Seven trade policy priorities for the next government

Posted on June 10, 2024
Cargo ship in port

As the dividing lines of the 2024 election take shape, trade policy is low on the political agenda. However, the transition to a fairer and greener UK, which responsibly engages with the world, cannot be achieved without reassessing our approach to trade.

UK trade policy has enjoyed significant attention in recent years. Since the 2019 general election, the UK has signed new trade deals with the EU, Australia and New Zealand and launched trade talks with India, Israel, the Gulf States and others. Trade policy announcements – many of which the Trade Justice Movement did not welcome – have come thick and fast.

Now election campaigning is underway, all parties are shifting to talk about other issues. Perhaps this makes sense, as voters are unlikely to raise trade on the doorstep when they face so many other pressing concerns. But it would be foolish to forget about trade entirely. Any new government with ambitions to find solutions to urgent issues such as the climate crisis, unaccountable corporations and sustainable development will need to engage with how the UK trades with the world.

The Trade Justice Movement’s 2024 manifesto highlights seven key commitments we want politicians of all parties to make to bring about a trading system that works for people and the planet.

1. A trade strategy

We need the UK government to publish a document clearly laying out what our trade policy is intended to achieve, and how it will further our social and environmental goals. There is a real clamour for such a strategy: it’s being called for by voices as diverse as Bond, the Boston Consulting Group and the Confederation of British Industry

2. A modern and democratic process for agreeing trade deals

As it stands, trade deals, which have a potentially significant impact on many parts of our economy and society, are signed off via an opaque and undemocratic process established in the 1920s. We agree with BOND (see page 15 of its manifesto) that the system needs to be turned on its head. Civil society groups, businesses and devolved administrations should have a proper say, and MPs must have the right to approve or reject any new deals.

3. Trade policy that supports climate action

International trade agreements have supported the growth of polluting and extractive industries. But it is also true that trade policy has a positive role to play in tackling the climate crisis. Approached energetically and creatively, trade rules can be used to enforce high environmental standards and call time on fossil fuel subsidies. And when trade rules are obstructing climate action, they should be swept aside – as the UK has already begun to do by exiting the climate-wrecking Energy Charter Treaty.

4. Putting human rights at the centre of trade deals

If we’re not careful, free trade can create a race to the bottom where the fierce competition to provide goods and services as cheaply as possible leads to lower pay, abusive conditions and union busting around the world. This can be guarded against by ensuring that UK trade deals contain ambitious and binding mechanisms to uphold human rights and labour rights.

5. End corporate courts

The UK is signed up to more than 80 trade deals containing the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism. This is extremely controversial; it allows companies to bring lawsuits against countries if public policy threatens corporate profits. Globally, the ISDS system has seen at least US$100bn of public money awarded to corporations, with fossil fuel firms the biggest beneficiary. The UK should immediately commit to signing no more deals containing ISDS mechanisms, and begin taking steps to dismantle the system.

6. Protect the UK’s right to regulate big tech and AI

Some UK trade deals contain provisions that constrain the ability of governments to regulate big tech companies. The digital economy is rapidly growing and evolving. The UK must make sure it has the power to shape and control things like AI and how citizens’ data is used.

7. Trade that promotes sustainable development

If we are to see progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, UK trade policy needs to be designed to support low and middle-income countries’ development priorities. Trade deals should be assessed to ensure they have a positive development impact, for example by supporting stronger regional trade networks in countries.

It would be a huge step in the right direction for political parties to commit to these seven broad areas. Maybe the era of trade-as-headline-news is coming to an end. But that’s no bad thing if what comes next is a transparent and democratic approach to trade, anchored in development, human rights and climate action. We’ll be watching the campaign closely, and working with the next government to open up a positive new chapter for UK trade policy.

This blog by Tom Wills originally appeared on the BOND website on 10 June 2024.

Tom Wills is Director of the Trade Justice Movement and can be followed at @thomasrhwills