Chuka Umunna speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Chuka Umunna is "intensely relaxed" about being compared to Peter Mandelson

The shadow business secretary admires the New Labour godfather as a champion of industrial activism. 

Chuka Umunna's interview with The House Magazine, in which he remarked, "I don’t have a problem with people making a lot of money, so long as they pay their taxes and it’s good for our economy", has raised eyebrows among some Labour MPs today. The line was a knowing echo of Peter Mandelson's declaration in 1998 that he was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" (adding "as long as they pay their taxes"), a quote frequently held up as evidence of New Labour's damaging infatuation with the wealthy.

Mandelson has been one of the most prominent critics of Ed Miliband's leadership, attacking policies such as the energy price freeze and criticising his left-wing direction. When asked during the Labour leadership contest whether he would have the former Business Secretary in his shadow cabinet, Miliband (who Umunna voted for) replied: "I think all of us believe in dignity in retirement", prompting Mandelson to later comment: "I felt hurt, I felt denigrated by some of Ed Miliband’s remarks. I mean talking about me in terms of 'dignity in retirement', I felt as if I was being unfairly treated and packed off rather prematurely to an old folk’s home." He added: "To define himself against New Labour, as opposed to being a development of New Labour, was electorally unwise."

But sources close to Umunna told me today that he was "intensely relaxed" (boom boom) about being compared to Mandelson. One said: "Chuka regularly speaks to Peter and he - alongside Hezza [Michael Heseltine] - is generally seen as the most successful Business Secretary of recent times. His period at BIS provides a fantastic model of industrial strategy and activism which we would want to follow and emulate." He also rightly noted that few recall Mandelson's proviso that the "filthy rich" must "pay their taxes". 

Umunna is certainly right to draw inspiration from Mandelson, who rescued and revitalised the British car industry, and from Michael Heseltine (whom I recently interviewed), another champion of industrial activism and one of the most creative Secretaries of State of the last 50 years (it's worth reading Andrew Adonis's NS tribute to him). He said of the latter: "I think in many respects, if we can build more consensus and actually acknowledge where we agree, when you disagree with the other side you actually have more credibility. I think people find that refreshing, and I think we should do more of it."

As for Umunna's echo of Mandelson's "filthy rich" quip, although the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph suggest that his remarks place him at odds with Miliband, it's worth noting that Miliband himself made a similar point in his speech on responsibility in 2011. He said: "We were intensely relaxed about what happened at the top of society. 

"I say - no more  We must create a boardroom culture that rewards wealth creation, not failure. 

"To those entrepreneurs and business people who generate wealth, create jobs and deserve their top salaries, I’m not just relaxed about you getting rich, I applaud you. 
 
"But every time a chief executive gives himself a massive pay rise - more than he deserves or his company can bear - it undermines trust at every level of society.
 
"We cannot and we must not be relaxed about that." 
 
Umunna's declaration that the rich deserve their rewards provided that "pay their taxes" and that their actions benefit the economy (a stipulation that Mandelson did not make) is entirely consistent with Miliband's responsible capitalism agenda. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Michael Heseltine calls for “second referendum or general election” on the Brexit deal

The Tory peer and former deputy prime minister accuses Theresa May of having “flip-flopped” on the “intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership”.

The Conservative party is deeply divided on the subject of Europe, and I don't see a short-term resolution to that position. I just reread the speech that the Prime Minister made to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers before the referendum. It was thoughtful, careful, balanced, and highly persuasive – arguing that we should remain in Europe.

A few weeks later, Brexit is Brexit. She has apparently changed her mind, and people like me have not. The idea that the intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership on this subject can be flip-flopped is asking too much of those of us who believe that our self-interest as a nation is inextricably interwoven with our European allies.

I believe that this is the worst peacetime decision that Parliament has been asked to make. It is very possible, as the negotiations unfold, that members of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons who believe as strongly as I do in the Remain argument will feel that their commitment to our national self-interest is being stretched unacceptably.

I know all the lonelinesses of their position. I'm well aware of the herd instinct of party politics. Only on two significant occasions have I worked to change the official policies of the Conservative party. I have no regrets, it didn't actually do me any harm. They have to evaluate the nature of the decision they're being asked to take.

I don't believe any of the arguments that there's a two-year time scale, the guillotine comes down. If there's a will to change within the community of European leaders, change will happen regardless of the letter of the law.

I believe that there needs to be a second referendum or a mandate of a general election. I believe the sovereignty of this country is enshrined in the House of Commons, and that they must be involved in the final decision with absolute power to determine the outcome. It took Nicola Sturgeon a matter of months to be back on the trail of a second referendum and Nigel Farage would have been doing exactly the same if he had lost. So what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I cast myself in the unlikely role of gander.

[May’s opposition to a Scottish referendum] completely undermines the whole basis for supporting the referendum judgement in the first place, because they weren't in possession of the facts, and so when we are in possession of the facts, it follows there must be a second choice.

Michael Heseltine is a Conservative peer and a former deputy prime minister.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition