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22 September 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 11:18am

“It’s nasty and personal“: why is Chuka Umunna railing against “bloodsport“ politics?

The shadow business secretary is calling for a change in the way we do politics. But why?

By Anoosh Chakelian

The shadow business secretary and super-smooth Labour frontbench favourite Chuka Umunna has made some damning statements about the way we do politics.

In a fringe event at Labour party conference this afternoon, in conversation with the Times’ Philip Collins, he railed against the tone of Westminster party politics.

He said:

The way we do politics is pretty ridiculous. It’s too adversarial, it’s too tribal… I don’t think George Osborne is the devil. Why does politics have to be a bloodsport?

He returned to the topic again later in the event, warning that the Labour party is going to have “everything thrown at us” during general election campaigning. He predicted that “it’s going to be nasty, it’s going to be personal, it’s going to be that bloodsport style of politics”.

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Umunna, long described as a “rising star”, coupled this criticism of tribal politics with comments suggesting his desire to distance himself from the Westminster bubble. He said of Westminster, “I still feel relatively new to it”, and revealed to the audience that he never saw himself as going into politics until his adolescence, when he saw people he could relate to becoming MPs.

These remarks echo an interview he did recently with the Independent. In this, he clearly tries to frame himself as an outsider:

I come at this as a bit of an outsider. I’ve never really been at ease with the way in which this place works, the culture of it, the traditions, which all seem a bit archaic to me. I didn’t work in Westminster before I was elected; I practised as a lawyer for the best part of a decade, I wasn’t a special adviser or anything like that.

Why is he plugging away at this line now?

There are two aspects to these remarks that make them notable. First, they give us a personal insight into how Umunna sees himself – or would like us to see him – on the political stage. Second, it’s exactly the kind of thing David Cameron was saying during his victory speech as Tory party leader back in 2005:

And we need to change, and we will change, the way we behave. I’m fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing.

Cameron’s promise to end “Punch and Judy politics” has haunted him ever since he became Prime Minister, as he has failed comprehensively to take the punch out of PMQs.

His emphasis on his distance from Westminster, reminding us that he isn’t a professional politician who has risen parliament or the party’s ranks, is also significant. It contrasts with the criticism Ed Miliband faces for being a so-called career politician.

Umunna is often touted as a future Labour leader – one party aide tells me the position of Miliband’s successor is widely believed to be “between Chuka and Yvette; it has to be”. With this in mind, this brand of broad but inherently personal comments resonates – and it’s worth keeping an eye on.

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