"This is somebody who thoroughly dislikes what modern Britain is.” (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna on Nigel Farage: "The mask slips to reveal something that is pretty nasty"

As the election gets closer, Nigel Farage is showing his true face - and Labour must call it for what it is, says Chuka Umunna.

Unless you're Dermot Murnaghan, Chuka Umunna doesn't get angry. Unsurprisingly considering his background – he worked as a solicitor at Herbert Smith and Rochman Landau before becoming an MP – he slowly and calmly assembles a case.

And the charge sheet against Ukip and Nigel Farage – back in the headlines after calling for the repeal of all racial discrimination laws – is getting longer.

“What have we seen over the last 18 months?” Umunna asks, “We’ve seen the party [Ukip] adopt the old slogan of the BNP. We’ve heard him [Nigel Farage] stating that he feels awkward on the train in the company of people speaking other languages. We’ve seen him get stuck in a traffic jam and immediately seeking to blame immigrants for that.”

He pauses. “So it’s not all surprising that given his form he doesn’t see the need for racial equality legislation in our country.”  As the campaign wears on, Umunna argues, “more and more of the mask slips to reveal something that is pretty nasty. And all that’s happened in the last 24 hours is that the mask has slipped even more. This isn’t a picture of somebody who to use their slogan, loves Britain, this is somebody who thoroughly dislikes what modern Britain is.”

But it’s a challenge for Labour, too, says the man who many regard as one of Ed Miliband’s best weapons in the fight to return to power after just one term in opposition. “Those of us who would rather that people voted for other parties – our own party – need to make that argument on its own merits. We need to say that we in the Labour Party believe in all the people in this country, we don’t believe in privatising the NHS or tax cuts targeted [only] at the very rich. And that’s not something that Ukip can say.”

“But, he adds, “Equally, it is beholden on us to draw attention to what Ukip are offering, which is also pretty unattractive. It’s very important we call out any Ukip candidate who says things like this.”

In their short time in the limelight, Ukip candidates have made the offensive seem ordinary, from the councillor who believes that equal marriage causes flooding to the activist who suggested that Lenny Henry should go and live “in a black country”, and Umunna says, we “price it in”.

“There is a virus of racism running through that party,” Umunna argues, “And they don’t appear capable of rooting it as they don’t understand the problem.”

It’s not just abstract for Umunna, whose father, Bennett, arrived in Britain from Nigeria without a penny to his name before going onto become a successful businessman. “The things they say about Eastern Europeans now,” he tells me, “are no different from the things people used to say about black and Asian immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s.”

“These [Eastern Europeans] are people who contribute to our economy and our society,” Umunna says “ They’re the target of choice now, but Ukip’ll move onto another target.”

“We act as if it’s acceptable,” Umunna tells me. “And it’s not. It stands against our British values of fair play and respect for one another. And we have to call it out for what it is.”

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496