During a recent trip to Exeter, Harrison Jones, Online News Editor met Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham and Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary. Here, he tells us all about it…
Oddly located yet modern and bright, there is an obscure building on Streatham Campus called the Innovation Centre, and standing in the spacious lobby, deep in thought, is a man tipped by some as a future Prime Minister.
Chuka Umunna’s body language is open, his persona calm and head tilted to attention: he’s listening.
The Labour MP for Streatham certainly looks the part, but perhaps in somewhat unconventional fashion – The Daily Mail has labelled him the ‘Black Blair,’ others the ‘British Obama.’
Whilst Umunna tucks into a generous helping from the buffet laid on for the event, Exeter’s MP, Ben Bradshaw, is also the focus of some attention in the corner of the room, chatting away to various suited males who seem to think that they are important. The pair are here for an event with businesses from across the South West, with Shadow Business Secretary Umunna discussing how to return growth to the region.
As the two MPs interact it is striking that despite public cries of “they’re all the same,” these two politicians represent success stories for British minority groups. Sure, they are middle class and male, but Bradshaw is also one of very few openly homosexual MPs. Umunna, meanwhile, comes from a business/legal background and just like Bradshaw, is not Oxbridge-educated. Perhaps more importantly though, the 35-year-old hails from a multicultural background, being of Nigerian and Irish descent.
“We have a democratic crisis in this country,” he opens gravely, in a confident fashion belying his age.
“I believe people are more political than they have been for a long time – they’ve never felt so distant from politics and politicians. People like me need to get out more and talk to people, so I seek to do that.”
Hands clasped together, he laughs before casually swotting away the obvious question about any future leadership of the Labour party.
“You don’t go into politics for praise and adulation, you go into politics to change things. You don’t go into politics to get a particular role, you go into politics to effect some real, positive change for lots of people.”
Its quickly becoming obvious that Umunna is a master of getting his pre-prepared message across no matter what the question and, with his assistant already twitchy about timings, that he is particularly talented at talking – seemingly ceaselessly.
“I campaigned really hard for my friend Ed Miliband to become the leader of our party,” he continues. Perhaps tellingly, he then subtly adds: “We can have hypothetical conversations about things in 20 years but what really matters is what happens now.”
Umunna’s narrative of the current climate is far from rosy, as he pays heed to Labour’s new economic criticism of the government which now centres around living standards.
“The British public are coming out of three years of flatlining growth – i.e., no growth – I don’t think they will be turning around and patting George Osborne on the back. The question is, you know, what is actually happening in people’s pay packets? And in 39 of the last 40 months, you’ve seen prices rising faster than wages, and on average British workers have sustained a £1,600 pay cut since the coalition have come to government.”
“The real question is: do people feel better off now than they did in 2010? And they don’t. They feel: ‘I’ve been working harder than ever before, I’m getting paid less, and things cost more.’”
Its a similar message to Ed Balls’, but the delivery is noticeably different. Informal and measured – yet still cutting – Umunna has a reflective quality to his speech, he pauses, he smiles, he’s expressive: when he speaks people listen. That is not evident in most politicians. And though it is a stretch to label him a ‘maverick,’ he manages to tick all the boxes whilst retaining a unique style.
Open to talking about things others avoid, Umunna – like his leader – is unafraid of using the ‘S’ word: “I’m quite happy to be described as a democratic socialist or a social democrat,” he says. Though when you consider that Tony Blair – perhaps the most right-wing Labour leader in history – was the first leader to call Labour a socialist party, the claim does not necessarily mean much.
Indeed, the ideological comparison with Blair has been noted by many. Umunna would not hesitate to send his children to private school, he values the market and says he is relaxed about “people getting filthy rich.” He even has a close relationship with the former prime minister, alongside the likes of Peter Mandelson and Michael Hesseltine.
Interesting then, that Ed Miliband – who has little in common with ‘New Labour’ values – would help Umunna to become an MP and then appoint him to the shadow cabinet, just 18 months after being elected.
But it is a sign of how much Umunna stands out, managing to balance the perception of a serious, thoughtful MP, with a relaxed and suave 30-something; whose accent slides between estuary English and polished private school tones. In an era when the perpetual cry of “they’re all the same” ring about a politically disenchanted public, Umunna’s appearance, name and background are refreshingly different, making him the perfect retort for that flawed statement.
Such credentials make him a prime candidate for Labour leadership – and possibly more. But whilst British politics needs change and Umunna represents people other MPs can not, it is his ideological similarity to some parliamentarians – namely Tony Blair – which could be far more ominous than those politicians who are “all the same.”
Harrison Jones, Online News Editorbookmark me