Chuka Umunna’s rise to the upper echelons of his party has not required a great deal of patience on his part – in just two years, he has already arrived pretty close to the top. Elected in 2010, at 33 years old he is now Shadow Business Secretary, one of the key posts on Labour’s front bench. As an even fresher MP he was appointed Ed Miliband’s first Parliamentary Private Secretary, a position of great access and influence.
And his rise has been quite natural. Umunna is a smooth and telegenic performer and already authoritative at the dispatch box, with the kind of trim good looks not often seen in British politics. (Most ambitious players struggle to stay slim by jogging unconvincingly in parks.) He also stands out as the son of a Nigerian father and an Anglo-Irish mother, a combination that echoes with President Obama’s background. So much so that Umunna has been described as ‘Labour’s Obama’ and tipped as a future leader – an absurdly overblown and premature label, which he’s been swift to dismiss.
He claims to get on well with business leaders even though he has had no experience of running a company. Beyond being an expert in employment law when he was a lawyer, the nearest he has come to being an entrepreneur was when he hosted a regular club night in Brixton. Fleetingly, and not altogether seriously, he thought of becoming a full time DJ. He suggests that his lack of business experience is not an issue. “I haven't run a business and I don't pretend to do so, but the important thing is judgement, more than anything else. Experience is important but incredibly experienced people make bad judgements.”
But none of these unusual attributes explain why Umunna has risen so quickly; the real key is his political background, and the first decision he made when he became an MP in summer 2010. Without hesitating for a second, Umunna backed Ed Miliband in Labour’s leadership contest. Supporting the winner is always a smart move; Labour’s other acclaimed rising star, Rachel Reeves, made the same choice when there was no guarantee that Ed would win.
The younger Miliband’s political ideas were close to Umunna’s. Before becoming an MP, Umunna was active in the left-leaning Compass, a pluralistic pressure group. There he regularly declared that it was time to move on from the New Labour era and enthused about the work of the think tank, which is markedly to the left of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. During this period Ed Miliband, who was never a fully signed up supporter of New Labour (or at least the Blairite version) also showed considerable interest in Compass’s activities.
Umunna might have been to the left of New Labour as he prepared to become an MP, but since reaching the Shadow Cabinet he has acquired a new and more overt pragmatism, even telling friends that he has moved a bit to the right. The most glaring sign of this shift is his new admiration for Peter Mandelson. Umunna speaks to Mandelson regularly and seeks his advice. As a former Business Secretary, Mandelson has moved on too, becoming an advocate of greater government intervention to boost industry. In the past, Mandelson was wary of such an approach, partly out of a fear of being labelled ‘old Labour’.
Edgy radicalism tempered by New Labour expediency
So Umunna espouses an edgy radicalism, tempered by New Labour-ish expediency, rather like his leader – although Miliband’s views are more deeply held and informed than those of his less experienced protégé. Umunna also shares with his New Labour predecessors a capacity for hard work. In the words of Alastair Campbell, the current generation of Labour leaders are “not hungry enough”. This does not apply to Umunna. After he was selected as Labour candidate for Streatham he rarely took a holiday, instead combining his work as an employment lawyer with a near full-time job wooing the voters in his constituency, where he faced a potentially formidable challenge from the Liberal Democrats. In the event, he won by a substantial majority. And he’s continued to work hard since he was elected. Another echo of New Labour’s graft is the timetable in his office where his every move is planned for extremely busy weeks ahead – speeches, media appearances, policy development meetings, briefings etc.
These are still very early days for Umunna. But he is already a favoured media performer whenever there’s a pressing political issue – even when if it isn’t directly connected to his brief. However, he has yet to develop an agenda that chimes fully with Miliband’s case for a more responsible capitalism. It’s likely he will do so only after extensive consultation with the leader and with Ed Balls, who is more sceptical of this particular aim. Umunna also faces a big challenge in trying to persuade business leaders to back Labour, or at least to be less hostile. For an MP elected just two years ago, these are quite some challenges to face.
- Umunna's own website sets out his latest Westminster speeches and has links to his packed schedule and prolific Twitterfeed
- Umunna is also chair of the London Gangs Forum; 'Shadow business secretary says gangs pour energy into building up brands that could be channelled into other activities'; article for the Guardian, June 2012
- Interview discussing Labour's economic plans on BBC Politics (video); May 2012
- Chuka Umunna's speech on higher education; New Statesman; June 2012
- Chuka Umunna calls for national mission to modernise UK economy; speech to the CBI, February 2012