No-one wins in the race to the bottom: five reasons to be cheerful this Party Conference season

Over the last three weeks, all visitors to the UK might well be forgiven for thinking that the titan of British business is marigold manufacturing.

Whether it be David Cameron rolling up his sleeves to mop up Labour’s mess or Ed Miliband preparing his hard hat for some serious Britain (re)building, the message from this party conference season has been clear: add a bottle of one nation disinfectant to your bag of electioneering props party people, because it’s time to clean up the country.

It’s back to basics, belt and braces. Land of hope and Tory. Making work pay. Paying people to work. Cleaning up politics? We’re through the looking glass now. It’s time for a reality check, for rigour and strategy. We’re all in this together, after all.

With more of the pervasive political rot exposed in recent weeks by the oddly Shakespearean Campbell/McBride doubleact, the unions up in arms, Nigel Farage tinkering away at the fringes (at times, literally) and the various wings of the Lib Dems locking their philosophical horns on everything from plastic bags through to pornography, never has the average politician’s share price been so low.

This is perfectly normal. With a year and a half to go until the next General Election, this year’s conference season followed a standard holding pattern, with the party leaders lobbing a few grenades across the bows before all out warfare takes hold next year. It’s time to air the dirty laundry, both inside and out of the various party HQs and make sure that everyone knows that the other team aren’t worth trusting with the petty cash tin at a coffee morning, let alone the UK economy.

But is Britain really as broken as our politicians suggest? I’d argue not. Ever the optimist, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate some of the political breakthroughs we’ve seen this year.

  1. The IF campaign – over 50,000 people turned out in London and Belfast, hundreds of MPs of all parties were lobbied by their constituents, with 70 attending the launch and even more taking action by writing to ministers, asking parliamentary questions or attending local events run by supporters.
  2. The G8 – thanks to IF campaigners, both civil society and parliamentarian, land grabs and tax and transparency made it onto the international agenda in spectacular style. The UK Government has also kept its promise to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid – something development organisations have been campaigning for since the 1970s.
  3. The EU Accounting and Transparency Directives. Sound dull? These magic pieces of legislation will ensure that companies publish what they pay for developing countries’ precious natural resources, a serious step towards transforming a system rent with conflict and corruption. MEPs of all UK parties, bar UKIP, cooperated on this crucial legislation and can be proud of the role they have playing in unearthing the truth on corruption.
  4. Rape as a weapon of war will never be accepted. Last week at the United Nations, 120 countries promised for the first time to join British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in his campaign to stamp out impunity for rape and sexual violence in conflict situations. In his party conference speech, Hague explained that his aim is also to change global attitudes and work towards full economic, social and political rights for women, no matter where they live.
  5. Action for those affected by the Syrian conflict. The debates in the British parliament were a tortured, Westminster-ified affair, but since then our politicians have worked to provide an extra £87 million of aid to the UN World Food Programme, on top of the extra £100 million of aid pledged by Nick Clegg at the UN General Assembly last week, taking British aid to Syria up to £500 million, our biggest ever relief effort. And then yesterday, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement urging the Syrian authorities to grant access to the country for humanitarian agencies so that they might finally get help to those who need it the most. There’s still far more to do, but a lot that the British people can be proud of.

With two months left to go, these are just five of the many reasons we can be proud of 2013. Can Britain do better than this? Undoubtedly. But should we be buying into the headlines which tell us that our society is in pieces that it would take all of the King’s (read Queen’s) horses and men to fix? I would still argue not. Instead, let’s look at the achievements of 2013 and build upon them in the year ahead, instead of swallowing whole the daily headlines of recrimination and despair. After all, as Ed Miliband pointed out during his conference speech, no-one wins in the race to the bottom. 

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