'Don't compare me to Obama': Is Chuka Umunna Britain's first black PM?
He's a hero in his Streatham constituency and (to his horror) has already been dubbed 'Britain's Obama'. Can Chuka Umunna really live up to the hype? He tells Tim Walker about growing up in Brixton and why he thinks Tony Blair was '85 per cent right'
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Saturday 12 November 2011
As I'm walking across the playground of Jubilee Primary School in south London to greet Chuka Umunna, a stream of children starts to flow past me, moving in his direction. "Chuka Umunna! Chuka Umunna!" one of them chants breathlessly. "Who?" asks another. "It's Chuka Umunna," says a third, "he's my hero." When I mention this to Umunna and his young aides afterwards, they insist that the children are not cunningly disguised Labour Party press officers. It's just that Umunna, the 33-year-old MP for Streatham, is an unusually popular politician.
This was originally planned as an interview with an up-and-coming new MP. But by the time I meet Umunna, he's already upped and come: in October, after just 18 months at Westminster, he was promoted to the post of Shadow Business Secretary – one of the biggest jobs on the opposition front bench. Before he was even elected to Parliament, he was being described as "Britain's Barack Obama". (Not only do their names have identical syllable counts, but they're also both good-looking, mixed-race lawyers-turned-politicians of the centre-left.) Now, it's "Britain's [future] first black Prime Minister".
In fact, it's nigh-on impossible to find anybody who has a bad word to say about Umunna (and who isn't a right-wing blogger). Not long ago, he was named the most fanciable male MP by a highly-scientific Sky News poll, and his peers' adjectival endorsements make him sound like the ideal internet date: friendly, smart, hard-working, GSOH. Andrew Tyrie, the independent-minded Conservative who chairs the Treasury Select Committee, says Umunna was "charming and effective" when they worked together. "I wouldn't want to blight his career by saying so," Tyrie told me, "but he has every chance of a long spell at the top of British politics... He's the genuine article."
If I really want to find someone who'll slag him off, another seasoned Westminster watcher suggested, then I should take a bunch of lower-profile Labour MPs to the pub and ply them with booze. After a few drinks, they may go so far as to say that Umunna is a little bit too smooth, a little bit too ambitious, a little bit too pleased with himself. But that'd probably just be envy talking – and besides, my expenses won't stretch that far.
Meanwhile, as if my sources hadn't praised him to the heavens sufficiently, it turns out that Umunna's political adviser and media gatekeeper is named Gabriel – like the archangel. "Hail, thou that art highly favoured," I almost expect him to cry. "Unto you an interview is granted!" Instead, as I catch up with them both at the far side of the aforementioned playground, Gabriel shakes my hand and says something along the lines of: "Hello, mate. This is Chuka."
Umunna is at Jubilee to speak to a school assembly on 'Traditional Clothes Day', when the children are invited to wear outfits from another country as part of Black History Month. The school's pupils have familial roots all over the world, and their half-Nigerian, quarter-Irish, quarter-English MP exhorts them to celebrate their differences, and to work hard so that they can become lawyers and doctors – and, presumably, politicians. His sister, younger by 18 months, left a job in international development to become a primary school teacher; the siblings appear to share an aptitude for engaging large groups of small children.
Umunna is a regular visitor to the school, and he's keen to show it off, not least because its impressive new buildings are the result of Labour investment. Jubilee is surrounded by some tough Tulse Hill estates, and in June a teenager was killed in a shooting just yards from the gates. This is a classic London constituency, in which the haves and the have-nots live cheek-by-jowl. Streatham High Road, which residents claim as the longest continuous high street in Europe, was badly affected by looting during the riots in August. Umunna's condemnation of the looters, and his appeals for a calm and patient response, made his one of the more convincing voices on the left in the aftermath of the unrest.
Though he grew up nearby, his family home was a comfortable one on a leafy street. His English-Irish mother was the daughter of a High Court judge; his father was a self-made man, who arrived from Nigeria in the 1960s and started out washing cars, going on to establish his own import-export business. The young Chuka attended a Church of England primary school in Brixton, and an independent secondary, St Dunstan's in Catford. He wasn't allowed to open the envelopes containing his school reports until he got home, when he and his father would open and read them together.
South London in the 1980s could be rough, even for nice middle-class boys. "I was three at the time so I don't remember it," he says, "but my mum was shopping with me and my sister when the Brixton riots started. A guy said to her, 'This is kicking off, you need to get your kids out of here'. So she picked up her shopping and her two bundles of joy, and she ran. We were hit hard around here in the 1980s. That 'unemployment is a price worth paying' attitude? We're the ones that suffered from that." Visiting Nigeria as a boy, and witnessing the grinding poverty there, affected him deeply. (He also had the misfortune to support Crystal Palace FC, working in the box office at Selhurst Park during his teens. Like I said, things could be rough.)
When he was 13, his father was killed in a car accident. "I had to grow up very quickly," Umunna explains. "I leap-frogged over some of those teenage years; it jolts you out of that sense of immortality you have when you're younger. My mum was a probation officer before I was born, then gave it up to become a full-time mum. When my father passed away she had to go back to work, but she couldn't face going back to her old job because she'd been through a massive trauma, and probation work can be quite emotionally draining. So she decided to requalify as a solicitor at the age of 46. She became a partner in her firm this year, at 61. She's an inspiring woman. My dad would be proud, I think. We've all done quite well."
Unlike a lot of other MPs, Umunna failed to get into Oxford to study Law. "Thank God," he says. "I'm not sure I'd have been terribly happy. I went to Manchester and loved every minute of it." He joined the Labour Party in 1997, while at university, but he wasn't interested in student politics. Instead, he would man the phonebank at the Withington constituency office or, when he was back in London, work for his predecessor as MP for Streatham, Keith Hill.
As a young employment lawyer, he quickly encountered the sort of major businesses with whom he now deals in a shadow ministerial capacity. He recalls one particular run-in with a pair of executives at a medium-sized public company, when he was still a junior solicitor. "I was doing a fairly big piece of litigation that had been brought against the company by its former MD, and I had a meeting with the chairman and co-MD. I had about five days to settle the case and negotiate a settlement otherwise we'd be going to trial. The chairman proceeded to tell me what the legal problems were, and how they were going to be sorted. And I just stopped him and said, 'Look, you've paid a lot of money for my firm's advice, so you can sit here and tell me how to do my job, or you can let me do it'. I didn't want to piss off the client and lose the business, but we didn't have much time. He respected me for it afterwards, I think."
He has carried this coolness around formidable execs into his parliamentary work, specifically his dealings with those who came before the Treasury Select Committee during his tenure. After Umunna quizzed Barclays CEO Bob Diamond about the bank's tax avoidance schemes earlier this year, a penitent Diamond submitted Barclays' minuscule corporation tax figures. He took Lord Sugar to task for his views on bank lending. And then there were his exchanges with George Osborne: on one occasion, following a proposal in the Comprehensive Spending Review to reduce the Jobseeker's Allowance for anyone who'd been out of work for a year, Umunna asked the Chancellor whether he'd ever been on JSA himself.
The next time they faced each other, he asked whether the Osborne family were in receipt of Child Benefit payments. Osborne accused Umunna of playing the man, not the ball. "I thought it was entirely justified for me to ask George those questions," says Umunna, "because he'd been going round saying, 'We're all in this together', and I was trying to expose the fact that we weren't all in it together. That's why the Select Committee is there: to hold people to account."
While still working as a lawyer, Umunna joined the Labour-aligned pressure group Compass, which is where he first met Ed Miliband, after the then-junior minister gave a speech to Compass in 2007. The two have been close ever since: Umunna supported Miliband (E)'s leadership campaign, and Miliband subsequently appointed him as his Private Secretary. Asked to define his politics, Umunna describes himself as "a European Social Democrat". Growing up, he says, he always had "a big soft spot for Neil Kinnock", and "massively admired" Robin Cook. But he joined the party because of Tony Blair.
"I'm the son of a small businessman who had a classic rags-to-riches entrepreneurial story," he explains. "My father worshipped Harold Wilson; Wilson was his hero. But unless the Labour Party had gone through the changes that it went through [under Blair], I wouldn't have been able to join it. That's not to say I don't think he made some major mistakes. I didn't agree with the Iraq war, and I had some issues with the 'choice' agenda... but I was completely signed up to 85 per cent of what Tony Blair did. And I've come to respect him more, now that I've read his book and he's explained where he was coming from."
Umunna shares a number of Blair's mannerisms: he'll often preface his sentences with "Look", or "Y'know" or "What I would say is...", and he deploys his charming laugh at all the right moments. But for various reasons – some more superficial than others – it's not Blair to whom he's compared, but Obama. It may be flattering, he says, but it makes him cringe none the less. "It annoys me a bit. You get lazy journalists and the odd blogger who'll suggest that I fancy myself as 'Britain's Obama', and that I seek to encourage the comparison. It's never been something I've encouraged. I want people to look at me as me, not through the prism of someone else's personality."
As for being "Britain's first black Prime Minister", the popular and talented MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, was once described in such terms, too; he never made it to the Cabinet table. Umunna wisely declines to discuss which Great Office of State he might covet. "Business Secretary is exactly what I want to do," he claims. "It fuses education, issues of social mobility and employment, international concerns. It's a fantastic brief. If you asked me four or five years ago whether I expected to be an MP, never mind a shadow secretary of state, I would've found it quite hard to believe."
Business is a big brief, with more junior shadow ministers than any other (eight, to be precise), and Umunna's life outside politics sounds limited. His 33rd birthday fell the week before our interview, but he was too busy working to celebrate. He'd like to settle down, have children. Presently, though, he lives alone in a flat on Streatham High Road. The place is messy with shadow ministerial papers, he says – and anyway, he leaves at 8.30am, rarely returning before 10 at night. He has some time to himself on Friday evenings after his weekly surgery, but then works until at least 3pm on Saturdays. He's bald by choice, and shaves his own head once a week. Sunday evenings are "sacrosanct": he and his sister go to their mum's for a roast dinner. He'd like to go to church more than he does. "I wouldn't say I'm majorly religious," he says, "but my politics, my moral values, come from my Christianity."
He drives a second-hand, burgundy Ford Ka that he bought 10 years ago as a runaround and has never replaced. Its main attraction was, he suggests, its CD player. "I love my music. I used to DJ – strictly vinyl – but I haven't 'played out' for ages, which I'm sad about. I briefly had a regular residency in my constituency when I was training to be a solicitor, and at university I used to run a night. You grow up in an area like this and music is a major part of urban youth culture. I went through a phase in my teens when I was majorly into ragga. Then I moved on to jungle. (We didn't call it drum and bass in those days). Hip-hop and soul were constants; I was brought up on soul music. Then I found US house and UK garage in the mid-Nineties, before it became really big." (Incidentally, when he says "garage", surprisingly he pronounces it the way you might expect the average MP to – with its second syllable rhyming with 'Farage', rather than, say, 'Beveridge'.)
He doesn't go clubbing any more. "Bars and clubs are slightly risky zones for politicians," he admits. His best friends are still from beyond the Westminster bubble, but he has been known to socialise with other young MPs. Though he won't discuss it, it's well-known around SW1 that he dated Luciana Berger, the honourable member for Liverpool Wavertree (and Sky News's "most fanciable" female MP). After Umunna, Berger, Rachel Reeves MP, Jonathan Reynolds MP and Emma Reynolds MP were spotted chatting over piri-piri chicken in Nando's before a late vote, they were dubbed 'The Nando's Five'.
Umunna aside, the leading lights of Labour's 2010 intake include Reeves, Rushanara Ali, Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy. The last leadership contest was notable for its preponderance of white, male, Oxbridge-educated ex-spads (special advisors), with only Diane Abbott flying the flag for racial or gender diversity. Next time around, or the time after that, it's conceivable that all of the serious candidates will be female or black.
When he was first elected, Umunna and his team declined a number of major media appearances such as Question Time because, he says, he wanted his colleagues to get to know him in person, not on television. He hesitated to put himself forward for the Treasury Select Committee because he thought it might be too presumptuous as a new MP, but suggests he was urged to do so privately by a colleague. He's aware that the buzz surrounding him since long before the election could be a hindrance as much as a help. "I would have gone insane if I was affected by the hype," he admits. "I always just try to do my very best, and if your best isn't good enough then your best isn't good enough. I always just do things 1,000 per cent." Really? One thousand per cent? For a second, he sounds more like one of Lord Sugar's aspiring apprentices than Britain's Obama. "Yeah," he says again. "I try and do things 1,000 per cent."
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