Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"I Didn't Go into Politics to Tax People": Chuka Umunna Has Two Difficult Jobs-Selling Labour's Message to Business Leaders and Protecting British Workers in the Age of Globalization

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

"I Didn't Go into Politics to Tax People": Chuka Umunna Has Two Difficult Jobs-Selling Labour's Message to Business Leaders and Protecting British Workers in the Age of Globalization

Article excerpt

To the perennial complaint that Britain "doesn't make anything any more" there are few better ripostes than the Brompton Bicycle company. As workers assemble the trademark fold-up bikes at the firm's factory in Brentford, west London, a screen shows them comfortably exceeding their hourly target rate. It is here that Chuka Umunna is spending the afternoon as part of his Future Jobs tour of the country.

Brompton, the shadow business secretary tells me, illustrates the kind of economy he wants to build: high-skill, high-wage (the average salary is 35,000 [pounds sterling]) and high-export (80 per cent of its bikes are sold overseas). Rather than merely narrating the UK's failures, Umunna wants Labour to celebrate its successes. He wants his party to appear more optimistic. He wants it, as he says repeatedly, to "own the future".

"They won't let me get on the bike!" Umunna complains about his accompanying aides. The risk of a deluge of "On yer bike" headlines is deemed too great for him to hop aboard. "Welcome to my world," he remarks to one employee.

Forget the bike, though: Chuka Harrison Umunna has travelled in the political fast lane. After his 2010 election as the MP for Streatham, the area in south London where he grew up, the 36-year-old became shadow business secretary just 17 months later. Telegenic, articulate and immaculately dressed (he polls extremely well with focus groups), the former lawyer is one of Labour's election galacticos. Should his party win, he will be a senior member of the new cabinet. Should it lose, he will almost certainly run for the Labour leadership, and so could eventually become Britain's first black prime minister.

Two weeks after our visitto Brompton, we meet in Boyce da Roca, a boutique cafe opposite his constituency office on Streatham High Road. Umunna is in high spirits after the 2-1 defeat of Manchester City by his local team, Crystal Palace, and a morning listening to James Brown. He orders a latte, tells me excitedly that he has "lots to say" and proceeds to offer a tour d'horizon of the challenges facing social democrats.

"One of the things that I've been struck by in relation to the campaign--not our campaign, I just mean the general election discussion--is that in some senses it's been very domestic indeed, when so much of what is impacting on people domestically is driven by global and international forces. If you look at the last three or four months, what has been the one thing that has had the single biggest tangible impact on people's lives? It's probably been the fall in the oil price to around $59 a barrel. And so part of our challenge as progressives is how, in the context of globalisation and all these global forces, do we actually build a fairer and more equal and sustainable society?"

Rather than an assault on the right, Umunna's opening criticism is directed at his own side. "I think part of the problem of the left is that there are a lot of people, and I say the Greens in particular, who simply seek to set their face against the world as it is. Actually, the real challenge for responsible parties that are looking to govern is: 'How do you embrace these forces and make them work for the most people possible?' "

Unlike some of his Labour colleagues, who speak reluctantly of the need for deficit reduction, Umunna makes a passionate case for fiscal responsibility, deploying arguments more usually associated with the Conservatives. "Frankly, I don't think that there is anything progressive in spending more on your debt interest repayments every year than you do on housing, than you do on transport ... That is where there is an argument from a progressive position to be made for balancing the books."

But there is, he continues, a crucial difference between Labour and the Conservatives. "The Tories want to balance the books, and go beyond that, because they want to hack off chunks of what the public sector does to support people and communities and those are two very distinct positions. …

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