Positive steps but no spending commitments – International Development at Labour’s NPF


“On debt cancellation we found fertile ground. The topic of international debt had not appeared in initial policy proposals, and left members of the NPF successfully argued for language around debt cancellation to be included.”

By Jack Ballingham

As a member of the National Policy Forum’s foreign policy commission (now called “Britain in the World” after the leadership’s restructuring of the NPF), one of the areas I and other colleagues focused on at the full NPF meeting in Nottingham this year was international development.

As the climate crisis continues to get worse in the face of complacency from corporations and governments, its impact is felt heaviest in the Global South. The cruel inequality of the climate crisis is that, despite being driven by fossil fuel emissions from industrial development, a process started in Britain and other European states in the late 18th century, it now most affects those countries outside of Europe, almost all of whom were colonised and plundered by those same European powers. Africa today is home to almost one fifth of the world’s population, yet the continent produces less than one twentieth of its CO2 emissions.

As both a former colonial power and one of the world’s most polluting countries, the UK has a moral duty to pull its weight in assisting countries in the Global South to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis. Despite this, the Tories closed the Department for International Development (DfID) in September 2020, and rolled it into the Foreign Office. In 2022 they also, for the first time since the UK met it in 2013, stepped back from the agreed UN target of spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on international development.

Going into the big meeting in Nottingham, myself and other left members of the NPF had submitted proposals on three areas to improve the Party’s policy on this: to make the commitment to 0.7% spending on international development unconditional, to make an explicit commitment to restoring DfID to independence, and to commit the Party to international debt cancellation for countries in the Global South.

On debt cancellation we found fertile ground. The topic of international debt had not appeared in initial policy proposals, and left members of the NPF successfully argued for language around debt cancellation to be included. International debt cancellation is a hugely important tool in the box for the UK to pursue an international development agenda that is not top-down and patronising, but empowering and done in equal partnership with states in the Global South.

The fact that we were able to put this on the agenda at the NPF shows the necessity of continued left representation in these spaces – a diverse range of voices is crucial to maintaining a healthy and innovative internal culture in the Party. Without it our policy becomes stagnant and inward-looking.

Unfortunately, we found resistance to other proposals – it seems that even the 0.7% spending target and DfID independence, totems of the last Labour government, cannot be disconnected from the so-called “fiscal rules” that Rachel Reeves has instituted, banning the Shadow Cabinet from making any “uncosted” spending commitments.

It is not merely fiscal conservatism, but a deeper, overall conservatism that seems to animate the leadership. Reinstating an independent DfID would not be a large cost, and yet the leadership have danced around the issue. So too, it has been reported, have they refused to commit to reinstating Sure Start and other much-cited achievements of the last Labour government, and to repeal authoritarian Tory legislation criminalising protest.

It was not only the left arguing for policies like an independent DfID at the NPF though – this initiative carries broad support from both members and unions. This fact should be a sign of both concern and hope for members. Concern, because it shows the extent of the leadership’s disconnect and conservatism. Hope, because there will be pressure not just from the left, but from across the Party, on issues like international development and others. The next Labour government, as we seem likely to get next year, needs to be bold.

There was a lot of talk at the NPF this year about how important it is Labour wins the next election, in order to put an end to thirteen years of Tory damage. We need not only to end, but to start reversing, that damage.

WATCH: What’s In & Out of Labour’s Agenda? National Policy Forum Report-back

Featured image: Debt Justice campaigners demonstrate with a banner reading “cancel the debt for climate justice.” Photo credit: Debt Justice.

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