General election: Vote for global justice

General election: Vote for global justice

Date: 23 February 2010

Ahead of the 2010 UK general election, WDM policy officer Tim Jones gives a snapshot of where the parties stand on issues that affect the world’s poorest people.

WDM and over 100 other organisations have challenged the major political parties to back a development manifesto, Vote Global. So how do the main parties stack up on key global poverty issues?

Trade justice

For the past thirty years imposition of free trade across much of the developing world has hindered economic growth and increased poverty and inequality. In contrast, countries that have been able to resist free trade have managed to cut poverty and increase employment. Since 1997, the Labour government has supported the EU, WTO, IMF and World Bank pushing free trade on developing countries.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also support free trade and the current unfair round of world trade negotiations. The Green Party is distinct in calling for “fair trade not free trade” and for committing to push for reform of aggressive EU trade policies. Plaid Cymru also recognise the injustices of current international trade.

More and better aid

Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru all support spending 0.7 per cent of UK income on aid by 2013, with the Green Party saying they would spend 1 per cent. However, saying and doing are very different things. The UK government first committed to the 0.7 per cent target in 1970, but the closest it has ever got was under Labour in 1979. After falling throughout the 1980s and 1990s, UK aid has been rising under Labour in recent years. But despite all the rhetoric surrounding Make Poverty History, aid is currently just 0.4 per cent of national income.

In 1997, thanks to a WDM campaign, the Labour government agreed to ensure UK aid does not have to be spent on UK companies, should not have economic conditions attached to it, and does not push water privatisation. Worryingly, the Conservatives emphasise that they want increased involvement of the private sector in public services in developing countries.

Economic reform

In our Out of Time report in 2006, WDM showed that major reforms of the global financial system are needed to democratise its governance, and to reconfigure the policies being pushed by the World Bank and IMF which have fuelled mounting debt and periodic financial crises across the world. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have stayed largely quiet on the issue of reforming the so-called ‘Bretton Woods’ international financial institutions, while the Green Party has declared the need for major reforms of the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation.

Gordon Brown has been a key player within the IMF for over ten years, and has recognised the need for change, but has not pushed for significant reform. The Labour leader has, however, begun to champion a tax on financial transactions which could help limit some of the worst excesses of financial trading – including damaging speculation on food – whilst raising vital money for cutting poverty and tackling climate change.

The Green Party and Plaid Cymru also support a tax on financial transactions, but the Green Party goes further to call on the IMF to be reformed to prevent excessive debt and unbalanced trade. Whilst being strong advocates for reform of the banking system in the UK, the Liberal Democrats have not proposed other changes internationally.

Rather than questioning the IMF’s role in creating financial crises the Conservatives want the international institution to expand its power. One result of the financial crisis is that UK taxpayers now own substantial stakes in many banks. WDM has been calling on the government to ‘clean up the banks’ by preventing them from investing in projects which hinder development and human rights. So far the Labour government has refused to set any guidelines for what nationalised banks should and should not invest in.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats have said that they would prevent any public money going into projects such as tar sands, and the Green Party have supported transforming RBS into a ‘Royal Bank of Sustainability’. The Conservatives’ main focus is selling the shares in banks as quickly as possible.

Repaying our climate debt

Since Labour was elected in 1997, the UK’s climate changing emissions have fallen by just 7 per cent. This is well short of the rate needed to prevent catastrophic climate impacts on poor people across the world. Key to cutting emissions in the UK is putting a stop to coal power. Campaigning by WDM has led to the Labour government putting limits on the building of new dirty coal power stations, although it has not ruled them out completely. The Scottish National Party has introduced the same policy in Scotland.

Conservative policy is similar to Labour, although with even greater faith in untested carbon capture technology. The Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party would prevent new dirty coal power stations from being built. “Despite all the rhetoric surrounding Make Poverty History, aid is currently just 0.4 per cent of national income.”

Our past and present emissions mean the UK owes people in developing countries a climate debt. The UK has to pay compensation to those already suffering from climate change, whilst funding low carbon development in developing countries. The Labour government has said money for climate change should be additional to aid, but all of the money it is currently giving has been diverted from the aid budget. Most of this is being spent through the World Bank and given as loans, increasing the debts of developing countries.

Under the Conservatives, money for climate change in developing countries would continue to be diverted from the aid budget, and directed through the World Bank. The Liberal Democrats say climate change money should be additional to aid, and should go through the United Nations rather than the World Bank.

For more information check out our full report ‘Vote for justice: UK political parties and the 2010 general election’  on the policies of UK political parties and what these mean for poor people across the world.