Thu, 20 June 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
Press releases

Miatta Fahnbulleh: 'I’m going to be trying to push us to go further'

Miatta Fahnbulleh

8 min read

Miatta Fahnbulleh, Labour’s candidate for Peckham and Camberwell, and economics adviser to Angela Rayner and Ed Miliband, speaks to Sophie Church on why economics needs more diverse voices, and why raising taxes for ordinary people is “for the birds”

Stepping into Harriet Harman’s shoes – Mother of the House-sized shoes, no less – is a daunting prospect for anyone looking to continue Labour’s 27-year hold of Peckham and Camberwell. But Miatta Fahnbulleh, chosen by Labour to replace Harman, is already seen as the party’s rising star.

Having studied economics at LSE, Fahnbulleh went on to become director of policy and research at the Institute of Public Policy Research. She then headed up the New Economics Foundation think tank for six years, before heading into the Cabinet Office, where she worked in the prime minister’s Strategy Unit. In the run-up to the election, she is acting as a senior economic adviser to both Angela Rayner and Ed Miliband.

“Expect maybe a year in the parliamentary trenches but at the first reshuffle Fahnbulleh will surely be a strong candidate for a Treasury job,” predicts writer and former Commons clerk Eliot Wilson.

I've always been a big advocate of blowing up economics and opening it up and making it feel less opaque

Though she laughs at the comparison with former star-on-the-rise Rishi Sunak – “that worked out well for him!” – she has been working hard to earn the trust of the Peckham community since being selected as its candidate in 2022. This has meant embedding herself in her would-be constituency: knocking on thousands of doors, going into schools and attending community events. And speaking with Harman, of course.

“She's been absolutely amazing,” she says. “The thing that makes me smile is when I got selected, she was like, ‘I'm not going to mentor you, because you have got to do it your own way’. And then she's just been an amazing mentor, in a really sensitive and thoughtful and soft way.”

When Harman asked her what her “thing” would be in Parliament, Fahnbulleh said that although she was an economist, she would like to focus on housing.

“She just said to me: ‘Your thing is the economy, Miatta. There are not that many economists. There are not that many female economists. There are not that many economists of colour. You have a really powerful voice, and we need your voice in politics’.”

Fahnbulleh describes herself as a heterodox economist. For too long, she says, the discipline has been dominated by a particular worldview: generally that of white men. “That means there's a worldview that's not necessarily reflective of all parts of our society,” she says. “I've always been a big advocate of blowing up economics and opening it up and making it feel less opaque so that you can attract more people with diverse backgrounds into it.”

The UK could soon have its first ever female chancellor in Rachel Reeves. But the Conservatives have questioned how Labour plan to fund their £38.5bn black hole of spending commitments, after Reeves ruled out tax rises on national insurance, VAT or income tax.

“I think the frontbench, maybe not everyone agrees with them, but I think they've been really clear about this, which is: in a world where taxes have been going up to their highest levels, the idea that you could impose more taxes on ordinary people just seems for the birds,” she says.

Miatta Fahnbulleh
Miatta Fahnbulleh 

“They're not saying anything in public that they're not saying in private,” she says. “I don't think they're dancing around. I don't think they're being obtuse about it. I think they've been really clear. And they’ve made a choice – it's growth. Our job is to deliver on that now.”

Fahnbulleh, 44, was born in Liberia to a Liberian father and Sierra-Leonean mother. Her father served in Samuel Doe’s government as a minister for education then of foreign affairs, but the family was forced to flee to Sierra Leone after her father criticised Doe’s descent into dictatorship. The family then moved to the UK to claim asylum.

Life was hard for immigrant families back then, says Fahnbulleh. “Just rising up was hard. You saw kids from really good families just not be able to have a pathway, not be able to rise above a particular ceiling. I fundamentally understood that there was just something not right.”

Economics proved her initial means of redress. However, it was the pandemic that encouraged her to now run to be Labour’s candidate.

“The things that don't work with our economy and our society had become so acute – they had just been put up in lights. I thought that was going to lead to some kind of a change, a pivot, a rupture.”

When things bounced back to normality, or even worse, slid backwards, Fahnbulleh knew this was the time to throw her hat in the ring. “The Labour Party for me is the vehicle by which we drive progressive change in this country. And so I was like: this is the time. I need to be on the inside to try and help drive the scale of change that I think – not that I want – that I think is a necessity, given where we are.”

Fahnbulleh sits on Labour’s left, and through her role as chief executive of the NEF influenced Jeremy Corbyn’s economic strategy. She is now acting as economic adviser to self-proclaimed socialist Angela Rayner.

Is the party under Keir Starmer progressive enough for her?

“If you put the prospectus together, and you put the things that have been announced – yes of course there are areas where I'll be a campaigning MP, I’m going to be trying to push us to go further – but I think to say that, ‘Oh, you're the same as the Tories’, or ‘there is nothing progressive in the agenda’, is just not seeing what's been said.”

In Starmer, Fahnbulleh sees a “good manager” – a leader who will make the government and civil service work more effectively after many bruising years under the Conservatives.

However, Labour’s first week on the campaign trail got off to a bumpy start, with a row erupting over whether Starmer would allow longstanding Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott MP to stand for re-election.  

Fahnbulleh says members of Peckham’s black community were “really hurt” by Abbott’s treatment. But when pressed about perceived double standards in the Labour Party – with certain candidates with a questionable track record being allowed to run for Parliament but others on the left of the Party being blocked – she says she does not want to comment on matters she doesn’t know about.

But if Fahnbulleh were elected,her constituents would have an MP who identifies with their experience, she says – trumping any lingering resentment felt towards Labour.

“The overwhelming feeling is we have an opportunity to elect someone from our community that will represent us,” she says. “So they will often say, when I meet the elders in the community, they call me their daughter. I meet people in the street in the Black community, they call me their sister. And the chance to elect someone that has walked in their shoes, that understands their community – that is a massive deal.”

The idea that you could impose more taxes on ordinary people just seems for the birds

After Starmer was accused of parachuting close allies on Labour’s national executive committee into safe seats, Fahnbulleh fires a warning shot at candidates who are running for Parliament for the wrong reasons.

“The job that we have is to try and change the country. And you better be up for that. You better have the stomach and the metal for that,” she says.

“I think if you go into it, and you aren't clear that your job is to serve your constituents, they'll probably turn against you pretty quickly. I think anyone that is stepping up, needs to do it with a clear sight of how tough things are.”

Being a candidate for longer than many has given Fahnbulleh time to think about what all aspects of life in Parliament would be like. As a keen basketball player in her youth, would she like to see a Parliamentary Basketball Team ever play in the halls of Westminster?

“It's still in my blood, but I haven't played basketball for about 10 years,” she says with a laugh. “I can set one up but I might need some more skilled people!”

With four weeks to go until the nation goes to the polls however, Fahnbulleh has just one goal in sight for her parliamentary career.

“The benchmark for me is, if the life of people in Peckham is significantly better, if we have lifted that community up given the scale of challenge we face then we would have massively transformed the country,” she says. “That's my benchmark. That's all I care about.”

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.

Read the most recent article written by Sophie Church - 'Turquoise Tories' Could Sound The Death Knell For The Conservatives In Marginal Seats


Political parties