Listen to this article
It was at the Labour conference in October 2012 that it first really hit home. Chuka Umunna, the 6ft-tall, immaculately tailored former lawyer, strode through the detritus of political pamphlets and sleep-deprived party activists on his way to give his first speech from the platform. A small entourage followed, expectation buzzed around him.
He spoke in deliberate tones of his African father arriving in Britain with nothing, his white mother benefiting from equal pay laws, growing up in a fairer society shaped by a centre-left government. It was not exactly Obama at the Democratic convention in 2004 – Umunna’s friends say he kept his speech low-key to avoid stoking the hype – but the comparisons were inevitable.
So inevitable, indeed, that a Wikipedia entry apparently originating from the wannabe MP’s campaign team – but not written by him, he insists – helpfully drew attention to the “British Obama” way back in 2007, in case anyone might have missed them.
When news of this Wiki-doctoring emerged this year, David Cameron taunted Umunna, the MP for Streatham, in the House of Commons: “Can we change our Wikipedia entry? Yes we can.” Umunna, 34, claims to hate the parallels – the construct of “lazy journalists”, he once said – and glowered at Cameron, disgust written across his face. He would not have seen it, but some of those laughing loudest were behind him on the Labour benches.
Chuka Umunna sharply divides opinion. Good-looking, articulate, new-media-savvy, a formidable TV performer and strangely unpolitical – “I’m not a pugilist” – one can see why Conservative HQ (whom he suspects of digging up the Wiki-scandal) has its guns trained on the shadow business secretary.
Yet he is not universally popular among his own colleagues, who see more style than substance. “He just has a knack of alienating people,” said one experienced Labour MP. “He is probably the most natural communicator I’ve seen since Tony Blair. The problem is that each week he has fewer supporters than he did at the start of the week.”
Even potential allies recount stories of apparent slights or snubs. A senior party figure says: “Chuka has put people’s backs up. They feel he is inaccessible.” Another long-serving MP adds: “The idea of learning the trade first is only for mere mortals, not for him.” Peter Mandelson, the former Labour business secretary who played a key role in Tony Blair’s rise through to the top, thinks the explanation for this is quite simple: “Envy plays a big part in politics,” he says.
Like Blair, Umunna sometimes connects better with those beyond his own circle. John Cridland, head of the CBI employers’ group, calls him “a guy with whom we can do business”; Andrew Tyrie, Tory chair of the Commons Treasury committee, says: “he’s extremely talented and charming”. Andrew Adonis, a former Labour minister, sums up his cross-party appeal: “The best politicians are those who look outwards not inwards.”
Cameron’s allies scoff at the idea that Umunna might represent a threat. “I can’t think of any issue where he’s put us under pressure,” says one close friend of the prime minister. “He’s pretty average – he’s a slick corporate lawyer.”
But some see him as the potential leader of a mainstream 21st-century Labour party with the kind of crossover appeal of Blair’s New Labour. Despite initial reservations that Umunna might be a bit too leftwing, Blair has started seeing him regularly. “Chuka strikes Tony as very smart,” says one close ally of the former prime minister. “Business is a particularly important brief in tough economic times and Chuka seems to be rising to the challenge.”
As if Blair’s blessing was not enough, Umunna recalls the “honour” of spending “a small bit of private time last year” with that other Third Way titan, Bill Clinton – one of his political heroes. “I think he defies the left-right description,” Mandelson says in approbation. “He’s part of a generation that transcends those labels.”
Umunna’s lack of political definition is another source of irritation to his Labour colleagues, who struggle to work out what he really believes in. But Umunna says people should show a bit more patience. “It would be rather unhealthy if after just three years in parliament I was setting out some blueprint for my country,” he says. “What do people expect?”
Quite a lot. Almost 15 per cent of people in Britain describe themselves as “non-white” but the country has never had a party leader from an ethnic minority background. Nobody has ever come close. Umunna confesses that until his late teens he had not even thought about a career in politics because there was “nobody who looked like me” running the country.
Umunna’s life story is perhaps a better guide to his future political direction than any of the many technical – some say boring – speeches he has delivered since becoming an MP in 2010. It is the story of a rise from the streets of south London – scene of some of Britain’s worse race riots in the 1980s – to parliament. But it is not the story that some might expect.
Chuka (his name rhymes with “cooker” and means “God is the greatest”) was born in 1978 in London, the son of Bennett, a Nigerian immigrant from the Igbo tribe, who arrived at Liverpool docks in the 1960s carrying a suitcase on his head and no money.
Bennett began an import-export business trading with Nigeria and was starting to make a decent living when he met Patricia Milmo, a solicitor, at a London party. She happened to be the daughter of Sir Helenus Milmo, High Court judge and a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Nazi trials.
Did their marriage raise eyebrows at the time? “It was very unusual, no doubt about that,” Umunna says, as we chat on the Tube on the way to Vitsœ, a niche furniture company in north London that epitomises his ideal of “responsible capitalism”: employee ownership, design-led, export-driven, green.
“I mean my background is pretty unusual, to be frank.” Bennett and Patricia had two children – Chuka has a younger sister – and put down roots in the Streatham constituency that he now represents.
Indeed, Umunna’s upbringing is hardly typical of young black men in Brixton. He went to the fee-paying St Dunstan’s College (where the then deputy head was the political historian Anthony Seldon), played the cello and became a chorister at Southwark Cathedral – his voice can be heard on the theme tune of Mr Bean.
“A lot of people presume – because of my ethnicity – that I come from a particular social background,” he says in a precise and softly spoken manner which bears only a trace of a south London accent. “I’m very quick to disabuse people of any sense that I’ve wanted and struggled in the way that, say, my father did. I come from a fairly middle-class background. People try and pigeonhole you in a box and I find that frustrating sometimes.”
In 1992, when Umunna was still in his early teens, his father died in Nigeria after his car ploughed into a lorry carrying logs. Bennett had been splitting his time between London and Nigeria – where he unsuccessfully stood for the governorship of Anambra state – and had taken a stand against bribery.
Ron Noades, former chairman of Crystal Palace football club and a family friend, has claimed that Ben Umunna’s death was not an accident. “My view is that somebody saw him as a threat and my suspicion was that he was assassinated,” he said last year.
Umunna has never commented on his father’s death, but says: “It was incredibly painful. Obviously, it had a huge effect on my life.” The trauma, he adds, meant that he “leapfrogged” part of his youth and Seldon remembers a student who was mature beyond his years.
“It was like talking to a young member of staff,” Seldon says. “He was very diligent, very quiet, introverted and very studious. He was liked very much, he was widely respected but he was never part of the cool crowd. He has an inner steely quality about him.”
It was around that time that Umunna and other students were taken by Seldon to a political seminar attended by Norman Lamont, the former Conservative chancellor.
“I got up and I was really angry,” Umunna recalls. “I got up and went to the mic and said: ‘How on earth can you come here and tell us we all need to be supporting your party at the next election when we know you’re chaining women in prisons who are giving birth?’ Anyway, afterwards Anthony said to me that was quite cheap but rather effective. That was the first time I thought that maybe I could do something like this.”
Umunna says his Labour sympathies were shaped by seeing extreme poverty while visiting his father’s relatives in Nigeria and the social divide in his own Streatham backyard. He says that he is “not super-religious” but that his soft-left values are “rooted in my Christianity”.
Upon arriving at Manchester to study law (he also spent time at university in Dijon, France) he joined the Labour club but he was also carving out time to pursue his principal interest: music. Although he says he was never a “geek” at school, by the time he arrived in Manchester he seems to have undergone something of a transformation.
“He was very popular and I definitely remember him being cooler than me,” says Jonny Reynolds, a fellow student and now a Labour MP. “He was into speed garage.”
Umunna had acquired some “old school” decks and was carving out a second career as a club DJ. “I played soulful house and garage,” he says. “It’s very much part of the area of London that I come from – it’s very multicultural in a way. I love my music.” He says his style is definitely “Notting Hill carnival, not Glastonbury”.
Upon leaving university he took up work as a corporate employment lawyer with Herbert Smith in the City of London, developing a reputation for hard work and mixing with the kind of clients that Miliband has described as “predators”. “He was always very focused on his legal career and wanted to make a success of that,” says Reynolds. “If the Streatham seat had not come up, he might have waited a bit longer.” Umunna says he intended to remain a lawyer into his forties – at least.
By now Umunna was in possession of good looks, good suits (Alexandra Wood, Savile Row) decks, cash and a lifestyle that took in clubs in London, Ibiza (where his mother owns a pad called Casa Blanca) and Miami. It was a lifestyle that later provided rich pickings for those looking for dirt to throw at the shiny rising star of the Labour party after his election as Streatham MP in 2010.
His membership of ASmallWorld – dubbed a “MySpace for millionaires” – was particularly fertile ground, as the twenty-something Umunna went in search of London clubs with “a cool international crowd” that were not full of “trash and C-list wannabes” – a phrase which has lodged with many of his Labour critics. He also turned to the website for advice on “what’s hot right now” in Miami, checking out bars boasting of their exclusivity and availability of Veuve Clicquot.
Umunna says: “Of course it was a stupid thing to say. I wasn’t even a candidate at that point but I’m really sorry and regret what I said. I’ve never pretended to be a saint and to have never said stupid things in the past.”
He shrugs off the affair – and the “British Obama” Wikipedia entry – as “just politics”. He adds: “I think the electorate are quite cute – they know what’s going on.”
But it all chimed with an impression held in some quarters of a man rather too pleased with himself. His online posting even spawned a spoof Twitter feed, under his middle name Harrison (the name he used on his ASmallWorld account) including the tweet: “Tonight I’m dining at a chophouse you have to hire a detective agency to find. Will Smith hooked me up. The menu is in Braille #jetrosexual.”
A sympathetic shadow cabinet colleague says: “Sometimes he needs to tone down the self-confidence a bit.”
Umunna won Streatham on the night Gordon Brown’s Labour government was swept from power. He immediately threw his support behind Ed Miliband in the leadership election that followed, rather than Miliband’s more rightwing brother David – the initial favourite in the contest. Umunna was part of the leftist Compass pressure group before the 2010 election and was critical of Blair, so the choice seemed natural: “I chose Ed partly to draw a distinction from the past,” he says.
This loyalty to the new leader has been fully rewarded. After a spell on the Treasury select committee he became a parliamentary aide to Miliband and was promoted to shadow business secretary in October 2011, less than 18 months after entering parliament. To add to the buzz, Umunna started dating Luciana Berger, another glamorous Labour rising star, although they subsequently split. Today Umunna refuses to say whether he has a regular partner, smiling: “I am a very happy man.”
He sees himself as part of Miliband’s Praetorian guard, deployable at short notice to TV and radio studios to defend the leader and to hose down crises – most recently the links between Labour and the unions – in his mellifluous and lawyerly way.
What should business expect if he becomes business secretary after the 2015 election? John Cridland says: “I think the business community is quite impressed by Chuka Umunna. We like his style and his willingness to engage. There is a sense that this is a man of some significance.”
Umunna looks the part and his experience as a City lawyer means he can speak the language of business. He also says his father imbued him with a respect for entrepreneurs and he has made a special effort to woo small companies like Vitsœ in Camden instead of the FTSE 100 titans who spectacularly shifted their allegiance away from Labour once it looked like losing the last election.
“It’s important to get their support but it’s not the be-all and end-all,” Umunna says. “We’re not going to measure our success by how many people I can get around for a kitchen supper with Ed Miliband, or how many of those I can get to sign a letter to The Times supporting us.”
Cridland says business is reserving its judgment until it sees whether Umunna’s reassuring stance – for example, he shies away from Miliband’s distinction between “predators and producers” – will translate into pro-business policies at the general election.
Umunna describes himself as a “European social democrat” – one of the least pulse-racing epithets in world politics – with a belief in an active state promoting an industrial policy, boosting skills and education and improving infrastructure. Indeed, many of his policies are part of a social democratic continuum stretching from Mandelson’s tenure as business secretary through those currently pursued (he says halfheartedly) by Liberal Democrat minister Vince Cable.
“He does not come across as political,” says Cridland of Umunna – one of the highest accolades a business leader can pay a politician. But he says the test will come when the shadow minister helps Miliband flesh out his concept of “responsible capitalism”. “It’s not so much what’s been said but what hasn’t been said,” Cridland says.
Where does Umunna stand on some litmus-test issues for business: getting rich, for example? “We can’t be afraid to say we want to help people make their first million,” he says. He says he is not wedded to a 50p top rate of tax for high earners (introduced by Labour) but opposed the “timing” of its reduction to 45p by George Osborne, the Tory chancellor. On privatisation he says he is neither dogmatically in favour nor against. On a mansion tax, he thinks business will understand an argument for shifting taxes from earned income to wealth.
Umunna also welcomes Labour’s recent emphasis on fiscal discipline, saying social democrats believe in sound public finances and he does not want a Miliband government to come in without fronting up voters with the truth of painful times to come. He may hail from the left, but little wonder New Labour’s architects think he is moving in their direction.
Such is his schedule of business meetings, media appearances and speeches that he confesses he should “spend more time with the parliamentary party”. He knows the risk of becoming a new David Miliband, respected outside Westminster but a remote stranger to many of the MPs when it comes to choosing a new leader.
Asked about the practice of Rachel Reeves – another Labour rising star and seen by some as a future leadership rival to Umunna – of sending notes of congratulations to new party candidates, he seems struck by the idea: “Maybe I should do it myself.” A few days later he sends out a tweet: “Big congrats to our excellent PPCs [prospective parliamentary candidates] selected this weekend.”
Umunna is at a pivotal point in his political life. Nothing he has said or done since arriving at Westminster comes close to matching his intriguing personal story. But those who know him believe he remains the eager student at St Dunstan’s, the young lawyer, listening, absorbing advice, learning, ready for the next stage.
Mandelson says: “When he started as shadow business secretary, he sounded like a bit of a know-all. I have seen him grow, understanding the department, showing good judgment.”
His recent adoption by Mandelson, Blair and even Clinton suggests they see a fellow moderate and a potential leader of the left in a less ideological age. “He’s on a trajectory which could take him far,” says Mandelson.
Umunna laughs when asked if he wants to be prime minister? “Oh for God’s sake,” he says. “I just want to be business secretary.” But few believe that is where his ambitions ultimately lie. Umunna gives the sense of a politician aware of his potential but still trying to work out exactly how he is going to fulfil it. His detractors may not believe it, but those who know Umunna believe him when he says: “I am very self-critical.” He pauses and adds with a defiant intensity: “I’m still evolving.”
George Parker is the FT’s political editor.
To comment on this article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Who else could lead Labour?
By Jim Pickard. Odds by Ladbrokes
Yvette Cooper 5:2
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls would seem a natural choice to succeed Miliband as an imposing figure and unrivalled intellectual force within Labour. But Balls is divisive – compared with both Milibands, he won relatively few votes from MPs in the 2010 race. As such, many “Brownites” are likely to rally around shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, aka Mrs Balls. Underwhelming as a minister – she introduced the disastrous “home information packs” – she has since proved a resilient player. Yet she may not represent the clean break that the party would want in the event of a Miliband defeat.
Jim Murphy 8:1
Murphy, the shadow defence secretary, is one of the last remaining Blairites in the shadow cabinet. He has an impressive back story, having been raised in a small flat in a tough working-class area of Glasgow; he moved to South Africa aged 12 when his father lost his job. He has spent most of his life as a career politician. But is Labour ready for another Scottish leader so soon after Gordon Brown?
Rachel Reeves 16:1
Reeves, who is currently on maternity leave, is not the bookmakers’ favourite at odds of 16:1 but is a canny choice for the next Labour leader. Not only does the 34-year-old possess formidable credentials as a former Bank of England economist; she now acts as Balls’ number two. With her down-to-earth manner – she has a heavy south London accent – she is popular with fellow Labour MPs and has quietly built up a solid following among backbenchers.
Stella Creasy 20:1
Another “new generation” Labour politician, the MP for Walthamstow has gained a big public following for her single-minded pursuit of payday lenders. “St Ella”, as some wags have dubbed her, has demonstrated a steely will in her assault on companies such as Wonga. She may lack the base within the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) to succeed, however.
Dan Jarvis 20:1
The shadow arts minister is an outside bet for the Labour leadership, having only entered parliament in 2010 after a career as an officer in the Paras. This background gives him powerful credentials, however, in a world dominated by former special advisers. The widower – his wife died of cancer in 2010 – has impressed officials and MPs with his calm, understated manner.