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.

Photo: Getty
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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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