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Goals, means and good intentions: UK political conference analysis

The autumn will bring with it a new contest in the House of Commons as Justine Greening and Ivan Lewis line up across the despatch box to discuss the development issues of the day.  Over the last two weeks a sizeable chunk of the NGO community and one or two others, including myself, decamped to the provinces in order to hear the newest thinking from the latest pairing.

What we experienced was a fortnight which was big on posturing but short on policy. Should this come as a surprise? Probably not. Can we expect, as some have suggested, an end to the current consensus? Maybe. 

Fixed term Parliaments have removed some of the necessity or temptation to reveal the plans that a party intends to take to the electorate at the next time of asking. With well over two years to go until any moment of reckoning it’s much easier to sit back and try to decipher from the audience what a successful manifesto might look like. Political incentives aside it is also the case that any politician tasked with the development brief finds themselves in the unique circumstance of having to defend the purpose of an entire Government department before they can even begin to set out a distinct agenda – not something that worries the occupants of the more established offices of state. It is this siege mentality which dictates that a stronger than average consensus is likely to continue to exist across the divide.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt said ‘the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance than the intended goals’. Well we heard a lot more about medium term goals, summed up in a series of buzzwords such as transparency, accountability, early intervention, tax justice, fragility and peace building than we did about the means to achieve them.

Ivan Lewis seemed most keen dip a toe into uncharted water, announcing two initiatives on early intervention and anti-corruption as well as outlining the ambition to ‘end poverty and reduce aid dependence by 2030’. Greening’s announcements were dictated by the need to address the latest anti-aid tirade; a lowering of the spending bar that requires her sign off (from £40 million to £5 million) and a review of DFID’s contribution to the EU.   

These glimpses of how priorities are stacking up in both camps reveal the different incentives in play for each politician. Justine Greening has a tough wicket. DFID spend is under attack from the far right of her party and she will be keen to watch her step, mindful of her future career prospects.  She has a big prize on offer if she can help David Cameron extract maximum value both at home and abroad from his involvement in the UN High Level Panel on Post-2015 which meets in London later this month. At an event held by the Bond group of NGOs she made clear her belief that we must appeal to the ‘minds as well as the hearts’ of UK voters in defending the aid budget.  With no previous experience of development she follows a knowledgeable and (until recently) widely regarded Secretary of State in Andrew Mitchell who had crafted a strong conservative case for aid based on value for money, and a warm embrace of the private sector and technological innovation. Given all this it is perhaps no surprise that some of those present dubbed her speech ‘Mitchell plus’.

Ivan Lewis has a much freer hand. He has the most to gain from creating a more politicised debate and was at pains to contrast what he called Labour’s justice-based approach to development with what he said was the Conservatives continued version of development as charity.

When I suggested to Ivan Lewis that him and Lord Ashcroft had something in common he seemed sceptical but a look at the Tory grandee’s letter to Justine Greening and Lewis’s speech reveal a shared understanding that Britain’s relationship with the world must change. This was a point that David Cameron hammered home as he accepted that’ the old powers are on the slide’.

Such a realisation is overdue but the real prize will be won by whoever can best articulate what a new relationship of equals between Britain and the rest of the world might look like. Which is why David Cameron’s golden thread could yet prove the most telling development intervention of the year in the UK.

An equally important judgement must be made about how to continue to defend aid to the UK electorate. There are signs that the black and white ‘for or against’ argument is coming to an end (as seen in this article by Matthew Frost of Tearfund). Lewis admitted in Manchester that he ‘didn’t think the public even knew what development was’ and Greening spoke about aid as ‘the smart thing to do’. Whoever gets this one right will win plenty of praise. Interestingly recent research from ODI and IPPR suggests that neither rights nor charity will carry the necessary strength of public support.

The fault lines in the UK debate about aid and development will either widen or heal over between now and the next election. It is clear from the last week that Ivan Lewis has more room for manoeuvre in trying to woo the development lobby with a break from the value for money and results driven status quo.  The mood of the moment is impossible to ignore and in the end neither party can ignore the fact that first and foremost they have an electorate to convince.