Labour accuses Tories of reviving memories of apartheid with South Africa aid decision

Ivan Lewis says the move to end aid will leave a "bitter taste", comparing it to the Tories' decision to oppose sanctions on apartheid South Africa.

Did the UK announce the end of aid to South Africa without having the courtesy to inform the South African government first? The British government and Pretoria are offering very different accounts this morning. The South African international relations department said that "proper consultations" had not taken place and denounced the "unilateral" decision. Its statement read:

This is such a major decision with far reaching implications on the projects that are currently running and it is tantamount to redefining our relationship.

Ordinarily, the UK government should have informed the government of South Africa through official diplomatic channels of their intentions and allowed for proper consultations to take place, and the modalities of the announcement agreed on.

But on the Today programme this morning, William Hague insisted that the move "shouldn’t have been a surprise" since discussions had been going on "for some months". He added: "No doubt there is some confusion or bureaucratic confusion about that, perhaps, on the South African side. But I’m not going to fling accusations about that. "

International Development Secretary Justine Greening announced the decision to end direct aid, currently worth £19m a year, at a conference of African ministers and business leaders in London yesterday. "I have agreed with my South African counterparts that South Africa is now in a position to fund its own development," she said. 

"It is right that our relationship changes to one of mutual co-operation and trade, one that is focused on delivering benefits for the people of Britain and South Africa as well as for Africa as a whole."

In the context of an international development budget of £11bn, the decision to end £19m of aid to a country worth $408.2bn (GDP) might not seem particularly notable, but Labour has seized on the accusation of bad faith. The shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis declared this morning that it would "reinforce some of the feelings about the apartheid years", later tweeting: "Tories opposed sanctions against apartheid S africa and now end aid to democratic S africa in shabby way. Leaves bitter taste". In a statement issued last night he said: 

Justine Greening has serious questions to answer – her claim that her decision was made with the agreement of her South African counterparts has been completely contradicted by the South African Government.
 
This looks like a serious breach of trust with one of our most important strategic partners. Justine Greening must explain why she is saying one thing about her conduct while the South African Government is saying another.
 
Behaving in what looks like a high-handed and patronising fashion towards South Africa is no way to treat one of the world’s key emerging nations and is not in Britain’s national interest.
But beyond the question of whether the South African government was properly consulted, there is a bigger argument here about whether the UK should continue to provide aid to so-called "middle income countries". Having previously ended aid to India, Greening has made her position clear, but as Lewis pointed out on Today this morning, 75 per cent of the world's poorest people now live in middle-income countries, not poor countries. "If we are going to withdraw from every middle-income country in terms of our aid programme, we are not going to be getting to many of the poorest people," he noted.
 
This argument has the benefit of moral consistency but it's not an easy one to make when the public are already so sceptical of aid spending. A recent ComRes poll showed that just 8 per cent believe the aid budget should be increased, while 77 per cent believe it should be cut. 
 
The figure of £19m may not appear economically significant but the Tories will use this as another example of why Labour would still be big spenders, not wise spenders.
South African president Jacob Zuma speaks with David Cameron on July 18, 2011 during a press conference in Pretoria. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.