Chuka Umunna's speech on race, class and social mobility: full text

"We want to create a society in which the son of a bus driver can go on not only to run but own the bus company."

31 October 2013 - Herbert Smith Freehills, London
As ever, it’s great to be back here at Herbert Smith. 
You know – I often talk about my time here. My experience here – working with businesses of all sizes – has proved invaluable in my current role as Shadow Business Secretary.
It’s also good to speak here during Black History Month. 
It is worth reflecting that when I started my legal career here in 2002, I was one of just three black fee earners.  
So I’m pleased to return today to find Herbert Smith has made good progress in increasing the number of black fee earners but there is obviously more room for improvement.
And I’m delighted to be speaking to a room full of black City professionals. There was a time when the numbers of black City professionals would barely have filled this room – when we all knew each other so well because there were so few of us. That is no longer the case and that says to me that despite all the obstacles black people have faced, we are making progress. 
And when I say “we”, I actually mean Britain – all of us – whatever our race, in every walk of life.  
Because I think there’s a powerful desire in this country to live in a society where people have the opportunity to achieve their dreams and aspirations regardless of their background. A social contract: shared responsibilities should mean shared opportunities and shared prosperity.
Because if we hold back any part of society – in this context black Britons - then we hold ourselves back as a country. And that’s something we can’t afford to do at a time when, as Ed Miliband has said, we need the talents of everyone to help shape our future in this modern, complex and competitive world.
So progress is vital for individuals – and it is vital for us as a country. 
Celebrating progress
The progress we have made is now deeply embedded in the British psyche.
Emile Sande and Tinie Tempah have provided the soundtrack to our lives over the last few of years.  Zadie Smith is a regular fixture on our Kindles. The entire country celebrates whenever Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis-Hill cross the finish line. 
That is one view of progress – and an important one.
But there are other perspectives on progress too, which can no longer be ignored. Pick up a copy of the Powerlist – the annual list of Britain’s most influential black people – and you will also see those achieving excellence in other fields: like here in the City, in our Boardrooms, in medicine, in science and other areas – where black people are not so prominent.  
So you’ll see Thiam Tidjane, CEO of Prudential, in the Powerlist Hall of Fame. He became CEO in 2009, and under his leadership the value of the company has more than doubled.  
You’ll see Mo Ibrahim, who came to this country from Sudan in 1974, started working as a BT engineer and ended up founding Celtel International, one of Africa’s leading mobile phone companies.  With over 24 million subscribers in 14 countries, Celtel was sold in 2004 for $3.4bn. That’s not a bad return!
Inspiring the next generation
You see, it’s so important that we use Black History Month not only to celebrate those on whose shoulders we stand who broke down the barriers in times past – but also those who are pioneering a new future today. 
Both are vital to giving our young people the confidence and inspiration to back themselves and go after their ambitions and dreams.
If young black people can’t see people who look like them editing our newspapers, sitting on the Supreme Court or running our great British companies, how can we give them the hope that if they work hard, they can make it too? 
You see, shining a light on our role models is crucial because too many of them are ignored.   
One of the reasons is because our broadcast and film media have a tendency to stereotype black people: to present an image of black British people that suggests we can succeed in sport, entertainment and music, but not necessarily in other fields.
If I am wrong about this, then why do so many black British actors have to leave the UK for the US to get decent film and television roles that fall outside the stereotypes?  Too many in the British film and television industries simply don’t cast black British actors in certain roles that fall outside those stereotypes.  
It’s often only after they’ve made it big in the States that black British actors get more – and more varied – roles here. That is unacceptable and has got to change. As a society, we cannot allow people to default to lazy stereotypes.
Outstanding race inequalities
So, I think we all recognise that though we have made great strides towards a more equal society, we still have a long way to go.
As a non-white person in Britain today, you’re twice as likely to be unemployed as a white person.  
If you are a young black graduate, you’ll earn on average only three quarters of what a white graduate earns. 
If you have an African-sounding surname, you need to send about twice as many job applications as those with traditional English names – not even to get a job – but just to get an interview. 
And I’m being generous here. I haven’t gone into the over-representation of black people in the criminal justice and mental health systems - or the disproportionate numbers of young black Caribbean boys, say, being excluded in our schools.
So the message is clear:
If you believe that we are all created equal and ours should be an equal society – then we cannot let up. Our commitment cannot waver. We cannot be complacent.
Carrying on Labour’s tradition tackling race inequality
That’s why I’m a proud to be Labour. Over the years it was my party that enshrined non-discrimination as a guiding principle not only of our beliefs, but also of our laws – from the Race Relations Act of 1965 to the 2006 anti-age discrimination regulations.
And during our most recent period in office, we did what the previous Conservative government failed to do – to set up the full judicial inquiry into the disgraceful mishandling by the police of the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, an inquiry that acknowledged formally for the first time what we all knew to be true – that there is institutional racism in our country – and we sought to deal with it. 
Of course, the real credit for that inquiry belongs to the Lawrence family for their refusal to give up in their demand for justice – and I am proud to say Baroness Doreen Lawrence formally became a Labour peer this month following her nomination by Ed Miliband. That tradition of working to stamp out discrimination in all its forms – deliberate or subconscious – wherever it exists, continues. Just last week our new Shadow Equalities Minister, Gloria De Piero, launched our race equality strategy. We are consulting on it so please visit our website at and have your say. 
Social mobility stalled                                                             
So I’ve talked about progress made, the need to challenge stereoptypes, and the ongoing quest for race equality in Britain.  But we must go beyond this.  
I think we’re unlikely to see future generations of black British people go on and do better than the last if we focus on race inequality alone – we must  address issues of class and social mobility which are holding people back as well.
Social mobility is an annoyingly dry phrase for something so fundamental to all of us: making possible the basic desire of people to create a better future for themselves and their families.
I’ve worked very hard to get to where I have. However, I do believe that I would have had to work even harder had I not come from a middle class background. When I was growing up the black middle class was still in its infancy. But now it is growing.   
However, unless we make social mobility for everyone our driving purpose, people won’t be able to meet their aspirations, we will not be a more equal society and we won’t make the most of our potential as a country.
Just two weeks ago, the Government’s Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission couldn’t have been clearer: 
Britain remains a deeply divided society and economic disadvantage still strongly shapes life’s opportunities. They say there’s a real danger that social mobility could go into reverse in the first part of this century if we don’t act.    
So our goal is not only to eradicate prejudice in all its forms and reduce racial and other inequalities, but to create a society where if you want to get on, move out of your flat into a house, progress from the shop floor to the board room, we empower you to do it.
We want to create a society in which the son of a bus driver can go on not only to run but own the bus company. A society where the teenager working the check out at Sainsbury’s in Streatham Common can become its CEO. A society where the budding Richard Bransons and Mo Ibrahims growing up on the Tulse Hill Estate, in one of the most deprived wards in my constituency, can turn their ideas into thriving businesses and make their first million.  
Because it is in all our interests - it not only creates wealth for the individual, jobs and growth, and of course tax receipts for the Exchequer!
But that is not our country today. Social mobility has stalled. As Alan Milburn, chair of the Commission said – over the last few decades we’ve become a wealthier society but we haven’t really become a fairer one.
So let me be clear: increasing social mobility and empowering people to meet their aspirations goes to the heart of my politics, it goes to heart of Labour’s values, it goes to the heart of the One Nation Britain Ed Miliband seeks to lead. Neither your race nor your class should stand in the way of opportunity. 
What Labour will do to kick start social mobility
We sought to increase social mobility in Government, investing heavily in education, Sure Start and thousands of new Children’s Centres just a couple of the measures to help give our children a better start in life, important drivers of life chances.
But it wasn’t enough. While we managed to stop income inequality growing, we weren’t able to reverse the massive growth in inequality that happened in the two decades before ‘97. 
And our achievements during our years in office have since been rolled back.  Alan’s report was clear that the government is making the situation worse.  Austerity is hitting the poorest hardest. Long-term challenges remain unresolved. Child care quality is too variable; child care costs too high.  The most deprived areas still have 30% fewer good schools and not enough state school children are going to the best universities. The number of young people unemployed for more than two years is at a twenty year high. Senior professionals are still more likely to be privately educated and privileged men. 
Credit where credit is due: the Government deserves praise for setting up the Social Mobility Commission. But the Commission’s report and its sobering conclusions challenge us to have a serious conversation about how we secure a future of opportunity for all.
So today, I’m calling on the Government to hold a debate in the House of Commons – on Government time – on that important 2013 report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.  
So what are the kind of things a future Labour Government would do to boost social mobility?
On growth, the Commission says Government should aim to achieve a balanced recovery that reduces living costs and improves earnings. 
We would ensure that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden.  So instead of prioritising giving 12,000 people earning millions a tax cut in the order of £100,000 each, we’d give 24 million working people on middle and lower incomes a 10p starting rate of tax.
On jobs, the Commission urges the Government to set a goal of eliminating long-term youth unemployment. That’s why we’ll introduce a compulsory jobs guarantee for young people and the long-term unemployed to get people back to work.
On training, the Commission urges business leaders and the Government to come together to ensure half of all firms offer apprenticeships.  So we’d insist that companies taking up large government contracts deliver apprenticeships and we’d give employers more control over skills funding in return for more apprenticeships.
On childcare, the Commission says more should be done to support lower and middle income families with child care costs.  So we’d expand free childcare for 3 & 4 year olds from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents, paid for by an £800m rise in the bank levy.
On pay, the Commission urges the Government to focus on reducing in-work poverty by looking again at the remit of the Low Pay Commission to enable raising of the minimum wage and to look at how we incentivise employers to pay more. That is precisely why we have appointed the former Deputy Chair of KPMG, Alan Buckle, to chair a review for us into those very issues.
And of course, for our wealth creators and entrepreneurs, I am determined we provide you with proper support to start up, grow and lead a business, one of the most powerful drivers for social mobility.
I could go on. These are just a selection of the policy commitments we’ve made that will not only help people with the cost of living but give them the ability to create a better life for themselves and their families – to meet their aspirations. 
So we must celebrate the progress of black people in every field, and we must tackle the race inequalities that still hold people back. But we must also seek to achieve greater social mobility, to make ours a more equal society and more prosperous nation.
For it is vital that everyone should have hope - hope for a better tomorrow, hope to make the most of their potential. It's about having purpose, it's about aspiring and being inspired. Looking to our heroes and looking to our future.
And that calls on us to act.
It brings to mind those powerful words of Martin Luther King:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there "is" such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Amen to that.
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

Show Hide image

Is our obsession with class is propping up the powerful?

Are we really all middle class now? Lynsey Hanley finds has fresh ideas about old ideas in Respectable: the Experience of Class.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism