Why has the coalition's aid bill been delayed again?

The Tories have put politics before the interests of the world's poorest.

According to weekend newspaper reports, the bill enshrining in law the UK’s commitment to the UN target for international aid spending of 0.7 per cent will be absent from next month’s Queen’s Speech. It’s not just NGOs under that impression, even the FT political team were confirming it.

A source close to International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell is quoted as saying that: “There's no question of a coalition split here. The bill is ready to go, subject to parliamentary time”. The same line was put out by DIFD’s press office, blaming “the business managers” as if the decision was nothing to do with them. Mitchell himself told the Sun the same thing last month.

These “business managers” are surely the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, who like DFID, take their orders from No. 10. The buck stops with the Prime Minister and he has already presided over the breaking of his manifesto commitment on this issue. On page 117 of the Conservative manifesto which says:

A new Conservative government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income as aid. We will stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid. We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.

This session has lasted almost two years and is one of the longest in Parliamentary history. The bill is short, with just a handful of clauses. It has already had pre-legislative scrutiny from the international development select committee and there is cross-party consensus. There is no prospect of it being overturned in the Lords. It could probably be passed on a one-line whip on a Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, with Labour and Lib Dem support.

So the weekend’s reports put the focus back on to the role that the Lib Dems are playing in making the coalition more, rather than less progressive. They too are bound by the coalition agreement, which says on page 22:

We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law.

The suggestion is that the Lib Dems are prioritising Lords reform in their pre-Queen’s Speech negotiations so No. 10 are shelving the aid legislation in order to avoid a second Tory backbench rebellion. The line will be, “what matters is reaching 0.7 per cent in 2013, not legislating for it” but it was the legislation that was promised by all three parties in their manifestos and if it really doesn’t matter, why delay the vote?

The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. The reason the Conservatives made the promise was to achieve all-party consensus and put the issue beyond doubt. The predicted backbench Tory rebellion, coming hot on the heels of the recent “caravan tax” revolt and the more visible EU referendum vote, would be popular with the public. But it would be damaging for the Tory modernisers, which is why those pesky ‘business managers’ could frankly do without it.

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2009-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR - follow him on Twitter:@RDarlo

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell (C) speaks with locals during his visit at a Mother's Home Free education centre in Burma. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.