Human Rights and Foreign Policy – absent from the 2015 General Election?

6 May 2015

As the 2015 general election finally draws to a close and talks are set to begin on forming a new government, one thing which stuck out over the course of the campaign is the conspicuous absence of important foreign policy issues, especially when it comes to matters of human rights and international development. Such issues have largely been sidelined in a campaign dominated by domestic concerns. Nevertheless, at a time of seemingly increased global insecurity, party policies on these key issues deserve a closer look to allow us a glimpse of how British foreign policy may play out over the next five years, and how this will affect, not just the international community, but also the voters at home.


Where is the foreign policy?


Looking back on the campaign, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the UK exists in isolation from the rest of the world, given the scant attention to international affairs, even though Britain’s relationship with the global community has a clear and discernible impact on foreign aid, immigration and asylum, affecting the voters at home. The truism in politics is that “there are no votes in foreign policy”, that it’s bread and butter issues in Sheffield Hallam and Northampton North, and not humanitarian crises and human rights abuses in Sudan and Nigeria, over which elections are won and lost. The lack of a distinctive foreign policy stance amongst the major parties reflects this belief. Instead foreign policy issues, especially those concerning human rights and development, have been discussed in a way that can only be described as reactive and ad hoc. For example, the coverage of countless refugees who have died crossing the Mediterranean has arguably been de-contextualised. Although there was a debate over the Government’s decision to stop funding for search and rescue operations in the region, there has been less discussion of how NATO military intervention in Libya to oust Gaddafi in 2011, may have destabilized the country and led to a spike in the number of boat crossings as human traffickers took advantage of the ensuing chaos. Similarly, Labour have promised an international envoy on LGBT rights, if elected, but have said less on Britain’s close military and diplomatic ties with countries that aren’t exactly waving the rainbow flag, such as Bahrain and Egypt. Senior Conservative figures may ask why moderate British Muslims aren’t doing more to tackle support for Islamic extremism in their communities but less is said about Britain’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by a Wahhabi regime whose justice system and treatment of women matches that of ISIS.


These examples highlight a wider inconsistency in the election. Rather than illuminating a comprehensive vision, the parties foreign policy proposals seem to be based more around specific issues, which are going to be dealt with in isolation from one another, firmly separate from the domestic sphere. This could be down to a matter of control. GE2015 has been described as the most stage-managed campaigns ever. The party leaders, keen to avoid another Gillian Duffy moment, have kept uncontrolled interactions with the public and the media to a minimum, sticking to well-rehearsed lines on familiar topics, like zero hour contracts and the “long term economic plan”. Foreign affairs are often fast-paced, ever-changing and unpredictable, requiring a nuanced understanding that just doesn’t fit well with the tight choreography of the parties campaigns.


Even though foreign policy issues have barely seemed like more than a footnote in party manifestos, and have generated far less coverage than how politicians deal with bacon sandwiches, chopping courgettes and hen parties, the main parties have at least made clear their stance on foreign aid commitments. Here we summarise these stances for you.


Foreign Aid


Most of the major parties, including the Welsh and Scottish nationalists, are in agreement that the current level of 0.7% of gross national income that gets spent on foreign aid should remain in place while the Greens go further in wanting to increase this amount to 1%. UKIP meanwhile take a strikingly different view. Arguing that charity should begin at home, UKIP have pledged to slash the foreign aid budget by two thirds and abolish the “wasteful” Department of International Development (DfID) should they be in a position of power come the 8th of May. They also advocate a “trade not aid” approach to international development, believing the UK can best help the world’s poorest by leaving the E.U. and therefore be able to trade more freely with LEDCs, vaunting a “trickle-down” theory of economics which has arguably been much discredited since its 1980s heyday. UKIP’s stance on foreign aid has been strongly criticised, not least by some of the other parties, but also by advocacy groups like Global Justice Now, whose Group Director, Nick Dearden damned the party’s proposals as a “recipe for a more unequal world”. Nonetheless, UKIP appear to be the only ones outside the cross-party consensus of protecting foreign aid commitments.


Migrants’ Rights: ‘Borders Everywhere’


Another party consensus that has dominated this election, and one certain to win UKIP approval, is the one that has grown around immigration. Migration is perhaps the best example of how “all politics is local”, with events abroad leading to migration into the UK. It has been pointed out, for example, that many of the people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean are fleeing persecution, conflict and poverty in countries like Sierra Leone, Libya and Eritrea. However, this link is rarely talked about in the mainstream of British politics.  From Nick Clegg reinforcing a dichotomy of “good” and “bad” migrants in the first televised leaders debate, to Labour’s campaign merchandise promising “controls on immigration”, none of the Westminster three want to be seen as being “soft” on this hot button issue, migrants’ rights be damned. The Tories are promising “tough new welfare conditions and robust enforcement” for newly arrived migrants, pledging to push for new E.U laws that would stop migrant workers claiming tax credits and child benefits until they’ve worked for four years. For Labour, this ban would be in place for two years. The lurch to the right on immigration is arguably an attempt to win back some of the votes lost to UKIP, which has, unsurprisingly, some of the toughest immigration policy proposals. They advocate a five year ban on unskilled migrant workers from entering the country and a five year ban on the rights of people who immigrate here to claim benefits. UKIP also want to emulate a more Australian-style points system, even though the Australian system has been repeatedly criticised by the U.N for the way they treat asylum seekers.


Indefinite Detention: A shift in policy?


Even though the anti-immigration rhetoric and policy, spearheaded by UKIP over the past five years, has come to be accepted by most of the major Westminster political and media players, there are glimpses of an alternative. Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru won the praise of many on social media when she slammed Farage over his demonisation of foreign-born HIV sufferers, telling him that he “ought to be ashamed of yourself” during the first leaders debate. Plaid Cymru and the SNP, perhaps partly due to their countries’ relatively more fragile population levels, have been more pro-immigration and migrants’ rights. Plaid Cymru’s manifesto promises to make Wales “a country of sanctuary for victims of war and violence” while Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP has accused Farage of “intolerance” over his party’s anti-immigration stance. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, meanwhile, has said she’s “watched in horror” as migrants are blamed for “policy failures” , criticising the “divide and rule tactics” of the political elite.


The fact that immigration hasn’t dominated the election campaign might be down to the silence that such a consensus produces (i.e. there can’t be a debate when everyone is in agreement), but it could also be due to the voting public moving onto other issues, such as the NHS and the economy. Last week, the Labour party promised it would end the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. A stance also taken by the SNP, Greens and Lib Dems, leaving the Tories isolated on this issue at least. This is a welcome policy shift in a time when migrants and refugees have consistently been demonised and dehumanised in Parliament and in the press. The Migrants Rights Network has described the UK detention system as a human rights disaster, in which people are kept in “prison-like conditions” with insufficient access to healthcare of legal assistance. The fact that most of the big parties are in favour of changing this is at least a start,  but it’s yet to be seen if the next Parliament will produce the reforms this system so urgently needs.




Although human rights, international development, and other foreign policy matters, have been relatively absent from the 2015 election, they will, nevertheless, have to be on the agenda for the incoming government. From falling oil prices predicted to cause further political instability in parts of the Middle East and Africa, and not just deflation at home, to climate change, regional conflicts and poverty driving migration to our shores, it’s clear that what happens in the world around us has a huge impact on life here in the UK. However, if this election campaign is anything to go by, then our future Government won’t have much of a comprehensive or consistent strategy for dealing with any of these issues, whenever they arise.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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