Corbyn – what do we know about him and does that matter to international development?

First published by BOND, 16 SEPTEMBER 2015

By Ciarán Norris

Corbyn’s shadow cabinet: old consensus or new divide?

You won’t have been able to pick up a paper, turn on the TV, or open Twitter since the weekend without noticing the seismic shift in British politics: Labour’s most rebellious backbench MP has become its leader.
So, what do we know about him and does that matter to international development? In a nutshell, the answer to the first question is: a little, and the answer to the second is: a lot. Here’s why…

Despite having views that are wildly different from almost any other leading politician of a major party, he is now formally the Right Honorable Jeremy Corbyn and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. For all the furore around his election, Jeremy Corbyn is just one person on a mission to turn the tide of British politics. His new shadow cabinet is the first ripple in the water. How they work together and what they do will determine if they can turn that tide.

On paper, his team could not be more supportive of development, but there’s more to it than that. Corbyn, like Ed Miliband and David Cameron, is a defender of the 0.7% aid budget and a supporter of international development.

Corbyn’s new shadow international development secretary, Diane Abbott, is also a firm supporter of the aid budget and of development. Abbott has campaigned against UK-based consultants earning exorbitant fees for working on development projects.

Yvette Cooper decided not to join the shadow cabinet formally, but she will continue to spearhead the party’s liaison with local councils taking in refugees. As shadow home secretary, and as recently as last week, she criticised the government for trying to use £1bn of the aid budget to house refugees in Britain. Today, Cooper’s successor, Andy Burnham, held back on that line of assault in his debut in the role, saying that he supported the use of aid money in this scenario. It is also unclear who the shadow junior DFID ministers will be, including the shadow to the new joint development, Home Office and communities minister with special focus for syrian refugees.

Abbott will certainly have something to say about it, which will be determined, in part, by this week’s prime minister’s questions. It will be Corbyn’s first stand-off against David Cameron. Although he has invited ordinary party members to submit their questions, he is likely to choose those which hammer Cameron as hard as possible.

Given that the first piece of legislation Corbyn had to oppose as leader was the Trade Union bill, that will be almost certainly be on the agenda. But I suspect he will focus on the current refugee crisis, and not just because it is so topical, but because it matters to him: he chose Saturday’s rally as his first public address as leader.

Corbyn thinks the UK should do more for the refugees and when he attacks the PM for the government’s inadequate response, Cameron will point to the £1bn of the aid budget he is allocating to the issue. That, in turn, politicises the aid budget. So, despite years of consensus that have grown over 0.7%, it is quickly becoming a key part of broader political debate.

There is another consensus that has been blown open by Corbyn – that austerity (to varying degrees) is a necessity. New shadow chancellor John McDonnell shares Corbyn’s disdain for austerity. And that, more than anything, matters for development because it pushes a reset button on the political status quo.

That might be a good thing, that might be a bad thing. What is certain is that the foundations of many politically economic agreements, including 0.7%, were built on that shared economic ground.

With the 0.7% act enshrined in law, the need for political consensus around UK spending on aid seemed less urgent, but the refugee crisis has reminded us why it is more important than ever to continue to build overall support for development. The challenge for us is doing that in an increasingly political arena, and on fractured ground.

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