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As millions of UK citizens cast their votes in the country’s general and local elections, Alex Free considers the attitudes of the three major parties – Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – towards engaging with other parts of the world as set out in their manifestos, for a sense of how the outcome of the election might affect Africa and the global South.

Today on 6 May the United Kingdom is in the midst of election fever, as millions cast their votes in the country’s general and local elections. The election marks the culmination of weeks of campaigning on the part of political parties across the UK and will result in a significant shake-up of the local, regional and national political spheres.

Whether in the new televised debates between party leaders or coverage in the mainstream press, there has been little in the way of discussion of how the outcome of the election might affect Africa and the global South. In truth each of the major polls suggests that none of the main parties of Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats is on course to achieve an electoral majority, with a ‘hung parliament’ likely to result, in which party leaders Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg may seek coalitions to achieve support for their policies. Regardless of the final outcome, however, through taking a look at the manifestos of these parties we can glean some sense of attitudes towards engaging with other parts of the world and where parties see their priorities.

Great Britain, of course, has historically played a hugely significant role throughout much of Africa as a dominant colonial power, a power whose presence on the continent entailed the construction of self-interested economic infrastructures and the exploitation and subjugation of people and resources. As the UK faces up to a total budget deficit of upwards of £160 billion and an enormous national debt, party leaders’ focus has been on ‘making this country great again’, affirmation – if any were needed – that the UK government works first and foremost in its own interests.

Although since the decolonisation period the UK has essentially seen its role degraded from global imperial force to mere rich country, its geopolitical position within the world, economic and commercial interests and contemporary relationship with Africa continue to have significant implications for the continent and its peoples.

The UK’s dwindling importance notwithstanding, on the international stage it plays an important role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and member of the EU (European Union), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the G8. Its interactions with other powers such as United States and China and institutional bodies such as the UN, the World Bank, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the WTO (World Trade Organisation) have far-reaching consequences for many around the world, as do its policies on issues as wide-ranging as trade, aid, climate change, conflict and terrorism.

In fact, in a year in which the UK is still gripped by a harsh recession, ‘international development’ – the sphere in which Africa is often discussed – has not really featured in pre-electoral media coverage in the country (although interestingly, each of the parties has committed not to cut overseas aid). Discussion of international affairs has largely been limited to references to the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan and the country’s role in the Iraq war, issues wrapped up in security and defence against terrorism. When it comes to domestic affairs of international reach, immigration has remained a hot topic in pre-election campaigning, albeit with each of the parties achieving the curious distinction of neither openly discussing the issue with UK voters in any depth or taking the opportunity to acknowledge the social, economic and cultural contribution of ‘skilled’ and 'unskilled' immigrants to the country. Indeed, Labour’s current emphasis on a 'points system' designed to only take in 'skilled' workers comes across as an unashamed example of state-sanctioned brain drain and plundering of poorer countries' human resources, one with no acknowledgement of the UK and the West's role in perpetuating the very economic conditions that often encourage people to migrate in search of opportunities.

If the UK is no longer the international force it once was and Africa no longer its ‘backyard’, it retains in the Commonwealth a clear institutional reminder of erstwhile colonial influence. While the Commonwealth does not overtly seek the concrete sphere of postcolonial influence of fellow former colonial power France’s Françafrique, much of the UK’s interaction with Africa has remained at best paternalistic (through misguided charitable ventures and dubious development projects), and at worst (in oil companies’ environmental degradation, odious debt and capital flight), in support of structures that would not unreasonably be described as ‘neocolonial’. Some 50 years after the independence of many anglophone African countries, it seems fitting to consider how political forces within the contemporary United Kingdom articulate the country’s continuing relationship with the African continent.



Labour is the UK’s ruling party, in power since 1997 when it won victory under Tony Blair. It is currently led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Its historical role as a working-class party and its roots as a political force many would associate with progressive socio-economic change notwithstanding, ‘New Labour’ is commonly regarded as having undertaken a significant shift to the right since coming to power. Despite the onset of the global recession and the widespread discrediting of un-regulated, free-market hyper-capitalism, rather than enabling a re-legitimation of left-wing thinking, Labour has baffled many by obediently leaping to bail out the UK’s banks and prop up a system entirely out of step with the interests of ordinary people. When it comes to Africa, Labour has arguably been at the forefront of efforts to keep a focus on ‘international development’ and poverty on the global stage, albeit often under an essentially non-reflective, paternalistic approach to ‘help Africa’ with little in the way of decision-making involvement for African government and civil society leaders.

Though slim on details, Labour’s 2010 manifesto comments on a number of areas of interest in relation to Africa. It highlights the need for reform to the EU budget, especially around ‘changes to the Common Agricultural Policy on the way to ending export subsidies'. It also underlines the need for reform to UN humanitarian agencies and to support the International Criminal Court (ICC) in bringing leaders involved in human rights abuses to justice (including, presumably, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir but excluding its own Tony Blair and former US president George W. Bush). The party’s manifesto also underlines the centrality of human rights and democracy to its foreign policy, and emphasises the responsibility of mature democracies to support the development of free societies across the world, without spelling out what the practical implications are of offering support for people’s rights to organise, advocate and represent themselves without fear of coming to harm. Likewise, it remains to be seen whether, in the same vein as its uncritical support for the Iraq war, Labour will continue to back the US in its ‘global war on terror’, a war which in the African continent is likely to see the escalation of the US’s AFRICOM (African Command) militarisation initiative and support for state efforts to suppress ‘dissident’ elements.

When it comes to trade, Labour’s manifesto is big on backing ‘fair’ trade, ‘no enforced liberalisation for poor countries’ and enhancing duty- and quota-free access to the UK market. These are positive ideas, but it seems unlikely that opposing the liberalisation of poor countries’ economies would amount to much more than simply registering doubts with international financial institutions. On the aid front, Labour's financial commitments constitute £8.5 billion over eight years 'to help more children go to school'; £6 billion on health between 2008 and 2015; £1 billion through the Global Fund to Support the Fight Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; £1 billion for water and sanitation by 2013; and £1 billion on food security and agriculture.

Highlighting a changing world, Labour wants to ‘secure global change’ through ‘extending the G8’, though it is unclear whether this means bringing more countries into the club or enhancing the power of those already within it. It also stresses a clearer mandate for the World Bank to focus on the world’s poorest countries around low-carbon development and for the IMF to focus on financial stability, though you would have to suspect that most progressive forces in Africa would prefer to keep these institutions at arm’s length when it comes to meeting these challenges. Labour also proposes radical UN reform and new membership of the permanent Security Council, without suggesting whom might be invited, let alone questioning the very legitimacy of such an elite group in the first place. It underlines the need for reform of NATO as a security force, and mentions the importance of building ‘the capacity of regional security organisations including the African Union’ – though whether this would be envisaged as a subordinate or autonomous role is not indicated – as well as stressing the continuing role of the Commonwealth as a force for ‘understanding and trust’ among around a quarter of the world’s population.


The Conservatives, traditionally the other big political force in British politics, are a party of the right which pushes for low taxation, a small state and private-sector based solutions. Currently led by David Cameron, the Conservative party has generally been polling highest in the run-up to the election, without ever looking capable of attaining an outright parliamentary majority.

Intent on reviving Britain’s position within the world, the Conservative manifesto wraps its policies around international affairs within a section called ‘Promote our national interest’, and describes the UK’s seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council as an ‘asset’. The manifesto recognises the emergence of China and India as powerful nations with whom alliances should be sought, and proposes to 'support permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council for Japan, India, Germany, Brazil and African representation’. Like Labour, it too identifies the Commonwealth as a focus for the promotion of democratic values, albeit arguably with a hint of imperialist revivalist flair in underlining its ‘development’ role.

Interestingly, the Conservative manifesto mentions the creation of a ‘Pan-African Free Trade Area’, which – no matter your feelings about the validity of free-trade orthodoxy – seems a progressive-sounding concern for African countries to be able to trade more readily with each other. On the question of figures around overseas aid, the Conservative manifesto is much less forthcoming than Labour’s, simply making mention of ‘at least £500 million a year to tackle malaria’.

But it is in its general points on aid that the Conservative manifesto gives the strongest indication of the party’s attitude to poorer countries. While pledging to keep an independent Department for International Development (DfID) and aid unlinked to commercial concerns, the manifesto reveals shades of both paternalism and neocolonialism in its vision of Britain’s relationship with the developing world. As part of increasing accountability and transparency around aid, if in power the party would create a new ‘MyAid Fund’ designed to allow British taxpayers ‘a direct say’ in how aid is spent. It is not clear why British people need ‘more control’ over how money is spent in other countries, though lest there be concerns over the complete exclusion of aid recipients from this picture, the Conservatives promise ‘more say’ for developing countries. Equally, the Conservatives stress that: 'Our bargain with taxpayers is this: in return for contributing your hard-earned money to helping the world’s poorest people, it is our duty to spend every penny of aid effectively.' This, if it need be pointed out, is an understanding of aid framed entirely as rich people giving generously, with responsibility for its management exclusively to the givers rather than the populations of recipient countries where aid can be such a dysfunctional force.

These policies form the basis of an overall ‘One World Conservatism’ plan, the globally unified, mutually beneficial and harmonious ideal behind which is somewhat punctured by assertions that 'We will do so because it is in our national interest.' The Conservatives identify trade and economic growth as the only sustainable means by which countries can escape poverty, and pledge to put all efforts behind a pro-development global trade. The details of this deal are not outlined, but it seems unlikely that a Conservative government operating in ‘our national interest’ would prioritise African countries’ assessments of what would work best for them around global trade. When it comes to solving climate change worldwide, the Conservative manifesto merely pledges to ‘explore ways to help the very poorest developing countries take part in international climate change negotiations’, which in effect seems a commitment to simply perpetuate the marginalisation of those worst affected and with least responsibility for the crisis on the global sidelines.


The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) represent the third force in British politics and are a party that commands significant support nationwide without ever really challenging Labour or the Conservatives for the reins for power. Being out of power nationally means the Lib Dems have escaped the mucky business of governing, something which arguably leaves them as an untainted and unknown quantity alike in the eyes of many voters. With the advent of televised debates during this election, the party’s leader Nick Clegg has taken advantage of new-found national exposure and has attempted to position the Lib Dems as a political force free of the old-style political trappings of the two traditionally strongest parties. The Lib Dems are commonly regarded as a pro-European, pro-local government centrist party, and are set to achieve a much higher number of votes than in the past through capitalising on voters’ disaffection with Labour and mistrust of the Conservatives.

With respect to international relations, the Lib Dems are highly critical of the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war and its role in the US-led ‘global war on terror’ – specifically, the rendition of suspected terrorists – and are dubious about the country’s ‘subservient relationship’ to the US. While this stance has left the party open to accusations of anti-Americanism, in truth it is the only one of the three parties that has come close to a critique of the US’s marauding abuses of human rights, albeit with a curious, historically myopic appeal to a glorious, squeaky-clean British past in this area ('British people used to be proud of what our country stood for’).

Like Labour the party highlights the need to get the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) back on track, and recognises climate change as 'the greatest challenge facing this generation’, as part of its ‘Your world’ section. While the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto does not directly mention the word ‘Africa’, its section on international affairs is in many respects the most detailed of the three parties, largely because of its focus on climate change. When it comes to facing up to environmental challenges, the party proposes harnessing the European Union to ensure that ‘the environment’ is an intrinsic part of the objectives of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. It seemingly acknowledges the industrialised world’s responsibilities to the developing world around climate change, stressing that it would ensure that adaptation and mitigation of the effects of the crisis are financed by the rich world. It also pledges to push for reform of the World Bank and IMF – without going into details – as well as proposing a global fund for social protection designed to support the development of ‘viable welfare systems’ in developing countries. Despite the general campaign use of the word ‘fair’ as the ideological Lib Dem glue, there is, oddly enough, no obvious mention of the importance of reforming global trade, an absence which contributes to an overall impression that developing countries are to be regarded as objects of charity and protection.

Still, the Lib Dem manifesto spells out an intention to revitalise international action around developing countries’ debt and to support ‘100 per cent cancellation of the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries’, as well as the need for measures against exploitative ‘vulture funds’. Such intentions are reflective of policies that are largely much more progressive and even radical than those of the other two main parties, but with the Lib Dems virtually guaranteed not to win the majority needed to push them through (or perhaps spared from having to follow through on them), these policies may well remain fringe ideas. With the distinct possibility of a ‘hung parliament’, the Lib Dems will be a prime target for a coalition deal for both Labour and the Conservatives. While the Lib Dems’ overall greater prominence at this election could well mean these policies retain a certain political weight behind them, it will be interesting to see what gets shelved if the party enters into a coalition government in which it would be obliged to compromise on the commitments outlined in its manifesto.


In the wake of both a profound contemporary economic crisis and a longer-term retreat from international power in the aftermath of the Second World War, the UK has seen its ability to shape global affairs and exert its influence diminish considerably. Nevertheless, the UK’s global role remains significant, and whichever party triumphs in the current elections will bear responsibility for the country’s ideological and political thrust internationally, its attitude to trade, economic relations, human rights, terrorism and conflict, and its domestic policies on everything from climate change to immigration.

While many voters in the UK point to the absence of clear political differences between the main parties, each manifesto – a lack of details notwithstanding – hints at a particular ideological leaning in relation to other parts of the world. Highlighting its record while in power, Labour’s manifesto mentions the party’s prominent role in the debt cancellation for some 28 countries worldwide, and indeed – once you get past the focus on aid – it is the arena of economic justice that is perhaps of greatest significance to Africa. While movements around writing-off iniquitous debts are encouraging, debt cancellation should ultimately be but one feature of redressing Africa’s unjust position as perennial underdog within the global economic architecture. A Global Financial Integrity (GFI) report on ‘Illicit financial flows from Africa’ reveals conservative estimates of total illegal outflows from Africa of US$854 billion for the period 1970–2008. This figure would be enough, as AfricaFocus notes, to cover the region’s approximate external debt of US$250 billion (a December 2008 figure) while leaving US$600 billion in reserve for economic progress. But with Labour and other parties’ politicians alike incapable of developing effective checks-and-balances for the country’s own banking sector (or indeed of keeping their own parliamentary expenses under control), it seems tackling exploitative capital flight and offshore havens is unlikely to be a priority. In much the same vein, with the UK’s global role in decline it remains to be seen how each of the parties might unearth the strength to follow through on claims in their manifestos to usher progressive reform of the World Bank and IMF and stand up to unelected leaders of international financial institutions whose decisions and power hold so much sway over livelihoods around the world.

With the UK itself facing an enormous deficit and national debt, Labour’s capacity to advise and influence other governments on how to run an economy would seem somewhat limited, as would its ability to talk up to international financial institutions. The Conservatives are apparently unashamed in their desire to seek to control spending within countries receiving aid, with suggestions of an emphasis on a global free-trade agenda and an unwillingness to even consider offering poor countries’ governments greater representation on the international stage. If the Liberal Democrats arguably propose the most progressive policies of the main UK parties, as the traditional third party – albeit a resurgent one – it remains to be seen what level of momentum will remain behind pushing through new approaches. Parties’ commitments not to rescind on aid commitments aside, the UK’s deficit, economic slump and falling public expenditure will ensure that the victorious party will concern itself first and foremost with national recovery and ‘making the country great again’, a focus that is unlikely to leave much space for reflexive self-assessment of the UK’s relationship to Africa and the global South at large.


* Alex Free is assistant editor of Pambazuka News.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.