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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.