If Labour wins the U.K. elections, what will it do for international development?

Labour party leader Ed Miliband in 2008 with South African Environment Minister Buyelwa Sonjica met at the National Botanical Gardens, Pretoria, and discussed climate change issues with local students. (Crown/flickr Copyright)

Brits are out today to vote for the 56th parliament and determine the next prime minister for the United Kingdom. Current PM David Cameron is in a close race against Labour party challenger Ed Miliband for the leadership of the United Kingdom. Predictions show it will be a tight race with Miliband holding a very slight edge. The eventual winner will shape the objectives and policies for the United Kingdom.

The £11.8 billion spent by the United Kingdom on foreign aid in 2014 is second only to the United States with regard to total spending. And that spending will continue to grow after the House of Lords passed the international development bill, enshrining the expenditure of 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign aid, in March. With the spending all but sown up, questions about how Miliband and Cameron would spend the money, if elected, matters.

Cameron’s foreign aid record is well documented. But what about his opponent?

Fortunately for us, we know a bit about what Miliband will do on foreign aid. He outlined some of his ideas on international development in a speech delivered at the end of April. The details are relatively sparse, but there are a few notable passages:

A defense of foreign aid
“And let us tell all of those parties including UKIP, who threaten this aid, that we are proud of what we have done. Not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice.”

Support for universal health coverage
“And we must seize the opportunity by arguing for universal health coverage not just here but around the world…And we will also establish a new center for universal health coverage, bringing the insights and expertise of our NHS to bear in helping the world’s poorest people have access to healthcare. We will champion the values of the NHS all around the world.”

Eliminating tax havens
“We will engage with the private sector, supporting best business practice both at home and abroad. And friends that means the right practices in relation to tax. Let us tell the truth: tax avoidance is not just wrong, it is ruinous for the world’s poorest countries. When companies exploit natural resources and don’t pay their fair share, it deprives developing countries of the revenues they need for healthcare, education and public services.”

Development and the environment are linked
“Nothing matters more to the generation that is just growing up than protecting our environment. If we do not tackle climate change, millions of people will fall back into poverty. Because we know that climate change hits the poorest hardest.”

The speech ends with a rousing call for people to take action to end poverty, inequality and address climate change. The most notable part of the speech was about taxes. Miliband said he will not tolerate tax avoidance. During the campaign, Miliband attacked Cameron on not doing enough to stop and catch tax dodgers.

“The government’s failure to tackle tax avoidance is no accident,” he said in February. “It has turned a blind eye to tax avoidance because it thinks that so long as a few at the top do well, the country succeeds. It thinks that wealth and power fence people off from responsibility. It thinks the rules only apply to everybody else.”

Cameron has made it clear that he believes tax avoidance is a problem. He pledged to make it a leading issue during the G8 meetings in 2013, when he played host to the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations. But there is little evidence that much has changed in the past two years on the issue. The NGOs that campaigned against tax avoidance in 2013 are still campaigning for the government to fix the problem.

Aside from the strong tax rhetoric, it is hard to see much difference between Cameron and Miliband on foreign aid. Cameron’s development outlook is best captured in his ‘golden thread’ theory. He argues development happens when there is a “stable government, lack of corruption, human rights, the rule of law, [and]transparent information.” It doesn’t really differ from how former Prime Minister Tony Blair approached international development.

But it is a pledge from one of Miliband’s party members that deserves more attention. While the speech mentioned the importance of universal health coverage, a more definite plan from the Labour party was set forward by Mary Creagh, the current shadow secretary of state for international development. If the party wins today, it will set up what it calls a “Centre for Universal Health Coverage” to increase access, ensure health equity and strengthen health systems around the world.

“Our commitment to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable is not just morally right, it is in Britain’s national interest.,” said Creagh. “I am determined the SDGs do more to tackle inequality in three areas that matter deeply to the Labour Party: Human rights, climate change and universal health coverage.”

In some ways, it is a preview speech from the person who could take over the Department for International Development should Labour win out. We will have to wait and see who wins today and whether such a vision can and will be carried out by Miliband and the Labour party should they win.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.