UK election: How committed are the major parties to peacebuilding?

With campaigning in full swing for the UK general election on 12 December, a look at how the major parties’ manifestos measure up on peacebuilding and conflict prevention commitments.

The bipartisan use of the word ‘peacebuilding’ – dealing with the underlying causes of conflict and empowering societies to resolve conflict peacefully – is a step forward. 

This is the first time it appears in both the Conservative and Labour party manifestos, coming on the heels of a campaign last year by a number of NGOs, including International Alert, to get it in the dictionary.

However, promoting peace and preventing conflict takes more than words.

The Conservative manifesto points to the UK’s track record on peacebuilding and pledges a continuing focus on promoting “reconciliation and stability”. More of the same however, is unlikely to maximise the UK’s full potential when it comes to conflict prevention and therefore its contribution to the UK’s national security. It, unfortunately, does not pick up on the more concerted attention that has been given to the issue by Conservative MPs such as Tom Tugendhat and former Minister of State for the Department for International Development (DfID) Alistair Burt over the last few years.

For the Conservatives, conflict prevention has the potential to form a robust centre piece to their Global Britain strategy. The UK, with its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, is in a prime position to mark itself out as a global leader on the issue. To do otherwise would risk the UK being overtaken by other states as a leader and innovator in conflict policy and practice – the US congress is in the process passing a bi-partisan act that will result in the development of a US strategy for conflict prevention and peacebuilding in ten countries over ten years. The Germans have spelt out a deliberate strategy, while the Dutch have been quietly but surely stepping up their conflict prevention efforts.

Conflict prevention and peacebuilding receives dedicated attention in the Labour manifesto with a specific commitment around “investing in local capacities for peacebuilding in areas of conflict – advocating for political, multilateral strategies for peace” – a welcome development.The Labour Spending Review also promises to replace the current Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) with a peace fund. There is a need for clarity about its focus. Labour proposes to inject what it described as an “additional” £400 million into this fund for climate diplomacy and human rights. While both are worthy causes, muddling strategic objectives could undermine the real potential of the fund as a vehicle for dealing with structural, underlying drivers of conflict and therefore address the main weakness the CSSF.

Disappointingly, the 2019 manifesto drops a key commitment from the 2017 manifesto: to come up with a specific UK plan for conflict prevention and peacebuilding – a glaring gap in current UK policy and impediment to more effective conflict prevention efforts.

Consideration of conflict is limited to the manifestos’ piece on diplomacy. Divorcing peacebuilding and conflict prevention from development is a high-risk strategy, given 80% of the world’s poor live in conflict affected countries. Without a deliberate effort to address drivers of conflict that keeps people poor, the SDGs will not be achieved, and millions will be left behind.

Moreover, primary drivers of conflict are often political and economic exclusion – inherently intertwined with Labour’s inequality and social justice agendas and part of DFID’s core mandate. But there is no organic correlation between more development and more peace, unless interventions are specifically designed to this end, thus the need for a political level steer on the issue.

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto comes closest to a more integrated approach, highlighting conflict prevention as one of their four priorities for aid spending, while also emphasising that trade, diplomacy as well as military cooperation also have a role to play in strengthening UK efforts to prevent violent conflict. This however does not come with any specific commitments. Should they hold the balance of power that are positioned to take forward the more integrated approach that is lacking in the major parties’ platforms.

The proof will be in the pudding for whoever wins government on 12 December. The UK is due to refresh its Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) – essentially its national security policy. 

With no actual objectives in the 2015 SDSR around peacebuilding and a fleeting reference to dealing with root causes, this will mark out how serious either party is about this agenda.