The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

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. 

The shadow business secretary won't shy away from association with the New Labour godfather.
Chuka Umunna speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.