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.