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International Development - A Crucial Part of Labour's Offering?

30/09/2013 10:59 BST | Updated 27/11/2013 10:12 GMT

This week the Labour party held their annual conference in Brighton. International development is never the issue that grabs the headlines in Conference week, but there was plenty of lively debate and discussion all the same, including signs that shadow development secretary Ivan Lewis MP, in association with the newly-affiliated Labour Campaign for International Development, is making an attempt to reclaim development as a political issue. After hearing endless poll results that seem to suggest low levels of support for aid amongst the British public (and seeing the negative headlines to match) it was encouraging to hear Purna Sen, PPC for Brighton Pavilion, say that she believes there are votes to be won on the doorstep through supporting the world's poorest people. Ivan Lewis, Alison McGovern MP and the LCID team went out campaigning with her in Brighton on the last day of the conference, and there are plans to expand this to other target constituencies in the future.

It's also impressive that the Labour development team are taking the initiative and working to set the development agenda now, rather than sticking to saying what they would do after the next election. This was evident in the work Lewis is doing to set up a global centre-left coalition in support of his 'social contract without borders', and in the launch of a Global Early Years petition, inspired by what Lewis and Dame Tessa Jowell MP saw on their visit to Sightsavers programmes in Malawi back in July. Both efforts aim to influence the current discussion on what should replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. These negotiations will be concluded after the next UK General Election in May 2015, and hence potentially under a Labour government - so it's good to see that a Labour vision for the framework is emerging, and especially that Ivan Lewis included disabled people in his vision for the framework well ahead of the High Level Panel report's rousing call to 'leave no-one behind'.

Douglas Alexander MP's speech as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Jim Murphy MP's contribution as shadow defence spokesperson both reflected a joined-up approach to development. Alexander made the case for a 'progressive internationalism', that encompassed foreign aid as one tool among many to face the challenges that "spill across borders and defy unilateral solutions"; while Murphy spoke of the "mutually reinforcing role" of defence, diplomacy and development. This was given substance by Lewis' announcement in his speech that Labour would establish a Cabinet committee on international development, bringing together representatives of these and other departments to coordinate the UK's development policy.

But while there's much to be praised in the efforts of Labour's international affairs team, what's less clear is how much enthusiasm there is for international development at the highest levels of the party. International development did not come up in Ed Miliband's speech to the conference hall. This in itself isn't perhaps a big surprise; leader's speeches are traditionally domestically-focussed. But it starts to seem like more of a problem when we realise it isn't something he has ever spoken about in a speech to conference; and when we compare this to the speeches made by Nick Clegg to the Lib Dems last week, and David Cameron to his party conference last year.

Clegg proudly listed reaching the 0.7% aid target as one of his party's achievements in coalition; admittedly, the same pledge was in all three party manifestos, but at the same time we saw aid and development presented to the party and the voting public as a positive reason for supporting him. At the same time, it's clear that at least part of the reason the Government commitment to international aid comes up when the Conservative leader speaks is that substantial sections of his party are yet to be persuaded that it's the right thing to do.

Labour, on the other hand, have a unique record on development, having set up DFID for the first time as an independent department, as well as masterminding the game-changing 2007 Gleneagles summit. However, these are not among the achievements of the last Labour government that Miliband chooses to recall in his public statements, despite there being a huge amount of overlap and need for coherence between this and things he does talk about, such as trade, immigration and climate change.

Many in the party might think that there's no need for their leader to emphasise international development, as it's already an inherent part of what the party do. But if the issue is consistently ignored by Miliband and others who present the party to the British public, there's a danger that it starts to seem like an add-on, rather than a crucial part of Labour's offering as a campaigning party and potential future government. That would be a great shame not only for the Labour party itself, but for the millions of people around the world who stand to benefit from a strong British development policy that sits at the heart of the government, whichever party is in power.