Development at the Lib Dem party conference

Posted by Charlie Matthews on 27 September 2012

International development is rarely the issue that grabs the headlines at party conferences, and this year in particular, the Lib Dems were more interested in thinking about their future – see an entertaining video from the Guardian  to get a sense of the mood. However, I thought I saw the beginnings of a new focus on foreign affairs, and development in particular, during the five days the party spent in Brighton.

The first major signal is the change in the Lib Dem ministerial line-up in the recent Cabinet reshuffle. The Lib Dems have given up their places in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, and plumped instead for a seat in the Department for International Development, where Lynne Featherstone MP now sits. She spoke at a ministerial Q&A session on international affairs, and it was good to see her so enthusiastic about her new role; it seems she will champion issues such as gender, jobs and climate change in UK development policy.

Featherstone will be responsible for DFID’s relationship with Europe as the EU debates its next budget, including the amount of money it will spend on development aid. She will also be involved in international discussions to decide what replace the Millennium Development Goals. Having previously held ministerial responsibility for equalities, I am hopeful that she can use her existing understanding of marginalisation to push disability up the agenda.

In 2010 former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown worked with the current government to lead the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR). Since then he has continued to bang the drum for foreign policy within the party, often arguing that there is no such thing as a purely domestic issue in the modern, interconnected world.

Ashdown spoke at a fringe event on foreign policy, arguing persuasively in favour of a flexible and networked foreign policy that draws defence, diplomacy and development together to work for common aims. Nick Clegg, in the speech that ended the conference, announced that Ashdown is being brought back into the fold to coordinate the Lib Dem’s 2015 General Election Committee; let us hope that from this perch he can encourage the party to act as a champion for development issues, ensuring that the current political commitment to aid and development is maintained through this Parliament and beyond.

Featherstone and Ashdown were not the only bright sparks. Martin Horwood MP chairs the party’s international affairs policy committee; having formerly worked in the development sector he grasps the issues instinctively and his enthusiasm cannot help but rub off on some of his fellow MPs. It is also hoped that the party will have a new development policy paper to follow on from 2010’s ‘Accountability to the Poor’, to be launched next year. Baroness Northover, who speaks for the Government in the Lords on matters relating to DFID, was also present at many development debates and shared her colleagues’ enthusiasm for development issues.

Overall, I left the Lib Dem conference feeling optimistic about their potential to influence UK development policy for the better. Next week I am off to Manchester to see what the Labour Party thinks – for up to the minute updates follow me on Twitter at @CharlieMTweets.

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