Chuka Umunna made a speech about ethnic diversity in business. Photo: Getty
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Chuka Umunna announces a review into ethnic diversity in British business leadership

If Labour gets in, Lord Davies will lead a review into ethnic diversity in British business leadership, as he did for gender diversity.

During a speech at the KPMG Asian Festival Dinner tonight, the shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna announced that, if Labour makes it to government in 2015, the peer Mervyn Davies will lead a review into ethnic diversity in British business leadership, as he did for gender diversity.

Here's the full text:

The British Dream: Making aspiration a reality

Can I thank KPMG for hosting us tonight and for inviting me to speak. I know that, in this room tonight, there are some amazing stories that could be told – of business success against the odds, of supportive families and communities, of hard graft, of grit and determination. It is great to be celebrating the success of Asian business and Asian businesspeople in Britain.

I myself draw on the inspiration of my own father and his story.  He arrived at Liverpool docks from Nigeria – as a young man with only the suitcase he was carrying.

He borrowed the train fare from a complete stranger to make it here to London where he was to lodge with friends. But his head was full of dreams and his heart full of ambition.

He worked all the hours, he trained, did his business qualifications at night school, and eventually built a successful import-export business, creating a comfortable life for his wife and children.

His story, the stories in this room – these are powerful examples. But they are more than stories of individual success. They are part of the folk memory that proves what is possible – examples that can drive our communities to future success.

We are living in a world of profound and rapid change, driven by technology and the reshaping of the global economy as power moves south and east to India, China, Africa and beyond.

To succeed as a country, we need to harness the opportunities this brings and keep alive for all our people what I call the “British Dream” - the idea that if you work hard, play by the rules and do the right thing, you can make it. 

Because when we waste talent and ideas, we deny opportunity. But we also damage ourselves. We are - quite literally – poorer for it as a nation.

Of course it takes personal ambition, fortitude and perseverance to succeed. But when I look around my communities in Streatham, Brixton and Clapham, it is not a lack of these personal qualities I see.

The problem is that the starting line is not drawn straight, the hurdles are not all the same height, the road for some is rough and steep shaped by the circumstances into which they were born, not their underlying potential.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘aspiration’. But you know as well as I do that such talk can be cheap. For the talk to mean anything, it needs to have some grit: it needs to challenge the power of those who are standing in the way of aspiration. 

It has to make a difference to the barriers that are holding people back. Otherwise it’s just talk. To stand aside is to stand on the side of those who are already winning. If we want to see more high-growth companies like those in this room, then we have to open up closed circles of power which prevent them from succeeding.

Take finance. When the banks won’t lend to small businesses - that is a barrier to aspiration.

That is why we have promised to end the cosy cartel where all banks give you the same answer and tell you: “the computer says no”. Here I make no apology for standing on the side of aspiration.

We need more competition in banking. We need more competition to banking.

We need more – and more diverse – sources of patient, counter-cyclical finance.

This is behind our plans for a proper British Investment Bank and a network of regional banks.

These are problems that predate the financial crisis – structural problems that need structural solutions. 

Politicians have a tendency to disagree too vehemently and agree too reluctantly, so I want to say tonight that I am pleased this government followed on from the work of the previous Labour government and recognised the significant opportunity the expansion of the UK’s Islamic finance market represents to UK firms.

Another barrier to aspiration is blue tape – the administrative burdens large firms place on their supply chains. When a big firm doesn’t pay a supplier on time, that’s not fair. It makes the business environment that bit harder. It is a barrier to aspiration.

This is not about big firms versus small – our success is mutually dependent and the relationship between the two is symbiotic.

But in business, as in life, we all succeed when we all succeed – to do this means fair rules, fair markets and fair play.

That’s why we’re pushing through a change to the law which would ensure that any business paid late would automatically be paid interest.

This shifts the burden away from the supplier and removes the incentive for the customer to pay late.

Bigger firms would also have to report and publish quarterly, like a VAT return, when they’ve paid late which will bring greater transparency and pressure to bear.

It’s not just about money. It’s about skills too. Real support for aspiration means ensuring every young person has a pathway to success, whatever route they choose.

The last Labour Government focused on getting 50 per cent of young people into university.

This transformed opportunities for young people in my constituency, where the numbers going into higher education increased by 81 per cent. 

Now the priority for the next Labour Government will be to do the same for vocational education.

It will be to create a clear route – from gold standard vocational education in schools and colleges to apprenticeships and new Technical Degrees. 

We must end the snobbery that says that the vocational and technical is not as important as the academic. 

For this, we must change the situation in which fewer than one in ten employers offer apprenticeships.

It must become the new normal. So the goal – as Ed Miliband set out – is that by 2025 there will be as many young people doing high-quality apprenticeships as go to university.

This is how we help people to meet their aspirations and dreams.

By building an economy of well-paid jobs, and training people so that they can seize the opportunities.

A high-wage, high-skill economy, where we win in global markets because of the quality of our goods and services. 

But to do this, we must remain open for business.

And that means being outward looking to the world.

Engaged in Europe, working to make it more growth focused, not heading to the exit door – which would be disastrous. Europe is our largest market, but it is also the gateway to emerging market economies, where demand is set to explode.

We have a four-decade long trade deficit we need to reverse. I am clear we are best placed to do this being part of the EU. 

Trading also means making more of our diaspora communities – think about the amazing links here in this room to growing Asian markets.

As a nation, I am clear our diversity is a huge source of strength that we should do more to develop, support and celebrate in the current political climate.

But it is a shame that under this government, the obstinacy of the Home Office on visas has done huge damage to our growing businesses – and to our seventh largest export industry: our world class universities.

When we give the impression we are closed for business, we close our minds to a world of possibility.

Finally, realising aspiration means boardrooms in Britain that look like Britain.

We cannot carry on with the situation where half of all FTSE 100 companies do not have a single non-white director and just one in 15 management positions is filled by people of colour.

This is not just a problem for large corporations, it is a problem for British business as a whole.

When they tell me it’s a problem of the talent pipeline, I’ll tell them about the people in this room.

It’s a fixable problem, and it is a problem we will fix. 

That’s why I’m pleased to announce tonight that if we win in May next year, Lord Mervyn Davies has agreed to lead a review into ethnic diversity in British business leadership – to do the same for ethnic diversity as he did for gender diversity because we need the same scale of change.   

There’s so much to celebrate here in this room tonight, and we do.

But I also feel the sense that, for all the success, there is so much more that needs to be done and which we could all do.

So I want to conclude with an ask: many business people tell me of their dismay at the lack of understanding amongst young people of what it is you do, what it is like to run a business, to be an engineer. 

So my ask to all of you is, to the extent you are not already, get into our schools and tell your story. 

That is one way you can make a difference and we are looking at how to strengthen the links between all our schools and our businesses, with that purpose in mind. 

It is only, after all, by working together that we can realise opportunity for everyone.

Thank you.

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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