From the TUC

Abroad: where Conservatives think public spending is a good thing

10 Oct 2009, by in Environment, International, Politics

Reading David Cameron’s speech to Conservative Party Conference, and the speeches of Conservative spokespeople on foreign affairs and development, there is a great deal of continuity with what the Labour Government is doing internationally – along with a fair amount of effort to create the impression of clear blue water. Some of what is suggested is welcome – either because it retains what is good in what Labour is doing (such as the commitment to meet the overseas aid target of 0.7% of GNI by 2013), or adds things that Labour currently isn’t stressing. There’s not much bad – except for their stance on European rights for workers – but the real “clear blue water” isn’t between Labour and the Conservatives – it’s between the Conservatives’ approach to public spending domestically and internationally: given Conservative plans to slash and burn public expenditure, what will their international policy cost? And if we take their commitments at face value, why is it a good thing to spend Government money abroad, but not at home?

On international development, Andrew Mitchell was clear, as David Cameron was, that the DFID budget is ring-fenced, and the TUC welcomes that (although Gordon Brown went further at Labour’s Conference).

Mitchell: “Our Party is committed to reaching, by 2013, the internationally-agreed goal of spending 0.7% of national income as aid.”

Cameron: “I’m proud that we’ve ring-fenced the budget for international development.”

But there is a weird sentence in Andrew Mitchell’s speech, which really looks out of place given the Conservatives widely denounced counter-Keynesian policies on public spending in the UK. He says:

“This period of economic hardship is not a time to turn our backs on the poorest in the world, but to reaffirm our commitments to them.”

Take out the words “in the world” and that’s pretty much a flat contradiction of the Conservatives’ domestic policies.

There are more commitments to increase spending in Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague’s speech. The Conservatives plan to do more on India and  more on the Commonwealth (which is particularly welcome given the Commonwealth’s virtually unique north-south nature), a stronger G20 and EU (no, honestly), more on the global climate change agenda – but that suggests they will need to increase substantially Britain’s stretched diplomatic corps – again, spending more money – and the Conservatives have also gone on record with plans to increase staffing in DFID, reversing cuts made by Labour.

I’m not – of course – arguing against doing more in these areas – they are welcome proposals (although the call for more to be done on climate change work around the world is a bit odd given how much effort the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is already putting into climate change negotiations), but they do run counter to Conservative policies domestically. One answer could be that extra FCO expenditure will be muted by re-allocating work, but there’s nothing in William Hague’s speech that suggests there are areas where the Conservatives will do less than Labour, and given their general willingness to announce cuts, that suggests there won’t be any.

Finally, it’s worth reiteraiting TUC conserns about Conservative plans to repatriate EU powers over employment and social affairs (both because we fear that the motivation is in no way to increase workers’ rights, and because it doesn’t make sense to have a common market in goods and services but no common labour market rules to address their production). And while we agree with the Conservatives that aid is vital but not as good as economic growth in combating global poverty, their touching faith (I suspect it’s mostly that attempt to find clear blue water) in private sector solutions ignores the completely vital role of strong public sectors.