, I’d hardly had time to compose myself before my boss for the fortnight, Anne Spackman (a Times stalwart and former Managing Editor herself), whisked me off to the daily News Conference.  Walking up the stairs, I was briefed that this is where section Editors (from Home Affairs, to Sport and times2 magazine) brief the Editor, James Harding, on content in the paper.

I sat down, notepad in hand, looked left and sitting next to me was Matthew Parris.  I could hardly contain my excitement but did my best to look engrossed in News Conference with the words “I’m sitting next to Matthew Parris” playing on loop in my head, preventing me from concentrating.

Whilst the “intellectual celebrity spotting” was exhilarating everyday, I was there to do some proper work.  And work I did.  After News Conference, on a daily basis, I would prepare for Leaders Conference that would take place immediately after.  Here, the Leader Writers (Phil Collins, Daniel Finkelstein, Oliver Kamm etc.) would meet with the Editor and tell him what they wanted to write about.  This was important as the Lead pages set out the tone and position of the paper – whether it be supporting another runway at Heathrow or criticising Bashar al-Assad in Syria – this part of the paper would have readers and commentators saying “The Times thinks this on this particular issue”.

To be part of that meeting on a daily basis and, at one point, having my suggestion warmly considered (that Scottish independence may have been dealt a huge boost by David Cameron’s decision to veto the European treaty on the Euro) was nothing short of inspiring.  I was even invited to a breakfast presentation hosted by Emily Maitlis at the Royal Automobile Club by Daniel Finkelstein who was debating the Euro with Oliver Kamm.  Embarrassingly, after the event, I left them waiting for me for a while as they jumped into a taxi as I’d decided to take the tube back to the office, even though Daniel suggested I take the taxi with them back the day before!

As the afternoon arrived, Anne suggested I develop my writing by trying to write something for Comment Central, the Times online blog.  What an amazing opportunity.  I would write every day and (after a few edits by the awesomely named James Dean), would see my pieces published on Comment Central.  I wrote about a range of things – from the Euro through to Ilford being the top tourist destination in 2011 – and was actively encouraged to do so.

But perhaps the biggest highlight of my time at The Times came on my last day.  Peter Brookes is nothing short of legendary in current affairs circles.  He has been The Times’ leader-cartoonist for 20 years, capturing the ever-changing national and international political landscape with his sharp observational cartoons.  Within hours of the News Conference, he would come to the Leader/OpEd desk with his initial sketch, asking our opinion (even mine!).  Generally, our feedback would be “Oh that’s just amazing!” – I’m not sure how much that helps him…

On my last day, the Managing Editor invited me to her office and we had a chat about my time at The Times.  She then handed me a signed copy of Peter Brookes’ collection of cartoons.  Signed.  By Peter Brookes himself.  I had to thank him in person immediately after and did with the most inane grin on my face.  I hope I hadn’t freaked him out.  But nonetheless, this book now has pride of place in my living room for all to see.

Not only do I have a signed copy of Peter Brookes’ book, I have wonderful contacts who have been generous with their time and advice since (Daniel Finkelstein wrote me a recommendation on LinkedIn!) and have the opportunity to write for Comment Central whenever I come up with a decent idea.  Not bad for 2 week’s work.

And I have UpRising to thank for that.

Article: Payday loans

My second article on Comment Central was about a topic close to my heart: payday loans.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a “difficult” relationship with money and have had some very close shaves with payday loans.  I’ve never taken one out and, hopefully, will never have to because these things are, quite frankly, abhorrent.

You can find the original article by clicking here.

If living beyond our means is the root of today’s economic woes, then news that 3 million people will resort to payday loans this month requires some attention.

These short-term unsecured loans, usually of around £300, can carry interest rates in excess of 4,000 per cent. The payday loans table on moneysupermarket.com gives some stark examples: a 15-day, £300 loan from wonga.com costs £345 to repay.

Despite their high cost, payday loans are particularly appealing to those with poor credit ratings, and for those who can’t extend their overdraft or credit card limit. Unfortunately, they often find later that a short-term cash fix brings long-term repayment problems (as leaders attending Friday’s euro summit know).

Lenders apply higher interest rates to customers at a higher risk of defaulting. This is a basic economic function. But they should be expected to lend responsibly. If we have truly learnt our lesson about the dangers of irresponsible lending at a national and international level, then we should change our attitude to lending at an individual level.

On November 21, an early day motion was tabled by David Morris MP:

That this House notes that wonga.com is currently advertising a typical interest rate of 4214 per cent. and that this is not the only institution offering a similar service; further notes that these high interest rates are often paid by the poorest in society; believes that all financial institutions have a right to make a profit but that these companies are adding to poor families’ financial problems; and further believes that the time is right to restrict the level of interest that can be charged on loans.

Unfortunately, to date, only 28 MPs have signed the motion.

Elsewhere, Martin Lewis, founder of moneysavingexpert.com, generated 100,000 signatures on an e-petition for compulsory financial education in schools – something that would surely be more useful than education on the risks of gambling.

It is important that future generations are better educated on financial matters, but the problems we face with debt require action today. Schoolchildren aren’t borrowing money – adults are.

Limited financial advice is available from the Citizens Advice Bureau and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, and from some credit score websites. There are also some good tips available on direct.gov.uk, the Government’s advice website. But there needs to be more.

Payday loan companies need to better inform their customers about risks and costs. The Government too should make people more aware of the risks, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

Extortionate borrowing costs are harmful to the financial health of the country. We have learnt from the financial crisis that failure to repay loans means someone else picks up the pieces further down the line.

But the fact that companies are still able to offer short-term loans at such extortionate rates suggests that we haven’t taken this lesson to heart. The Government must examine the costs of payday loans. Our attitude to debt has to change.

Article: The Olympics feel-good factor

I landed a two-week internship at The Times (thanks to the UpRising programme) on their Leaders and OpEd desk in December 2011 and was delighted to be working alongside some of the biggest names in journalism – Daniel Finkelstein, Phil Collins, Oliver Kamm, Hugo Rifkind et al.  I had a wonderful time there, not least because they let me write articles for Comment Central, their blog, but that everybody was so incredibly warm and generous with their time.  I hope to repay their support one day.

My first article was intended to get me into the groove of writing for The Times.  The language and style is very different to what I’m used to with The Guardian and considering I was working directly with them, I was naturally nervous.  I found an interesting news story abou the Olympics and felt a mini-rant coming on!

You can find the original article by clicking here (£).

Among Londoners, mere mention of the word “Olympics” often prompts moaning about the prospect of too many people clogging up our commute to work, and of inappropriate largesse in these tough economic times.

So the news today that a further £40 million is being thrown at the Games’ opening ceremony to “better exploit ‘a great national moment’” is likely to generate mixed reactions.

On the one hand, it suggests current plans are underwhelming; indeed, Hugh Robertson, the Sports Minister, “[declined] to criticise the early efforts of some of the best creative talent in the entertainment business”. On the other, it suggests that the Government wants to generate some good feeling amid the doom and gloom.

But surely our spirits would be lifted higher with a big haul of gold, silver and bronze medals for Team GB.

So the news that a British sprinter is auctioning himself on eBay to raise £30,000 to compete at the Olympics, while creative on his part, is worrying. It suggests that some athletes have come up against serious sponsorship barriers.

It also suggests that some of the £40 million could have been better spent. It’s a bit like having a wedding without a bride and groom.

Article: Target apathy to stop the BNP

In February 2009, I was given the heave-ho from Barclays Wealth.  It was very hard to take indeed.  I was given 3 months gardening leave and in that time I did three things:

  • I interned for a couple of weeks at Rushanara Ali’s campaign office (who went on to become MP for Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2010 elections).  (To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to do this but it definitely led on to the next thing which was one of the most fruitful decisions of my life to date…)
  • I joined a programme called UpRising, a project of The Young Foundation and;
  • I found a job as a Policy Officer at Redbridge Council

It was through the UpRising programme that I wrote my first article for The Guardian.  We went for a visit to their offices and I followed up with a conversation with the Editor of Comment is Free.  She was fantastic and agreed to read my article.  Luckily for me, she liked it enough to want to publish it and sure enough, 553 comments later, my first proper foray into writing was a definite success and gave me the writing bug.

I’ve posted it below for your reading pleasure – let me know what you think!

You can find the original article by clicking here

I’m normally quite quick-witted. It’s the only way I can deal with the trials and tribulations of being overweight and overenthusiastic about the most mundane things (like writing with a mechanical pencil, because it’s cool). But last year, I was disappointed with my response of “Good observation!” to a group of white youths who took it upon themselves to identify me with their middle finger and wails of “Paki!” At first, I looked round to see who they were talking to. Realising it was me (because the only other person on the road was another young white lad who seemed as shocked as I was surprised), I retorted with the aforementioned comment, and later found myself wondering why people complain about the burka being detrimental to integration when these boys had their heads wrapped in hoodies so tight it’s a wonder their brains ever get any oxygen. Then I parked the incident in the “not so fun” part of my brain.

A few months later, I received a call from my mother that would change my perspective on that particular event. After dropping my brother off to school in Dagenham, four boys confronted her, informed her that she was a “Paki” and advised her to leave the country. Mum had some advice of her own: “Go to school or get a job and leave me alone.” Cue pushing (“I felt like a pinball”), until two strapping black men stepped out of a car and chased the boys away.

It was the first time in over 30 years that my mum was racially abused and, for me, the first time ever.

I moved to Chadwell Heath in Barking and Dagenham – where 12 of the 51 councillors are from the BNP – 10 years ago, only a mile away from the West Ham Utd training ground, and my brother attends one of the most improved schools in the country. My local amenities include a newsagent owned by a Sri Lankan, a Bangladeshi restaurant, a cafe and “chippy” owned by a Turkish family, Pakistani dry cleaners and a closed-down Woolworths. Despite this, Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, will be standing for election in a ward in the south of the borough at the general election.

Incidents such as those above are few and far between where I live, but they are reportedly steadily increasing across BNP strongholds. And it is this steady increase that is worrying me.

I don’t think it’s a case of people’s eyesight improving and suddenly realising that there are people in this country who are “different” to them. Nor do I think that the BNP are gaining more power among the people (they earned fewer votes in June 2009 than last time round). In fact, speaking to local government colleagues, BNP councillors seem to have very little influence in the committee rooms of local authorities.

Rather, the BNP have been tactically astute in striking when the iron is hot and have invented a new game – politics by immigrant numbers. Your odds of getting a job, that council house, hospital treatment or your children getting a fair amount of attention from their teachers are better if there are fewer people going for that job or council house and fewer children for the teachers to contend with. It’s a simple argument, but an effective one, playing on the concerns of some residents. So long as these key issues – around employment, social housing, and education – remain unaddressed by those in power who can effect change, particularly at the local level, the BNP will have a bouncy castle of a platform. Unplug the castle and the whole thing just deflates.

That’s not to say there are no racist people out there. Of course there are – but in modern Britain where everyone has a voice, there is little space for overt racism. I would argue that it is their political apathy, rather than their racism, that should be the focus of our concerns. For these youths, however racist, are voters of the future. Their political apathy is of no use to anyone – the few discontented who do vote will only push the share of the BNP vote up, as was the case last year.

Local councils have an important role to play in working with local partners and central government to identify ways in which to encourage disaffected communities to engage with society. But its most important role is transparency and communication. Central government has stepped into the domain of transparency with their recent launch ofdata.gov.uk, but at the local level this means very little, especially in a borough where residents are unlikely to use the internet to interrogate government data. Residents want simple questions answered: Will I get a house? Will I have a job? Will my child do alright in school? Is my situation the fault of immigrants? What separates the BNP from other parties is that they seem happy to do the groundwork to answer those questions – no matter how fabricated their answers may be – and, in the absence of an alternative, residents accept what they are presented with.

Fascism has its roots in movements where members feel like they and “their people” are victims. Right now, in Barking and Dagenham, there are a lot of people who are being told they are victims.

After the article was published, I received a call from someone purporting to be a member of staff from The Guardian wanting my bank account details to arrange payment.  I’d watched enough Fonejacker to know that this was clearly illegal.  So I called the Editor reporting the incident who patiently advised me that I was in fact getting paid.  Cue embarrassment but also joy – I’d been paid to write some words!!! I suppose, by definition, this made me a writer…