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Mehdi Hasan's 20 under 40: Chuka Umunna

Age: 32
Labour, Streatham

I once introduced Chuka Umunna at a conference as "Britain's Barack Obama". He winced, as the audience of centre-left activists applauded and cheered. Umunna has said in the past that he tends to "cringe slightly" when Obama's name is linked to his own. Nonetheless, the comparison between the two men is difficult to escape.

Like the US president, the Labour MP for Streatham is young, bright, handsome, eloquent and of mixed race. He also happens to be a former lawyer and community activist with a euphonious African name.

Umunna was tipped to become a Labour leader - and prime minister - from the moment he emerged on the political scene. A leading member of the centre-left pressure group Compass by his late twenties, the smooth-talking lawyer and party activist attracted the notice of senior figures when, in October 2007, he appeared on BBC1's Question Time and slapped down a fellow panellist, Kelvin MacKenzie, for making anti-Scottish remarks.

Umunna is the son of a Nigerian father and an English-Irish mother; he is also a grandson of the high court judge and Nuremberg prosecutor Sir Helenus Milmo, QC. He graduated from the University of Manchester and studied in Dijon and at Nottingham Law School before working briefly in banking. He then joined Herbert Smith, the City firm, as a trainee solicitor specialising in employment law.

The high point of Umunna's parliamentary career so far came in January during his brief tenure as a member of the House of Commons Treasury select committee, as he politely but firmly quizzed the chief executive of Barclays, Bob Diamond, about the bank's tax avoidance schemes. Umunna asked Diamond how many subsidiary companies Barclays operated in the Isle of Man, Jersey and the Cayman Islands. Britain's third-highest-paid banker was forced to admit that he didn't know. Umunna, however, did.

Ed Miliband talks of a "new generation" that is "leading Labour", and one would be hard-pressed to find a better personification of this than Umunna. The Streatham MP is a close confidant of the Labour leader, and shares his desire to break from New Labour and focus more on equality, fairness and social justice. Miliband appointed him as his PPS in October 2010 and then promoted him to shadow minister for small business in May. The leader's abolition of elections to the shadow cabinet now makes it much easier for him to advance his protégé's progress on the front bench.

Umunna used to date his fellow Labour MP and parliamentary newbie Luciana Berger, and has been jointly selected (with Zac Goldsmith) as the "most fanciable" male MP. But is he perhaps too polished? And are his fortunes inextricably tied to Obama's? If the US president fails to be re-elected next November, it might well weaken the case for a "British Obama". But if he wins again, won't we want our own?

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By Mehdi Hasan

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in Meet the next Prime Minister

2011-09-19