The Road to Westminster
Alan Mak MP, one of Parliament’s newest faces, describes his journey from his parents’ shop to the House of Commons, and the role of faith, family and community in his life.
Last year’s general election brought 182 new MPs into the House of Commons. Amongst them was Alan Mak, the new Member for Havant on the Hampshire coast. A Christian since his schooldays, Mak’s election, at the young age of age of 31, was also notable and historic on other levels too. He became the first MP of British-Chinese heritage in Parliament’s history, having secured his party’s nomination via the new ‘open primary’ system – a vote of local residents at a public meeting, not just party members – imported by the Conservatives from America.
Over 12 months on, Mak is seen as one of his party’s rising stars, having built a reputation as an effective performer in the Commons Chamber and a hardworking constituency MP. In his first year, he has focused on economic and business issues in parliament and supports the government’s mission to cut the deficit and balance the nation’s books. But he hasn’t forgotten the remarkable journey that brought him into parliament, and says transforming British society is just as important as fixing the economy. Mak says, “Repairing the economy has to be our immediate priority – and progress is positive – but over the long term, I want to see Britain become a more socially mobile society, a true Opportunity Society. That’s why I came into politics.” He adds, “Britain needs to be a place where everyone has the chance to succeed and go as far as their talents will take them. We can’t just be accountants in government. We need to be visionaries too.”
The Opportunity Society was what brought Mak’s parents to Britain in the first place, nearly 40 years ago. They settled in York, and opened their shop on one of the historic city’s busiest thoroughfares, Gillygate. Mak was born in the city, and spent all his childhood living above the shop, and working in it, combining schoolwork with shifts alongside his parents.
Mak says, “My parents, both now retired, escaped Communism and dictatorship to find freedom and opportunity in Britain. They are absolutely my heroes. They’re pretty quiet, modest, decent people who’ve worked hard their entire lives, raised a family, and played by the rules. As small business owners, they were quiet admirers of Mrs Thatcher, but they weren’t hugely party political. They were too busy running the shop and bringing up me and my sister for politics.”
Working in his family shop’s left a big impression on Mak, and it would exert a substantial influence over his career path into public service: “When I was chosen as the Conservative candidate in Havant, I told residents that I would bring the values I learned in my family’s shop to my work as their MP: the ability to serve people from all walks of life, hard work, and passion for people and community. Growing up above the shop, and working in it, was the seminal experience of my life, not just my childhood.”
Mak says his earliest contact with the Christian faith came about at the Sunday school and playgroup he would often attend at the Salvation Army citadel, just a few doors down on Gillygate from his family shop. The Grade II listed building was opened in 1883 by York’s Lord Mayor, less than 20 years after the movement was founded in 1865 by William Booth.
Mak said Saturday was the busiest day for the family’s shop, and after helping his parents meet the weekend rush, Sundays were usually quieter, and he often found himself at the Salvation Army, where he would meet other children from the area. “I didn’t really know what the Salvation Army was when I was around ten years old, but I knew I enjoyed being there, listening to Bible stories, and meeting other children from the area, which working in the shop meant I couldn’t do during the week. It was my first contact with Christians, and I found it enjoyable and interesting,” Mak says.
His family’s shop was also just a stone’s throw from York Minster, one of Europe’s largest Gothic cathedrals, and he would find himself wandering in there on the way from the family’s shop to York’s central market when running errands. “York Minster is an amazing building, which is why it receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. As a boy, I was often sent on errands to York market, which involved walking past the minster, and I would take every chance I could to go in, often to get away from the hustle and bustle of working in the shop. Not many people have York Minister as their local church.”
Mak attended a local state primary and then a state secondary which was earmarked for closure. Aged 12, Mak’s fortunes turned when he won an Assisted Place (a state scholarship for bright children from poor backgrounds) to a neighbouring independent school, St Peter’s.
For all its rich history, St Peter’s was and is a Christian institution to the core, and the thrice-weekly chapel services, which Mak attended between the ages of 13 to 18, supplemented by compulsory religious education classes, cemented his faith. “I enjoyed the chapel services, was selected to be in the chapel choir, and we had a school chaplain who made Christianity interesting, so I really started to explore Christianity and become more immersed in it at St Peter’s,” he says.
From St Peter’s, Mak would go on to become the first in his family to attend university, winning a place at Peterhouse, Cambridge’s oldest and smallest college, founded by Hugh de Balsham, Bishop of Ely, in 1284. Mak read law, winning one of the faculty’s top academic prizes. He says, “A great education, at institutions with a Christian ethos, transformed my life, and as an MP, I am passionate about giving young people in my constituency the same life chances I had.” Mak has embarked on a tour of every school in Havant since being elected, and has launched an initiative with local head teachers, Havant Head Start, to help raise standards and aspirations locally.
Described as a “high flyer” by leading business magazine Management Today, Mak had an impressive record of success in the real world before becoming an MP, He says, “I’m not a career politician. I wasn’t a special adviser and didn’t come from a political dynasty. I think local residents saw that as a positive. I’d achieved some success in the real world of work before standing for election, and I hope to bring those skills to my work in parliament.”
Apart from working in and later helping to manage his parents’ shop, Mak joined Clifford Chance, one of the world’s leading business law firms in the City of London, after university. Working long hours he rose up the ranks, winning a range of industry awards, including Young City Lawyer of the Year, and helped launch the firm’s worldwide charitable foundation.
Mak then launched his own small business helping start-ups and growing businesses with strategy and raising finance. HotSquash, a ladies’ clothing brand stocked in Debenhams and House of Fraser, was one of Mak clients, and Darren Sidnick, chief executive, says, “Alan combined business savvy with great people skills.
He’s smart, hardworking and he helped HotSquash raise vital funds to grow.” Mak also sat on the UK group board of Havas, one of the country’s leading advertising businesses.
He says that spending much of his 20s working in Canary Wharf, one of the wealthiest places in Britain, only reinforced his commitment to social justice galvanised by his Christian faith. “Canary Wharf itself is located in Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived boroughs in the entire country, and it was impossible not to notice this on my daily commute.” Moving from Yorkshire to London, Mak lived in Bow among some of Britain’s poorest residents and would catch the Docklands Light Railway to work each morning. Despite working long hours, he was determined to contribute to his new community and volunteered to serve as a school governor at one of Bow’s primary schools. Over five years, Mak became increasingly involved in the administration of the school, regularly visiting as a reading partner to the mainly Bangladeshi children, and also helping to launch its breakfast club.
Breakfast club president
Mak developed his community activism in his early 20s, and one of his most prominent roles before entering politics was serving firstly as a trustee and then as president of Magic Breakfast, Britain’s most successful children’s breakfast club charity. Today the charity feeds over 20,000 children and operates over 400 breakfast clubs working with state primary schools. In 2010, Mak was selected to carry the Olympic torch in his native Yorkshire in recognition of his work for Magic Breakfast, and later helped Magic Breakfast to win the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award for outstanding community groups.
Mak played a key role in helping the charity to grow by securing corporate backers, and raising awareness of the issue of child hunger in government. “I saw child hunger first-hand on my doorstep in east London, and I was determined not to walk by the other side. Working with schools through Magic Breakfast was not only an enjoyable and inspiring experience, it was one of the ways I was able to put Christian values into action. Helping to feed the hungry, especially hungry children, is the most practical expression of faith there is.”
Havant’s National Champion
Mak succeeded cabinet minister David Willetts, former Minister for Universities, in Havant and paid fulsome tribute to the man nicknamed ‘Two Brains’ in his well-received Maiden Speech, telling fellow MPs that he had “twice as much hair as David, but only half his brains”, making up for it with his passion for Havant.
Apart from the Opportunity Society, Mak has largely focused on economic and business issues in his first 12 months in Westminster. He says making Britain economically fit at home and competitive abroad are his main focus. Mak has penned articles for national newspapers such as the Telegraph on the need for ‘Tiger Mother’ values in Britain’s economic and education system, arguing that only by aiming high and working hard can British students and graduates hope to compete with their counterparts in growing and emerging markets across Asia, Latin America and Africa. He regularly speaks in the chamber on treasury and finance matters, from welfare reform to cutting red tape for small businesses.
Mak has also been elected chairman of Parliament’s group for entrepreneurship, convening MPs and Lords with entrepreneurs and investors to champion wealth creation. He’s also led a landmark debate on the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – the first time it has been debated in the Commons – which he says Britain is ready to lead.
Mak says, “The first Industrial Revolution started in Britain, and used water and steam power to mechanise production. The second used electric power to create mass production. The third used electronics, IT and computers to automate production. Now a fourth Industrial Revolution is starting. Building on the digital revolution that started in the middle of the last century, it’s characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres – and Britain can once again lead the world in it.” Artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, high-end manufacturing, genetic engineering, electric cars and life sciences are all key aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and Mak led the campaign in parliament to ensure the government was alive to its possibilities.
Havant itself is home to advanced manufacturers such as defence contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, as well as being home to the household names including Kenwood, Pfizer, Colt, Fat Face and De Longhi. Alongside them, local training organisations such as PETA are teaching young engineers how to use 3D printers. Mak says it’s places like Havant which will be at the heart of Britain’s place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“Being an MP has two dimensions: national spokesperson and local champion. I speak up for Havant, and about Havant, whenever I can. We may not be as big as London or Birmingham, but it’s regional hubs like Havant that are key to Britain’s economic growth, and our ability to compete in key sectors like manufacturing and engineering in the years ahead.”
Faith in parliament
Mak says he was pleasantly surprised to find that each day’s proceedings in parliament begin with prayers presided over by the Speaker’s chaplain, and to reserve a seat in the chamber, MPs fill out a ‘prayer card’. Mak explains that the Commons Chamber is not large enough to accommodate every MP who wants a seat, so MPs must queue up each morning to secure their seat by filling out a small card and attending daily prayers. If they do so, the seat is theirs for the day. If they miss prayers, not only have they missed out spiritually, they’ve also missed out on a seat.
“Wednesday mornings are especially crowed as everyone gets up early to put in a prayer card for a seat at Prime Minister’s Questions. I’m often at the door of the chamber by 7 a.m. It’s an early start, but worth it,” Mak says.
Mak says his Christian faith is like a silent compass gently guiding him as he navigates the complex world of Westminster politics and the daily routine of lobbying ministers, meetings constituents and working on local issues. He says, “I go to prayers most days, and I’ve joined the Christians in Parliament group.” Mak has also joined the new Compassionate Conservatives caucus in parliament, a group of MPs who focus on social justice issues. “We’re focusing on issues such as family breakdown, addiction and educational failure and the role government can play in fixing them. Not everyone who’s involved is a Christian but many are, and it means we combine a Conservative mind with a Christian and compassionate heart when we approach these public policy issues. That’s a healthy mix.”
Mak also voted in support of a historic motion calling on the UK government to make an immediate referral to the UN Security Council about the persecution of Christians and Yazidis by Daesh. After three hours of impassioned speeches and debate, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion by 278 to 0.
Despite commanding a majority of nearly 14,000 in Havant – the largest on record for the seat in modern times – Mak’s work rate has not dropped off since the election. Known locally as the ‘whirlwind’ for his energy and activity levels, Mak keeps up a punishing schedule of constituency engagements, visiting schools, businesses and community groups every Friday, as well as putting in the hours on the weekend.
Mak has also launched a number of constituency projects focused on the economy. His inaugural Jobs and Apprenticeship Fair in February attracted over 50 exhibitors, and nearly 1,000 residents came through the doors. Some have already found jobs or career changes as a result. In April, Mak hosted his first Small Business Awards where over 30 local firms were recognised for their contribution to the local economy. Mak used his business connections to land Paul Lindley, founder of international children’s food brand Ella’s Kitchen, as keynote speaker.
In the pipeline are a Start-Up Find to help local entrepreneurs, especially young people, to start their own business. Mak’s constituency has a higher than average population of older people, and Mak is also planning an Older Persons’ Information Fair, bringing together charities, government agencies and community groups.
Mak has also visited a range of churches across the constituency of all denominations from Anglican St Faith’s in Havant’s historic town centre to the United Reform Church on Hayling Island. He says, “Local churches across Havant play a key community role, offering residents everything from spiritual support to traditional worship to new ways of meeting friends and neighbours through church groups.” For example, Mak is a supporter of the Men’s Breakfast Group on Hayling Island, organised by a local church group to bring together older men on a regular basis to listen to guest speakers and explore their faith in practical ways.
Looking to the future
With a reshuffle around the corner, Mak says he remains focused on his work for his constituents both locally and in Westminster. “As a young and new MP, I’m not in any rush. I enjoy my work as a backbencher, which gives me a lot of freedom to focus on constituency projects, while exploring new ideas like the Fourth Industrial Revolution that will help secure Britain’s future.” Mak says he has enjoyed his first year in parliament and is gradually adjusting to his new lifestyle, going from private citizen to public figure in just over a year. He says he enjoys dealing with constituents’ everyday challenges and this keeps him grounded. He says, “Engaging with Havant residents is the aspect of the job I enjoy the most, and I’ll keep working hard to do a good job for them locally and in parliament.”
With a compelling backstory, youth on his side, and an engaging personality, Mak is set to continue on his upward trajectory, and certainly worth keeping an