Heard of U8?

One group of students try to build "global grass-roots" organisation

Imagine a world in which we all have a voice. A world where there is a platform for the voiceless, a platform for global dialogue and shared learning, and a platform for engagement with the policies that affect our everyday lives.

Or, more practically, a platform that enables you to see the impact of global warming in a remote Indian village, in the Ethiopian plains as well as on a Dutch seaside town. A platform where all countries can communicate with each other on shared concerns which will indeed have the ear of the President.

Well almost – try Al Gore, a former Vice President as well as Peter Lilley of the Conservative Party’s Global Poverty group, Hilary Benn and top executives at ABC News in Washington, DC. Let’s also not forget the Foreign Ministries in over 13 countries, and regional and international institutions such as the African Union or the World Bank that have been engaged. With features in the Guardian and the Hindu, and confirming global TV coverage for the U8 summit in less than a month’s time, it is time to talk.

The U8 is a global grass-roots student organisation facilitated by a small yet dedicated executive committee. As of today, the U8 actively involves 27 universities in developed and less developed countries, as well as having a presence in over 40 universities in 19 countries.

Unlike the G8, membership is not just for the richest countries, but for all countries. The U8 is wholly independent, non-partisan, and student-led with top level universities involved such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Warwick as well as universities in Nepal, India, Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia, Mexico, Egypt, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, France and Germany. We are a growing and open organisation, having more than tripled our membership since October 2006.

The aims: (1) shared learning of international development issues, (2) to promote not only a culture of inclusion but genuine global partnerships by twinning U8 universities in different continents and (3) engagement with policy makers to inform policy.

On 9-11 March, one of the most important global summits on international development led solely by students will take place at Warwick University in Coventry, England. Over a hundred students from around the world from both developed and developing countries will gather for the 2nd annual U8 summit.

To prepare for the upcoming summit, students across the globe have been researching, holding debates at their respective universities, gaining international media coverage, meeting with key policy makers and influential leaders, and blogging online on the U8 website: www.u8development.org.uk. All of these views will come together at Warwick during the 3 day summit.

The online blogs and student researchers tackle issues such as conflict, poverty, migration, health and the environment as chosen from the U8 Consultation Paper 2006. The U8 asked governments, NGOs, private sector companies and academics in both developed and developing countries as well as international organisations what they thought the most important issues were in development. This sets the framework for the research, giving a representative view of global developmental concerns.

On the online forums, the following exchange is an example of the daily dialogue since November:

“I am not convinced that the EPAs [European Union Economic Partnership Agreements] are as harmful for developing countries as is often argued,” says Steve from Oxford.

Senayt from Ethiopia at the Addis Ababa University replies, “Unless we Africans strengthen, diversify local production, and transform our commodity dependent economies, EPAs will render our continent even more dependent on foreign aid handouts.”

Meareg, also from Addis Ababa adds, “Aid does not solve our problems rather destabilize our internal activities….we know how much terrible it is …so please I beg you pardon to delete the word aid from your mind and please replace it with the word ‘fair trade’.”

The U8 website on average each week attracts over 1850 visitors from over 60 countries, from Peru to Mongolia, Canada to Cameroon, Tajikistan to Mexico.

"It is incredible to see the traffic generated to the website as we are truly becoming more global and inclusive in our discussion," said U8 Co-President James Clarke, studying Politics at Warwick.

Following the U8 Summit in March, delegates from member universities from around the world will consolidate research and present issues raised to key policy-makers, researchers and practitioners.

Already, meetings are taking place such as in the House of Commons with the Globalisation and Global Poverty group, set up by David Cameron, where members of the U8 Exec have called for a regulation of the gap year industry, arguing that development is usually not part of their agenda.

The issue is being opened up to the forums to get views from both developed and developing countries. U8 Ethiopia delegates were the first to submit its views to the Party.

"Students from developing and developed countries are asking ‘What can we do to help?’" explained Clarke. "We hope that the meetings with government officials of all political views will continue to allow students to inform policy, and allow for changes needed."

To find out more about the U8 Summit or to become involved, please visit the website www.u8development.org.uk.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.