We’re welcoming the very excellent Oliver Chan to the Impolitikal team as our new Politics Editor. Olly is a London-based New Zealander, with a leftward lean and an open mind. Sarah and Evelyn are super-excited to have someone of his smarts and word-smithery onboard. Here’s a taster of why:
Where are you from, and what is your academic and work background?
I’m based in London but originally from Auckland, NZ. I completed an MA in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington on the rise of the far right in Austria and have a strong political interest in digital democracy, political economy and the public discourse on poverty. My work background’s mainly been on programmes in charities including Oxfam NZ and the Brotherhood of St Laurence Australia, and higher education – including UCL in London.
More recently I’ve shifted in a research direction with work on youth homelessness, vocational education, special education, and parliamentary politics and the UK elections. I’m also a political writer and blogger, having featured in the Spinoff, NZ Herald and of course Impolitikal.
How did you find out about Impolitikal, and why are you excited to join the team as our Politics Editor?
Impolitikal has been on my radar since I started writing, especially since a number of great writers I know became regular contributors. Moving to the UK led me to meet Sarah – we’ve gotten to know each other well and both realised we’re very much on the same page politically, philosophically and ethically.
“Impolitikal has been on my radar since I started writing, especially since a number of great writers I know became regular contributors.”
Writing can sometimes be a bit lonely and competitive but engaging with other writers breeds a collaborative vibe, especially with publications you feel a strong connection to – so I eagerly accepted the invite from Sarah and Evelyn to join. As the new Politics Editor, I’m excited about helping to shape a new way of discussing politics.
Why was Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘success’ in the recent UK election so unexpected, and intriguing, and what is the current sentiment towards he and Labour in the UK?
It was so unexpected because we didn’t notice underlying changes since the Global Financial Crisis and austerity. We were too immersed in the political game: polling averages, ‘winners and losers’, and preconceptions based on voter stereotypes to notice. What makes Corbyn’s success intriguing is that it shattered conventional wisdom. It proved that a principled economic alternative can unite across identities, class interests and regions. It showed that people don’t fit specific types, whether Daily Mail-reading, Fosters-swilling Essex chavs or Guardian-reading, craft beer-sipping Islington snobs.
Read Oliver Chan, ‘Jeremy Corbyn proved me wrong’
Most importantly, it signalled a generational takeover. Millennials and Generation Xers turned out massively for Labour, rejecting their parents’ politics – both hard Brexit or austerity. It’s not turning back the clock: it’s digitally-driven, participatory and fun. It’s the most positive I’ve seen Britain or anywhere in years.
How do you think things will pan out in UK politics over the next six months, particularly regarding Brexit?
The only certainty appears that, being dependent on the DUP and internally divided, the government’s not in full control – especially with regards to Brexit. The Cameron allies that Theresa May sacked a year ago are piping in – former ministers and George Osborne editing the Evening Standard attacking government policies and leaking info.
All Labour has to do is stand on the sidelines watching it all burn while pointing and laughing. It’s like end of term at school and the kids are running around bored, proclaiming themselves kings and queens of the playground. On the other side, the public is slowly realising the consequences and telling hard Brexiteers that they don’t have a mandate, so hopefully there will be more public accountability regarding the negotiations.
Generally speaking, what are your thoughts on global politics at the moment? What causes you to hope and what causes you to despair?
One thing I have hope in is the emergence of successful youth-driven movements worldwide. Individuals like Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau and his memeable ass will rise and fall but movements will survive without a Bernie Sanders or Corbyn because it’s about representation, not saviours. I’m excited about the emergence of promising experiments in digital democracy in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Crowdsourcing policy, legislation and spending could help address the divide between politicians and citizens, and update democracy for 21st century realities.
“Movements will survive without a Bernie Sanders or Corbyn because it’s about representation, not saviours.”
Yet progress is hampered by poisonous public discourse. I’ve never before seen large parts of the public more removed and less empathetic towards each other. In the NZ election campaign, Metiria Turei’s downfall says less about her and more about an invasive ‘armchair sociologist’ mentality, where middle class people remotely assess the lifestyle choices of people whom they have no idea or curiosity about. I want a shift towards a more empathetic public discourse where people can more easily exchange ideas and better put themselves in other people’s shoes. Impolitikal can be at the forefront of this.
You have a background working in international development. Can you identify any significant concerns with, or shifts in that sector?
I worked in international programmes at Oxfam NZ in Auckland at a time when NZ government funding rounds were being re-formed from funding ‘activities’ to ‘outcomes’. If you like big numbers that look impressive in a glossy report that’s fine, but development programmes should be about more than just outcomes – they should be about developing local capacity to the point that the projects become sustainable.
It’s a very Western-style free market outlook that’s culturally alien to the people it’s supposed to help. Shifting to community development I noticed the same thing: the politicisation of funding often forcing innovative NGOs to abandon their principles and adapt or lose funding. Development needs to remain focused on peoples’ capacities.
What do you think is lacking from – or exciting about media and journalism at the moment? What are your hopes for the future of journalism?
The biggest challenge remains how online journalism can be financially sustainable, which is both exciting and frightening. The stopgap has seen a stampede towards clickable, viral content: lists trivialising serious issues with favourite TV show memes, videos of witty responses to bigotry, and reasons why Justin Trudeau is ‘everything’. It’s fine in doses but too much is very The Flanders Press – appeals to our vanity without challenging us.
But I’m hopeful about the amount of people out there who care about serious content, and it’s up to outlets like Impolitikal to take a leading role. My contribution will be an approach to political writing that challenges readers and engages with a broad audience. Enough about the game – we forget that politics is at essence about the distribution of power, and people of all backgrounds can relate to that.
It’s Tony Benn’s five hypothetical questions to powerful people: ‘what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you?’ Underneath the wonkery, politics isn’t that difficult. My hope is that writers and publications come to focus less on punditry, and more on cultivating expertise on subjects that they’re passionate about.
Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher and writer, and Politics and Economics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.