Chuka Umunna: We need a new generation of politicians
As he prepares for his first conference as a Liberal Democrat MP, Chuka Umunna reflects on a momentous year from him and UK politics
2019 has been a rather unusual year for Chuka Umunna. With conference season about to kick off, he is on his third party. To coin a well-worn phrase: This. Is. Not. Normal.
Umunna will arrive in Bournemouth as the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson on international trade, foreign affairs and international development. He began the year as the Labour MP for Streatham before leaving the party in February to set up the Independent Group (later Change UK).
“It was a combination of policy issues, but just coming to the realisation that the culture of the party had fundamentally changed, and it was a new party,” he says of his decision to finally quit Labour after more than 20 years as a member. “I think when you have such fundamental policy differences, in addition to the abusive culture, how can you stay in the party? Too many Labour MPs are in an abusive relationship with the party, which is not a healthy situation for one’s state of mind.”
In truth, he had been semi-detached from the party for a long time. A vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, it was an open secret in Westminster that he was planning to rip up his membership card.
Indeed, it took him nearly a year between deciding to leave, around Easter 2018, before finally making the break. “It’s a huge decision,” he says. “The first decision is ‘do I stay in politics or do I leave it altogether’, and I didn’t feel ready to leave the field. I hope to offer something and change the world for the better, which is why I went into politics.
“The second decision was if I’m going to stay in politics, I certainly can’t stay in the Labour Party. The policy issues were essentially Brexit, anti-semitism, national security and economic policy.
“The party had failed to properly oppose Brexit, the handling of the Skripal poisoning affair crystalised many of the concerns people had about the historic positions of Labour’s leadership, and I found the anti-semitism situation abhorrent.
“One of the reasons my father supported Labour was he thought it was an anti-racist party. So to be in a party which clearly was institutionally racist in respect of Jewish people I found very hard to live with. And I felt that many of the economic policies were not going to necessarily reduce poverty and inequality, and were quite dishonest.”
Having launched with much fanfare, the Independent Group – initially seven Labour MPs but eventually expanding to 11, including three ex-Tories – quickly descended into in-fighting and acrimony.
A humiliating performance at the European elections – they received just 3.3% of the national vote and failed to win a single seat – led Umunna to conclude that he should throw his lot in with the Lib Dems. After secret talks with then leader Vince Cable, he was unveiled as the party’s new MP in June.
He insists, though, that he does not regret “testing the proposition” that voters were crying out for a new, centrist party. “I think at the beginning of the year, the consensus view was that there was going to be a need for a new party to fix our broken politics,” he says.
“I’m glad we did what we did and were able to test the proposition at the European election. The conclusion I very quickly came to was that what we were trying to do was something you could achieve in a presidential system but was impossible to achieve in a parliamentary system.”
Umunna adds: “It didn’t work because people with liberal, internationalist values weren’t looking for something new, they were looking for the biggest, strongest vehicle for their politics, which was clearly the Liberal Democrats. Building a whole new party infrastructure when politics is moving so fast is an impossible task.”
Umunna also reveals that it is not actually the first time that he has joined the Lib Dems, having had a year-long flirtation with the party as a teenager before joining Labour shortly before the 1997 election.
“I wasn’t born into the (Labour) party,” he said. “My mother had always voted Liberal Democrat until I became her MP, and my father had always voted Labour but wasn’t a card-carrying member of the party. We weren’t a political family in that sense.
“My closest friends and family were not in the Labour bubble at all, and that’s quite unusual in the PLP. Whereas I was a member of the Liberal Democrats before I was swept up by New Labour in the 90s.”
With an election around the corner, it was announced last week that Umunna will be the Lib Dem candidate in the Cities of Westminster and London. Tory Mark Field currently holds the seat, having beaten Labour by just over 3,000 votes in 2017.
The Lib Dems’ came a distant third at that election, nearly 14,000 votes adrift, but Umunna insists that the unique nature of the forthcoming poll makes it a “two-horse race” between him and Field.
“This is a seat that’s more than 70% Remain and it has an MP who has just voted to stop no-deal being blocked,” Umunna points out. “We’re not complacent but we think we stand a really good chance of winning because we are the Remain option.”
Were he to fail, though, he says he would have no qualms about quitting politics altogether. In many ways, it would be a fitting end to a tumultuous year for the 40-year-old.
“I never wanted to retire in politics, I never wanted to do a Ken Clarke and be here for 50 years,” Umunna says. “I always thought I’d do 20 years and then go back to the private sector, and that’s what I’d do if I lose the seat. There’s more to life than politics.”
If he does win, though, he knows that sooner or later, the rumour mill will once again go into overdrive about how he secretly harbours leadership ambitions. He’s clearly keen to stamp down on that notion.
“I completely rule it out – I’m not interested in leadership,” he says. “The problem is it becomes a chain round your neck.”
Umunna is also eager to heap praise on Jo Swinson, who has only been in the hot seat since July.
"In this election Boris Johnson is a known quantity and Jeremy Corbyn is too,” he insists. “Jo really is a new generation politician that provides a solid sensible alternative to these two men and I think that is massively under-rated.”
His thesis will surely be tested within the next few weeks. Whatever the outcome, 2020 is likely to be a far more mundane year for Chuka Umunna than 2019 has been.