Osborne sukuks up to Islamic finance, but will it work?

Ensuring that the sukuk are watertight in their compliance with sharia will be the acid test for the Chancellor.

The government could soon issue its first taxpayer-guaranteed sukuk, marking the UK’s entry into the lucrative, rapidly expanding market of Islamic finance, which was until now exclusive to Muslim countries. But what are sukuk and why are they important?

Sukuk (plural of ‘sakk’) are essentially government bonds that must comply with the moral code and religious law that comprises sharia (as any part of the holistic system of Islam must). This word will probably generate some trembling articles in the right-wing press, but sharia’s main stipulation in terms of finance is simply a ban on riba (interest). Since Islam sees money as a pure measure of value, and not a profitable asset in and of itself, the charging of interest on money is haram (forbidden). In lieu of interest, the issuer of a sukuk (in this case, the UK government) sells an investor or group the bond, who then rents it back to them for an agreed-upon rental fee. The issuer also signs a contract promising to buy back the bonds at a future date at par value. Sukuk are traded on 'real' assets, not risk and futures.

The first sukuk (which translates as 'cheques' or 'certificates') proposed by Osborne would only be valued at £200m, a miniscule amount in the context of the total Islamic finance market (currently valued at around £750bn and expected to double in value by 2017 according to the 2012 Global Islamic Finance Report), leading Jonathan Guthrie in the Financial Times to call it little more than an "amuse bouche". Issuing them is not about to end Britain’s economic woes with a tide of oil money from the Gulf.

Sukuk are at this stage a marketing tool: a gesture to the Muslim world that London is open for business. Whoever you are, we’ll suit your conditions (if you have cash). Osborne wrote an article to this effect in the FT last week, stating his ambition for London to be "the unrivalled western centre for Islamic finance". It would make Britain the first non-Islamic country in the world to issue sovereign sukuk, joining Egypt, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Qatar and Turkey. As London is already a global finance capital whose stock market dwarfs those of all these other countries put together, the potential for growth in a new sector of culturally-sensitive investment funds (another example would be green investment) is not to be underestimated.

But ensuring that the sukuk are watertight in their compliance with sharia will be the acid test for Osborne. If they’re not, they are rendered pointless and a huge waste of time and money. In the winter of 2011, Goldman Sachs proposed to debut a $2bn sukuk al marabaha (deferred payment) program, but it was judged non-sharia compliant and was aborted, causing a lot of red faces in some quite altitudinous boardrooms. Since sharia works horizontally rather than hierarchically – that is, fatwas (judgements on points of sharia) can be issued by anyone with the recognised Islamic qualifications and then debated on equal terms – scholars can often differ irrevocably on the finer points.

But even in the event that the government’s sukuk are eagerly snapped up, it is not going to revolutionise our financial relationship with the Islamic world. London is already a piggy bank for the world’s elite, whatever their religion, because, as Michael Goldfarb recently argued in the New York Times, skyrocketing prices and a tax law which is only able to skim British earnings mean that London property has now all but become a "global reserve currency" – a sort of hyper-money only accessible by the global super rich, most of whom don’t live here and don’t intend to.

And as the New Statesman has already shown, the Middle East in particular has been enthusiastically pouring cash into the UK (well, London) for the past decade anyway. Qatar alone owns 95% of the Shard, Harrods, over a quarter of Sainsbury’s, a fifth of the London Stock Exchange itself, the Chelsea Barracks, the Olympic village, 20% of Camden market, No. 1 Hyde Park (the world’s most expensive block of flats), and the US embassy building.

So if Osborne’s sukuk have a successful debut, it will herald a greater level of fiscal openness and consensus between the Islamic world and Britain, and it will make it easier for some of Britain’s own 2.7 million Muslim citizens to decide upon halal (permitted) domestic investments. As far as Treasury policy can be, this is socially inclusive. But that’s about it. Even in the case that a new enthusiasm for religiously-influenced investment boosts GDP, as each day passes we see that the previously accepted link between GDP and living standards has all but dissolved anyway.

It is highly unlikely this policy will make a difference to the life of the average British Muslim, and issuing a few culturally-catered bonds will not even begin to address the rampant inequality and instability of a British economy increasingly leaning on the crutch that is the trickle-down of elite foreign capital. The extent to which Osborne’s financial policy adheres to the central Islamic idea of maslaha (public interest) is, to put it mildly, up for debate.

The 9th World Islamic Economic Forum at ExCel on October 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.