Chuka Umunna dissects what went wrong for Labour. Photo: Getty
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Chuka Umunna calls for Labour to target Conservatives and "aspirational, middle-class voters"

The shadow business secretary gives a clear pitch for the Labour leadership, decrying the party's narrow appeal.

Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary and MP for Streatham, is likely to run for the Labour leadership. And he has made a clear pitch in an article for the Observer. It is based on broadening Labour's appeal to "aspirational, middle-class voters" rather than relying on a "core vote" strategy.

He is scathing about who the party has been targeting:

We tried to cobble together a 35% coalition of our core vote, disaffected Lib Dems, Greens and Ukip supporters. The terrible results were the failure of that approach writ large. We need a different, big-tent approach – one in which no one is too rich or poor to be part of our party. Most of all, we need to start taking large numbers of votes directly from the Conservatives.

He blames Labour's defeats in England on the party's impression that it didn't side with "those who are doing well". He even hits out at Labour for allowing the perception that it favoured ideological taxation: "Sometimes we made it sound like we saw taxing people as a good in itself, rather than a means to an end."

It's a pitch that reflects what he told George in a recent interview about the 50 per cent top rate of tax not being a permanent measure.

This appears to be a Blairite pitch, calling for a "big tent" approach, speaking up for the middle classes, championing "aspiration", not pandering to anti-immigration sentiment, and warning the party against being anti-business.

But I think it's more nuanced than that. Umunna for a while has been discussing how much he hates PMQs, and the trappings of traditional Westminster politics. In this piece, he goes further. He recommends parliament leaving the Palace of Westminster and moving into a "new, modern, accessible site fit for purpose". And he calls for an "end to machine politics".

It was the New Labour years that cemented machine politics, by which I take to mean top-down discipline, water-tight whippery, on-message sloganeering, what shadow health minister Jamie Reed calls a "professional, clinical political force".

So it's worth noting that, while Umunna's pitch for the party's direction sounds unashamedly Blairite, he is looking to change the way it does politics. This element might play well with those MPs whose first choice for leader wouldn't be a metropolitan liberal like Umunna (figures like Jamie Reed, Simon Danczuk, Liam Byrne, maybe), but who would like a more straight-talking, authentic party in order to salvage its message to blue collar voters.

UPDATE 10/5/15 11:31

Paul Flynn, cantankerous leftwing firebrand and author of the popular How to be an MP, has thrown his weight behind Umunna. 

As the only MP to vote for Ed Miliband as his fifth choice in the 2010 leadership election, Flynn has always been a critic. In an interview I did with him, he asked:“One Nation – what the f*** does that mean?”

In a new post on his blog, he laments that Labour is "too nice to dump its leaders" and calls Miliband "an electoral liability".

He concludes:

To restore public trust in Labour we need an eloquent, charismatic personality strengthened by intellectual depth and debating skills.

I have made my choice. It's Chuka.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Unconvinced by Ken Loach’s benefits story? That says more about Britain than the film does

The director has clashed with a film critic about his representation of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s new film, has kicked off a row between the director and The Sunday Times’ film critic, Camilla Long.

Published on Sunday, the review – which called the film a “povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” – has led to Loach and some audience members rowing with Long online.

Long also describes the film – which is an unforgiving drama about the cruelty of welfare bureaucracy – as “misery porn for smug Londoners”.

Her contention is that it is “condescending” and “patronising” to benefits claimants, partly because it will mainly be seen by affluent audiences, rather than “the lowest part of society” – so acts as a vehicle for middle-class guilt rather than an authentic reflection of people’s lives.

I’ve seen the film, and there are parts that jar. A reference to the Bedroom Tax feels shoe-horned in, as if screenwriter Paul Laverty remembered last-minute to tick that box on his welfare scandal checklist. And an onlooker outside the Jobcentre’s rant about the Bullingdon Club, Etonians and Iain Duncan Smith also feels forced. (But to me, these parts only stood out because the rest of the script is convincing – often punishingly so.)

A critic is free to tear into a film they didn’t enjoy. But the problem with Long’s review is the problem with the way Britain in general looks at the benefits system: disbelief.

For example, Long calls it “a maddening computer error” and “a mysterious glitch” that Daniel Blake – a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work by his doctor after a heart attack – is denied his disability benefit.

Actually it’s because he’s been found “fit to work” after an agonising tick-box phone assessment by an anonymous adviser, who is neither a nurse nor a doctor. This is a notorious problem with work capability assessments under a welfare system constantly undergoing cuts and shake-ups by successive governments.

Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013 under the coalition) and Employment and Support Allowance (which replaced the Incapacity Benefit in 2007 under New Labour) have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Funding for those in the “work-related activity group” who claim ESA – in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser – also suffered a 30 per cent cut in last year’s budget.

Also, when people claiming ESA believe they have wrongly been found “fit for work” and appeal – as Blake does in the film – more than half of decisions are overturned when they reach a tribunal.

It’s a system that puts cost-cutting above people’s welfare; Jobcentre staff are even monitored individually in terms of how many sanctions they impose (Blake’s friend Katie is sanctioned in the film), making them feel as if they are working to targets.

The situation for disabled, sick or broke people claiming welfare is unbelievable in this country, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult for us – or for some watching Loach’s portrayal of the cruel system – to believe it at all. At best, it’s because we would prefer to close our eyes to a system that we hope we never have to grapple with. At worst, it’s because we don’t believe people when they say they cannot work, and demonise them as “shirkers” or “scroungers”.

By all means question Loach’s cinematic devices, but don’t question the point of telling the story at all – and the story itself. After all, it’s the very inability of people who rely on the state to have their voices heard that means they are always hit the hardest.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.