Towards a Connected Commonwealth: local, national and global networks.
Happy Commonwealth Day! As the Commonwealth marks its 70th anniversary, anyone interested in multilateralism has to be struck by the endurance of this voluntary association of 53 counties. While many members share a common history, more recent members do not.
All however, benefit from the quiet diplomacy and soft power this organisation offers to states as small as Tuvalu and as large as India. Away from the mega phone diplomacy and social media sound bites, the Commonwealth, led by the Secretary-General Baroness Scotland, provides support to 2.4 billion citizens, a quarter of the planet.
In an increasingly polarised world plagued by growing nationalism and extremism, the Commonwealth promotes dialogue, undertakes conflict resolution, actively celebrates diversity, fights gender inequality, leads on youth engagement and takes a global approach to looking after our seas, forests and air. There are many reasons states are members of the Commonwealth and the queue of countries looking to join continues to grow. If I was representing a small island state that was disappearing due to global warming, I would want to be part of this eco lobbying group. A medium size state, looking to punch above its weight on issues that matter to them, would want to be part of a body that includes 1/3 of all states, where it’s one country one vote. All 5 Commonwealth G20 countries looking at Brexit and a possible imminent global recession, see the Commonwealth as an additional network that accounts for over $500 billion worth of trade. It is useful to members such as Belize, Britain and Bangladesh, or Mozambique, Malaysia and Malta. Residents of member states also benefit from the work and schemes of the 80+ international non-governmental associations affiliated the Commonwealth. These international professional associations have extensive scope and reach around the planet, the network of Commonwealth Universities being just one example. The theme for this year’s Commonwealth Day is a Connected Commonwealth. In an increasingly technologically connected world, there is a growing international digital divide. At a time where we spend more and more time, online, the disconnect with those suffering from poverty, social isolation and displacement has never been greater. In an inter-dependent world led by myopic thinking, we need multilateral organisations like the Commonwealth, to remind us of the importance of connecting with our neighbours, our communities, our environment, both at home and beyond.
In Waltham Forest we are about to launch our Connecting Communities programme, a movement that will help to unlock the potential within our communities to enable them to better help themselves and each other. We will be supporting networks that will allow community groups to upscale and tailor their impressive work to the needs of their community. The programme will seek to ensure that everyone regardless of age, background or when they moved to the borough, has a sense of belonging in Waltham Forest and are actively engaged in community life. Celebrating diversity and eradicating inequality are key to giving people a sense of belonging. With Britain on the cusp of a major change of its foreign and economic policy, the Connecting Communities programme in Waltham Forest is a pilot for how to respond to the’ brave new world’ we are facing: post-Brexit, ongoing austerity and rising inequality. Connecting communities and Connecting the Commonwealth – one local, one global – the common denominator, resilience building in a changing world.
So what does a Labour agenda for the Commonwealth look like? Labour Party foreign policy has always been one of multilateralism and international socialism. The Labour Manifesto: A Global Britain, puts conflict resolution and human rights at the heart of foreign policy. It rightly identifies the inter-connectedness of many of the major threats of our times, but then fails to make reference to the Commonwealth. We are fast approaching the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHGM) in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2020. With Britain currently holding the Chair of the Commonwealth, we are in a position to shape the agenda for CHOGM. Issues such as the status of Commonwealth citizens in the UK in the light of the Windrush scandal, violence against girls and women, LGBT rights, tackling extremism, gender inequality, conflict resolution in the Middle East, all of these issues would be most effectively tackled if the UK pushed for a strong Commonwealth approach. Ignoring the Commonwealth, will severely reduce the UKs ability to influence and affect any of the global challenges. The Labour Party needs a foreign policy that embraces multilateralism and pushes for reform of the international institutions. As other countries look to deepen their relations and build their resilience in the global economy, the UK is running the risk of being left behind. Our communities up and down the country, need a close relationship with the EU and to be able to enjoy the benefits of active UK membership of the Commonwealth. The UK needs to become more, not less connected given the challenges ahead. It needs an outward looking foreign policy and strong global networks.
Dr. Vicky te Velde
 te Velde, Victoria (2011) “The Commonwealth Brand: Global Voice, local action” (London, Routledge)