‘The best antidote to anti-politics is grown-up politics’

First published in Progress magazine

Labour needs to be at the heart of a broad campaign to stay in Europe, Chuka Umunna tells Richard Angell and Adam Harrison

Thought by many to be one of the strongest contenders for the Labour leadership election, it was a surprise when Chuka Umunna withdrew from the contest. Now out of the glare of the spotlight, we took time to catch up with Labour’s shadow secretary of state for business after arguably Labour’s worst defeat.

Reflecting on why Labour lost so badly, Umunna told us he had held a conference call soon after the election with 40 of the 80 losing parliamentary candidates in target seats and asked them what they thought were the reasons for Labour’s defeat. ‘The one big thing that everyone said was our economic competence.’ ‘One of the lessons of the last five years is that we have had individual policies that are popular but because people often questioned our economic competence, they doubted our ability to deliver on those policies.’ ‘Our values were not the problem,’ he reflects. ‘They didn’t cause the loss in Scotland or any other party of the country. It was the way we gave life to our values through our policies and our overall story about the UK. That is why we lost.’

So why is Umunna backing Liz Kendall to be the next leader of the party? ‘I think she has asked all the questions, she has made the arguments that I would have made if I was still in the contest, and she has started to map out the answers in a fearless way, a courageous way.’ He expands on what he thinks those challenges are.

‘The biggest problem we have as a party is that we are trying to promote solutions for a different time. Certainly if you look economically, the three challenges are: how do you deliver good public services in a fiscally cold climate; secondly, how do you harness all of the energy that technological change is bringing to create opportunities when that technology is destroying jobs people have done for generations; and thirdly, how do we pay our way in the world? The traditional social democratic mechanisms we have used to create a fair and more equal society – generous social security payments, tax credits, more tax and regulation – are inadequate to the task of answers to the three challenges we face as a party.’

Umunna lambasts those who say that wanting to balance the books ‘is simply Tory-lite, pro-austerity’. Instead he says we should accept that there is a ‘very strong progressive case for balancing the books’ because it is ‘outrageous that we pay more in debt interest every year than we invest in housing or transport.’ The member of parliament for Streatham believes those are the ‘kind of tough decisions and arguments we need to be having if we are to work out how we do modern social democracy in 2020 and not as it was in the 1980s or the 1990s. Unless we face up to that we are not going to come up with anything credible.’

Might one answer be to create an English Labour party? Umunna is sceptical, suggesting that there is more of a demand to ‘give life to regional identity than an English identity as a whole. That’s why I think our plans to devolve more power to our regions, the first step to doing that being through combined authorities – which allows you to create a level of devolution without creating new tiers of politicians – is exciting.’ ‘We need a more federal model, there is no doubt about that. The best antidote to anti-politics is grown-up politics and that means giving people more power.’ He adds, ‘Where areas want it, I want to see more metro mayors. We need many more big figures. More Joe Andersons, more Boris Johnsons – I would obviously rather they were Labour – but we need more regional figures, like they have in other countries.’

As for the Scottish Labour party, Umunna concedes that we need to ‘resolve the way in which the Scottish party, and the party across the country operates, because there is a different culture, both politically and generally, that we need to give life to if our colleagues there are able to make a stronger case to the Scottish people.’ He argues we should send a ‘clear message’ ‘to the best and the brightest we have in Scotland’ that ‘we need you in Holyrood’ because ‘any recovery that we build in Westminster will only be off the back of a recovery in Holyrood.’

The messengers [to stay in Europe] should be local and regional plant managers

As one of our best and brightest campaigners, what does Umunna think of how Labour should campaign in the upcoming referendum on Britain’s member of the European Union? ‘I think it is really important that, when making the argument to stay in, the Labour party is at the forefront of a broad, grassroots campaign involving a range of actors and groups in civil society. We cannot be seen, or allow ourselves to be seen, as making the argument as part of a cosy club of established political parties and big businesses.’ Second, he argues, that we cannot ‘allow Ukip and the Eurosceptic right of the Tory party to frame the debate as one solely about immigration.’

It is no surprise the shadow business secretary believes that the argument should be made on the basis of a threat to people’s jobs, but he suggests that the messengers should be local and regional plant managers. ‘If the person who gives you your payslip, gives you your rota of hours for the week, is also the person who tells you, “Look, if we leave the European Union the very future of this plant may be put into jeopardy”, I cannot think of a stronger antidote to what people will get from canvassers appearing on their doorstep arguing for us to leave the European Union’.

He is adamant that business ‘cannot be shy in stepping forward to take its part in that debate’ and believes that part of the problem in the Scottish referendum was that ‘the business voice only really came alive towards the latter stages of that campaign.’ Umunna finds it encouraging that Airbus, which employs 16,000 people in this country, has already clearly said that if the UK leaves the European Union it will put its future investment in this country at  risk.

There has got to be more than an economic argument, however. ‘Far too often, we have taken the “peace” part of “peace and prosperity” that comes with the European Union, for granted’, says Umunna. ‘But I think that at a time when there is growing jihadism in Africa, the rise of IS in the Middle East, we have uncertainty and worry about the intentions of President Putin vis-à-vis Ukraine … that illustrates that we [do so].’

Labour must also put the case for reform of the EU. Umunna thinks changes to the free movement of people is one of the areas which is the most controversial but where there could be some agreement: ‘Rachel [Reeves], our shadow welfare secretary of state, has spoken to a number of our counterparts across Europe, and having people pay in for two years before they take out, is something we can get agreement on.’ He also suggests that Europe ought to have impact assessments for its regulations and legislation to work out whether ‘the cost consequences are worth the benefit’ to business.

Finally, Umunna is passionate that we should project an image of self-confidence as a nation and present the idea that the EU is ‘a vehicle to create more security, more prosperity for our people.’ ‘I don’t subscribe to this idea that we get run over by our European partners every time we want to do something at a European level.’ He points out that it was rare under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that the British government was unable to ‘marshal a majority in the EU behind the UK position. We should be really proud of that. I don’t buy into this sulky obstructionism because these people are “doing us in”. What does that say about how we see ourselves as a people? We should have more pride in ourselves.’ ‘We can be in the driving seat if we have the confidence to take our place at the top table. We have got to knit together the argument in a more passionate and emotional way.’ Umunna sounds like just the person to do that.

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