Bethnal Green & Bow MP defies official Labour instruction to oppose Tory austerity charter
Five years ago, Labour’s National Executive removed Lutfur Rahman as Labour’s candidate for mayor of Tower Hamlets – without notice. Several local Labour figures condemned the then Cllr Lutfur Rahman for standing as an independent candidate – because this was “breaking Labour Party rules”.
Now Rushanara Ali, the local Labour MP, has also broken Labour Party rules. The party “whip” in the House of Commons issued strict instructions that all Labour MPs should vote against Chancellor George Osborne’s “Fiscal Charter” Rushanara abstained – helping the Conservatives push through their austerity measures. And now she’s tight-lipped, not giving any explanation for her actions.
The row centres on a vote in the House of Commons on 14th October, on a “Charter for Budget Responsibility” put forward by the Tories. The key point in this document was that future Governments should adopt annual budgets which had a surplus – which could be used to pay off the national debt.
There were several reasons why the Government was doing this. First, the economy is actually not doing that well under the Tories, and they are certainly not making much headway in pay off the national debt. It’s therefore really important to them that they keep saying how important it is that governments should pay off the national debt – so that the public thinks this is what they are actually doing and doesn’t examine their performance too closely. As one of the Telegraph’s economics commentators noted, “So why is the Chancellor bothering with a new set of fiscal rules which most economists regard as unnecessary, highly likely to be broken on the anvil of events, and in some circumstances outright dangerous?”
Second, Jeremy Corby made it clear that his economic strategy was based on borrowing to invest in the economy so that it grew – which would increase government income and therefore bring down debt, in the longer term. The Tories have been pretending that Labour’s strategy is actually to borrow money irresponsibly, to deny that the deficit matters – or even exists. The Tories have been calling Labour “deficit deniers”. This put Labour in a trap. If they voted for the Charter, the Tories would say they were voting against their own stated economic policy, which is borrowing more. If they voted against the Charter, the Tories would say they were not taking the deficit responsibly. Initially, Labour said it would vote for the Charter, but at the start of the week when the vote was held, the Shadow Chancellor changed his mind and instructions went out to Labour MPs to vote against the Tories’ Charter.
The vote itself was not really that important. The Charter has a “get out clause” anyway, which states that the rule about having a budget surplus only applies in “normal circumstances”. “Normal” is not defined, so any future Prime Minister can just declare this “not a normal year” – or just repeal the silly Charter and start again. The vote was significant only in that it was the first test of the Parliamentary Labour Party (Labour’s MPs): would they back the Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had just been elected by a huge majority of Labour members? Or would they cling to the tired old, failed, Blair/Mandelson line – essentially, that Labour had to behave like the Tories in order to get elected?
In the event, only 21 Labour MPs refused to back party instructions and abstained, rather than vote against the Charter. That’s less than 10% of Labour MPs – hardly a big rebellion.
The silly issue behind the vote, the Tories’ motives in using it to try to show that Labour is divided, and the small rebellion… all these points make it even stranger that Rushanara Ali MP should be one of the MPs who rebelled – especially as she has not supported past Labour rebels or rule-breakers.
With this in mind, East End newspaper the London Bangla phoned Ms Ali’s office to hear her side of the story. It was possible she was recorded as having abstained because an accident or some awful similar thing had prevented her from casting a vote. Ms Ali did not get back to them with a statement and nor has she, as far as we can see, made any public statement to explain her abstention.