Chuka Umunna, doing it with confidence

19th March, 2012 9:29 am

Ahead of this week’s budget, LabourList editor Mark Ferguson interviews shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna:

I arrive at Chuka Umunna’s office late after being held in a security queue for almost half an hour outside Parliament. It’s (relatively) early and I’m irritable. I’m told that Umunna is as smooth in person as his velveteen media persona. After all this queuing my mood is sour – he’d better be. I’m led up to his office, and he rises from his desk to greet me with a lively “Ferg!”. This catches me completely unaware. Only a handful of my closest friends call me Ferg. Is this charming? A slip? Too friendly? The smile is too broad for him not to get the benefit of the doubt. It’s charming.

We take a seat at his desk. Desks are for those MPs who are all about the business. Sofas and comfy chairs suggest a more relaxed approach. Some even manage the sofa plus desk combo, but you can only get away with that if you have a large office (and therefore have presumably befriended a whip in a past life). Umunna hasn’t had time for that surely? Not yet.

Yet Umunna isn’t in fact all business. Not yet. He wants to talk about the left online, LabourList, about what the readers think. Chuka Umunna has not got this far this quickly without taking notice of what people think.

I’m intrigued by his recent mentions of Tory Party grandee Michael Heseltine – not exactly a usual topic of conversation in Labour circles. Umunna relaxes back into his seat and laughs. “I think beyond Labour circles there is an enduring affection for Michael Heseltine.”

Yet the reasoning behind Umunna’s interest in the man they once called “Tarzan” seems as tied to the former minister’s unpopularity with his own party, as with his popularity in the country at large. “When I was in the chamber for the statement on the European Council in December…one of my colleagues, backbench colleagues, mentioned Heseltine – used Heseltine against Cameron – and the whole of the Tory backbenches jeered the mention of his name. I thought this is quite remarkable, here’s one of the most popular Conservative politicians in the country being jeered by his own side.”

It seems to be Heseltine’s thirst for government activism (particularly deploying an active industrial strategy in a bid to stimulate private sector growth) that really draws Umunna. He even quotes approvingly from his 1992 Tory conference speech, when he said “‘I will intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner…”. Heseltine, one of the old men of British politics, has clearly been playing on the mind of Umunna, one of the young men of British politics, for some time now. So when Liverpool’s Labour Council recently gave Heseltine the freedom of the city, the opportunity was too good for Umunna to miss. Heseltine was praised, a line was drawn and a few Tories were made to squirm.

Heseltine isn’t the only political grandee that he has been seeking to channel lately though. Umunna has also spoken approvingly of Peter Mandelson, and the two seem to have forged a friendly relationship despite their differing political outlooks. “Peter has been incredibly helpful and supportive of me. I’m so very grateful to him for the advice, the constant advice, and constant contact with him that he gives to me.” He clearly sees his role at least in part as carrying on Mandelson’s 2008-10 industrial interventionism.

That’s clearly not a role that he believes Vince Cable is currently fulfilling. In fact Umunna is somewhat dismissive of his opposite number. “Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats have become so emasculated – and he in particular doesn’t have clout across Whitehall or have the ear of Number 10 – even if he wanted to adopt this kind of approach, he just doesn’t have the power to do so.”

It’s not just business policy that Chuka is keen to discuss though, the wider economic issues facing the party and the country are touched on too. Perhaps that’s unsurprising – as he says himself – the shadow BIS role is one of the two major economic briefs in opposition alongside the shadow chancellorship. But still, it’s unusual to hear anyone outside of the Treasury team speak so comprehensively about credit easing, Project Merlin, and the wider economic issues of the day.

In particular, he tells me that we need to be careful that when we talk about the need for growth, we’re also careful not to forget jobs. “Often the word “growth”, and the word “jobs” are used interchangeably, but they are actually two different things”, he says. “Margaret Thatcher had growth during her time in government, but she didn’t have lots of jobs, because we went above three million unemployed during her time in government. So we’ve got to be very very clear that growth alone if it returns – and that’s questionable given the economic strategy pursued by the government – growth alone will be insufficient. We have got to see these high levels of unemployment fall dramatically.”

When it comes to the impending budget though, his focus is resolutely on what Cable will (or perhaps most likely won’t) get for British business. He’s set five tests for the former sage turned sometime laughing stock, “A strong business department, a competent business department, a department which gives policy certainty to allow long term decision making in companies, helping to address the finance squeeze that businesses face and looking at procurement and how it can be used to spur employment.” Five tests? He may as well call them five traps. Expect each to be deployed once the post-budget hubbub has died down. All are suitably vague enough for Umunna to be able to argue that Cable has failed, but credible enough to speak to the Lib Dem’s weaknesses.

Before I go, it would be remiss of me not to ask him about his meteoric rise (a phrase that surely needs to be either banned or trademarked. Or both). His answer is predictably and studiously modest, but at least self-aware, “I certainly wasn’t expecting to be a shadow minister, nevermind in the shadow cabinet…I just feel incredibly lucky and blessed to be a member of Parliament full stop…It’s a very sacred thing – sacred is the word I always use. I feel a great sense of responsibility to the people who elected me. Everybody says that, but I don’t think it means you shouldn’t say it.” Every MP does say it. But I let him get away with it, both because he’s patently telling the truth, and because he must be getting sick of being asked. That said, he doesn’t look like someone who is struggling under the pressure of expectation. He says that his background as a lawyer helped him to adjust. That figures, he’s unphased. More than that. The opposite of phased. Somehow animated and serene at the same time.

Our interview comes to an end, but before I go, he’s got a message for you. All of you, “LabourList readers, you should be confident about our position in relation to business and industry. Because certainly the active industrial strategies twe’ve been arguing for very much strike a chord with them. So people on the doorstep shouldn’t be shy about boasting about all of the things we are doing and arguing for to help British business. They should do it with confidence.”

Do it with confidence. That could be his motto. That’s how he’s been since before he was even an MP. That’s how he’s been since. That’s the key to his success, and it’ll decide whether or not he goes as far as some suggest he might.

Chuka Umunna, doing it with confidence.

And nothing has dented that confidence.

Not yet.

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  • aristeides

    “I thought this is quite remarkable, here’s one of the most popular Conservative politicians in the country being jeered by his own side.”
    Yup, can’t imagine that happening to a Labour politician…

  • JC

    Pity, I had hoped to read an interview, not a fawning, unquestioning set of comments. For example, how would he measure how well Vince Cable was performing against his 5 tests. None of them are measurable in any way, they are all subjective.

    On jobs. They are a cost of doing business and not a benefit. We should be reducing the cost of employing people if we want more jobs. I saw nothing about that. If the Labour Party wants to be more credible, we must stop these type of items. Disagreement and challenges to the accepted views are positive, not examples of disunity. Everyone else will challenge these ideas, why not do it here first?

    • Spence

      Sorry JC, but if we want more jobs we need to create more job opportunities. Simply lowering the cost to the employer isn’t going to get him to hire more people.

      • JC

        Try looking at it from a potential employer. At the moment we have employers NI, a whole host of regulations on who can be employed and under what circumstances as well as limits on what you can do if your market diminishes. It seems to me that we are continually trying to make it more difficult  for employers to do what we don’t want rather than make it easier for them to do what we do want. The fable of the wind and the sun comes to mind.

        • An interesting point is raised by Chuka when he contrasts ‘growth’ with ‘jobs’. Sometimes a choice has to be made between one or the other. But if the free-market isn’t able to provide full employment, as is the case, what then is the role for a government elected (or hoping to get elected) by a population who want, as we do, full employment?

          The back-story for this position is provided by Chuka’s friend Mandelson, who last year, in an under-reported speech, said:  “Further enlarging public sector employment is not an option in the coming decade and we need to look to the real economy, to the private business sector, to deliver sufficient numbers of decently paid skilled jobs.”

          • treborc

             I just think the Tories and labour are so close now, the ideology is the same the people are the same.

            The next election will be about which leader has the best smile.

        • trotters1957

          Ever heard of contractors? 
          Around 1.5 million are now working on short term contracts, see
          No national insurance, hire and fire with little or no notice.

          Totally ignorant comments from someone who wouldn’t know a business if it bit him in the b~~ls.

  • treborc

    1992: Thousands of miners to lose their jobs

    The government is planning to close a third of Britain’s deep coal mines, with the loss of 31,000 jobs.

    The President of the Board of Trade, Michael Heseltine, has announced up to 31 out of 50 remaining deep mines face closure.

    Mr Heseltine promised an extra £1bn from the Treasury to meet the cost of redundancies and help mining communities.

    A labour hero.

  • MRP

    Chuka, the Thatcher Gvt had growth because she de-regulated the Banks and North Sea oil came on stream of which the Gvt had 45%! We had unemployment because Thatcher closed the coalmines thus creating a snowball effect on other businessess. Read your history and above all ignore  Blairite Mandelson. Labour grassroots have had it up to here with the Blairites!

    • Peter Barnard

      @ MRP,
      Certainly, Margaret Thatcher was no friend of the coal-miners (and certainly, as well, I am no friend of Margaret Thatcher), but coal as a source of energy was in long-term decline after the Second World War. Trains hauled by steam-powered locomotives stopped running in the 1960s, houses were built with central heating, nuclear power and North Sea gas came on stream and so on ( for example, in 1952, we used nearly 28 million tons of coal for gas production ; by 1972, we used just half-a-million tons).
      For the record, the number of wage-earners on the colliery books reads as follows :
      1951 – 699,000
      1963/64 – 517,000
      1969/70 – 305,000
      1973/74 – 252,000
      1978/79 – 235,000
      1990/91 – 61,000
      1993/94 – 19,000
      The reduction in employees on the colliery books was especially sharp during the period of the first Wilson government. I think that the main difference between then and the Conservative period 1979/97 is that alternative employment was readily available, whereas the Conservative period was notable for a total lack of care for the devastation visited on coal-mining villages.
      But then – they were all living in Labour-held constituencies, so there was no electoral disadvantage …

      • treborc

        But it was the way the closures were done,  nothing was put in place in employment, thousand of people were dumped onto a life of unemployment and it was the Tories  which used welfare to  lower the unemployment levels.

        If the closure of the mines had been staged  and handled better  everyone knew the coal mining era was over.

        But today in Wales we are talking about re-opening two major mines with open cast because the market are available sadly in China and India which is still using the old method of making steel.
        TATA has applied for planning permission to open two mines so the new power station can be supplied by coal from here not China and permission has been given.

        we are now seeing a market for Welsh coal growing, sadly it’s not with mining but the digging of bloody massive holes in the ground.

        • Peter Barnard

          That’s what I say in my next-to-last paragraph, Treborc – no alternative employment was available.

        • David Brede

          Is there evidence that open cast is safer than deep mining?

  • “Heseltine”, “Mandelson”, “blessed” and “sacred”. Certainly Chuka firmly fixes himself within the Blairite tradition, politically and personally. Some may find this comforting but I can’t see any virtue, no matter how heroic, in going down with a ship that could be saved.

    • AlanGiles

      I especially cringed at: ”
      “Peter has been incredibly helpful and supportive of me. I’m so very grateful to him for the advice, the constant advice, and constant contact with him that he gives to me.” 

      Chuka sound like Uriah Heep on an especially humble day. I am sure there is an ulterior Mandy motive in the “advice, the constant advice”. My advice to Chuka would be “lay down with dogs and you get up with fleas”.

      If this sort of master and pupil relationship is the future of Labour – is there a future?

      • treborc
        • AlanGiles

          Astonishing. Why anybody would wish to be associated with this dubious character is beyond imagination. He wasn’t even especially good at any of the jobs he did – he was good at self-importance, pomposity and arrogance, but little else. Ed Miliband would be well advised to keep his distance, and to tell his colleagues to do the same.

          One other piece of advice for Chuka: If Mandy ever offers to help him fill out a mortgage application form……….

        • Interesting to hear it from the top: Mandelson is an electoral liability.

          • treborc

             Not of course if your New labour your self, and I do not care so far all I have heard from labour is Blair  was good we cannot forget him, lets take their advice.

      • William

        Positive and uplifting on here too I see.

        • AlanGiles

          Always say what you think Bill. You do about me and I will about Mandy. 

  • Daniel Speight

    Any Labour industrial policies discussed by chance Ferg?

    • Chilbaldi

      exactly. We all know how handsome Chuka is, but what about his policies?

  • treborc


    Miners tempted to answer Arthur Scargill’s calls for militancy have been issued a stark warning.

    Those taking any form of industrial action will lose redundancy entitlements worth up to £37,000.

    Chairman of British Coal Neil Clarke has said the cuts would be
    “grievous”, especially since productivity in the industry had more than
    doubled in the last six years.

    But the decision was a consequence of the need to reduce coal output by a minimum of 25,000 million tonnes a year, he said.

    Since the privatisation of the power industry in 1990, coal has been
    displaced by cheaper imports and the expansion in gas supplied
    electricity generators.

    Gas stations are replacing coal stations run by the two major
    electricity generators National Power and Power Gen, and the new freedom
    of electricity boards to set up their own gas power stations. ————————————————————————————————————–Does make you wonder if some of our mines had been kept open  because to day Oil and gas are so expensive coal would have been  able to take the strain, and with carbon capture if it really exist  coal and mining would be a major employer.To late now.

  • David Brede

    I do like the way Chukka presents himself and simplifies arguments to  those that that the public can understand. He should have more opportunities to challenge and expose the weaknesses of the Tory position which has made the country worse off  over the past 2 years or so. 

  • David Brede

    I do like the way Chukka presents himself and simplifies arguments to  those that that the public can understand. He should have more opportunities to challenge and expose the weaknesses of the Tory position which has made the country worse off  over the past 2 years or so. 

    • treborc

       better still he might be able to  kick labour into looking at where it’s going.

  • Ianr Stewart

    Glad that he is charming, where is his passion? Does he really care about the working class people he represents? Or is it all just for vanity?


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