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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.