Chuka Umunna on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn – and being an eternal optimist

Chuka Umunna

I hadn’t expected Esquire Townhouse to be quite so glamorous. Put it this way: having travelled there directly from work, enduring an unusually long tube journey, I was taken aback to be confronted by a gaggle of glamorous 20-somethings wafting around in cocktail dresses and sipping bellinis.

Clearly, I hadn’t got the memo. Never one to shirk a challenge, however, I steeled myself and headed up the stairs of 10 Carlton Place, ready to listen to one of the UK’s highest-profile MPs discuss his life and career to date. Labour MP for Streatham since 2010, made Shadow Business Secretary aged 34 and now the driving force behind the People’s Vote Campaign: it’s fair to say that, for Chuka Umunna, life is never dull.

And yet, he told us, he never expected to enter politics. Growing up, there were only four MPs of colour in the UK and it was a chance encounter in 1997 with the recently-sacked Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, at a sixth form conference in Westminster, that made Umunna think differently. Chuka was 18 years old when he took Lamont to task over taxes, youth unemployment and the Conservative Party’s policy of shackling pregnant female prisoners during labour. Given a standing ovation by the 2,500-strong audience, this was the moment he realised he could hold his own during a political argument.

Umunna’s desire to protect the underdog is undeniable and yet, as interviewer Tim Lewis pointed out, after a sparkling start to his political career which later saw Umunna close in on the Labour leadership, he has recently become something of a divisive figure – to those on the right AND on the left. Despite having one of the biggest majorities in the country, Umunna is regularly attacked by his own party for being posh, too right-wing – and a Remainer.

It’s only three weeks since Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, made a deeply personal attack on Umunna at Labour’s 2018 Conference, criticising his public school education and telling him to “get behind the country that made you”. “Hmm. I think it was my parents who made me, actually”, was Umunna’s measured response tonight, going on to say that he found McCluskey’s attempt to bully him into stopping talking about racism and bribery, against a backdrop of anti-Semitism, ill-considered.

It’s interesting that his own party describe Umunna as “privileged”, much of this stemming from the fact that his father was a successful business man. The reality, of course, is different: yes, Chuka’s father did well for himself, but through sheer hard graft, having arrived in Britain during the 1960s with very little money. He found success in this country – but died tragically young; Umunna was still a child and the family left in straitened circumstances.

Umunna describes that period as “difficult”, but says it left him with a strong work ethic, with his family taking on as many jobs as possible to stay afloat financially. Having experienced hard times himself as an adolescent, he takes a keen interest in young people and the kind of future we are offering them: “I love their ambition and sense of the possible”, he told us – and he admits that in some ways they are very fortunate, blessed with opportunities that past generations never had.

That said, Umunna is conscious that globalisation, whilst bringing many benefits, has led to increased competition. We must provide a platform for our young people, he believes – and it’s essential that we invest “wholeheartedly” in our education system and provide seed funding for investment in new ideas, so that we can compete with the likes of China and India.

Something I really liked about Chuka Umunna – and which surprised me, to an extent (just goes to show how cynical we’ve become about our politicians) was his evident passion for the work he does as an MP and his desire to make a difference. That passion is currently manifesting itself through his opposition to Brexit and Umunna spoke, eloquently, of how “personal” this cause is to him. “I’m one quarter Irish”, he told us: “My sister is married to a Dane, one of my aunts is French and I have Spanish relatives. How can Brexit not be personal to me – or to my community?” His frustration at the Labour party’s inability to effectively strategise over Brexit is palpable.

He certainly isn’t a Corbynista. Describing himself as “centre-left”, Umunna professed himself as embarrassed by the “Jeremy Corbyn” chants at the Conference. It’s the ballot box that will determine Corbyn’s success, he says – not his “cult following”.

He does, however, admire the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan – whose policies he agrees with, whilst sympathising over the challenge of being tasked with reducing youth violence while your police force is steadily reduced. He has also been impressed by Pierre Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron: some of the latter’s policies are unpopular but will, Umunna believes, become recognised as “ground-breaking”.

Although Brexit has proved all-consuming recently, a number of other issues remain close to Umunna’s heart. Technology, for all the benefits and opportunities it has brought, has had unforeseen consequences on workers in their 50s and 60s. Not yet old enough to retire, they are finding that they no longer have the right skills to do the kinds of jobs in which they are needed – and are being left behind.

Like most of us, he is concerned about Britain’s ageing population and the inability of our Westminster politicians to achieve a cross-party consensus on how to address an issue that is not going away. The NHS, too, remains a concern: how do we sustain it when virtually no-one-is prepared to pay more tax? Umunna is in favour of implementing an NHS-specific tax; transparent in nature, voters would understand exactly what their money is going towards.

In 2015, Umunna came very close to throwing his hat in to the leadership ring. What stopped him, he told us, was the wholly–unanticipated level of attention that his extended family received from the press – including his future father-in-law, who was door-stepped by paparazzi before Chuka had even met him. He was also dismayed by feedback from fellow Labour MPs who told him, bluntly, that they didn’t think their “white, working-class constituents” would be prepared to vote for a black Prime Minister. This, as you can imagine, drew gasps from the audience: how does such an attitude prevail in the 21st century?

Mind you, I don’t think Chuka Umunna has completely given up on the leadership idea. Now may not be the right time for him, with Brexit occupying all his waking hours, but the man who insists that he is not a “political lifer” admitted, during the audience Q&A, that he will “never rule anything out”. He balanced that by saying that you have to judge how long people will want you around – but the determined glint in his eye made me think that, however Brexit plays out, there is plenty more to come for this self-confessed optimist.

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