AFRICANGLOBE – His colleagues may have scattered to foreign beaches, but Chuka Umunna is at his desk. We meet in the former shadow cabinet room, where the Labour business spokesman points out the lowly back row chair he was first allocated when he joined Ed Miliband’s top team. “It was the best seat in the house,” he says. “From there you could study everyone’s body language.”
Although the man tipped to be Britain’s first Black prime minister long ago graduated to a prime place around the table, he retains some humble tastes. Not long ago, for example, he was spotted dining in a mid-market chicken restaurant with fellow Labour frontbenchers.
“Someone tweeted that we were the Nando’s Five. My constituents liked that.” Is the shadow business secretary aware, we wonder, that the company’s tax affairs are under scrutiny. “I did not know that,” he says. “Perhaps we should become the KFC Five instead?”
Mr Umunna’s fondness for fast food may be exceeded only by his appetite for reforming the way that Britain conducts its business.
Monday marks the publication of a book, edited by him, called Owning The Future. Though he has gathered an impressive collection of business figures to contribute to this study of how globalisation and technology can go hand in hand with fairness, questions remain about how business friendly Labour is. While he admits that initially “some minority in the business community reacted negatively” to Mr Miliband’s early attack on predatory capitalism, they later “started to call out excessive rewards”.
But Mr Umunna, channelling Lord Mandelson, has declared himself “relaxed” about people earning a lot of money, as long as they pay their taxes. “You cannot claim to be pro-jobs unless you are pro the people who create them, and that means you must be comfortable with wealth and profit.
“I have no problem with people making large sums of money [if they] provide a lot of secure jobs, and the overwhelming majority of [British] business people do that.”
Mr Umunna is, he assures us, “not a tribal politician”. As well as taking advice from Mandelson, he is a fervent admirer of the Tory grandee, Lord Heseltine. “Michael inspires praise from all parts of the spectrum,” he says. A pioneer in arguing that money and power be devolved to the regions, Heseltine called for a £50 billion transfer, as opposed to the Miliband promise of £4 billion, or twice the current spend. Is Mr Umunna disappointed? “Not at all. It’s a hell of a lot further towards the target than the Government has been.”
An opponent of top-heavy government, Mr Umunna, 35, has recently been to Europe to meet his friend, the “brilliant” French prime minister, Manuel Valls. “They [the French] have something like 40 ministers to our 80.” So is he in favour of scrapping whole government ministries, such as communities and the regions? “Abolishing departments is above my pay grade. That is an issue for Prime Minister Miliband. We should look at the configuration of central government. Of course, I have views.” Though he declines to be more specific, it seems clear that the shadow business secretary would prefer a leaner, cheaper Whitehall remodelled on European lines. On the EU itself, he has called for reform, saying not long ago that free movement of workers was not intended to mean free movement of jobseekers. “As one of the most pro-European shadow ministers, I don’t think you can ignore the impact that free movement has had on some of our communities,” he says, adding that it has changed because there are “many more EU members”.
Should people not come here at all unless they have a job? “There’s a number of things we need to look at. Those who tend to raise the issue of immigration with me are my African and Asian constituents. They want confidence there are proper controls.
“They want to see people integrate, which is why we shouldn’t be spending all this money translating documents and [instead] directing resources to ensure people learn English. And you do need to look at free movement.”
But that would require a treaty renegotiation. “Look, this is on everyone’s agenda across Europe. Do I pretend to have all the answers? No. But I do think it’s something that will have to be looked at in the future.”
If Mr Umunna is hard to pigeonhole, that may be linked to his own pedigree. His maternal grandfather, Sir Helenus Milmo, was a Cambridge-educated high court judge who helped to prosecute the Nuremberg Trials.
His father, by contrast, was a Nigerian labourer who arrived in Britain in the Sixties with one suitcase. Having borrowed the fare from Liverpool to London, he worked in a car wash, became a successful businessman and died in a car crash when his son was 13.
The hateful abuse Mr Umunna has received from Ukip supporters was provoked not by his heritage but by his suggestion that some of the party’s followers lacked online skills.
Given that he has been called a “spear chucker” and a “caveman”, does he consider Ukip a racist party? “Some of the things they have said are racist. We’ve got to deal with why people feel alienated from the global economy. You do not give any ground to the nasty, pernicious kind of politics that [Ukip] often peddles.”
Boris Johnson, the Tories’ anti-Ukip weapon, is – it is rumoured – being lined up for the business portfolio and thus as Mr Umunna’s opposite number. Is he envious, we wonder, that Labour lacks such big beasts? “We’ve got plenty of big beasts,” he says. Who does he mean? “We’ve got loads. I think Ed Balls is a big beast. And Alan Johnson.”
But Mr Balls is hardly popular, we say, and Mr Johnson is not even in shadow cabinet. Should he be? “Alan’s got a huge amount to offer, but it’s not for me to decide who’s in shadow cabinet. That’s for Ed Miliband.”
There is one more addition to the Labour menagerie. “Alistair [Darling] is clearly a big beast and has a big contribution to make. He’s been really supportive of me, and I’ve had advice from him on many matters.” So Mr Umunna would like to see him back in shadow cabinet? “Those are decisions for Ed M, but I’m a big fan of Alistair’s. He’s made a massive contribution, and he is one of our biggest beasts.”
The largest personality of all is still Tony Blair, whom some say sees Mr Umunna as Labour’s future leader. Is he really the Chosen One? “I really don’t know anything about that.” Pressed on whether he aspires to head his party, he says: “I don’t entertain any discussion beyond winning the election next year. That would be completely hypocritical of me. To start thinking about hypothetical scenarios would be totally indulgent. All my energy is focused on winning the election, and so should everyone’s. It will be very close.”
A year ago, we remind him, he was reported to have said that Mr Miliband, whom he calls “my friend and boss” would be “turning up the volume”. Voters are still waiting for that crescendo. “The PM has been leader of his party for twice as long as Ed has, and the public know him [better]. I’ve always been confident that people will know Ed a lot better after the intense focus of an election campaign and [TV] debates.”
But that is leaving it very late. Does he agree that the leader has an image problem – and if not, then why did Mr Miliband admit to one? “Because the Conservative party intend to run a pretty negative, nasty campaign against him in particular and maybe a number of us.”
It seems likely, if not certain, that Chuka Umunna is destined to become a larger presence in his party and thus a bigger potential target. For the back row boy once deemed too lowly for a seat around the shadow cabinet table, Big Beast status surely beckons.
By Mary Riddell And Peter Dominiczak