Douglas Alexander, then international development secretary, and Ed Miliband, then climate change secretary, during their trip to India and Bangladesh in 2009. Photograph: Richard Darlington.
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Labour needs to turn up the volume on international development

Why is Labour not yet talking about responsible capitalism in a global context?

Ed Miliband doesn’t talk about international issues very often. Who can blame him? The perceived wisdom is that there are no votes in foreign affairs. But at times of crisis, opposition politicians can project gravitas and statesmanship, as Miliband did on the vote over military action in Syria. Whatever you think about the issue, that Parliamentary moment turned the political tide at the end of a difficult summer for Labour and cleared the political decks for his successful energy freeze conference speech.

Miliband was due to visit India earlier this year but cancelled his trip because of the flooding of southern England. I was with Miliband the last time he visited India, back in 2009. We visited a slum in West Bengal and flooded villages in Bangladesh. I know he "gets it". But there is a group of progressive activists in development, diplomacy and defence (dubbed "Labour 3D") who are still waiting to hear from him. Their perception is that he hasn’t spoken out since the UK hosted the G8 last year and they feel that he did so then because he had to, rather than because he wanted to. They say none of his party conference speeches have had an international section.

David Cameron also cancelled a trip that week and was forced to respond to a joint Daily Mail-UKIP offensive on the UK aid budget. Rather than defend aid, in its own terms, he made a throw-away remark at a hastily arranged press conference that turned into a hostage to fortune. By saying that "money was no object", he addressed the call for the overseas aid budget to be spent on flood victims at home in a way that turned his austerity narrative on its head. No longer was there "no alternative" and nor were we "all in this together". On the door step, voters contrasted the bedroom tax on "people like us" to a "blank cheque" for people like him.

That domestic political minefield might well be why mainstream politicians steer clear of talking about international aid and why UKIP talk it up endlessly. Last week DFID announced that they had spent 0.72% on aid, but blink and you’d have missed it. The announcement came on the day that the Telegraph described as "a good day to bury bad news".

Yet Labour has a good story to tell about achievements on the global stage, a proud record to defend and an internationalist narrative that would fit comfortably with their domestic one. Tomorrow, the shadow international development secretary, Jim Murphy, speaks at the ONE campaign. It’s another opportunity for Labour to reaffirm their commitment to locking in 0.7, something no Labour politician has done since Ed Balls suggested there was a political consensus on the overall level of aid spending back in 2012.

Labour talks a lot about "responsible capitalism" but activists sometimes feel that is an exclusively domestic agenda, rather than an international one. As well as talking about "One Nation", will Labour also talk about "One World"? It could serve the dual purpose of locking UKIP out of a political consensus on the amount of overseas aid but also give Labour a dividing line with the Tories on the objective of overseas aid.

The policy community’s big critique of Cameron’s contribution to the 2015 Post-Millennium Development Goals framework has been his blind spot on the issue of inequality. There are now more poor people living in countries that are no longer poor. This week Action Aid publish a report warning of the dangers of involving the private sector in development without ensuring that the benefits of growth are shared by the poorest. Why is Labour not yet talking about responsible capitalism in a global context?

The economic development agenda, as advanced by Justine Greening, was brought to DFID by Douglas Alexander before the financial crisis. Again, this is something that the policy community point out. One of the most successful achievements of using UK aid for economic development - access to finance via mobile money (M-Pesa) - featured in the FT and on Newsnight last week. Greening’s embrace of this agenda is an important one because it potentially opens up a wider coalition for the politics of development on the right. But the agenda also carries risks that Labour are perfectly placed to highlight. The risk that a rising economic tide will not necessarily lift all boats. Markets need to be managed if the poor are to prosper.

If there is to be a big tent consensus among the three main parties come election time, they need to start staking out both their common ground and their detailed differences. If the mainstream parties retreat on UK aid, UKIP win by default. But to quote Frankie Goes to Hollywood, when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score.

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

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

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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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