Chuka Umunna – Labour’s secret weapon?
‘Future Prime Minister’ may be a label that is too premature to be thrust upon the recently appointed Shadow Business Secretary, but at the age of only thirty-two Chuka Umunna has plenty of time to make a lasting impact upon Ed Miliband’s new-look Labour Party. Elected as MP for Streatham less than a year and a half ago, Umunna‘s has been a name present in the political world since around 2006, when he was a Labour Party commentator writing for publications such as the Financial Times and the New Statesman. His name has become synonymous with Ed Miliband’s Labour even more so in the last week as he became one of the ‘bright young things’ elevated into the higher echelons of the party, along with figures such as Rachel Reeves and Liz Kendall. His challenge now is to make his presence felt by those outside of the left-wing, as he endeavours to shape a practical business policy to challenge the coalition government.
Perhaps inevitably for a young, black and charismatic politician, he has been branded in some circles as the ‘British Barack Obama’, a comparison that can be considered both flattering and misguided in equal measure. While some similarities are inescapable, such as their community activism and law backgrounds, Umunna is eager to be regarded as his own man. In interacting with the media, he has consistently appeared calm and captivating, responding to the Obama comparisons in a modest and respectful manner. His move to a junior-ministerial role from Ed Miliband’s staff in May suggested a wish to become more directly involved in policy, but also to escape the limelight that has been perennially cast on him since his election. While remaining an inspirational and compelling figure, he has grown into a genuine parliamentary asset, the acknowledgment of which has ultimately culminated in his recent promotion to the shadow cabinet.
Making up part of a talented new intake, Umunna is somewhat aided in his ambitions by a close working relationship with Ed Miliband. As one of the 73 MPs to nominate him for leadership of the Labour party, and also his former parliamentary private secretary, Umunna’s meteoric rise can be, in part, attributed to his association with Miliband. However, from serving on the Treasury Select Committee and grilling some of Britain’s most high-profile bankers over their respective roles in the financial crisis, to being appointed Shadow Minister for Small Business and Skills, he has proven that these promotions have been based purely on merit. These roles have come with great expectations, but Umunna has silenced any hint of criticism over his age or lack of experience by proving that he is a skilled operator in almost any capacity. His friendship with Miliband may be advantageous, but the main reason for Umunna’s rapid progression within the party is his flair and dynamism, something common to all of the MPs who have benefited from the recent reshuffle of the shadow cabinet.
Although the short-lived notion of ‘Blue Labour’ appears to have vanished along with Lord Glasman’s credibility, there is suggestion that its core aspects still have a fundamental influence on the leadership and direction of the Labour party. Umunna has been a high-profile advocate of ‘Blue Labour’ in the past, claiming that it “provides the seeds of national renewal”. As a political commentator and executive at the ‘Compass’ think tank, Umunna has extensive experience analysing similar trends, and his alignment with this tendency is an interesting move. While many have vocally distanced themselves from ‘Blue Labour’ in recent months, Umunna has been less quick to jump ship, clearly believing that the movement still holds political merit. If he is able to establish a wide support base for himself over the coming months, he will put himself in a good position to emphasise the underlying principles of ‘Blue Labour’, and perhaps begin to shape policy more broadly within the party.
Umunna’s recent promotion to Shadow Business Secretary puts him at the forefront of British politics. As Vince Cable’s opposite number, he has the opportunity to ask difficult questions of the Coalition Government on issues that will ultimately prove key to the next election. Replacing the veteran John Denham has its own set of challenges, but Umunna must not be fazed, given the significance of the role he has to play. There is no question that he possesses the charisma and intellect necessary to succeed at this level, and his fellow MPs can only hope that he thrives in a high-pressure environment. Typifying the youthful new appearance of Labour, supporters will hope that Umunna’s personal rise accompanies that of the party as a whole. If this is the case Umunna could well become a key player, as Labour moves into a new generation that views success at the ballot box as a genuine prospect next time around.