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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Thatcher, global poverty and the need for a climate catalyst

I was born in 1985. It was the year that Eastenders first graced our screens, the first mobile phone call was made and 13-year old Ruth Lawrence achieved a first in mathematics at Oxford, the youngest British person to ever get such a degree or graduate from the university.

It was also a year of rioting; with three million unemployed, a riot broke out in Brixton after an accidental shooting of a woman by the police. One person died, 50 were injured, countless were arrested.

And it was the year of Live Aid and the launch of Comic Relief.

One woman dominated the headlines when I was growing up. With remarkably coiffed hair and neat suits, she stood up in the House of Commons every week and took on the opposition at a time when very few women, even fewer mothers, could ever consider standing as a local Councillor, let alone an MP. Despite this seemingly miraculous turn of events, my mother wasn’t a fan – she was devastated at the death of David Penhaligon in 1986, later taking me to a rally when the leader of the newly formed Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, visited our little Somerset town.

With the news of her death, doubtless the media will now be given over these next few days to reflections on Baroness Thatcher’s life. We’ll learn more about her than we ever knew. We’ll be played old newsreels of her most fiery political exchanges, of Meryl Streep’s attempt to channel her energy. The left and right will fling Iron Lady-loaded grenades at each other across the parapets of Fleet Street and twitter and tumblr will be flooded with increasingly uncomfortable parodies.

But for me, the most surprising thing to note about Baroness Thatcher, (or Mrs Thatcher as she was then), was that she was one of the first western leaders to make her concerns clear about climate change. At the Second World Climate Conference she said this:

“Our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world’s environment will be perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community. No-one should under-estimate the imagination that will be required, nor the scientific effort, nor the unprecedented co-operation we shall have to show. We shall need statesmanship of a rare order.”

Barnstorming stuff. And she didn’t stop there. Later, she said:

“It would be absurd to adopt policies which would bankrupt the industrial nations, or doom the poorer countries to increasing poverty. We have to recognise the widely differing circumstances facing individual countries, with the better-off assisting the poorer ones”.

Margaret Thatcher gave that speech on November 6th 1990 (if you’re not keeping up, I was just five years old). Now on my way to 30, and the UN climate talks heading into their 19th summit in December, I’m terribly sad that developed nations are still dancing around the issue of how to finance climate change adaptation for the poorest countries.

Back in 2011, world leaders sat down together and set themselves a deadline to come up with a legally binding agreement on climate change by 2015, including agreement on ways to fund climate change adaptation. In 2013, they are still a long way from achieving this, despite there being a number of options available, including a shipping levy, for raising the $100bn a year desperately needed by 2020.

2013 is the year for the UK to step up. We’ll be hosting the G8 summit of world leaders as well as a special Food and Hunger Summit which will hopefully address the root causes of poverty which mean that one in eight people go to bed hungry every night. What’s more, the Prime Minister is playing a lead role as the co-Chair of the panel advising the UN Secretary-General on the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals. All opportunities to show real leadership on a global scale, to recognise the impact that climate change is having and will continue to have on the world’s poorest people if we fail to act. Whatever you think of her transformative and often destructive social and economic policy (and believe me when I say my opinions are strong), Mrs Thatcher recognised this. She recognised this 23 years ago.

Which leads me back to my childhood. Despite being born in the eighties, I really don’t consider myself to be one of Thatcher’s children. Instead, I guess I’m more of a Live Aid child – I’ve been brought up knowing about the significance of the Government’s commitment to deliver 0.7% GNI as lifesaving aid and been frustrated time and time again when it hasn’t been honoured. I still can’t quite believe it’s finally going to happen now. Then last week came the news that world leaders have struck a deal on a global arms trade treaty, an historic moment that as a child I never believed would come.

So it just goes to show that change can happen. I honestly believe that we can come up with a fair deal on climate change, one that benefits the world’s poorest people and makes sure that they can adapt to the onslaught of extreme weather. Right now, it just needs political will and a catalyst. Something I imagine Mrs Thatcher knew at least a little about.