POLITICS

Chuka Umunna, The Fresh Prince of Streatham, Fighting For 'The Little Guy'

18/03/2013 12:00 GMT | Updated 12/05/2015 16:59 BST
REX Features

Mehdi Hasan sat down with Labour’s fresh prince, Chuka Umunna, ahead of the 2013 Budget to talk bankers, business and why he would “trust Ed Miliband “with his life”.

Smooth, sober and sensible – that’s how I’ve always viewed Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham and shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. So I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw him ‘getting jiggy’ with Hollywood movie star Will Smith earlier this month at a secondary school in south London; the duo sang and danced to the iconic theme tune of Smith’s hit 1990s sitcom ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ in front of a crowd of cheering pupils.

Does Umunna know all the words to the tune? He guffaws. “Not all of them…once you get going, I kind of remember them…”

How did the Labour frontbencher end up on stage with the star of ‘Men In Black’ and ‘Bad Boys’? The actor, visiting the UK with his son, “expressed an interesting in seeing a bit of the real London”. The politician obliged, taking him on a tour of Brixton with fellow London Labour MP Dame Tessa Jowell.

I meet the shadow business secretary in his Commons office in Portcullis House. Umunna is in a crisp white shirt and light blue tie, his right arm dangling over the back of his chair. He says he’s “buzzing”. The night before, he took another visitor to Brixton – Labour leader Ed Miliband – to promote the final report from the party’s Small Business Taskforce, which includes proposals for 90% of business customers to access broadband within one week and the introduction of German-style, local lending institutions.

“Blue-chip bosses report that Labour is listening to business right now,” wrote the Evening Standard’s city editor on 14 March, “in a way that the Tories didn't in opposition.” Much of the credit for this has to go to the energetic and charming MP for Streatham.

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At the grand old age of 34, Umunna has perhaps the trickiest job in the shadow cabinet. By the end of Labour’s 13-year period in government - as Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband, among others, have pointed out - business leaders had deserted the party in their droves. “At the last election, not a single major business endorsed Labour, and we cannot afford that again,” wrote the elder Miliband in the New Statesman in February 2012.

Does the shadow business secretary, who hails from the centre-left Compass wing of the party, agree?

“I think we need the support of businesses large and small, of all different sizes, and importantly, in all different parts of the country.” An interesting answer - but not to the question that I asked him. I try again. “I think it was a problem in 2010 that we went into that general election without there being clear, distinctive voices in business of all sizes backing us,” Umunna concedes.

Can he name a single big business leader or owner who backs Labour under Ed Miliband? “I have spoken in private to many who support us but they don’t generally want to get involved in party politics.” I guess that’s a ‘no’ then. In his defence, Umunna argues that “(a) a general election is not here right now, and (b) are we on a journey in terms of ensuring that at the next general election we have more people coming out for us? Of course we are.”

FORGET THE PRAWN COCKTAILS

He is, however, dismissive of the mid-1990s New Labour approach to winning over entrepreneurs: the so-called ‘prawn cocktail offensive’.

“The old way of doing business engagement is that you would get a bunch of leading FTSE 100 CEOs round the table with your leader for dinner,” says the shadow business secretary. “They would have an exchange and hammer out what needs to be done for British business and you would measure the success of your pursuit of that endeavour by how many of your dinner companions you could subsequently persuade to sign a letter in support of one of your policy positions in the Telegraph, the Times or the FT. Now that is an absurd way to go about formulating business policy and that era is over.” His voice gets louder as he continues: “It is a stupid way of measuring your success in delivering an agenda that’s right for business.”

Why? “Because FTSE 100 CEOs are an important constituency and of course we engage with them, but 99% or more of our 4.8m business population is made up of small independent businesses. And they, in the main, are unrepresented.”

Umunna takes great pride in having been the driving force behind Labour’s Small Business Taskforce. “We commissioned a group of business people to write a report… It’s a report by business people for business people on what they need. And its been led by the late Nigel Doughty [the venture capitalist] and then Bill Thomas [the former Hewlett Packard executive].”

So what is his party’s offer to small businesses? Isn’t their biggest complaint the alleged excess of ‘red tape’, which they largely blame on the last Labour government?

This, responds Umunna, is a “crude way of looking at it”. Reminding me how he spent eight years before he was elected to parliament as an employment lawyer “advising businesses on how to deal with regulation and so-called red tape”, he tells me that “this race to the bottom on quantity doesn’t reflect the fact that one of the biggest complaints by small business is the quality of regulation”.

So it’s quality not quantity? “Quality is incredibly important. Now on quantity, I think we should seek to reduce the regulatory burden where we can but we’ve also got to be careful to make the case for regulation where we can.” The shadow business secretary points to the popularity of the competition regime “which is there to ensure that there is a level playing field for small businesses when they’re taking on the large established players in markets”.

Umunna points out that small to medium-sized firms (SMEs) account for around 50% of GDP and almost 60% of all private-sector jobs. But what of the other 50% and 40%? What’s his offer to big business, to the members of the FTSE 100?

He’s unfazed by the question. “This is where having a proper industrial strategy is absolutely key,” he replies. “When you’re operating at scale as they are and looking to become world beaters and to capture market share globally, that is not something that people in different business sectors tell us they can do without government providing them backing in different ways.” What kind of backing? “We spend over £230bn a year [on] procurement; we should be using that to back British industry and helping them to become world beaters.”

Here, the shadow business secretary breaks off to take a not-so-subtle dig at both the civil service and the European Union – traditional bête noires of the Tory right. “Usually we have a civil service that says ‘Ooh, no you can’t do this because of EU state aid and other rules.’ Well the French, the Germans and the Dutch have adopted a more proactive attitude with respect to the use of procurement; they were taken to the EU Court of Justice and each of them won.”

He sounds like he sympathises with those Tory Eurosceptics in government, such as the education secretary Michal Gove and the cabinet office minister Oliver Letwin, who have complained that the coalition’s reforms are constantly stymied by the EU bureaucracy.

Umunna shifts in his seat. “I have a little bit of sympathy with that [view],” he says, before adding: “But I also recognise that there are lot of things we couldn’t do without the EU. We are in a much stronger position when we are sit around the table with new emerging economies, like China, when we’re part of a delegation of our EU partners representing almost half a billion people... than we are if we’re just sitting there on our own.”

FIGHTING FOR THE 'LITTLE GUY'

What does he say to those on the left who say looking after the interests of the business community is the job of the Conservative Party? That the Labour Party should be battling on behalf of the little guy, on behalf of workers, not owners? Umunna looks annoyed. “The two are not mutually exclusive.” What, never? His voice gets louder. “Look, they are not mutually exclusive… Ultimately, when you look at the big picture… the interests are the same.” The shadow business secretary is convinced that the Labour Party has to be a “pro-business and, above all, pro-small business party” because “small business provide more jobs in the private sector than any other group”.

What about the Beecroft report, commissioned by the prime minister, which advocated making it easier for companies to sack staff? No clash there? Umunna shrugs. “Adrian Beecroft is a business person… I don’t think he has a particular mandate. He himself admitted his report was not based on empirical research.”

He continues: “I think ultimately why [Beecroft] failed to fly with the business community is that they don’t want to be associated with some race to the bottom when they are acutely aware that the business community’s reputation has come in for a bit of a kicking.”

Umunna refers to his own backstory to highlight what he believes is the “power of business” to promote social mobility. His father Bennett arrived in the UK from Nigeria in the mid-sixties “with very little money [and] he started off washing plates and washing cars”. Umunna Snr ended up, in the words of his son, “a very successful import and export agent”.

“If you are starting up a new business,” he adds, “you are challenging the establishment, you are the little guy.”

chucka

The number of new private sector businesses in the UK increased to 4.8 million in 2012 – a record high. Nonetheless, growth has ground to a halt, businesses aren’t investing and unemployment stands at a whopping 2.5m. What’s gone wrong? Umunna prefers to avoid what he calls the “ossified” debate over austerity and instead attacks the business secretary Vince Cable for “tinkering” with piecemeal measures that don’t constitute “the kind of ‘Big Bang’ treatment the economy needs”.

It is easy to criticise from opposition – does Labour have a ‘Big Bang’ of its own? What would Umunna do? “I would, across the board, implement a comprehensive, active industrial strategy. That means, first of all on finance, ensuring that you set up urgently a state-backed investment institution to get money flowing to our small businesses and also [to] infrastructure. Secondly, it means transforming the skills ecosystem so that we have as much emphasis on non-academic as well as academic skills, which are both important to the economy. Thirdly, we will use procurement to back British industry. Fourthly, we do want proper regional economic devolution.”

He speaks confidently and fluently – and is refreshingly positive about the case for an activist government. “I am absolutely clear: we will be picking sectors where we think we’ve got a competitive edge and a comparative advantage, and working with those particular sectors to grow them so that they meet the demand coming from the south and the east.”

The details, however, are much harder to obtain. How much money would Labour’s proposed investment bank have available, for instance, to lend to struggling SMEs in the private sector? “You do need big bazooka treatment.” Well, how much cash then? “I’m not going to get into the figures… “ But he already has, I point out, by criticising the Treasury for allocating “just £300m” to the funding a government-backed bank in this parliament. How much would Labour set aside? Umunna won’t budge. “What we’re clear [about] is that there hasn’t been enough investment.”

What about a so-called ‘Robin Hood’ or financial transaction tax? Wouldn’t it help restrain irresponsible behaviour in the banking sector, as well as raise much-needed revenue in an age of austerity? “In principle, I am a fan of a financial transactions tax,” he replies. “But that is not something that we can go and implement unilaterally without having major financial centres - in particular, the US - also doing the same.” Such a move, he argues, “would be completely self defeating”.

THAT'S BALLS

Is Ed Balls, as some Labour insiders suggest, holding him back? Would it be fair to describe the shadow chancellor as a more conservative and cautious figure than Messrs Miliband and Umunna? “Not at all,” says the shadow business secretary, shaking his head furiously. “I totally refute any suggestion that he isn’t 100% onboard with the industrial strategy I have been advocating.”

Defending Balls from his critics on left and right, Umunna makes a pretty strong argument: “We will be going into the [2015] general election with one very big plus point: we will have the most experienced party leader and shadow chancellor… [of] any opposition for many, many decades.”

But Umunna is cagey when I mention David Miliband’s name. Does the former foreign secretary have a future on the Labour frontbench? Perhaps in the economy brief? “I would very much like to see David come back to the frontbench but that is a decision for him. He is hugely talented…it’s a bit like having a striker on the subs bench and that’s why I would like to see him come back.” He laughs, before adding: “It’s far beyond my pay grade to be advocating what job he should do.”

The shadow business secretary’s even cagier when I turn to the issue of his own ambitions. Won’t the next party leader be from the 2010, rather than the 2001 or 2005, generation of Labour MPs? Umunna’s name is often mentioned alongside those of Rachel Reeves, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, and Stella Creasy, the shadow minister for crime prevention. “I think…” He stops himself. “How would I describe that kind of chat? That kind of chat is unhelpful.”

Umunna – who backed the younger Miliband for the Labour leadership in 2010, and has been rewarded with promotion after promotion ever since – is emphatic in his support for his boss: “I would trust Ed with my life.”

He begins reeling off a list of the Labour leader’s positive attributes – “steely”, “authentic”, “man of integrity” – before I interrupt him. Why isn’t any of this reflected in Miliband’s personal poll ratings, which remain pretty dire? The shadow business secretary falls back on the tried and tested response of politicians down the ages: “At the end of the day, the only polls that matter are election polls.”

In recent weeks, Vince Cable has made several high-profile, public interventions, calling for greater capital spending funded through higher borrowing. Does Umunna welcome the business secretary’s conversion to a more Keynesian stance on the economy? He doesn’t look too impressed. “Either [Cable’s] believed this all along, in which case it's totally reprehensible that only now, half way through the parliament, is he jumping up and down about it – or, he’s suddenly seen the light, in which case that leads you to question: why has it taken him so long?” There’s a pause before the shadow business secretary concedes: “I always think it’s welcome when politicians admit they’ve got things wrong and change course.”

Umunna, however, is keen to draw attention to the way in which the department for business, innovation and skils has become a “battleground”: “You’ve got Vince Cable saying one thing and his deputy, the Conservative Michael Fallon, saying very different things about economic strategy. One of business’s biggest complaints is uncertainty about the direction of the government and policy.”

I get the impression that he likes Cable, as a person if not as a politician. “I do like Vince,” says Umunna, grinning. “I get on well with him.”

Most senior Labour figures seem to have a soft spot for the business secretary – Ed Miliband has exchanged texts with Cable and Ed Balls has said he “could work with Vince”. Is Umunna’s opposite number the man who could lead the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour come 2015?

The shadow business secretary gives the standard politician’s answer – “We don’t want a hung parliament, we want a majority” – before admitting: “I would not dispute that personally I am closer to Vince Cable than I am [to] Nick Clegg.”

LOCK 'EM UP

I meet him the day after the former Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce are sentenced to eight months in prison for perverting the course of justice. Shouldn’t we be locking away dishonest bankers, too?

“I agree with that,” he says. “I think, ultimately, one of the principal ways that we will effect a culture change in the financial services sector, which we need, is when people are put behind bars for what is attempted fraud and criminal practices on a grand scale.”

It’s an impressively forthright answer – one that many voters have been craving to hear from our politicians since the financial crash almost five years ago.

“The SFO [Serious Fraud Office], in particular, is looking at the attempted manipulation of Libor rigging,” Umunna tells me, referring to the recent scandal over the manipulation of the crucial London inter-bank lending rate. “I would be very surprised if there were not prosecutions that flow from the attempted rigging of Libor… I am reasonably confident that the SFO should be able to bring prosecutions. Individuals could end up being imprisoned.”

I turn the conversation to the subject of his family. The shadow business secretary’s father died in 1992 in a “mysterious” car crash, after announcing his candidacy for the governorship of the south-eastern Nigerian state of Anambra. Friends of Umunna Snr have speculated in the past that Bennett Umunna may have been assassinated.

Does his son agree? There’s an awkward pause. “Well I haven’t really gone into it…” Another pause. “We lost my father in very tragic circumstances and I have always said that, at the end of the day, there is nothing that will be able to bring him back.” He looks, understandably, upset and part of me regrets having asked the question.

I change the topic to his late grandfather on his mother’s side, Sir Helenus Milmo. What’s it like being the grandson of a former Nuremberg prosecutor, high court judge and MI5 agent? “He was also lead counsel in the Profumo inquiry,” laughs Umunna. “He was a real trailblazer, my grandfather. Both my grandfather and my father are really big inspirations to me.”

A young black politician, of mixed race, with a background in law, Umunna is often described in the press as the “British Barack Obama”. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those lazy journalists to have done so on more than one occasion.)

Does the Obama comparison annoy him? “It’s very flattering to be compared to President Obama… but it’s not a comparison I have encouraged,” he replies. “What I have found insulting is when commentators and people in the newspapers have suggested that is a comparison I have encouraged. I want to be defined by me…”

So it doesn’t bother him that every black politician these days seem to be tagged as a ‘British Obama’, with the recent headlines about the Tory MP – and alleged anti-Cameron plotter – Adam Afriyie being a case in point? Umunna will only say that such labels demonstrate how far western countries have to go “in ensuring that we have a politics that looks like what our countries have become. Even now in 2012, there are still few black and minority ethnic politicians in the higher and senior levels of politics.”

He points out: “When I was appointed as the shadow business secretary in 2011, I was the first black shadow cabinet member in Britain ever appointed… In 2011? That’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.”

It’s now 2013. Obama has been re-elected in the United States; attitudes are changing fast in the UK. Plenty of polls suggest the vast majority of Britons would vote for a non-white prime minister. And if there is going to be a ‘first black leader’ of a British political party, I'd bet that it won’t be Adam Afriyie - it’ll be Chuka Umunna.