Cameron's lack of leadership on global poverty is tarnishing Britain's reputation

In contrast to Labour's legacy on international development, the Prime Minister has failed to put the work in to deliver radical change for developing countries.

This week the UN General Assembly is hosting a Special Event on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which seeks to rally support to accelerate progress. It will also clarify the road ahead for the negotiations and agreement on what will replace the MDGs when they expire in 2015. With less than a thousand days to go, this is an important moment which will shape the future of global development.

By virtue of David Cameron's co-chairing of the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 development framework and the G8 Presidency in 2013, the UK is exceptionally well placed to lead global policy in this area. But Cameron is proving time and time again that he is failing to provide this leadership. He will not attend the UN Special Event on the MDGs this week, nor did he show up for half of the panel meetings of which he was a co-chair. Despite warms words to the effect, the Prime Minister failed to put the work in to deliver radical change for developing countries at the G8 Summit earlier this year. He has also failed to articulate a credible, inspirational vision for development, his "Golden Thread" theory having been widely criticised as ill-defined.

Cameron's lack of commitment and leadership threatens to tarnish Britain's global reputation and stands in stark contrast to Labour's legacy on international development. In 2005, a Labour government used the G8 chairmanship at Gleneagles to increase aid by $50bn by 2010 and brokered ambitious commitments on debt relief and climate change. At the 2009 meeting of the UN General Assembly, Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander led the push to tackle maternal and child mortality by negotiating deals with African leaders to scrap health user fees in Nepal, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Burundi. While Labour's leaders fought tirelessly to change the world, this Prime Minister doesn't even turn up for work. Worse still, Cameron reportedly blocked consensus on the inclusion of a goal on universal health care coverage in the High Level Panel's final recommendations.

Whilst in government Labour changed the world on international development and we are working still to make a difference from opposition. I have laid out our post-2015 vision for a new "social contract without borders" which brings together the world's poverty reduction and sustainability objectives.

At conference I announced that we are in the process of developing a centre-left progressive coalition of politicians who share Ed Miliband's vision that now is the time for radical change in the world, not tinkering at the edges. We favour big structural change on tax, trade, climate change and inequality as part of the new UN development framework to be adopted in 2015. We want to see an end to poverty by 2030 but also an end to aid dependency with new relationships between nations built on reciprocity and shared values.

In the months ahead, Ed Miliband and I will be working to build this coalition and the vision we share for the new development framework.I also announced that Tessa Jowell has launched a global petition calling on the UN Secretary General to ensure that a focus on early childhood development and a commitment to integrating the care, support and services to give a child the best start in life should be at the heart of any new global development framework that replaces the MDGs in 2015. We know from experience and evidence in the UK that investing in a child's earliest years makes the biggest difference to that child's life. If it is right for our children, then surely it should be right for some of the poorest children in the world.

The Special Event on the MDGs this week is more than just another international meeting; it provides the opportunity to build global consensus around a new, ambitious agreement on international development. It is about eradicating poverty, putting an end to the scourge of hunger and malnutrition, protecting our planet and ensuring every child reaches their full potential. It is about what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of world we want to leave our children. It is a shame that David Cameron doesn't see this potential and has squandered the opportunity for Britain to show real leadership on the world stage.

Ivan Lewis is shadow international development secretary

David Cameron attends a meeting with Business 20 and Labour 20 representatives at the G20 Summit on September 6, 2013 in St. Petersburg. Photograph: Getty Images.
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser