30 Sep 2012

Chuka Umunna: ‘I’m fed up with being in the shadows’

In an exclusive interview with Channel 4 News, Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna says he is “hungry” for government and discusses his “greatest achievement” – coping with his father’s death.

Chuka Umunna confirmed suspicions of his political ambition, telling Political Editor Gary Gibbon: “I’m just impatient. I cannot tell you how hungry I am for us to win the next general election. I’m fed up with being in the shadows. We do not want to be in the shadows”.

However, he said he was “deeply uncomfortable” with speculation that he wanted the Labour leader’s job, saying: “Ed is a lovely guy, very approachable and compared to some other people you come across in politics, is ego free. I backed him early because I was convinced he would lead change.”

In a wide-ranging and frank interview at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, the shadow business secretary discussed his Nigerian-Irish background, his impression of working in the City of London, and revealed how his father’s death impacted his outlook on life.

Mr Umunna admitted he was not enamoured with student politics while studying at Manchester, but was drawn to politics as the way to make the biggest change for the public. Discussing the Labour party, he said: “Tessa Jowell is my political mum. Even my mum says she’s my political mum.”

“British Obama”

Mr Umunna was appointed shadow business secretary after 18 months as an MP and, at just 33, he is seen as one of the rising stars of the Labour Party. He has been called the “British Obama” and the “Black Blair”, but told Channel 4 News: “I think the way I look won’t make any difference to the people I represent or who this party aspires to govern for in the future.”

Gary Gibbon in conversation with Chuka Umunna

Discussing his background and how it influences his politics, Mr Umunna said many expected that his entrepreneurial Nigerian father would be “naturally inclined to the Conservative party”, but he “worshipped Harold Wilson and worshipped the Labour party”. He explained his reluctance to talk about his father’s death in a road accident, saying “talking about him is not going to bring him back”, but he did add, “I think he would be bowled over by what his son does now” and said that helping his family through the loss was his “greatest achievement”.

In the lead up to the Labour Party conference, the party leader Ed Miliband has been reiterating his ideas around responsible capitalism – concepts that Mr Umunna repeated while speaking to Channel 4 News. He said that there needed to be a “structural refiguring” of the whole economy, and said that the mistake Labour made in the 1990s was embracing business as a whole in its current form, adding: “We weren’t discerning enough”.

“Heartless and hopeless”

Mr Umunna said that the “heartless and hopeless” coalition government had drawn the wrong lessons from New Labour’s 1997 election win. “They saw that as a superficial exercise about us rebranding, when actually, what Tony, Gordon and everyone else did in the lead up to 1997, was some heavy, intellectual lifting about who we are, what we believe in, and how we applied that in terms of policy in 1997.

“They didn’t do the same. So very quickly it has fallen apart. Aside from deficit reduction, there is nothing to anchor them,” he added.

On a more personal note, the shadow business secretary revealed that he was a chorister at Southwark Cathedral – “I sang the Mr Bean theme tune” – and he said that Christianity has helped shape his politics. But he added that his “faith was shaken” by his father’s death, and he added: “For a while, I was quite agnostic.”

Expensive suits

Addressing controversy in today’s Mail on Sunday about his allegedly expensive Savile Row suits, Mr Umunna said: “My organiser’s sister started up a small business making suits. She used to work at one of the major tailors in London. And so I wanted to help her, I bought my suits from her when she first started out three or four years ago, and I still get them from her now. It was less than £500. Considerably.”

Asked about rumours of a huge entourage, he contradicted the critics, saying that the shadow cabinet did not have enough support: “I don’t have enough people …I am ashamed of what we pay people who work for us.”