Rob Bailey
Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources
Despite public scepticism, the three main Westminster parties are committed to maintaining high international aid spending. If development aid features as an issue in the 2015 general election, it is likely to be from an aid-sceptic UKIP pushing against it.
Justine Greening, secretary of state for international development, is shown vehicles and humanitarian aid headed for the Philippines on 15 November 2013. Photo by Getty Images.Justine Greening, secretary of state for international development, is shown vehicles and humanitarian aid headed for the Philippines on 15 November 2013. Photo by Getty Images.

In August 2014, Chatham House conducted its fourth survey with YouGov, which tracks trends in attitudes to international affairs in the UK among both the general public and opinion formers in senior roles across multiple sectors. Chatham House is highlighting some of the findings from the survey ahead of the publication of the main report later this month.

In 2013, the UK coalition government increased spending on overseas aid from 0.56% of GNI to 0.72%, fulfilling a commitment made in the coalition agreement and placing the UK among a small group of donor countries – the so-called G07 – to have reached the internationally accepted 0.7% aid target. Doing so had cross-party support from Labour (which set the commitment when last in government) the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, but the 2014 Chatham House-YouGov survey indicates the policy is unlikely to be a vote winner. Although 30% of voters would hold aid spending at current levels, over half (54%) of voters agree with the statement that the UK ‘spends too much on aid. In difficult economic times we should spend more money at home.’ The percentage rises to 62 % among Conservative voters and 87% among UKIP voters, demonstrating the policy’s unpopularity on the right of the electorate where the Conservatives are under pressure to defend their share of the vote from an ascendant UKIP.

In general, UKIP voters are most sceptical of aid. They are least likely to see aid as in the national interest; most strongly in favour of cutting the aid budget; least likely to trust aid will be spent wisely; and most likely to think that the UK spends more on aid than other countries. While opinion formers and voters for the three main Westminster parties generally believe the priority for aid should be poverty reduction and helping people in the developing world, UKIP voters are more likely to favour the use of aid to promote British interests abroad.

In contrast, supporters of the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are the most supportive of aid. Indeed, it is only among Liberal Democrat voters that UK aid policy does appear a clear vote winner: 55% are ‘proud that the UK is a leading donor of aid’, and 66% would maintain or increase current aid spending. Opinion formers are more likely to be supportive of the UK’s donorship – 84% of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporting opinion formers are ‘proud that the UK is a leading donor of aid’ falling to 48% among Conservative supporters.

Overall, support for the level of UK aid spending declines from its highest level  among Liberal Democrats, to Labour voters, Conservatives and finally UKIP. However there is broad consensus on questions of which countries should receive aid and how it should be delivered.

Across supporters from all parties, the two most important considerations in deciding which countries should receive aid were first, how much of that aid could be wasted, and second, the presence of a democratic government with respect for human rights. How poor a country is was third, despite most people believing the priority for aid should be poverty reduction.

These patterns were similar among opinion formers. On delivery, supporters of all parties trusted charities and other non-governmental organizations most ‘to spend international aid money wisely’, with international organizations a distant second. Least trusted (again among all voters) were governments in recipient countries, probably reflecting commonly held concerns about corruption and waste.

Will UK aid be an election issue in 2015? While there is a cross-party consensus on the 0.7 target among the three main Westminster parties, it is a somewhat uncomfortable one for Labour and the Conservatives, as support for the target does not extend as far into their voter bases as they might like: 50% of Labour voters and 62% of Conservative voters believe ‘the UK spends too much on aid.’ It is therefore likely that the two largest parties will remain relatively quiet on the issue in the run-up to the general election. The winners from making aid an election issue are likely to be Liberal Democrats and UKIP: respective arguments for and against aid will resonate with their core supporters. The opportunity is arguably greatest for UKIP, which may seek to attract aid-sceptic Conservative voters with attacks on coalition aid policy. Indeed, well-publicised calls from UKIP for aid to be cut or diverted to supporting victims of the winter floods indicate we may be witnessing this already.

The coalition’s decision to increase aid during a period of economic hardship and pervasive cuts in public spending was remarkable. It has certainly benefited a great many people in the developing world. Ironically, it may also have benefited UKIP.

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