This interview was published in Cherwell 17/02/17
I haven’t spoken to very many MPs before, but I imagine there are few with whom you could launch straight into a conversation about the late-1990s UK garage scene.
“It was pretty underground and centred around the part of London that I grew up in. I got some decks shortly after I went to uni and played out. My music’s my escape, I love it.”
Chuka Umunna is not like very many MPs. A slick ex-solicitor, with a smart use of social media channels — now even including Snapchat — he is perhaps uniquely placed to appeal to the much-mythologised group, ‘young people’.
It’s this appeal, and his presentable and confident spoken style, which continues to generate talk of the possibility of the Streatham MP running for his party’s leadership for a second time. In fact, rumours have barely paused for breath since he backed out from running in the 2015 contest, following press intrusion into his private life.
His style, however, has proven divisive. He’s seen by some as a little too polished, expensively-suited: a prime example of the so-called metropolitan and careerist breed of politician which is apparently being rejected across the world. But when Umunna speaks about his time as a student at university in Manchester, it doesn’t appear that he is following a long-harboured master plan.
“I did actually toy with DJ-ing full-time,” Umunna tells me. He used to run club nights in Manchester and his local area of south London. “It was when dance music was really beginning to take off, and you’ve got big-name DJs who are well-known around the world.”
He took a low view of those he saw involved in student politics, who were more “interested in building a career for themselves in politics once they left university”. He was involved with his university’s Labour club, but politics was something he saw himself doing much later in life.
His ethnicity, he says, played a part in this. The son of a Nigerian immigrant who came to Britain with nothing, Umunna knew he faced challenges in gaining selection. “Until quite recently there were very few people in the House of Commons of my background. I really did not have any expectations of being a member of parliament so soon.”
Racist and misogynistic abuse received online by Diane Abbott, following parliament’s vote last week to trigger Article 50, demonstrates that the challenges faced by ethnic minority MPs have not gone away. With hatred finding new forms of expression on social media, does Umunna think their experience has got worse?
“Yes. I think it has because social media gives people a platform to engage in racism anonymously in a way that they could not in the past.” He adds: “I’m just quite lucky in comparison to the experience of others online. Female parliamentarians receive much worse abuse than male parliamentarians.”
Umunna’s constituency is in Lambeth, which recorded the second-highest remain vote behind Gibraltar, and he describes voting against his constituents to trigger Article 50 as “awful”. But he is as ready to criticise the delusions of his fellow Remain supporters as he is the lies of the Leave campaign.
“I am worried about the divisions,” he says, and “the echo chamber culture which we live in. I was a very strong Remain campaigner, and just as I’m appalled at some of the views of the small minority of people, whose dislike of immigration is in part fuelled by prejudice, I am as appalled by the views of some people who voted Remain who go on my social media channel and accuse people who live in Leave-voting areas of being uneducated, bigoted racists.”
These divisions are felt nowhere more acutely than in Labour. Two thirds of Labour constituencies voted to leave, while two thirds of Labour voters supported Remain. Many see the split exposed within the party during the Article 50 vote as evidence of the obstacles to winning a 2020 election. But Umunna does not see bridging the gap between metropolitan Lambeth and Leave-supporting Stoke-on-Trent, where a by-election is to take place, as an impossible task.
“It’s possible,” but a Labour win depends on “speak[ing] for the mainstream majority of working people in this country, in addition to those who cannot support themselves.” Fundamentally he sees the people of Britain as able to unite around “things which are important in their life, their community, their love of this country. That is not something that is decided by whether you live in Streatham, Northumberland, or voted Remain or Leave. So these are universal British values, and if people see those values represented in the Labour party, they will vote for it.”
It’s an undoubtedly impassioned response, delivered with such a scripted feel that it almost sounds like the beginnings of an election manifesto. And when I ask him whether the constant rumours about a second leadership bid feel like a burden, expecting a guarded response, I am surprised by his openness about his ambitions for the party. He’s not far from launching into a speech that wouldn’t be out of place at a leadership hustings.
“I don’t believe that there’s a conflict between Labour’s values and us winning elections and getting into office, to give life to our values we need to get into office to make them a reality.” He goes on: “So I’ve never been shy about saying I want to play a big role in the next Labour government. Wanting to get the Labour Party into government to make our socialism real is not a burden, it’s why we go into politics, to change the country.”
He doesn’t think populism on the left and right shows his politics has been rejected. “I don’t think there’s been a rejection of the politics of looking out for working people, be they in Britain or be they in other areas.”
“Some of the problems for the centre-left is that we’ve been too slow to react to some of the challenges which immigration poses and has left a vacuum which the nationalist right and the populist right have stepped into.”
Umunna’s continued confidence in parliamentary politics to bring about change has not been shared by all of his colleagues. MPs Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed recently decided they had a better chance to make change outside of Westminster, choosing jobs at the Victoria and Albert Museum and in the nuclear industry respectively over the fractious division which characterises today’s Labour Party. Has Umunna, I wonder, another ambitious and talented politician, and still just 38, considered leaving parliamentary politics?
“No,” he says, and he appears to criticise his departing colleagues. “I would never drop the baton and give it to someone else, because you go in to politics to change the world.”
He speaks of how his politics was “very much shaped” by his upbringing in Lambeth in the 1980s, “when we saw the harsh ends of Thatcherism, the growth in disparities between rich and poor. I grew up surrounded by that.”
His experience of seeing poverty in his father’s native Nigeria appears to have “deeply effected” his political mindset. He describes seeing “large swathes of the population subsisting on no more than two dollars a day.”
It seems a rebut to his critics, who see him as little more than smart-suited salesman, and delivered with a genuine depth and conviction which may offer hope to those who still wish to see him placed back on the frontline of politics. “It may sound crazy and idealistic, but that’s why I’m doing it. I never went into this for an easy ride and I’m incredibly grateful to my wife and my family for putting up with all the attention but they understand what I’m trying to do here.”
Again, there is energy and urgency back in his voice. “So I’m not going to do this forever, but while I’m doing it I want to make a difference.”