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Lines In The Political Sand

22/09/2017 11:48

So it is that time of year again. The time when political hacks descend on the British seaside to drink too much warm wine and eat soggy sandwiches together. Also known as party conference season.

Charities like Christian Aid usually send someone like me to some of the conferences so that we can try to get our voice heard and our message across to the politicians, journalists and party members present. As neither a politico nor a journalist the conferences can at times be an odd place to be. So I thought I'd share some of my thoughts with you.

As the political press salivated over Boris Johnson's latest missive setting out his vision for post Brexit UK http://www.telegraph.co.uk/authors/boris-johnson, I caught an early train down to sunny Bournemouth.

I skimmed Boris' article on the train. While it is not my place to comment on the overall thrust of it, two thoughts did strike me. First, I'm always slightly wary of politicians who constantly call for 'low regulation'. While we should only have the regulation we absolutely need, much regulation is very useful. For example, regulations requiring transparency over company ownership help to tackle tax dodging and corruption which badly affects developing countries. We saw with the Panama Papers what happens when secrecy runs rife. Second, international development really hasn't featured enough in the Brexit discussions. There are big issues at stake, such as what happens to the aid money we currently send through EU institutions. Will we continue these projects on a case-by-case basis? Will we take back all the aid money we currently send through the EU for the UK Government to spend? If so, what will be the priorities for that? There are some important questions at stake, but even the government's paper on Brexit and foreign affairs last week barely mentioned global development.

To Bournemouth. The first major debate I went to on the conference floor was on the Paris Agreement and climate change. This is a top issue for Christian Aid because people in developing countries are bearing the brunt of climate change right now. The party's lead on this Baroness Featherstone called for more ambition from the government, citing the 'economic miracle' of the low carbon economy. Former Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey talked about how Britain is leading the world in offshore wind and what a huge opportunity it is.

Christian Aid is running a campaign called The Big Shift - which calls for churches, banks, pension funds and others to shift their investments away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. You can get involved here (https://www.christianaid.org.uk/campaigns/climate-change/the-big-shift). For us, the news that offshore wind is getting cheaper very quickly was hugely encouraging.

Party conferences have the televised main conference room, but they also have smaller fringe events all around the centre and in hotels nearby, looking at many different issues. The Lib Dem conference was stacked with climate change and environment fringes - so many that they were clashing with each other. In a particularly interesting one, former Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne talked about how sustainable, low carbon investing has actually been outperforming traditional investing over the last five years. The message was clear. The low carbon revolution is here. It's not only good for the planet but it makes good business sense too.

In another climate fringe, the party's leader Vince Cable joined Lynne Featherstone to launch a new report looking at how the UK could go zero carbon by 2050. This is more ambitious than the current government's target. It is encouraging to see political discourse and information becoming available on how more ambition might be possible, particularly in the light of Donald Trump's exit from the Paris Agreement.

I met a number of senior Lib Dem politicians and talked to them about how the UK Government should use next year's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (which will be held in the UK) to make ambitious commitments on climate change. We also spoke about how the government should be pushing the World Bank and UK Export Finance to get with the programme and join the Big Shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. The World Bank currently spends more on polluting fossil fuel investments than it does renewables. Remarkably UK Export Finance (which seeks to help UK businesses win business overseas) has been spending over 99% of its investments on supporting fossil fuels. While some bits of government are doing well in terms of promoting clean energy, there's clearly much more to do.

Elsewhere, Lib Dem members got together to agree to recognise Palestine as a state. While this wouldn't change much on the ground and in some ways, it would be recognising an illusion - it could form a tiny step forward along the long path to peace.

The party also agreed ambitious new policies on company transparency. This may sound dull, but is crucial for tackling some of the corruption and tax dodging that hits developing countries the hardest. Most people don't realise that Africa is a net creditor to the world. David Cameron and the former Coalition Government led the way on this in introducing a public transparency register in the UK. However, that information now needs to be properly checked, and the same standards of transparency need to be applied to all UK tax havens.

Overall, it was a fairly quiet conference, as the Lib Dems, reduced from their high point of 2005, debated what they are for and against these days, and how they might somehow get back in to government. Former Minister and new leader Vince Cable focused on opposing Brexit - a message that in a publicity stunt was written on Bournemouth beach. Metaphorical lines in the sand if ever there were.

As for me, a few days to recover before Brighton for the Labour Conference. It seems likely the Labour conference will be dominated by internal divisions within the party, but for the development geek that is me - I'll be most interested to hear what they say on issues like climate change, tax, aid and international development

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