Internationalism is in Labour’s DNA

7 Mar , 2014  

Melanie Ward, who sits on the Advisory Board of the Labour Campaign for International Development, writes on tackling global poverty.

For Labour, internationalism is in our party’s DNA. We know that the place and circumstances in which you were born should not determine your chances in life. Our vision of social justice and equality doesn’t stop at Britain’s borders; it spans the globe.

It’s hard to think of an issue where such an approach is needed more than gender inequality. Women are half of the world’s population yet make up 70% of the global poor.

Internationalism was as clear in the vision of our party’s founders like Keir Hardie and pioneers like Jennie Lee as it is in the ideas of Margaret Beckett, the first woman Foreign Secretary; Glenys Kinnock who, in the last Labour government, led action to tackle violence against women internationally; and Valerie Amos, International Development Secretary when Labour was in government, now leading the UN’s response in humanitarian crises such as Syria. Today a new generation of Labour MPs fly the internationalist flag including women like Alison McGovern MP, Kerry McCarthy MP, Emma Reynolds MP and PPCs – hopefully MPs as of 2015 – like Purna Sen and Sophy Gardner.

Last year I met Indian women and girls like Shirin in Delhi – where Nirbhaya was brutally and fatally raped – who were learning about their rights and working together to claim them. I met Palestinian women and girls like Amal in the West Bank who were fighting for a better future. At the UN I spoke alongside Afghan women activists and MPs like Shinkai who fear the return of the Taliban and are battling just to keep the limited advances they have achieved over the last decade.

Shirin, Amal and Shinkai are our sisters; they share the same hopes and dreams as those of us who happen to have been born and raised in the UK. They want a good education, the chance to work and earn a decent living and lift themselves out of poverty. They want to spend their lives with a partner they have chosen for love and for no other reason. They want to live free from fear and violence –. They want equal rights with men, not just in theory but in reality. They want justice.

Justice must be at the heart of Labour’s international development approach, and this means tackling the root causes of global poverty. Ed Miliband’s approach of responsible capitalism is needed to tackle the broken economic system, which sees so many of the world’s women trapped in poverty and exploited day after day.

This was grimly highlighted in April last year when 1133 Bangladeshi garment workers were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory. 80% of those who perished were women. Bangladesh, where 43% of the population live below the extreme poverty line of $1.25 a day, has the third biggest garment industry in the world. Its supply of cheap labour – the majority being women – is vital to this. Many British companies use Bangladeshi factories and, as the trade union movement has long argued, proper rights at work including basic safety and a decent wage are shamefully overdue for those who make the clothes that so many of us wear. Shadow International Development Secretary Jim Murphy MP has recently written about this, the race to the bottom in jobs and investment. It’s a big problem here at home but in the world’s poorest countries it can be utterly deadly.

The last Labour Government led the world in tackling global poverty. We can be confident that, underpinned by leadership priorities like responsible capitalism and with strong, internationalist women in key positions, the next Labour Government will advance the struggle for women’s rights. By tackling the causes of poverty and exploitation, we can approach the day when a terrible injustice like the Rana Plaza disaster can never happen again. And we can move towards the time when Shirin, Amal and Shinkai’s desire for justice will no longer be just a distant dream but the lived reality for them and their daughters.

Melanie is on the Management Committee of the Labour Women’s Network and the Advisory Board of the Labour Campaign for International Development. She writes in a personal capacity. More at and @melanie_ward

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