Chuka Umunna: The MT Interview

The telegenic shadow business secretary has been likened to Tony Blair and even President Obama. The former lawyer is not short of ideas for dragging Britain out of the mire, but can he persuade business - and the electorate - to give him a crack at putting them into action?

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Chuka Umunna is on Question Time, Chuka Umunna is on the Today programme, Chuka Umunna is on Newsnight, on Radio 5 Live, on Sky. Chuka Umunna is everywhere. Everyone wants a piece of him. Chuka, Chuka, Chuka.

An MP for just over two years, Umunna has achieved the distinction only afforded to a few, of being known universally by his first name. It helps, of course, that it's a rare one. Nevertheless, it says much about the rapid advance of Umunna that when you say you're 'off to see Chuka' - which, incidentally, means God is the greatest - people nod, and the woman behind the security desk at the House of Commons says that 'someone from Chuka's office will be down to see you'.

That familiarity has come quickly. He's been promoted to a position - business secretary in the shadow cabinet - that usually takes many years to reach. There was already a buzz about him before he arrived at the Commons - articulate and thoughtful, he'd been spotted as a rising Labour star. Once there, he hung back - refusing requests from Question Time (he said he wanted his colleagues to get to know him by working with him and not from TV). When he joined the Treasury select committee, he stood out as a candidate for rapid elevation, having proved himself unafraid to tackle Bob Diamond, Lord Sugar and George Osborne.

Inevitably, given his ethnicity (his late father was Nigerian), he's been spoken of as 'the UK's Barack Obama'. Umunna is irritated by the label. 'It's never been something I've encouraged,' he has said. 'I want people to look at me as me, not through the prism of someone else's personality.'

But while some who attach the Obama tag do so out of laziness, focusing only on his colour, others see in Umunna something that gives the likeness a deeper resonance. He's got that same relaxed charm and lucidity; the easy, unfazed way of speaking that marks out a natural communicator. Indeed, as well as the US president, he's been likened to Tony Blair as someone who seems to have a ready empathy with anyone he meets - be it a captain of industry or a teenage hoodie.

There's a coolness, a self-assurance about Umunna that is quite exceptional, which, crucially, doesn't spill over into arrogance. Nonetheless, he has a level gaze and a considered manner that can be disconcerting.

He thinks quickly and is witty. He talks the talk, as anyone would who used to be a DJ, running his own night in south London and at university, playing jungle, hip-hop and soul. Damn, he's also good-looking and confident with it (wouldn't you be if Sky News once named you Britain's most fanciable male MP?). He's bald by choice, shaving his head once a week.

Umunna represents Streatham in south London. He grew up in one of the area's smarter roads, the son of a successful entrepreneur (his father came over in the 1960s and washed cars before setting up his own import-export firm) and an Anglo-Irish mother who was the daughter of a High Court judge and member of the prosecution team at the Nuremberg Trials, Sir Helenus Milmo (Umunna is a nephew of the leading libel barrister Patrick Milmo QC).

Umunna went to Christ Church primary school in Brixton and then to independent secondary St Dunstan's College in Catford. Surprisingly, given his local connections, his majority is only 3,259.

When he was 13 his father was killed in Nigeria in an unexplained road accident after he ran for political office. 'I had to grow up very quickly,' he has said. 'I leapfrogged over some of those teenage years; it jolts you out of that sense of immortality you have when you're younger.' His mother was a probation officer who gave up the job when she had children. After her husband died, she returned to full-time employment, but could not face doing probation work again so she retrained as a solicitor. Umunna himself is unmarried and lives alone in a flat in Streatham, but says he'd like to have children one day. But for now, he never seems to stop working - he spent the summer recess in his office at the Commons.

He was raised in a family immersed in law, but also politics and commerce (his businessman father was trying to become a state governor in Nigeria when he died). Bright as he was, he failed to get into Oxford to read law and went to Manchester instead. He claims not to be bothered about not having gone down the Oxbridge path.

His confidence stems from his looks and growing up in Brixton (he avoided the riots, aged three, because his mother, who was out shopping with him and his sister, scooped them up and went home as soon as the trouble began), and from his family, who inculcated him with solid Christian values. Every Sunday evening he goes with his sister to their mum's for a roast dinner. He supports local Championship League team Crystal Palace.

We're sitting in his small office at the House of Commons. 'After university, I toyed with investment banking,' he says, smiling at the memory. 'But having visited Goldman Sachs in New York at the height of the dotcom boom, I realised my skill-set was better suited to being a lawyer.'

He shakes his head, grinning. It was a near-miss. Would Chuka the ex-investment banker be so welcomed within Labour circles as Chuka the ex-lawyer?

At Manchester, he studied English and French law, then went to the University of Burgundy in Dijon, before completing an MA at Nottingham Law School.

Although tempted by a career as a DJ, he joined international City firm Herbert Smith. 'I worked in its banking department, dealing with refinancings, takeovers and buyouts, and litigation. Then I went to its employment section - it appealed to me because it was about people's relationships rather than just money.'

In 2006, after four-and-a-half years at Herbert Smith, he moved to the central London firm of Rochman Landau to specialise in employment, serving individuals and small companies. 'I wanted to do more litigation and I wanted a more varied client base.' He adds, beaming: 'Plus, I wanted to go into politics and the demands of a City firm were not compatible.'

Ah, politics. It was in his blood, although he did not actually become fully committed until Tony Blair's first election victory in 1997. He eschewed student politics, opting instead to join the Labour party and help out at the local constituency office nearest the university and, when he was back for the holidays, at the Streatham office of his predecessor as MP, Keith Hill.

He stresses it was the workload at a City firm that made going into politics difficult, not that his chosen party was Labour. 'You can't underestimate the change in the Labour party - it started when Tony Blair was leader, let alone prime minister. There was a boom in the City, and Labour reached an accommodation with the City and embraced it.' He pauses for effect. 'Now some people argue it was too much of an embrace.

'Listen,' he says, 'it would be nice to say I was a right-on, left-wing, radical human rights lawyer of the sort you would expect to join Labour. I wasn't. I was interested in money and finance. Law was in my family but so was entrepreneurship; my father was an entrepreneur. I liked acting for companies, but I also liked acting for individuals - I saw both sides of the fence.'

That breadth, he says, has governed his politics. 'It's largely intuition how I approach policy and this role,' he says. 'I'm able to think of both companies and their employees. Because I advised them both and saw things from their side, I gained valuable life experience - and I'm able to use that in my politics.'

Umunna might appreciate the City, but does the rest of his party? 'The City is not misunderstood by Labour, but we are over-reliant on it, for economic success, jobs and tax receipts - as is, and was, every political party.'

The City has to mend its ways, he says. 'Banks have to change. It's not about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs but getting that golden goose to lay even better eggs. The idea that finance is not part of solving the economy is naive.'

He hesitates. 'But there are other sectors we need to look to in order to rebuild the economy, such as pharma and bio-tech. And it's not just about getting finance, but going to the emerging economies and doing business with them. First, though, we have to reform finance, to make it more accessible.'

Even now, he says, the banks are not prepared to accept responsibility. 'It was interesting in the recent fallout from the Libor-fixing scandal that the leading players all went to ground. It should not just be about the politicians and regulators - the banks have to put their own houses in order.'

And while the UK has reaped the benefit of the City of London and has been happy to bask in its success, the shadow business secretary maintains there is no getting away from the fact that 'there is a "London problem" in the financial sector'. Seeing my quizzical face, he explains: 'The UBS rogue trader, he was in London. The JP Morgan losses, they were in London. If you look at nearly all the problems that have arisen, there is a London aspect to them. We're a global leader and London is a hub, so in many ways it is inevitable.'

He continues: 'However, until the Libor problem, we thought it wasn't cultural but a case of a few bad eggs. Now it's obviously deeper and wider than that.'

But he does note 'at last, people are putting their heads above the parapet', citing Stephen Hester. The RBS boss has been 'chief among the critics. He's been utterly frank about the need for the sector to put its house in order. He's spelled out that we need to address the cultural issues.'

It's a theme of his. Within minutes of the announcement that Antony Jenkins had taken over as Barclays CEO after Diamond resigned, Umunna tweeted: 'Like Stephen Hester, Antony Jenkins accepts (that) the issues in the banking sector are not isolated to a few bad eggs but are cultural.'

Resignations from one bank, Barclays, over the Libor affair, argues Umunna, won't be enough. 'People have got to see that the bankers really get it.' And he adds: 'Not just bankers, but legislators and regulators. The fact is we failed to properly regulate this sector. It's one of the reasons we lost the election.'

On the subject of finance and the lack of it finding its way into the Exchequer's coffers, he has also floated an idea that large companies be compelled to state each year precisely how much UK tax they are paying as a quid pro quo for being allowed to operate here. No doubt he has Barclays in mind, after famously winkling out of Bob Diamond last year that the bank had paid only £113m in UK corporation tax in 2009.

If Labour wins the next election and Umunna comes after the City, won't its star earners, the potential tax providers, simply clear off abroad? He shrugs. 'The City is about fair play and honesty. Its businesses worldwide are known for those qualities. But if people can't trust the integrity of the City, then regardless of how much regulation we have, they won't do business here.

'So we have to get the balance right. There's no doubt light-touch regulation helped contribute to a certain culture. It's also not just an issue of regulation but supervision. It's about risk-management. During the crash, part of the problem was that the people with responsibility for financial stability were not confined to one institution - it fell between two stools.'

This might strike some observers as a bit rich since it was Labour under Gordon Brown as chancellor that dreamt up the concept of the 'three-legged stool' for financial regulation, sharing it between the Bank of England, Treasury and Financial Services Authority.

Now, here is Umunna also speaking of stools, but claiming the system was flawed. His candour is rare in a politician who is going places - most do not want to upset the apple cart and leave themselves open to accusations of hypocrisy. The last does not stick with Umunna: he is young enough not to be personally tainted by the flaws of the past. Also young enough that his admission that he smoked marijuana in the DJ phase of his life passed almost without comment.

Apart from cracking down on the City, sufficient to restore faith in its services without weakening its profit-making and tax-raising potential, what would Labour do? How would Umunna and his colleagues, once in office, set about economic growth?

'The problem is lack of demand,' he says. 'Labour has a five-point plan for immediate growth that includes offering small employers temporary national insurance breaks for taking on more staff, and cutting VAT.'

Umunna was instrumental in drawing up the plan (the other points are investment in infrastructure, cuts in VAT on home improvements and maintenance and a bank bonus tax). 'We've got to kick-start the economy.'

Then, more drastic measures are needed. 'The government has got to reconfigure the economy in the long term. We need an industrial strategy policy. Peter Mandelson started to devise one as Business Secretary. But if we're serious about meeting the competition - and it's not just the Bric economies but the others behind them - we've got to think how we're going to address the demands of their ballooning middle classes.'

He's clearly nervous of the sensitivity surrounding such a policy - with its connotations of state interference and socialist planning. His line, he seeks to reassure me, would be different from previous blueprints. 'We wouldn't take the "champions" approach, of championing just one company as the flag-bearer for an entire industry; we would look at whole sectors and champion those. Look at automotive - it's been fairly modestly championed by government but we've had announcements of new models from Nissan in Sunderland and Jaguar Land Rover in the Midlands. The support has worked. We'd look at video gaming, bio-tech, pharma, aerospace ...

it's not an exhaustive list but it's where the growth of tomorrow could come from.' Labour, he maintains, would understand 'the importance of having an overall industrial strategy policy. Civil servants and politicians should identify the market, identify the sectors, and turbocharge those sectors.'

But what about SMEs? 'There are two big issues that they raise with us. One is finance. Good businesses constantly tell us they're struggling to get the finance they need. We need a return to the relationship model in banking so that local managers can make decisions and assess risk. We're also looking to develop a British investment bank. We're alone in the G8 in not having a state-backed investment bank. We should scale up the Green Investment Bank so it can focus on certain sectors and SMEs within those sectors. It would be similar to the KfW model in Germany.'

The second issue for the SMEs, he says, is skills. There are young people coming through who are lacking in skills. SMEs tell us "you need to give us a workforce we want". That means giving non-academic skills higher esteem. People must have the skills that businesses desire. Manufacturers have the vacancies but the people with qualifications to fill them aren't emerging.'

 

UMUNNA IN A MINUTE

1978:  Born 17 October. His father was Nigerian, mother Anglo-Irish. Grew up in Streatham, south London
2002: After the death of his father, Umunna went on to complete his education, studying English and French law at Manchester, where he helps out in the local Labour party, and then joins Herbert Smith
2006: Umunna joins Rochman Landau and begins writing leaflets for Labour on economic and social affairs
2010: Enters Parliament and shortly after is invited onto the Treasury select committee
October 2011: Made shadow business secretary

Another Labour initiative would be procurement - government, says Umunna, would be made to back and support UK companies when placing orders.

Presumably, red tape would be on Umunna's agenda. At this he shakes his head. 'As a former employment lawyer I understand the problems it causes but I am not getting into the game of promising to cut red tape. It's not the quantity we would look to reduce but the quality that we would look to improve. It needs examining so that someone asks, has it been written with small-business people in mind - who can't employ an army of lawyers to interpret it for them?'

When he has asked small businesses what concerns them the most, he says they always reply national insurance breaks rather than red tape. 'Then they say we've got to invest in the infrastructure for the long term - it's why Germany is so strong.'

Umunna is more than a mere MP, more than the shadow business secretary. He's a party strategist, someone Ed Miliband turns to for advice. At Westminster, he's part of a youthful, glamorous set that joined the Labour benches at the 2010 election: Rachel Reeves, Jonathan Reynolds, Emma Reynolds, Luciana Berger (rated most fanciable female MP by Sky News, who Umunna is widely thought to have dated). They were all seen together in Nando's one night ahead of a late vote and earned the nickname 'the Nando's Five'.

But he's not averse to consulting his elders either, taking advice from those consummate strategists and communicators Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair.

When we meet, he's delighting in Labour's strong poll showing - this, despite the Olympics success that it had been thought would aid the Tories. He's pondering how Labour can exploit the Olympics.

He smiles. In his own area, business, the Games support what he's arguing for, that we need a coherent industrial strategy. 'Such a strategy was adopted in relation to British sport and look at the medals we won. After the Beijing Games, we looked at where we finished in the medals count and asked, which are the sports we're good at where we can improve, and we backed them to the full. That's what I'd like to do for business.'

Umunna stands up. He holds out his hand. He has to go. There are more meetings and ideas to be had, more planning to do. And he's still only 33.

 

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING UMUNNA

  • To persuade business that Labour can be entrusted with the economy again

  • To present a better plan for growth than anything produced by Vince Cable and George Osborne

  • To help guide Labour to a general election victory

  • To prove he is much more than a clever politician with good communication skills

 


 

 

 

 


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