The general election campaign so far has been a miserable and myopic affair, even by the already low standards set by previous contests. Go down an average street across the UK and you’d be hard pressed to tell there’s an election on at all. No posters, no rallies (gosh how terribly un-British that would be) and no politicians trying to get our vote.
Much of what little passion and excitement there was in previous elections, from both the right and the left, was over global issues. The Tories tried to make the 2001 election about Europe. In 2005, it was the shadow of Iraq that pushed many solid Labour constituencies into the hands of the then ‘anti-war’ Liberal Democrats and led to George Galloway beating his Blairite Labour opponent in east London (whether you love him or hate him – it was Iraq wot done it). In 2010, the Conservatives, keen to get rid of their nasty party image, pledged to uphold the 0.7% aid target.
Strange then, that politicians now seem to think that we only care about things that are happening on our doorstep. The scope of our political consciousness, we’re told, ends at the white cliffs of Dover (and arguably also at Hadrian’s Wall judging by rhetoric coming from some over the SNP). In the parallel universe of the election campaign, the rest of the world exists only as a source of “immigrants” who, despite stopping our public services from crumbling, are apparently the cause of all of our economic problems.
A look at the big parties’ manifestos confirms that none of them really have any big ideas about the rest of the world.
Tellingly, all three major party manifestos have put global issues right at the back of their documents. The section on “tackling global challenges” is on page 78 of the Tory manifesto just before the conclusion. The Lib Dems’ section on “Britain and the World” languishes on page 138. And Labour leave their section on foreign policy, development and climate change to the last few pages of their manifesto too.
The content is almost identical. Essentially all the major parties agree that we should keep giving aid because poverty isn’t nice, but let’s keep giving it to the private sector because they’re so “innovative” and so much less corrupt that democratically elected governments. And let’s not really think about big issues like how globalisation and corporate power is causing all of this poverty in the first place.
Where trade does get a mention, it’s usually to extoll the virtues of free trade and how much wonderful economic growth (translation: corporate profits) new trade deals with countries like India will get us (we obviously don’t care about whether this will be good for India).
To be fair, some of the parties have noticed that many people are waking up to the disaster that is TTIP and have put in some nice sounding phrases to reassure us about the NHS. But even on this, there is no mention of even the necessity of a debate about the underlying assumption that more globalisation is actually what we really want.
Tax justice does get a mention as well. All three parties are promising more transparency and ill-defined “action” on international tax avoidance. But there are very few specifics. The manifestos also pay quite a bit of lip service to tackling climate change and protecting the environment. However, worryingly, they all think that the way to do this is by supporting the Natural Capital Committee, which aims to save the environment by creating markets in nature and ascribing financial value to things like bees and forests.
On foreign policy, there are mentions of the threats coming from ISIS and Russia. Fair enough. But how will renewing Trident help us do anything about them? There is no appreciation that what is happening in many of these places is an economic disaster as well as a military one. Ukraine is a country that is being destroyed by both Russian tanks and IMF imposed austerity measures. What are we doing to help the people there rather than the elites? Where is the solidarity?
There is scant mention of the need to accept refugees from Iraq and Syria (Labour mentions “working with the UN” on this but doesn’t actually promise to accept any). Accepting North Africans appears to be totally beyond the pale, even when, as in Libya, we’ve bombed their country and then completely abandoned them. Apparently, all of these problems can be solved with a magic combination of hand wringing and chest beating. Also, ominously but not surprisingly, there are no promises to refrain from further wars.
The Tories and Lib Dems both also mention Ebola, mostly to pat themselves on the back for their supposedly hugely effective aid programmes in West Africa, even as it emerges that the West’s response to Ebola has killed more than the disease itself. There’s no vision for how we can help these countries avoid these pandemics by establishing functioning public health systems along the lines of the NHS. So it’s OK for people in West Africa to die, as long it’s not of diseases that could conceivably hop on a plane and infect us in the rich world too.
Of course, some of the smaller parties do offer an alternative.
On the right we have the borderline xenophobia of UKIP. Their manifesto features an image of a UKIP MEP paternalistically caressing a woman from the global south next to policies that would slash the aid budget and dedicate what’s left to promoting British companies’ imperial ambitions abroad. But, whatever you think of them, you can’t deny that they offer an alternative, albeit in the same way as sawing your own head off is an alternative cure for headache.
The Green Party do offer a real alternative on the progressive side. They openly oppose TTIP and support allowing poor countries to decide how they want UK aid (increased to 1% of GNI) to be spent.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru have a reputation for being more progressive. But the SNP’s manifesto doesn’t mention global issues at all, apart from their opposition to an EU referendum and their promise to cancel Trident. Plaid Cymru does a little better, with some stronger wording on accepting refugees than most other parties, but provides scant detail.
Anyway, aside from the SNP, none of these parties are realistically going to have the leverage in the next parliament to implement any of their policies. So we’re stuck with the mainstream political debate stuck in the unimaginative, apathetic consensus on the rest of the world.
So while this election campaign may have been quite boring in terms of tackling global issues, this lack of vision is worse than boring, it’s dangerous. While we allow the Clegg family’s cooking blog or Ed Miliband’s kitchen to get more attention than the slow motion economic disasters happening across the global south, we allow these people to believe that they can do what they like on global matters.