Despite his protestations, Chuka Umunna, Labour Member of Parliament can’t hold back speculation that he may become the’ British Obama’.
The former lawyer, who was born and raised in Streatham, has climbed the ranks of the Labour party with record speed.
In just 18 months, he became parliamentary private secretary to the Labour party leader, Ed Miliband, and then moved on to become shadow minister for small business and enterprise. Five months later in October 2011, when John Denham retired from politics, Umunna was promoted to shadow business secretary.
At 33 years old he is one of the youngest MPs in parliament and the shadow cabinet. When he was elected as MP for Streatham at the election in 2010, he was named by commentators as one of Labour’s “rising stars.”
But it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when Umunna’s political stardom began. Some highlight his performance on Question Time in October 2007, when he challenged the Sun’s editor, Kelvin McKenzie, over remarks he made about Gordon Brown.
Others highlight his performance at the Treasury Select Committee meeting last year, when he quizzed Barclays boss, Bob Diamond, on the bank’s alleged tax avoidance schemes. It was revealed that Barclays used over 300 subsidiary companies in offshore jurisdictions and had paid just £113m in corporation tax in 2009, despite making £11.6bn in profit.
On the other hand, Independent journalist, Steve Richards, attributes Umunna’s success to his political background and his decision to back Ed Miliband in Labour’s leadership contest. He highlights the politicians’ similar ideological outlooks and the connections made when both were involved with the centre-left think tank, Compass.
It has been five years now since the Labour MP has been dogged with comparisons to Barack Obama. In 2007 Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote, was first to make the link.
Then in 2009, when Umunna was just 30 years old, the New Statesman published his profile as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Streatham with the headline “ A Barack Obama for the UK”.
Indeed there is broad consensus on the many characteristics that the two men share. Most obvious is that both are mixed race of half African descent, both are lawyers and both suffered the tragedy of losing their fathers due to car accidents at an early age. It is also vastly overstated that like Barack Obama, Mr Umunna is handsome too.
And perhaps most perceptive of all, is the observation that the politicians’ names even share the same syllable count.
However in a number of interviews, Umunna has expressed dismay with such comparisons, which he has described as “dangerous “. His stated wish is not to be “viewed through the prism of someone else’s personality.”
The Streatham MP is marked for being an unusually popular politician. This is due in part to his polished public image. Umunna is noted for his custom tailored suits and has been variously described by commentators as ‘smooth’, ‘marketable’, ‘refreshing’ and a ‘cool cat’.
As a result Umunna has wide telegenic appeal and has become a seasoned media performer. Cynics highlight however, that such attributes could mean that he has more chance of becoming prime minister than the current Labour party leader, Ed Miliband.
Nelson Abbey, journalist at the Evening Standard wrote: “If I was Chuka, when Ed Miliband – who doesn’t seem to excite the Labour faithful, the media or the electorate – was elected to lead his party, I would have gone into a bathroom, looked in the mirror and passionately kissed myself. Ed’s election and the defeat of his brother, David Miliband, probably enhanced Chuka’s prospects more than it did his own.”
Despite his comfortable upbringing in the leafy suburbs of Streatham, Umunna can straddle the social divide and identify with urban culture. At one point in his life he wanted to be a DJ and ran a regular club night in Brixton.
The MP is also chair of the London gangs’ forum and has supported a number of charities for youth.
But while Umunna identifies himself as a ‘European Social Democrat’, question marks still hang over his politics. Is the Streatham politician, voted two years in succession as parliament’s most fanciable MP, more style than substance or the reverse?
In an interview with the Guardian early last year, Umunna said that his drive to become involved in politics was rooted in his belief in social justice and a desire to change people’s lives. He emphasised that he did not want to be perceived as just another ‘career politician’.
And to this end one could look back to his activities at Compass. At the beginning of his career, he gained a following on the Labour left. He was highly critical of the New Labour agenda and called for the party to stand up for its core beliefs of fairness and redistribution.
Today however Umunna is rumoured to have admitted to friends that since his election in 2010, his politics have shifted to the right or become more “centrist”.
Labour’s “glittering star”, as he was pronounced by the Economist, has been increasingly associated with the former business secretary, Peter Mandelson, who is otherwise known around Westminster as the “Dark Lord”.
Umunna’s stated “totally relaxed” attitude towards the high earnings of entrepreneurs who set up business and create wealth and jobs for the country, is said to echo Mandelson’s statement that he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” if they paid their taxes. Umunna has expressed deep respect and eagerness to learn from the former business secretary and the pair are said to be in regular contact.
Furthermore and perhaps even more striking is the fact that the Labour MP has expressed new admiration for the former prime minister, Tony Blair, after having recently read his book.
Blair is said to have had significant input into Umunna’s tutelage. In the May issue of Total Politics it was noted that the MP displayed “Tony-esque flourishes”. Meanwhile the Independent’s Tim Walker observed:
“Umunna shares a number of Blair’s mannerisms: he’ll often preface his sentences with “look”, or “Y’know”or “What I would say is…”.
Walker added that he “deploys his charming laugh at all the right moments.”
Indeed in stark contrast to his disillusionment with New Labour in 2009, in 2011 in an interview with the Independent, Umunna said that he believed that 85 per cent of what Tony Blair did was right – although he did not support the invasion of Iraq and his neo-liberal agenda.
He went as far to add that had it not been for Blair’s 1997 reforms, he would probably not have joined the party.
Perhaps most unexpected of all was his recent announcement that he has turned to former Tory business secretary, Michael Heseltine, for inspiration. Umunna explained: “ I just like his approach and mind-set when it comes to looking at how government can work with business.”
The MP has also found friends on the Conservative benches. Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, described Umunna as “charming”, “effective” and “the genuine article” and has predicted that he has every chance of enjoying “a long spell at the top of British politics.” Some Tory bloggers have gone as far to suggest that Umunna should defect.
The MP of Anglo-Irish Nigerian descent proudly describes himself as a Londoner. His professed love for UK garage music is due is to its fusion of English, Jamaican and Latin cultures which makes it “very essentially London”.
But despite having established TMP – a political website targeted at multicultural progressives, he rarely speaks out publically on issues regarding race. His recent statement that the verdict of the John Terry racism trial had sent out the wrong message was unusual.
And unlike activists on the ground who believed that the August 2011 riots were in part symptomatic of declining race in equality in the UK, Umunna refutes all suggestions that the riots had a racial dimension. Instead he says “the elephant in the room is social mobility.”
By; Chizom Ekeh