This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
Chuka Umunna is an apprentice to two former business secretaries. Neither is known for his popularity in the Labour movement.
The first, Michael Heseltine, is a Tory. The second, Peter Mandelson, is commonly known in Westminster parlance as ‘the dark lord’, unable to distinguish between mushy peas and guacamole. The pasty-friendly Labour Party would not tolerate such company under normal circumstances.
But the shadow business secretary is an exception.
And he may be just about to add another unexpected master to his list of mentors. Umunna recently met Tony Blair for a one-on-one. And although he is cagey about the details, the former PM’s involvement in Umunna’s tutelage is significant.
We’re sitting in Umunna’s bland Portcullis Office, talking about millionaires, specifically Labour’s attitude to the rich. The Labour MP leans forward, his arms folded in front of him.
“I have nothing against people who earn large amounts of money for creating jobs and wealth and taking risks in our country,” Umunna insists, “but I didn’t feel that giving 14,000 millionaires a £40,000 tax cut was the right priority for us at this juncture.”
He’s been quoted as saying he is “totally relaxed” about people who “set up businesses, create innovative products that the world wants to buy, delivering lots of jobs and, having taken huge risks, being very well rewarded for that”.
It closely echoes former business secretary Lord Mandelson’s infamous statement that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” if they pay their taxes.
“And your point is…?” replies Umunna.
Well, that you are sort of friends these days? He falls silent for a moment, then erupts with a hearty, foot-stomping, table-slapping laugh.
“Look, Peter is somebody who has a huge amount of experience,” he says.
It’s ‘Peter’, not ‘Lord Mandelson’.
“He is someone I have a lot of respect for. He’s had his ups and his downs, and there’s a lot that someone like Peter can teach someone like me. I’m a leech for experience. Lots of people who’ve been in government before have been incredibly supportive and give me advice regularly. Peter is one of them, as is Alistair Darling. I could go through a list…”
Tony Blair? I ask.
“I’m totally bemused by how the idea that we should meet and get advice from Tony… how that is news. He’s one of our most successful living Labour Party leaders, having won three general elections. Of course we should be getting advice from Tony Blair.”
But have you?
There’s a pause.
“I’m due to be seeing him soon,” he admits. “I’ve met him before, but I haven’t sat down and had a conversation with him in detail. But by the time you write this, I will probably have met him.”
We speak on the phone a few days later, after the big Blair meet-up. Umunna is still coy about their discussions. “It was a private meeting,” he insists. “It would be wrong of me to disclose the contents.”
Was it about your business brief? “Of course we spoke about business policy,” replies Umunna. He’s tight-lipped about the rest.
For some reason, Blair has become a bit of a taboo figure in the Labour Party. When Ed Miliband mentioned him at party conference last year, some in the hall actually booed. Yet the Labour leader himself has met with the former PM for ‘secret talks’.
“Not secret,” Umunna scoffs. “Before the Queen came to address us [in Parliament], Tony and Ed were chatting away.
“Tony has a lot that he can teach us… We’re all in the same team. It shouldn’t be news that people on the frontbench like to take advice from people who have a huge amount of experience – Tony, Peter and others.”
Perhaps we should forget about Barack Obama, and focus on Umunna as the heir to Blair. He certainly has Tony-esque flourishes. He starts sentences with “Look…”. He can just about pull off the phrase “awesome”. And he says “DoyouknowwhatImean?” as though it’s one word.
The former Compass megastar admits his politics has shifted. “I think I have changed since being elected,” he says. “I guess I’ve become more centrist.” Later, he corrects himself. “I am slightly uncomfortable about describing myself as centrist,” he backtracks. “The Labour Party is centrist. My politics remains constant.” Instead, he believes it’s his policy outlook that has changed.
It’s probably one reason why he has turned to Michael Heseltine for inspiration in his role as shadow business secretary. Umunna explains what appeals to him about the former Tory business secretary: “I know some people were quite surprised to read a speech by me that pays tribute to Heseltine. I just like his approach and mind-set when it comes to looking at how government can work with business.”
The comparison works on another level. It also allows Umunna to push the narrative that Labour is business-friendly, and it’s just those evil Tories who tell you otherwise. “The Conservative Party’s strategic aim is to try and paint the Labour Party as an anti-business party,” he argues, “but it isn’t a claim that has credibility. You absolutely have to be pro-business if you’re serious about creating more wealth for people in the country.”
He continues: “There is the kind of old, orthodox right-wing approach, which was adopted by Margaret Thatcher – and then by Portillo, who was the darling of the Tory right. They said the best thing the government could do is step to one side and allow market forces to [let] rip. That’s very much the mind-set of Osborne and Cameron. On the other side, there’s Heseltine – who says that what business is looking for is an active government to be working in partnership with our different sectors to create the conditions to foster private sector growth.”
State intervention is not a new argument for Umunna’s party, but nowadays it’s more nuanced and business-friendly. Just look at the 1945 Labour Party election manifesto, which declared: “[Our opponents] say, ‘Full employment. Yes! If we can get it without interfering too much with private industry.’ We [Labour] say, ‘No more dole queues, in order to let the czars of big business remain kings in their own castles. The price of so-called ‘economic freedom’ for the few is too high if it is bought at the cost of idleness and misery for millions.’”
But not all are convinced by Labour’s zeal for business. A recent public poll for City A.M. found that Ed Miliband is the most anti-business of all mainstream politicians. Umunna insists there has been change. “I don’t think it’s credible to argue that somehow Labour hasn’t changed since the 1980s, when there were people in the party who were positively anti-business and anti-enterprise. It’s not credible against a shadow business secretary who is the son of a small businessman, worked in the City for several years and has acted for businesses of different sizes.”
Ed Miliband categorised businesses into good ‘producer’ and bad ‘predator’ boxes in his conference speech last year. One veteran private equity boss blasted the distinction as “stereotyping to the point of stupidity”. The CBI warned Miliband to “be careful”. Is it Labour’s messaging around businesses that’s the problem, then? “No, far from it,” Umunna replies. “I deny it is a problem at all.”
He pauses. “Perhaps if I rephrase it… It’s no more of a problem for us than it is for them [government]. I wouldn’t describe people working in the city as ‘spivs’ and ‘gamblers’, as Vince Cable has done. Many people in the financial services sector were very angry with David Cameron for what he did over Fred Goodwin’s knighthood. I’m just saying that this strategic attempt to try and paint us as anti-business is not credible any more.”
Labour’s language on the financial sector, more specifically, bankers, often verges on negative, though. Dennis Skinner recently called top City executives “the most reviled group of people in the land”. While Umunna refrains from such rhetorical flair, he is pushing for funding for a job-creation scheme through a proposed bankers’ bonus tax.
“In terms of our frontbench, nobody has used language that comes close to that used by Cable to describe the financial services sector,” he maintains.
The Labour MP admits that he likes Cable, though. “I feel sorry for him,” he says of his opposite number. “He’s running against the roadblocks to modernisation and reform to our economy, which sit in the Treasury and No 10.”
In March, a letter from Cable to Cameron and Nick Clegg was leaked. It contained criticism from the business secretary that the government lacks a “compelling vision” of what the country will look like after the cuts. He also called for the break-up of RBS.
“I thought, ‘This is bizarre’”, says Umunna. “I could have written that, as an open letter from the shadow secretary of state. It wasn’t written by someone who, seemingly, had a huge amount of power, but by someone in office who seemed to be void of power.”
Has he had conversations with Cable about his position? “Well, I’m not going to disclose to you what Vince says to me privately… There are certain things that would be totally out of order for me to disclose.”
Umunna makes it clear when subjects are off limits. His personal life is one of them. He was quoted recently as saying, “it would be unfair on the woman I’m seeing”. So he does have a lady-friend, then? “I should have just said I’m not commenting on that,” he replies, admonishing himself. “If you start talking about your private life, you give people a licence to do so too. And, actually, if you want to protect your privacy, the more you put out there, the less able you are legally to do anything about it.”
It’s the former lawyer speaking now.
He will talk a little about his family, though. His Nigerian-born father died in a car crash when Umunna was 13. His father came to Britain in the 1960s and cleaned cars to make money before eventually setting up a successful import-export business. What did he learn from his dad? “He worked bloody hard. When I was little, I often didn’t see him during the day. He took big risks. So when he started his business, he started it with money he got as part of a redundancy payment from another job. There are certain things about being a businessperson that you can’t learn at business school. It’s quite instinctive… That entrepreneurial zeal, that eye for opportunity. I don’t think I have it. Whatever my dad passed onto me – my dad was quite political, but not UK politics – probably overwhelmed the entrepreneurial side in me.”
With that in mind, what does he make of ‘quick success’ stories like The Apprentice? “I think they’re great, actually. I have to confess I haven’t watched a full episode. One of the things that breaks my heart, when I look at the minority of young people involved with gang culture and criminal activity in my borough, is, ‘God, think what you could do if you took that entrepreneurial zeal, which is being used for illegitimate things, and used it for legitimate purposes.’ You’ve got your future Bransons, your future Meadens, your future Dysons in my constituency. But we’ve got to enable them to realise that.”
Iain Duncan Smith has spoken out about the corrosive nature of shows like X Factor and the ‘get rich and famous’ culture that they promote. Umunna is undecided. “That issue is linked to what has become of society. I do think it’s a factor that helped drive the August unrest,” he says. “This is the problem of how, increasingly, we’ve become a society that encourages our young to define themselves by what they have as opposed to who they are.
"Now on the centre-left it’s fashionable to blame Thatcher for this… I think that’s a bit of a cop-out. Most of us have credit cards. We all love to shop – I like a bit of retail therapy myself – and therefore in this respect we’ve all had a part to play in what society has become. The difficult thing for us as policy-makers is that you can’t legislate to change that culture. You can’t throw money at a problem. This ‘get rich quick’ culture… with a lot of our young people, it’s beamed into their house through Sky, on MTV…
“I will ask children I speak to, ‘Are you working hard for your mum? Are you doing all your homework?’ The parents will say, ‘Thank you for saying that’, because I’m not far off the age of some of the kids, particularly the teenagers. Sometimes I’m closer in age to them than to the [parents]. My father drilled it into me that if you want the nice house and the decent car, you’re going to have to work for it.”
At 33, Umunna has achieved enough to afford a very decent car – and yet he still tootles around in a decade-old Ford Ka with key scratches on it. “I’m going to stick with this one for the moment because it gets me from A to B,” he insists.
Does he work too hard? “Yes, probably,” he admits. “I am a bit of a workaholic. If you ask my family and my predecessor, who’s like a mentor to me, they all think I work too hard. But I don’t see it as work, I see it as a vocation.” He’s given me this soundbite before.
In fact, last time we met, Umunna was certainly keen to keep ambitions at bay. Back in 2010, the Streatham MP assured me that he was “quite deliberately” focusing on his constituency to quell the media hype about his election. Since then, he’s been PPS to Ed Miliband, shadow small business and enterprise minister, and now shadow business secretary.
When I remind him of his tentativeness, he laughs loudly. “Oh, my God,” he exclaims. “Things were very different then. It seems like a completely different world.”
The next tasks in hand for Umunna are the local and mayoral elections. Last month, the party had a taste of what failure feels like, when Respect’s George Galloway swiped Bradford West after almost four decades of it being a Labour seat. The result was “deeply disappointing”, admits Umunna. “It was a bad day for politics, in general. And clearly mistakes were made in respect to that specific campaign.”
Umunna identifies three areas that his party will have to conquer if it is to be successful in May’s elections. “People want to see the economy grow again, because that will give them a sense of security for the future. Secondly, growth alone isn’t good enough. We want to see growth with a substantial fall in unemployment. And thirdly, we want to see something done about the cost-of-living crisis that those in work are faced with.”
As a London MP, Umunna will also be expected to smile for the cameras in Ken Livingstone’s fourth mayoral fight. He produces a glowing reference for the beige-suited Labour candidate. “Ken isn’t standing to be mayor of London as another stop along the journey of a political career,” he says. “If you want me to come out and say anything other than that, you’re asking the wrong person because Ken was born in my constituency.”
He and Ken are very different generations of Labour politics, though, I point out. “We’re different generations, but he understands,” says Umunna. “He’s a Londoner, he lives and breathes London. He gets all the good and the bad bits of it. In a sense, he personifies London.”
Wow, Ken himself would blush at such comments. If Ken blushes. It’s hard to imagine red cheeks on the man who declared: “Give me the world to run, and I’ll be happy.”
But Umunna is not done yet. “When we had the terror attacks in 2005, he was standing in front of thousands of people, crying. He had been deeply affected by the attack on the city he knows and loves. If you compare and contrast the way Ken dealt with 7/7 and the way Boris dealt with the August unrest… There’s such a contrast – the emotional stuff, the connection with the place and its people.”
It’s not a glowing reference; it’s a burning inferno of a reference.
Apart from Labour politics, what happened to Umunna’s other hobbies? He loves music and DJ-ing, but admits he hasn’t had a chance to do much of late. What about TV? He hasn’t seen Labour’s favourite political drama Borgen. “It’s quite racy, apparently,” he says. Erm, kind of…
“I like watching Entourage,” he offers, suddenly. This is met with laughter, and he adds defensively: “Well, it doesn’t require heavy thinking.”
So what can we expect from the shadow business secretary in future? We probably just have to look at the men in his life to figure it out.
He has some of Lord Mandelson’s shrewdness (and a bit of his vanity, too): “My tailor is my campaign organiser’s sister. She trained at Shanghai Tang and she’s fantastic.”
He’s got Michael Heseltine’s approach to the ministerial brief, and his enthusiasm for “government activism” in business (although, thankfully, none of that blond bouffant – Chuka shaves his head).
And, yes, he has a touch of Tony’s tone.
We discuss his friendship with 2010 intake MPs Emma Reynolds, Rachel Reeves and Jonathan Reynolds and Luciana Berger (who he allegedly dated). They were dubbed the ‘Nando’s Five’ after they dined at the piri-piri chicken eatery one evening.
“My constituents love the fact that I go to Nando’s,” he says.
It’s a good date place, I add.
“I wouldn’t take a date to Nando’s…” He looks at me in disgust.
“… I’d take them to KFC.”
There’s more foot-stomping laughter.
Yes, even though he won’t talk about it, Umunna and Blair definitely got along.