Chuka Umunna: 'It is plain, Camerkozy austerity is not working'

Youth has not hampered the shadow business secretary's attacks on the coalition's industrial strategy, nor on the veteran Secretary of State

This Chuka Umunna is cheeky. First, he set the hare running by forcing the controversial Beecroft report out into the open, prompting accusations that Vince Cable is a "socialist and anti-business".

Now Mr Umunna is inviting the coalition's Business Secretary to join Labour in opposition: "It's clear to me that Vince should leave government and join us. He and I could then work together on an industrial strategy to get the country growing again. Like us, Vince wants more active government support for business but is in a straitjacket; constrained by road-blocks at No 10 and No 11."

So now he wants to crack open the coalition? The young shadow business secretary grins, knows it was a playful jibe but worth the shot: "We would welcome Vince with open arms. Beecroft has been a shambles and no way to create policy. These employment law changes are a poor substitute for growth."

In case you missed it, the Beecroft report into employment law caused an uproar when it was published last week because of its controversial proposal for dismissal reform. It was this "firing at will" clause for businesses with fewer than 10 workers that Mr Cable attacked and which produced a counter-attack from Adrian Beecroft, the author of the report who was commissioned by the business department to come up with ways to reduce red tape. But it has backfired, with even the big guns of business privately admitting they are appalled at this reform.

Mr Umunna claims the Beecroft fallout is toxic for David Cameron: "It's as bad as cutting the 50p tax, the pasty and granny tax all in one. In the old report, which has been doctored, Beecroft wrote that high unemployment 'is a price worth paying'. Norman Lamont said something similar about unemployment being a price worth paying in 1992 and who was his adviser? Cameron.

"There is a real ideological shift to the right going on. First William Hague attacked companies for being lazy and now they are having a go at workers' rights. We have the third-best record for labour relations in the world. Now, in the middle of recession with people fearing for their jobs, is not the time to make them feel scared."

Mr Umunna's decision to call for an emergency debate on Beecroft on Monday came after another leak in last weekend's papers. But it wasn't a surprise; he's been trying to flush Beecroft out of government on "public interest" grounds since part of the old report was first leaked last year. "I've been working on getting it out into the open since last October after parts of the report were leaked. Our Freedom of Information request was turned down and then in April we asked the information commissioner to investigate why they kept refusing to publish it and I think it's this that made them leak it again."

We met for tea on Tuesday in the café at Portcullis House, next door to the House of Commons that Mr Umunna entered two years ago as MP for Streatham. It's the day after Beecroft broke but the day that Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, published her annual forecast for the UK and managed with her Gallic shrewdness, to combine praising the Government's Plan A but suggested that should the economy get worse, it may be time for a mini-Plan B. "Lagarde is clever. She is not going to criticise George Osborne, is she? He was her main sponsor to head the IMF. But she was clear that the UK needs more to get demand up and growth going."

Mr Umunna is not a deficit denier, quite the reverse: "But it's plain that the Camerkozy school of austerity alone is not working. We need more fiscal stimulus – cuts in national insurance or VAT for example and more infrastructure projects." Following the revised GDP figures on Friday, he adds: "This is a no-growth Government with its head in the sand. It blames businesses, the people who work in them and now the eurozone when countries like Germany and France are not in recession and we are."

That's why a joined-up industrial policy would be top of the agenda if Labour were in power, one that backed innovation and manufacturing in the private sector as the American, German and Singaporean governments do.

"This is not about picking winners because that doesn't work. But Government should actively support sectors such as food manufacturing, biotech, the digital and creative industries, aerospace and others where we excel."

Mr Umunna is a fan of Lord Heseltine, the ex-Tory minister, who heads a review into how spending departments can work more closely with the private sector: "Heseltine and I share the view that state can do so much more as an enabler of private growth. So do Vince and David Willetts."

Ouch. Lord Mandelson, is another big beast he talks to, drawing on the ex-business secretary's experience. He's a "massive fan" of Alistair Darling, the ex-chancellor, and says pages "313 to 318" of his biography are worth reading on industrial policy.

Mr Umunna grew up in Lambeth, the son of an Irish-English mother and Nigerian father, into what he's described as an upper middle-class family. He was intrigued by current affairs from an early age, he says, wanting to know what words like inflation meant when he was eight or so. Surrounded by law – his uncle was the leading libel lawyer, Patrick Milmo, and his grandfather was the High Court judge, Sir Helenus Milmo QC, one of the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials – it's entirely natural he became an employment lawyer. But there's politics too; his father, who ran an export-import business, was always interested in politics and was running for state governor in Nigeria when he died. Mr Umunna was 13.

But it wasn't until Tony Blair's victory in 1997 that he became excited by politics. He was 19.

"Tony's first term was modern European social democracy at its best and I have huge respect for him, although I disagreed with him later on Iraq and the drift to neo-liberal economics." He talks often to Mr Blair: "He's still a great election strategist."

His political career was shaped working for his local MP, Keith Hill, in Streatham, and then four years ago was picked to go for the seat: "I'm from Lambeth, and a Londoner so it was perfect. As a young black man of mixed heritage I didn't think there would be many opportunities so I jumped at the chance."

It's been a dizzy rise and he was "flabbergasted" to get the business department job. But he was spotted early on by the Labour high command, shining while on the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee when he put the chief executive of Barclays, Bob Diamond, on the spot about the bank's tax avoidance schemes, asking him how many subsidiary companies Barclays operated in offshore centres. Mr Diamond didn't know.

On banking reform he would like to see the new Vickers legislation, creating a firewall between retail and investment banking, brought forward from its 2019 date. But the area where he would push most is promoting more competition between the banks – breaking up Royal Bank of Scotland would be a start – and more channels for small business lending.

How does he see Labour's role in the financial crash? "We are humble and most certainly not hubristic. We supported light-touch regulation – but then, so did Cable and many other ministers." And what if there were an election tomorrow?

"Hmm. Let's not forget that the Conservatives haven't won an election since 1992 – that's 20 years. Cameron says it's the LibDems who are stopping him from doing the more supply-side Tory measures but actually it's public opinion. He knows the public wouldn't stand it.

"But we don't take for granted that the public has forgiven us yet, either. Austerity is hitting the people living in our constituencies hardest so we can see the impact first hand."

I have a last question, one asked by several colleagues when they knew I was meeting the man some say is the UK's Barack Obama. He must hate being asked the Mr Obama thing all the time but, even so, I do. "Look I'm flattered but I'm aware that this sort of hype is dangerous."

That aside though, people still wonder if he is too good to be true; smart, polished, clever, ambitious, Labour's next leader etc... His face screws up: "Oh no, I'm flawed like everyone else." So what are his flaws? "I'm too sensitive to criticism and I am a workaholic. I love my work so much that it's not work to me. I still pinch myself every time I walk through these doors. My political mother, Tessa Jowell, told me to remember that we are only ever temporary here. I keep that in mind."

Keep your eye on Mr Umunna; he's one cool cat.

Curriculum vitae

Born October 1978

Education English law and French law at Manchester and Burgundy universities, followed by Nottingham law school

Career

2002-2006: A corporate employment law solicitor

2006-2010: Lawyer at Rochman Landau

May 2010: MP for Streatham

June 2010: the Treasury select committee and parliamentary private secretary to Labour leader Ed Miliband

May 2011: Shadow minister for small business and enterprise growth

October 2011: Shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills

Interests Board member of Generation Next, a social enterprise for young Londoners, chair of London Gangs Forum, member of Compass, the Fabian Society, and the GMB and Unite unions

Marital status Single but much sought after

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
tech
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'