A World for the Many not the Few: Labour’s new internationalist vision

Labour’s new International Development paper, spearheaded by Kate Osamor MP, represents a clean break with New Labour orthodoxy

Labour has just announced its new and significant international development policy, which wipes away a 40-year long obsession with global free-market economics. It puts fighting inequality, patriarchy and unsustainable growth at its centre, and represents a concrete break with New Labour’s policy of giving neoliberalism ‘softer edges’. ‘A World For The Many, Not the Few’ is the most radical and transformative international development policy ever put forward by a mainstream British political party. However - only hard work and activism can turn it into something real: a new internationalist consensus capable of eliminating poverty.

Out with old New Labour

Back in 1997, New Labour made Britain a world leader on international development. Firstly, they created a new Department for International Development (DfID), independent from the Foreign Office. They resuscitated the international aid budget which had fallen to around 0.25% of national income, promising to lift it to the internationally agreed target of 0.7% over time. They also promised that this aid didn’t have to be recycled by spending it on British goods.

They played a leading role in cancelling ‘Third World Debt’ – unpayable and often odious debts which turned African, Asian and Latin American countries into vassals of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) – and proclaimed an ethical foreign policy to clamp down on human rights abusers, like former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet. After 15 years of Thatcherism, which held the poor responsible for their own poverty, New Labour’s approach was a breath of fresh air, and was seen as so electorally popular that some policies, especially on aid, were mimicked by David Cameron in his attempt to ‘de-toxify’ the Tory Party. International development became part of a cross-party consensus.

But New Labour’s approach to development was severely limited. Frightened of scaring international capital, the focus was on making neoliberalism ‘work for the poorest’. Markets and trade needed to become ‘pro-poor’. The private sector needed to be convinced to ‘do the right thing’ through a plethora of voluntary initiatives. Debt was cancelled, but only if Southern countries enacted neoliberal ‘structural adjustment’ policies. New Labour wasn’t interested in changing the structure of the global economy. Indeed, at the height of New Labour’s power, Peter Mandelson famously said that “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (before adding, to be fair, “as long as they pay their taxes.”) But New Labour never had a burning ambition to reduce inequality. They could live with inequality, seeing it as somewhat inevitable, as long as no-one was really poor.

So extreme poverty was the focus of New Labour’s international development policy. And this seemed like a useful approach. After all, pictures of extreme poverty, now known as ‘poverty porn’, makes charities a lot of money, even while reinforcing deeply paternalistic and racist stereotypes. Pretending extreme poverty can be separated from inequality depoliticises the issue of development. From Bill Gates to George W. Bush, the rich and powerful are often happy to help alleviate extreme poverty – as long as the economic structures that made them wealthy aren’t threatened in the process. It becomes, in essence, charitable, or philanthropic.

Poverty is political

The problem is that you can’t separate poverty from inequality, because the drivers of inequality – the monopolisation of limited resources by the few, exploitation, discrimination and pillage – are also the drivers of poverty. By focusing on poverty, we look only at the activities of the poor. But the poor are not the problem at all. Solving the world’s crises, rather, requires more of a focus on the activities of the rich, as that’s where the problem lies. So it’s incredibly welcome that inequality lies at the heart of ‘A World For The Many’. This alone marks a huge change of emphasis which is necessary to global economic transformation.

What does Labour propose? Concretely, Labour would enact a new law, ensuring that all aid money must be spent fighting inequality as well as poverty. They also promise a range of new measures to better define inequality. Progress on the so-called Palma Ratio between the richest 10% and the poorest 40% of a population, for example, would be used as a measure of whether policies are working or not. Labour proposes a range of other measures, such as hosting international summits to champion action on inequality, and exploring a global wealth tax, an idea popularised by economist Thomas Piketty to ensure the world’s vast and often hidden wealth is progressively taxed.

This focus on inequality would make an immediate change to what could be funded aid-wise. When extreme poverty alone is your focus, a case can be made, depending on your ideological persuasion, to fund private schools and hospitals, which may end up reducing poverty for a few. If you believe in ‘trickle down’ economics, you could fund five star hotels, luxury shopping malls, or extractivist projects – virtually anything really, that could provide a few crumbs for the masses. And indeed, British aid has funded all manner of such projects.

As a symbol of how far things have gone, the government has for years now been using aid money to set up ‘low cost’ private schools across Africa, run by multinational company Bridge Schools. Critics argue that such schools are still unaffordable for many people, that teaching is poor quality, and that they undercut public provision. The situation is now so dire that authorities in Uganda and Kenya are currently fighting to shut down these private schools. Through the lens of inequality, not simply extreme poverty, these ‘free market’ projects become much more problematic, because they’re all likely to increase inequality.

Labour’s new policy gives some real examples of what a Labour government would focus on instead. These include: public services, grassroots groups - especially women’s groups - and nonprofit entities like co-ops and democratically controlled utilities. In other words, using the same methods that helped massively reduce poverty and inequality in Britain in the twentieth century: non-market, universal public provision of basic services and economic goods, along with the empowerment of the mass movements capable of fighting for them. To pay for these goods long-term, expertise would be offered to assist governments with developing a progressive tax base, and a global crackdown on tax dodgers.

It’s a vision of aid that surely we could all be proud of – one which mirrors, with important local, democratic differences, the process which led to our own NHS, social housing and comprehensive schooling, limiting the role of the market and profit over our lives. It turns aid into a form of global wealth redistribution. The only limitation to the policies on aid is that it’s still called ‘aid’ – a horribly patronising term very difficult to separate in our mind from charity.

Beyond aid

Even at its best, aid is only one very small part of the transformation which Labour envisages. Despite what the Daily Mail tells you, aid is small when compared to the wealth extracted from Africa, Asia, and Latin America by countries like Britain. When we’re still implementing policies which are seriously damaging dozens of countries – through trade policies, our failure to regulate big business and finance, pushing free market policies around the world, and through arms sales and war – aid seems like pitiful compensation indeed.

Labour’s policy recognises this, and promises to change the way we interact with the rest of the world across the board. If development is not just about cleaning up the mess made by the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Department for Trade, coordination is required. Labour proposes to do this via a genuinely ethical foreign policy, guided by “an annual whole-of-government plan… across government departments” with a lead being taken by the Development Secretary to ensure all international activities contribute towards reducing poverty. This needs much fleshing out, but stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia is an obvious, and mentioned, step. Tackling the terms of trade and controlling capital flows is much harder, but necessary, and Britain is one of the best places to do it, sitting as we do atop the world’s most extensive network of tax havens.

But we can’t do it alone. It also requires working internationally to transform the global economy. Labour proposes a range of policies, including changing trade rules to give better access to British markets for developing countries, reforming the debt system, democratising institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and introducing a financial transactions tax to raise revenue from the markets and reduce speculative activity in the global economy. They also suggest changing the way we measure wellbeing, so that GDP growth stops being the measure by which economic success is judged, something essential to building a sustainable and post-capitalist form of economics. And they promise to provide “global leadership on the refugee crisis”, taking a fairer share of refugees in the UK and working harder to ensure global agreements - a positive change from the role Britain has played up to now in preventing such agreements. Many of these ideas are underdeveloped, and the extent of their radicalism will depend on concrete policies still to be decided. But they certainly create space for solutions that go well beyond a softer version of neoliberalism.

Again, many of these policies will require much deeper elaboration, but they certainly head in the right direction. Importantly, and in stark contrast to the New Labour era, they don’t say that countries simply need more trade, more markets, more big finance. It’s become far too common in development thinking to claim that low-income countries would have all of their problems solved if they could attract more foreign capital and trade more goods. But this misreads how the global economy works. Look at many African and Caribbean countries. Their problem isn’t that they are insufficiently integrated into the global economy. Far from it – they are deeply integrated, selling raw materials and resources to the rich world. The problem is that they are integrated on the wrong terms, with no power over the trade or capital flows which blow them from one crisis to another. How do you break the power of neoliberalism and neocolonialism at a global level, given it is now deeply embedded in institutions like the IMF and World Trade Organisation (WTO), and controlled by the richest countries on earth? The solution isn’t spelt out in detail in Labour’s policy, but at least the scale and nature of the problem is identified.

And there’s experience to learn from. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Bolivarian countries of Latin America (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia etc.) attempted to break or weaken the power of global institutions by establishing their own, and fostering mechanisms for regional integration. These included a common trading area (the Bolivarian Alliance for the People’s of America or ALBA) based on redistribution and social as well as economic exchange, such as ‘oil for healthcare’, as well as a development bank (Bancosur), and, in embryonic form, a common currency, monetary fund and human rights commission. These institutions are mostly underdeveloped but they have provided funding and support for development plans outside the neoliberal framework. A radical government must support such regional initiatives, rather than trying to undermine them, allowing southern countries to break their dependence on western markets and demands.

Britain is powerful enough to go further, and begin to restructure the global economy as a whole, but it will need allies from governments and political parties in the global south. In the 1970s, dozens of governments would have stood behind these policies. A set of radical proposals, the New International Economic Order, was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1974 - supporting regulation of global corporations and capital, and fairer trade. But times have changed. Weighed down by decades of debt, structural adjustment, unfair trade deals and aid with strings attached, far too many governments have given in to the perks which neoliberalism doles out to elites, or to the strongman populism which keeps them in power. Labour needs to put more time into forging links with new international allies immediately.

No more poverty porn

Perhaps more interesting than anything is the new tone of Labour’s proposal. For too long we’ve been told development is about ‘Poor Africa’, which can’t look after itself, and ‘Generous Britain’, riding to the rescue on a white stallion. Labour promises to change this - charity, it says, is not only inadequate to deal with the world’s problems, but can be actively unhelpful. The ‘Generous Britain, Grateful Africa’ story is a deliberate misreading of history and international relations. Countries like Britain grew rich on the turbo-charged exploitation of Africa, and still today Africa and many Asian and Latin American economies bleed wealth to rapacious corporations.

In ‘A World For The Many’, Labour replace this story with one of a common struggle for rights, decent lives and freedom: “What people need and want in the UK, people need and want everywhere: our needs, our rights and our struggles to achieve them are one and the same… The same forces that exploit and impoverish the peoples of the global South also exploit and impoverish the citizens of our own country… We must move beyond charity, and advance instead a vision of fairness. We must address the root causes of the crises we face, and not just the symptoms”.

Or again: “People are increasingly aware that poverty, income inequality and gender inequality are not natural – they are created. They are symptoms of an unfair system that funnels wealth and power into the hands of a few. Our globalised economy has been designed over several decades to benefit a few at the expense of the many”. It promises that: “Wherever possible, we will move away from a narrative of aid and charity and towards one of rights and international social justice”.

Readers might find these passages unremarkable, but remember that political parties don’t usually speak of development in this way. Back in 1997, global poverty was seen almost as an accident, affecting someone else far away who we had a duty to help. It was less about solidarity, and more about pity. Since the heyday of Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History, even anti-poverty campaign groups have increasingly spoken a language of charity and pity, with some still using the demeaning, racist imagery of starving children.

So in a development sector which has become increasingly cautious and conservative, this is significant. Indeed, Labour challenges the development charities directly, calling out their imagery. This is especially acute in the wake of the recent aid scandals, and Labour states: “There must be a redistribution of power within the development industry itself”. This will make some anti-poverty charities decidedly uncomfortable, because they too ‘drank the kool-aid’, so to speak, and developed an obsession with the private sector, soft-peddling their criticism of the government in order to get DfID funding, and ramping up the poverty porn to keep the public giving.

Such organisations will need to decide now whether they continue to take huge government grants and condemn themselves to silence, or whether they will see this as an opportunity to genuinely reshape the story – and the world. Only the approach proposed by Labour, which pits ordinary people from the global north and the global south against the 1%, has any chance of changing this. Even charities who primarily care about aid must recognise that a change of narrative is the only way to save the aid budget.

Labour needs to build broad-based internationalist opinion around these policies, because no British government, however determined, can carry out such policies by issuing proclamations from Whitehall. These policies will affect the availability of cheap food and clothes on our high street. It will affect energy prices. They will be tough to enact, and will require movements and education to swing public opinion in the UK away from its deep, sometimes justified, development-scepticism.

The left has spent a good few years with a strong domestic focus. This is understandable and right, given the mess that Britain is in, and the urgent need for transformational politics here. But socialism cannot be built in one country, and a fairer country cannot be built on the back of international exploitation. ‘A World For The Many’ looks outwards, at the role a radical British government could play in building a fairer world. Given the way this country has too often created inequality and injustice elsewhere, we need to seize the opportunity provided by this paper.