This piece is published this morning on the Guardian development blog (under the rather fabulous headline “Will international development be the undoing of David Cameron?” – we can but dream…)
International development may not be among the top five most salient issues at the next UK general election. Yet, for two reasons, it remains in its way a key battleground issue.
First, it’s the last remnant of the signature issues pushed by David Cameron in a bid to “detoxify” the Tory brand. All the others have fallen from grace – “hug a hoodie“, the “big society“, the “greenest government ever” – to the extent that Danny Kruger, the author of the hug a hoodie speech, said last month:
I’d like to know where David Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism has gone … my overall feeling is that there is a loss of drive and energy that David Cameron personally had before the last election.
Development matters for Cameron not only because it provides him with one of his last remaining claims to the political centre, but also because of opposition from his own backbenchers – the reason other detox issues fell by the wayside.
With Cameron’s authority over his party already problematic – and likely to become more so between now and 2015 as his restive MPs contemplate the idea of a second coalition – development represents a key test issue that he cannot afford to lose.
For Labour, on the other hand, development matters because of its unique power to energise a bloc of highly committed, activist-minded voters who are natural Labour supporters.
While Iraq was clearly catastrophic for Labour’s capacity to appeal to this group of voters, 10 years have now passed. This time around, the big question is whether Labour’s offer on development is different enough to motivate them not just to vote, but to put their formidable capacities to organise and mobilise others behind the party’s campaign.
Needless to say, the Conservatives will hope their commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid will be enough to neutralise that threat – and to give credit where it’s due, they have delivered on their pre-election rhetoric.
Labour will continue to do what it can to attack this claim – by pointing to the Tories’ failure to keep their promise to legislate for the 0.7% target, for example – but it seems clear that they will have to look elsewhere for its key “dividing lines” on development. So what are their options?
First, inequality. As a Save the Children report published this week underlines, tackling income inequality in developing countries will be essential if the world is to achieve zero poverty by 2030.
This fits easily with the One Nation narrative that Ed Miliband has developed for Labour, but presents much more of a political headache for Cameron (indeed, the relatively weak language on inequality in the recent UN high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, which Cameron co-chaired, was largely at British insistence).
Climate will be a second key attack issue for Labour, given that the coalition’s record since 2010 includes the abolition of solar power subsidies, embarrassingly low take-up of the government’s green deal on energy efficiency, and a 3.5% rise in UK emissions in 2012. None of this puts the UK in a strong position to lead internationally in 2014, when political heavy lifting will be needed ahead of the crucial December 2015 summit in Paris.
Third, a financial transactions tax. While some development experts remain unconvinced of the case for a Robin Hood tax, campaigners adore the idea. But while Ed Balls publicly supports the case for such a tax at international level, the Conservatives remain opposed to imposing such a constraint on the City.
This in turn fits in with Labour’s fourth potential dividing line: a broader message of policy coherence. Before the 2010 election, the Department for International Development was an active player in cross-Whitehall debates on areas such as trade, migration, intellectual property, tax havens, climate, and environment.
Since then, though, it has been firmly pushed back into aid administration rather than a broader agenda of development diplomacy. We’re therefore likely to hear a lot from Labour arguing that, unlike the Tories, it believes aid spending is just one piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle.
Finally, Labour will attack Cameron’s own record of international leadership. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both exerted huge amounts of energy and political capital on the UK-hosted meetings of the G8 in 2005 and G20 in 2009 – in both cases, putting development concerns very much front and centre.
Cameron, on the other hand, seems a less enthusiastic global advocate for development. His G8 tax agenda appeared half-hearted and under-prepared, while his co-chairmanship of the UN post-2015 high-evel panel was noted by many for his reluctance to attend meetings and clumsy media diplomacy.
How he is perceived on development going in to the 2015 election will depend largely on how much international leadership he is prepared to show over the next 18 months. Given how crucial this period will be for both climate change and the post-2015 development agenda, the importance of this test goes far beyond party politics.
• Alex Evans was special adviser to Hilary Benn at the UK Department for International Development from 2003 to 2006, and blogs at www.globaldashboard.org