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Jim Murphy has set out an ambitious (and Labour) vision for development

18 April 2014

Claire Leigh, Chair of the Labour Campaign for International Development

Since its earliest days Labour has been an internationalist party and proud of it, too. From Keir Hardy and Harold Wilson to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, those who shaped Labour’s vision in the 20th and early 21st Century regarded the fight against poverty overseas as a natural extension of the fight against poverty at home. If Labour wins in 2015, we look forward to our proud tradition continuing. But with the clear focus of the current leadership on the cost of living crisis here in the UK, we are still waiting to hear the precise steps the next Labour Government will take to restore British leadership in the world.

So it was with a sense of anxious expectation that the Party’s many internationalists gathered recently to hear Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, start to flesh out what a Labour Government’s development policy might look like in 2015.

In his first major speech since taking over the role from Ivan Lewis, Jim Murphy addressed a packed audience at ONE. The question on everyone’s minds was: Can a post-Iraq, post-financial crisis Labour ever regain the scale of ambition and impact of the heady days of Make Poverty History and the G8 Gleneagles Summit, which saw the British Government convince world leaders to double aid and cancel the debt of the poorest countries?

It’s a question we in the Labour Campaign for International Development were particularly anxious to have answered. And Jim Murphy gave us every reason to believe that come May 2015 Labour will have a development offer that is ambitious, definitively progressive and with implications for our governing project well beyond the programmes run by DFID itself.

Murphy’s fiercely political instinct was evident in an agenda that was both more obviously ‘Labour’ than we’ve seen for some time, and more geared to a voting public which remains deeply unconvinced about aid.

Power was the speech’s central theme – arguing that without redistributing it we will only ever be tackling the symptoms of poverty, not its cause. He pledged to point DFID ‘at the actual problem…not only at the terrible consequences’. Under this frame, four key themes were presented.

Firstly, DFID under Labour would recognise that growth by itself is not enough, without bringing jobs, improved public services and economic empowerment. As Labour is rightly stressing in its domestic narrative, GDP is the wrong bottom line. What matters are living standards and an inclusive economy.

Secondly, Murphy recognised poor governance to be the key development blocker. Capable governments – able to tax and spend responsibly – represent the end game that will make traditional aid unnecessary. Murphy’s pledge to scale up DFID support to tax-collecting institutions is therefore both long overdue and very welcome indeed. We were also promised additional support to nationally-run services. Again, Murphy shows he understands that Labour values have applicability overseas; state services like healthcare that’s free at the point of use should be our ambition for all people, not just Britons.

Thirdly, we were told that a Labour DFID would focus on creating decent jobs and improving workers’ rights, including re-instating Britain’s support for the ILO.

Fourthly, and most controversially, Murphy announced that human rights conditionality will form an important thread under a Labour government. Budget support (money given directly to government institutions) will be conditional on countries passing an annual ‘human rights audit.’ This is likely to play well to the public come election time.

So far so good. But the shadow team’s thinking also needs to address some important details, now that the big strategic themes have been laid out.

First, whilst it’s true that power and governance hold the key to development, these are also the areas least amenable to outside influence. The levers we have are weak, and DFID’s influence on areas such as human rights may be undermined by other donors, such as China, who are far less critical of the countries they provide aid to.

Second is a question that matters greatly to the public – will a Labour DFID continue to fund middle-income countries? Deciding whether our support targets poor people, regardless of their location, or poor countries will be critical to DFID’s strategy come 2015.

And finally, given Jim Murphy’s desire to look ‘beyond aid’ towards power and economic justice, how bought-in are his shadow cabinet colleagues? What other Labour Ministers do in power will be at least as important for development as what DFID does. Our trade, business, tax and immigration policies all need to be aligned to our development vision.

It’s yet to be seen if development will have any prominence in Labour’s election narrative, but come May the 9th, on the basis of what we heard from Jim last week, DFID staffers and NGOs alike will have reason to be quietly rejoicing.

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