27 September 2013 | by Barry Johnston
Christian Aid took its bucket and spade (and those Russian Dolls) to the seaside this week for Labour’s conference in a balmy Brighton. In-between donkey rides and 99s, we took the temperature of a party trying to position itself as the alternative Government in waiting.
Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle North, joins our campaign photo-call, urging the government to set up a public register exposing the real owners of 'phantom firms'
Labour leader Ed Miliband has taken a hammering in the media of late for his poor personal ratings among voters, a perceived lack of policy and dithering over Syria.
Internally, the internationalists in his party had also been concerned about Miliband’s silence on issues beyond the UK’s shores, including climate change, development and human rights.
This made for something of a flat atmosphere when the conference kicked off - a combination of anticipation about how Ed would come out fighting and distraction by media revelations of the Machiavellian internal politics of Labour’s recent past.
An exception was Christian Aid and Action Aid’s fringe event on tax havens. Our panel of speakers – including Shadow Development Secretary Ivan Lewis, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and scourge of tax dodgers Margaret Hodge and Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union –made impassioned contributions, tapping into the well of public anger at corporate tax dodging.
'It’s not an anti-business agenda that we’re promoting, it is a pro-fairness agenda.'
Ivan Lewis set out how he saw tax as one of the fundamental issues that would be 'right at the centre of our [Labour’s] agenda' and which has the potential to excite the public about development in a similar way to Make Poverty History.
Margaret Hodge went further, questioning just how good Labour’s record had been on tax dodging and suggesting the party first needed to admit that it hadn’t performed well on the topic when in government.
'It’s not an anti-business agenda that we’re promoting, it is a pro-fairness agenda,' she added, concluding that Labour 'would be mad' not to place tax avoidance at the centre of its campaign for the 2015 general election. We quite agree.
Leading the charge on tax avoidance
We’ve yet to hear the detail from Labour’s leaders on quite how they will lead the charge on tax avoidance, particularly in the interests of developing countries. Catherine McKinnell MP, who we met with in Brighton, remains a strong advocate for the issue within the Shadow Treasury team.
The international debate on the Labour conference floor was dominated by Syria. Speakers defended the party’s strategy around the Commons vote but emphasised the need for Britain’s ongoing efforts to seek a solution.
As Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy put it: 'Defence, diplomacy and development will be mutually reinforcing, each strengthened by a total rejection of isolationism and embrace of internationalism.'
Ivan Lewis and Dame Tessa Jowell also used the occasion to announce the launch a global petition urging the UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon to put young children’s needs at the heart of the new development goals, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.
And what of Ed’s speech?
In truth, his gaze didn’t often stray far from the fight in front of him - the domestic political slog to May 2015. But there were points at which he lifted his eyes to the horizon, influenced by his background as a former Climate Change Secretary, his future as a potential PM and, crucially, his present as a father.
Borrowing from President Obama’s new style of understanding climate through its impact on future generations, Ed wheeled forward 20 years to his own kids posing the question: 'were you the last generation not to get climate change or the first generation to get it?'
So, responding to his kids, and likely the many Christian Aid campaigners he has heard from over the years, Miliband pledged a fully decarbonised UK energy sector by 2030. It would also create a million jobs, he predicted.
UK commitment to clean energy will be important in the increasingly fractious debate about energy and global climate commitments.
Ed and his colleagues will have to work to demonstrate how they will achieve this, but with the poorest people already feeling the impact of our warming planet, it’s a promise worth keeping.
We also noted that both the Lib Dems' Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have now given prominence to climate and environmental issues in their party leader’s speeches.
Next up, we’re off to Manchester for the Conservative conference. Over to you, Dave.
Find out more
Conference diary - Liberal Democrats, Glasgow
Christian Aid report: The world we want to see: perspectives on post-2015 (PDF, 1mb)