I first met Chuka Umunna, shortly after his election in 2010, it was already clear he was one of Labour’s rising stars. But few thought the MP for Streatham would ascend through the ranks quite so quickly. At the time, he told me he would use his first term to learn the ropes as a backbencher and scoffed when I suggested he put his name in the hat for elections to the shadow cabinet. Since then, his career has progressed at blistering speed. First he was appointed as a parliamentary aide to Ed Miliband, the Labour leader. Then he was promoted to shadow minister for small business. Now, after just 18 months in parliament, the 33-year-old has been made shadow business secretary, pitting him against one of the coalition’s best-known – and oldest – figures: Vince Cable.
There are the all-too-predictable comparisons to Barack Obama, but when I interview him it is Tony Blair he most reminds me of. It isn’t just the smooth, lawyerly manner – Umunna also worked as a lawyer before entering parliament – nor the sharp-suited, telegenic looks. There is something about the way he speaks that evokes Blair: part public school boy and part man of the people. For “Call-me-Tony” it was the famous glottal stops that helped create a middle England image, while Umunna is fond of the informal contraction. Throughout our interview, he peppers his sentences with words like “kinda” “gotta” and “helluva lot”.
Indeed, Umunna says he only signed up to the Labour party because of the pro-business changes instigated by Blair and Peter Mandelson. “If our party hadn’t changed its attitude towards business I certainly wouldn’t have joined. I’m the son of a small businessman who has a kinda classic rags to riches entrepreneurial story.” It might seem strange, then, that he backed the younger Miliband brother, Ed, for Labour leader, rather than David, the more centrist candidate and one that many saw as the true heir to Blair.
When it comes to rhetoric, Umunna sticks firmly to the centre ground. He lavishes praise on the City, describing business and financial services as “one of our biggest success stories” and says he is proud to have “the world’s global financial centre in London” because it allows Britain to “punch above its weight” on the international stage. Like almost every other politician, he says the economy needs to be “rebalanced” to make it “less reliant on the City”, although he points out that this can only be achieved if Britain has a strong financial services sector. “We are not going to get the investment to the other sectors that we need to grow… unless we’re working with the City.” He even takes Cable to task for his fiery anti-corporate speeches, in particular for one where he described bankers as “spivs”. “A lot of people found that quite offensive,” he says.
Still, there is no getting away from it: Labour has a problem with business. After Blair stood down, the private sector abandoned the party (with many wealthy business people switching their allegiances – and donations – to the Tories). Matters weren’t helped by Miliband’s most recent party conference speech, in which he differentiated between good companies, the “producers”, and bad ones, or “predators”. The speech was described as “anti-business” by the director-general of the CBI, a charge that Umunna rejects.
“It was essentially a pro-business agenda that was being put forward in that speech… these ideas came from businesses themselves – they weren’t born in the leader of the opposition’s office.” He reels off a list of high profile business figures, including McKinsey’s Dominic Barton and GSK boss Andrew Witty, who he says ascribe to what he calls the “good business agenda”.
Umunna is keen to point out that all of Labour’s shadow business ministers worked in the private sector before entering parliament. He says it is “no coincidence” that the team includes a chartered accountant, a barrister, a publisher, a software engineer and a lawyer. They aren’t exactly the cast of Dragons’ Den, but they have spent more time in the private sector than most MPs, who usually prepare for parliament by becoming think-tank wonks or political advisers. Umunna himself spent five years at Herbert Smith, the international law firm, where he worked as an employment lawyer for “large multinational” clients (one or two of whom likely fall into Miliband’s “predator” camp).
I wonder how those large multinationals would feel about his support for the agency workers directive, or his opposition to the government’s move to prevent workers from bringing unfair dismissal claims unless they have worked for their employer for at least two years (compared to one year previously). “I don’t think watering down employee rights is a substitute for a properly thought out growth plan,” he says. He does concede that the tribunal system needs to be reformed. “They were supposed to informal, less akin to the civil courts and more conducive to preventing cases going to trial… the tribunal procedures don’t fit with those goals.”
On the issue of charging workers a fee to take their case to tribunal, also recently announced, Labour has yet to say whether it will back the government. Umunna, who will outline the party’s position in a speech next month, does say that a better balance needs to be struck between “ensuring the system cannot be abused and defending people who need to be protected at work” because “sometimes small businesses go under due to the legal cost of defending a claim, even successfully”.
He ridicules the government’s “red tape challenge” and “one-in-one-out” policy for new rules, instead arguing for better “quality” regulation. “Have the rules been written with the small person in mind, who doesn’t have the wherewithal to employ an army of lawyers and risk management consultants to help them navigate the regulation? It’s more important to be asking those questions than it is to be crudely promising something that you can’t deliver.”
When it comes to the 50p rate, Umunna refuses to say definitively whether Labour would scrap it if the party wins in 2015, instead trotting out the usual lines about people “with the broadest shoulders bearing a heavier share of the burden”. But he does suggest the party isn’t as wedded to keeping the rate as some might think, pointing out it was only ever meant to be a “temporary” measure and insisting the party “is prepared to be pragmatic”. “As to what happens in 2015, I’m not going to write a Budget, it’s way above my pay grade,” he says, referring to the fact that it is Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, who will draw up Labour’s tax policy. I suggest that if he continues climbing the career ladder at his current speed, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility. “Steady on,” he laughs.
Keeping it “steady” will be his biggest challenge. Careers that progress this quickly are rarely smooth. Even David Cameron, who set the record for the shortest serving MP to become party leader, had to wait for three years before he was promoted to the shadow cabinet. Following our interview, I emailed an ex-cabinet minister from the Blair era to get their opinion of Umunna. They replied: “Chuka is very impressive. He could be a good leader. I just hope he hasn’t peaked too soon.”
CV | CHUKA UMUNNA
Education: St Dunstan’s College, an independent fee-paying school; University of Manchester; University of Burgundy; Nottingham Law School.
2002-2006, Herbert Smith
2006-2010, Rochman Landau
May 2010, Elected member of parliament for Streatham
October 2010, parliamentary private secretary to Ed Miliband
May 2010, shadow small business minister
October 2011, shadow business secretary