Douglas Alexander: Labour could face Boris at the next election

Labour needs to take the London mayor "seriously", says the shadow foreign secretary.

For this week’s New Statesman I have interviewed shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. It was a wide-ranging conversation that will make interesting reading to anyone anticipating Labour’s annual conference next week and looking for some insight into the ideas and strategic thinking going on at the very top of the party. As always there was much more said than could be accommodated in the pages of the print edition. So here are is the bonus 12” club mix; or maybe the epic unplugged set. (Do they still even do 12” remixes these days? … showing my age.)

First, something that I expect will raise a few eyebrows on Labour and Tory benches. On Boris Johnson:

I think its time that we take Boris seriously. It is not yet a probability but it is a possibility that he will lead the Conservative party into the next general election. I was standing in a lift in Westminster with two Conservative MPs talking about Boris hours after the launch of ‘Conservative Voice’ [a new campaign group of Tory MPs]. This is a restless party looking for leadership and not finding it from Cameron, so I think we as the Labour party need to take Boris seriously.

On the nature of Boris’s appeal:

He’s associated with a spectacularly successful Olympic games. He’s also managed to put a smile on quite a lot of commentators’ and quite a lot of voters’ faces quite regularly and that’s because people feel he doesn’t play by the rules and doesn’t conform to type. And in different ways that’s what Ed has also done - he doesn’t conform to all of the past stereotypes people have had, but there’s an authenticity there that I think voters ultimately want.

Was it also the case that Boris won in London because he had a very beatable opponent?

I think some of Ken Livingtsone’s comments, trying to sort voters into blocks, were not just unwise but wrong. And I think that if you set yourself up as a personality politician then there are always risks when you’re up against a very attractive politician, which is what some London voters decided Boris was.

Another point that stands out is Alexander restating in very clear terms his party’s commitment to fiscal discipline. Since there is more space online, I’ll let the fuller quotes speak for themselves:

Will the year’s ahead involve difficult spending choices, switch-spends; a fundamental look at how government spends its money in changed circumstances with strong fiscal head winds? Of course it will. But Ed balls, Ed Miliband, myself, the rest of the shadow cabinet  are unified on that. And when Ed Balls gets booed at the TUC or when Ed Miliband says [in a New Statesman interview] it would be “crackers” to make promises he can’t keep, both Eds are speaking for all of us in saying that fiscal realism has to be the foundation of economic radicalism in the years ahead.

I asked whether he was implying that it was politically not such a bad thing for Ed Balls to be seen getting heckled by a union audience if it showed his budgetary rigour. The answer:

What’s important is that we have a Shadow Chancellor willing to level with audiences, whether within the labour movement or beyond the labour movement. That seems to me to be vital for our task of coming back in one parliament. And, as I say, my strong sense is that Ed Balls was speaking for all of us when he said I’m not going to say one thing in one room and one in another.

Alexander was also keen to support Ed Miliband’s analysis that the problems facing the economy are more profoundly structural than the Conservatives appear to realise – and that they predate the financial crisis.

Ed understood earlier than some that the old economy is not coming back. He has started a conversation with the country about the kind of economy that we’re going to need. But there is a second point: Ed believes deeply that ideas matter in politics and I agree with him. The most telling phrase uttered by David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party was when he was asked ‘why do you want to be prime minister?’ and he replied ‘because I think I’d be good at it’. That obviously shows that confidence and competence are not the same thing and that just because you’re born to rule it doesn’t mean you’re very good at it. But it tells you something deeper as well – it tells you that he hasn’t thought very deeply about the problems of the country and I think that explains the hollowing out of David Cameron’s leadership that we’ve seen over the last six to eight months.

The fundamental difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, between Labour and Conservative is that they want to run the country and we want to change the country …

… We need to level with the public that the economy is changing – routine work and secure jobs are tougher to come by than they were 10 ,20, 30 years ago. That’s why it’s important that Ed has started this conversation. Since 1989, two billion more people have entered the international labour market. So the question for me and my constituency is: how do we equip that woman with the childcare that she needs to earn a decent living for her family, how do we make sure she has access to a mortgage or decent rented accommodation if she’s worried about losing her home. How do we make sure that there is decent care for her parents or for her children so she’s able to carry on in work.

Alexander expects Labour to face a relentlessly negative campaign from the Tories:

I believe that so profound has been the economic error by the Conservatives in this parliament that by the time of the next election all that will be left to their messaging will be negativity and division. That’s not a winning formula, I don’t think. But we need to be ready and we need to recognise that they will throw whatever mud they can to try and cling on to office.

Specifically, I suggested, they will blame disappointing economic performance on unforeseen turbulence in the eurozone and that there will be more aggressive rhetoric on the undesirable impact of immigration and benefit “scrounging”.

The reply:

The conservatives are in the excuses business, not the explanation business and that’s why we need a different quality of debate … If we are facing circumstances of economic crisis as profound as are confronting Britain today, it’s incumbent on politicians to recognise that politics as usual doesn’t cut it.

On immigration:

Ed was absolutely right to say this is an issue; that we didn’t anticipate the extent of inward migration from Eastern European countries immediately after they acceded to the EU and that that did have an impact on wage levels and communities where significant numbers of people moved and joined the labour force. But he was also right to recognise that in many communities these immigrants have made an immense contribution to the tax base and to the productivity of the local economy.

On Europe and referendums:

Ukip is living rent free in George Osborne’s head at the moment, but that’s not a good way to frame a foreign policy or an approach to Europe. I’ve said previously that Labour could not or should not make a decision now about referendums when we don’t now the shape or character of Europe in few months, let alone a few years … The Conservatives are vulnerable to making decisions to negotiate with their own backbenches more than to negotiate with European partners because the truth is that 60 or 70 hardline eurosceptics were elected onto the Conservative benches in 2010. David Cameron used to claim that he had changed the party. Europe is one of the issues that shows the Conservative party is changing David Cameron.

The big challenge for our kids’ generation is the rise of Beijing not the reach of Brussels. That has to be the starting point of understanding Britain’s place in the world. That’s one truth. A second truth is – in that changing world, if you’re not strong in your neighbourhood, you’re not strong globally. Third, when we are struggling to find any growth in Britain at the moment, the idea that we would spend the coming years shrinking our home market from 500 millions consumers to 60 million consumers just doesn’t make sense. So there are big powerful arguments for why Britain’s future is best served from within the European union but that case needs to made alongside a clear-headed pro-reform, pro-British view of how Europe needs to change.

On the electoral challenge for Labour in finding a new audience and winning back lost voters:

I don’t buy the argument that says the way Lab can win a majority in 2015 is simply to find five million Labour voters who were lost after 97, partly because the best estimate is that 1.5 million of them are now dead. They won’t be voting. Second, that thesis suggests those votes were all lost to Labour’s left. If you actually look at the numbers 1.6 million of those voters did vote Lib Dem, but 2.5 million of them moved to parties of the right: to the Conservatives, the BNP, to Ukip. That’s why our message and our machine must be directed not towards 5 million voters but towards 40 million voters.

When asked whether that meant signalling more willingness to work with the Lib Dems:

There’s nothing immoral about parties working together and in that sense the difficulty for the Lib Dems is that many of their voters sincerely saw themselves as centre-left and are now disoriented, disappointed, incredulous that they find themselves part of a centre-right political project.  Lib Dem leaders spend a lot of time pretending they’re the opposition when in fact they’re the enablers of George Osborne and the Conservative party.

As Labour we need to understand that many Lib Dem voters feel a deep sense of disappointment with the party they voted for and reach out to them and encourage them to vote Labour. Both Labour and Lib Dems have at times in our history suffered from an unattractive sense of moral exceptionalism. We are vulnerable in the Labour party, or have been in the past, to seeing Lib Dems as Labour people who just got lost on the way to the committee room. And I think we need to respect the fact that we need to reach out and embrace those voters who are looking for a progressive home, thought they had found that in Lib Dems and now feel disoriented and politically homeless.

What about ever signalling some readiness to agree with things the Conservatives are doing? The answer:

The biggest foreign policy decision we faced in opposition was whether to back the government on Libya and, of course, in the long shadow of Iraq that was a genuinely difficult decision for Ed and me. But I think we should be big enough, especially on issues of national security, that if the government is getting it right, we recognise it and accept it …

That was the approach I tried to take with Iain Duncan Smith when I was shadowing him at the Department for Work and Pensions. Where we think the government is getting something right we should be willing to accept it because that gives credence to the very trenchant criticism that they deserve on many, many areas of policy … IDS is a sincere man, he’s just sincerely wrong on certain aspects of policy.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said "it's time that we take Boris seriously". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Aid in whose interest?

The government appears to be raiding the aid budget to subsidise big business and the security state.

In March 1988, Scottish aristocrat and Defence Minister to Margaret Thatcher, George Younger visited was part of a controversial offer of £200m of the UK aid budget in exchange for Malaysia signing a £1bn arms deal.

The government promised public money to subsidise UK construction giant Balfour Beatty to build a hydroelectric dam named Pergau in Malaysia’s mountainous north east.

Malaysia’s national utility, the World Bank and auditors at the Overseas Development Administration, the UK aid ministry, questioned the human development value of the project for the middle-income country, finding its costs to be “markedly uneconomic" compared to other options then available.

But these warnings were summarily dismissed.

Thatcher, who I believe saw aid not as a vehicle for eradicating poverty but as a means to advance Britain's commercial and geostrategic interests, wanted the arms deal.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad wanted an infrastructure project in Kelantan state, which was held by a rival party, which he wanted to wrest votes from.

But the National Audit Office soon got wind of the deal and parliamentary committees started to ask awkward questions of those involved.

The press published dozens of articles and the Pergau scandal was born.

Newspapers soon unearthed other white elephant development  projects resulting from the tying of aid to private British interests that did little for reducing poverty but were a boon for the contractors involved.

The Permanent Secretary to the ODA (Overseas Development Administration, now Dfid – the Department for International Development), Tim Lankester, said that Pergau was “unequivocally a bad buy”, “an abuse of the aid system” and “not a sound development project”.

The World Development Movement (renamed Global Justice Now) won a judicial review in 1994 against the government in the High Court which ruled the payment of aid “for unsound development purposes” illegal.

The Tories reacted, not by untying aid from UK vested interests, but by slashing the aid budget as punishment for the bad press – it seems that Thatcher saw little use for aid that could not be used to subsidise private interests.

Labour came to power in 1997 with an agenda to reform how Britain did development. It established a better-funded and politically-stronger aid department, the Department for International Development (DFID), with a seat in cabinet.

It scrapped the Aid and Trade Provision, the official mechanism by which aid was used to subsidise British company contracts, and in 2001 untied aid from UK commercial interests. The International Development Act of 2002 for the first time legally committed the UK to spending aid only on poverty reduction.

But since the Conservatives won a clear majority in last year’s general election, the government has been wilfully unlearning the lessons of Pergau.

Out of the hobbling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have unpicked Labour’s reforms by effectively retying aid to the interests of the private sector and its perceived security interests.

They appear to have deprioritised poverty reduction as the principal purpose of the aid budget. “There is a real risk of the budget being recaptured by commercial interests as it was in the 1980s,” Sir Tim Lankester told me recently. “[International Development Secretary] Justine Greening has been making sure British commercial interests get more and more of the cake.

“What’s remarkable these days is the huge contracts going to the big consultancies to advise government and manage projects – The Adam Smith Internationals. The Crown Agents and others.”

November’s aid strategy “tackling global challenges in the national interest”, written largely by the Treasury rather than by Dfid, announced that aid would be a tool to “strengthen UK trade and investment opportunities around the world”.

The retying of aid spend is sold in the strategy in the same way the Conservatives sell austerity and privatisation at home.

Using the language of “prosperity” and “economic opportunity” (“inequality” was not mentioned once in the 22-page document), the government spins the dubious argument that communities in the world’s poorest nations share the interests of both UK business and the UK security state.

This “what’s good for us is good for you” aid strategy’s promotion of the UK interest over those of the poor grossly undermines the government’s legal duty under the International Development Act.

The aid strategy leaves it to the concurrently published National Security Strategy to enumerate what these imaginative interests are: to “protect our people”, to “project our global influence” and to “promote our prosperity”.

To achieve these ends, the government has allotted half of the aid budget to conflict-hit states, which are expected to be the states Britain has helped destabilise in recent years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya Syria and Yemen.

The government also successfully lobbied the OECD to widen the official definition of “Official Development Assistance” (aid) to include military spend on counter-terrorism and expand the use of aid subsidies for private – and inevitably British – projects in the developing world.

Over the course of this Parliament, the Tories will triple to around £5bn the amount of aid to be spent outside of Dfid. The main beneficiaries of this diversion of aid are the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the foreign office (FCO) and the business department (BIS). These departments are considerably less transparent than Dfid and, according to the National Audit office, spend most of their aid on middle income countries, rather than low-income countries.

This slide towards using aid to subsidise British business and as a slush fund top up its military and security budgets means that development projects devoted to public health, education and countering the agricultural and ecological destruction wrought by climate change, will suffer.

***

Take the growing spend by Dfid on private consultants and accountancy firms.

Under the Tory austerity programme Dfid’s staff has been slashed, which means there is less public capacity to allocate, monitor aid projects.

To compensate for this under capacity the government has farmed out the aid budget in bigger and bigger parcels to private contractors and accountancy firms to do the work for a profit.

Dfid spends some £1.4bn directly through private contractors and several times more than that through its payments to multilateral development banks that recycle British aid back through the private sector.

In 2014, Dfid said 90 per cent of its contracts are awarded to British companies, strange for a department that claims to have untied aid. Almost no contracts are signed directly with NGOs or contractors in the Global South.

In 2014 alone, it spent £90m through a single private consultancy, Adam Smith International (ASI), which that year declared £14m in profits, a profit that doubled in two years on the back of Dfid and British taxpayers.

ASI, which was spun off from the neoliberal think tank Adam Smith Institute, is in the business of privatising public works in the Global South from Nigeria to Afghanistan and deregulating the Nigerian economy under its “Business Environment” stream of Dfid’s £180m Growth and Empowerment in States scheme.

In 2014, Dfid spent £42.9m on the services of one accountancy firm alone (PwC), in spite of its part in the LuxLeaks tax avoidance scandal. It is this tacitly sanctioned flight of wealth that costs poor nations (non-OECD) three times more each year in tax avoidance to tax havens than they receive in aid from rich nations (OECD) according to the OECD itself.

Contrary to the public perception, aid is for the most part not “given” to poor countries. At present, only 0.2 per cent of the world’s humanitarian aid goes directly to local and national non-government agencies and civil society organisations. This is despite a consensus that these groups are the most effective engines for development.

The increasing use of private contractors and large bilateral financial institutions to get aid out of the door constitutes nothing less than a capture of the aid budget by corporate interests, which also advise the government on where to direct future aid flows.

Under this government, aid has become less a tool for development but a rent for a veritable industry that concentrates the knowledge, skills and finance in the companies and institutions of rich nations.

***

Take the amount of British aid that subsidises the fossil fuel industry and therefore promotes global warming, which affects the poor considerably more than the rich because they lack the resources to adapt.

The effects of climate change are already biting. The rising frequency of drought on the world’s semi-arid regions of the world, including the Middle East constitutes, to borrow a term from Professor Rob Nixon, a “slow violence” enacted by industrialised nations on the poor.

Our refusal to take commensurate action on climate change means that water stress is rising across the world, which impairs development and has even been linked to conflict in Nigeria and Syria.

In April, I visited Somaliland, which is experiencing the worst drought in living memory along with the rest of east and southern Africa. Agriculture has collapsed, the animals are dying and migration is rising fast.

Many of these climate refugees are washing up on the shores of Italy and Greece. Survivors in are being sent back to Turkey because there is no international protection available to a subsistence farmer without water or a parent who cannot afford to feed their children.

In 2009, the UK pledged at the G20 to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies but instead it has been using public funds to increase them, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

Using aid money to give the fossil fuel industry a leg up and imperil us all to the onslaught of global warming entrenches inequality and hampers sustainable development.

***

Last year the EU signed a €1.8bn aid package with the governments of 20 African nations, including Eritrea, a totalitarian state financed by slave labour, to keep Eritreans in their country and to accept planes filled with their citizens who are denied asylum in Europe.

Clearly, this aid money is being spent principally the interests of the donors and not the world’s poor.

But aside from using aid to forcibly return people at risk of human rights abuses, this aid holds development back in other ways. Migration is the biggest driver of development because economic migrants from poor countries who work in rich countries back remittances that amount to three times the international aid spend.

“Migrants are the original agents of development,” William Lacy Swing, director of the International Organization for Migration, told the World Humanitarian Summit in May.

In effect we are spending public money legally allocated for reducing poverty on keeping the world’s poor mired in it.

***

Take the UK’s “preventing violent extremism” agenda – borrowed, of course, from the Americans – under whose banner projects can be now funded with UK aid.

Britain’s successful lobbying of the OECD – in opposition to other large donor states, including Sweden – to include some counter-terrorism military spend in the definition of aid is of deep concern.

The OECD already allowed for the provision of aid to prevent conflict and promote peace but this new extremist lens, as opposed to the purely conflict lens, allows the aid spend to become politicised.

After all, governments across the world call their political enemies “extremists” or “terrorists”, but the term is rarely ascribed to governments themselves, even when they brutalise their populations.

The government seems ready to exploit to this change, having set up its new £1bn aid-funded Conflict Stability and Security Fund (rising to £1.3bn in 2020), of which 90p of every pound is spent by the FCO and the MoD.

The stage has been set for Britain’s security state to raid the aid budget to pursue the ill-conceived and expensive military strategy du jour.

The government’s agenda to spend aid in conflict-hit and fragile states on counter-terrorism projects has a bad precedent. The US development agency USAID spent billions in post-2001 Afghanistan, which was embezzled or spirited out of the country.

Even worse, the aid was destabilising. “Instead of rescuing the [political] transition process, aid contributed to its failings,” said the NGO Saferworld in a report this year on the lessons learned from the American state-building strategy in Afghanistan. “Large aid volumes overwhelmed local absorptive capacity and sustained a rentier state . . . The influx of aid funds and the competition over the illegal economy strengthened predatory and opportunistic elites that the US and its allies tried to reform.”

The British government risks falling into the American trap of using counter-terrorism aid to remake conflict-hit fragile states into democracies.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), the government’s own aid watchdog, has criticized the government’s failure to learn lessons from the past, adding that its security initiatives are “naïve” and perform “poorly” in terms of both effectiveness and value for money.

***

In another dangerous case of aid not being used in the interests of development, the Tories are using it to establish private healthcare and education across the Global South.

Publically provided, free and universal health and education of the type we enjoy in Britain should be pursued across the Global South because it reduces inequality and strengthens democratic accountability.

Private provision of these services in the words of turns these basic needs into commodities whose price variable and unaffordable to poor and marginalised sections of society.

In Britain we should be internationalising the principle of free-at-the-point-of-use health and education, a privilege hard fought for by a generation of Labour politicians interested in social justice and the condition of the poor.

Instead, Dfid’s Education Position Paper calls for “developing new partnerships across the public-private spectrum” and commits Dfid to promoting low-cost private schools “in at least four countries”.

Its flagship education programme of the Department of International Development, in partnership with Coca Cola and PwC, is the £355m Girl’s Education Challenge, which rolls out private education across 18 countries, including 15 African nations.

In signing up to last year’s Sustainable Development Goals last year, Britain committed to “achieve universal health coverage”, which is directly undermined by a development agenda which favours fees.

***

The privatisation of our aid budget alongside its entrapment by enormous multilateral financial institutions is symptomatic of the wider erosion neoliberalism is enacting on the British – and global – economy.

In 2016, aid should be about empowering the losers of neoliberalism across the Global South to cut poverty and reduce inequality. This means placing more emphasis on working directly with the poor, colonised and, more-often, the women of the Global South.

Aid should not be spent on the five and often six figure salaries of the global financial elite, nor should it be tied to Britain’s commercial interests to provide public subsidy for private interests. If we wish to subsidise our private sector, that’s fine, but should do it using export credit and not disguise it as aid.

I can already hear the outcry from development experts that spending money at the grassroots is harder to track and the shrill headlines that taxpayers’ money is being wasted on bee-keepers in Kyrgyzstan or on a Somali radio drama that gave tips to illegal immigrants (all real headlines from the Murdoch press).

But I would accept more “waste” by employing more Dfid civil servants to monitor a greater number of smaller grassroots aid projects on a trial-and-error basis than I would accept the other now ubiquitous form of waste that we do not call waste: the subsidising poverty barons, who enrich themselves off the aid ‘industry’.

This is not a particularly radical agenda. Aid under Labour’s Clare Short, Dfid’s first head, targeted the grassroots and there is a growing consensus among the establishment that we must return to this model to make development more effective and give poor people ownership over projects rather than imposing them from above.

More power and capital needs to go into the hands of grassroots groups.

We must recall the lessons of Pergau and redesign our aid system so that it is not captured by industry or distant elites for their own profitability but a means by which the poor can bring about transformative social change for themselves. 

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow secretary of state for international development.