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.