Cutting the aid budget and skipping meetings: is Cameron still a global leader?

It's worry that NGOs seem to have become far better at campaigning for new things than holding the Government to account for what they have already promised.


The Prime Minister is supposed to be in Bali today, but instead, he is giving a speech on immigration and welfare benefits. Being Prime Minister is a busy job, but when he was picked by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to co-chair the UN’s high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, the assumption was that he’d be going to the meetings.

The "high-level" panel is so high-level, that there are only 30 people on it, carefully balanced to represent all global interests and come up with the next set of global objectives, to replace the Millennium Development Goals . David Cameron is representing the G8 and the rest of the developed world, while the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia represent the developing world, as his fellow co-chairs.

But Cameron isn’t there. He’s sent Development Secretary Justine Greening to represent him. Obama sends Cameron, Cameron sends Greening… But the NGOs aren’t up in arms. Engagement in the work of the high-level panel has thus far been the preserve of the academic development elite.

By contrast, Comic Relief and the IF campaign have been engaging the public in a far more accessible conversation. The IF campaign was highly visible last week, lobbying for the Chancellor to keep his pledge on a 0.7 per cent budget for overseas aid. And come Budget day, NGOs were falling over themselves to congratulate the UK on becoming the first G8 country to meet the 0.7 per cent pledge.

But in the detail of the Budget, it emerged that DFID had contributed to the record £10.9bn departmental under-spend to the tune of £500m (see page 70). From a total departmental budget of £8.8bn, an under-spend of £500m is a major event. But the NGOs have not been up in arms. They have become far better at campaigning  for new things, than holding the Government to account for what they previously promised.

Do under-spends really matter? One way of putting that DFID’s under-spend into context is to look at what a £500m under-spend could have funded. Next year DFID plans to spend a total of £500m combating malaria, but they could have done it last year, simply by using their under-spend.

Over the weekend, The Sun reported Tory MP Priti Patel’s criticism of DFID for spend £45m on ‘bonuses for pen pushers’. Patel says: “this money could have been much better spent on transforming people’s lives,” and The Sun’s report suggests that it “would pay for tetanus jabs for more than a BILION kids”. On that maths, DFID’s under-spend, with or without the ‘bonuses for pen pushers’, would pay for tetanus jabs for 10 billion kids.

Rightly, the week before the Budget, Britain was celebrating a record breaking fundraising effort during Comic Relief. A huge £75m was raised, £16m of which came from DFID match funding the generosity of the British public. But the following week, we discover that they could have matched it six times over, just by using their under-spend.

If the Government under-spend £500m when their aid budget it 0.56% (or £8.8bn), how much will they under-spend when it is 0.7 per cent (or £11.3bn)? I have written for Staggers before suggesting that the UK may never actually spend 0.7 per cent because the Government will continue to under-spend for the last two years of this Parliament, fail to fulfil their manifesto commitment to enshrine 0.7 per cent in law and then review the aid budget the other-side of the next election. I hope I’m wrong. But the lack of outcry from the development community when Cameron skips UN meetings and DFID under-spend so dramatically, doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. 

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2008-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR - follow him on twitter: @RDarlo

David Cameron with Justine Greening last year. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.