Chuka Umunna: “The only test for Labour is getting more seats than the Conservatives”

The Labour candidate discusses his party’s election chances, Brexit, Emmanuel Macron and whether he’ll stand for the leadership.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

On the day Theresa May called the general election, Chuka Umunna had just returned to work from paternity leave. Any hope of a politically tranquil period was immediately ended. But the Labour candidate displays no trace of weariness when I meet him in south London. “It’s been very different. I haven’t been campaigning with a little one before,” Umunna quips, smiling at his ten-week-old daughter and his wife, Alice Sullivan, an employment lawyer.

At Café Barcelona in his Streatham constituency, with the sun streaming in, he speaks of having “really enjoyed” the campaign. In 2015, as shadow business secretary, he was stuck on the treadmill of party events and media appearances. Now, as a backbencher, he has been liberated to campaign freely. “I’ve actually spoken to more people than I did at the last general election and feel I’ve got a better picture of the country,” the 38-year-old tells me as he relaxedly sips a frappé.

As one of Labour’s most popular politicians, Umunna has been called on by colleagues in marginal seats to aid their campaigns (his own majority is a comfortable 13,934). But he avoids any hint of complacency. “In other parts of the country there has always been a tradition of voting Labour and that hasn’t always been the case in London. The nature of campaigning is different, we’re used to marginality . . . Streatham only became a Labour seat in 1992.”

Umunna says he has not been surprised by the Conservatives’ troubled campaign, which has seen the party’s poll lead tumble from a peak of 24 points to a low of 5. “I got to know Theresa May a little bit through sparring with her on the home affairs select committee, and also having had some contact with her in relation to stop-and-search, which I think she’s actually been pretty good on. But I’ve never found her to be a particularly warm person and I don’t think she’s a natural campaigner, which comes across in the media. Whereas Jeremy enjoys it much more and is more of a people-oriented person and that’s been exposed by the campaign.”

He adds: “I have been surprised by the lack of policy on the Tory side. No one can accuse us of not having a policy agenda and a set of ideas about how we transform the country, and there’s a real paucity of an offer on their side.”

As shadow business secretary, Umunna was formerly responsible for Labour’s universities policy. I ask whether he agrees with the party’s pledge to abolish tuition fees, which critics have warned will largely benefit affluent undergraduates.

“You’ve got to make your choices and I’ve seen too many young people in this community decide not to go to university because of the prospect of debt of over £30,000,” he replies. “At the moment we end up having to foot the bill for most university tuition fees anyway, because after 30 years so much of it is being written off because students can’t pay back within that time frame . . . I actually think in many respects it’s a more honest policy than the government’s, which pretends that somehow the taxpayer isn’t going to have to make a big contribution."

Umunna also praises Labour’s continued focus on industrial strategy, the pledge to take the calamitous Southern Rail into public ownership (“a disgraceful and shabby service to people in this area”) and the promise of a public inquiry into the blacklisting of trade union members (“I’ve been given evidence which strongly suggests it’s still going on”).

As The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” plays in the background, my thoughts turn to the Manchester atrocity and the shadow it has cast over the election. Umunna tells me that a stronger counte-terrorism policy consists of three strands: better policing of social media ("there should be fines imposed when companies aren't proactive enough"), increased police numbers ("the most important resource for gathering intelligence . . . 20,000 have been cut since 2010") and reform of the counter-extremism programme Prevent.

"There is definitely a place for Prevent, and we do need it to stop the radicalisation of young British people. But the way it is operating is problematic and can actually reinforce the problem. A lot of young Muslim people that I speak to feel that they’ve been turned into a suspect community . . . They feel they have to apologise for something that they’ve had nothing to do with."

I ask Umunna whether he agrees with Jeremy Corbyn’s recent speech, which partly blamed UK foreign policy for the threat. “No. If you look at what happened in Yemen, 9/11, Nairobi, there were major terror incidents perpetrated by al-Qaeda before Iraq, for example . . . In the end, sole responsibility for committing terrorist atrocities sits with the perpetrators of it – end of story.”

Umunna was one of the leading figures in the Remain campaign and has adopted a more pro-European position than Labour nationally. Unlike the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, he unambiguously advocates continued UK membership of the single market and customs union (a stance some say could aid Umunna in a future Labour leadership contest).

The rejoinder from others is that this would entail continued free movement – an electorally divisive stance. But Umunna, who is chair of Vote Leave Watch, insists this is not the case. “Free movement isn’t unconditional and it isn’t implemented in a pure form anyway. We’re not part of the Schengen passport-free area. If we wanted, we could require people who’ve been here for three months but have not got work, and have not got the prospect of work, to leave under the current rules. But we don’t do that. If you look at countries like Liechtenstein in the EEA, they’ve been able to adopt quotas for EU nationals . . . We don’t have to destroy our economy in order to get more control of our immigration policy.”

He adds: “We should be looking to have fair movement and single-market and customs union membership and I think that is absolutely doable. The problem is that Theresa May, before these negotiations have properly started, has waved the white flag and thrown in the towel on getting the best deal.”

Even in Streatham, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies (78 per cent voted for EU membership), Umunna says there is little appetite for a second referendum – a proposal he has consistently opposed. But he added that he was “not closed” to the option in “very exceptional circumstances”.

For Umunna, like other progressives, 2016 was a year of defeats. But the triumph of Emmanuel Macron, a friend of several years (the French president discussed the founding of En Marche! with him), has provided consolation. Umunna attributes Macron’s success to “a professional operation, with competence right at the forefront”, the creation of “a broad coalition of people from different classes, races and backgrounds” and the rejection of an “anti-immigration" stance.

However, he dismisses those who suggest that Labour’s non-Corbynites should similarly found a new party. “In some respects, I like the whole ‘not being tribal’ thing and we should be looking to grow our family beyond traditional Labour voters. But I’m quite tribal about this. The only way you’re going to have progress in this country is through the Labour Party.”

I ask Umunna whether he believes Labour has any chance of winning the election. “I think anything’s possible, to be frank. My wife always says to me: ‘You called the election wrong in 2015, you called the referendum wrong in 2016, you called the American election wrong – I’m not going to listen to any predictions.' My prediction is: ‘Who knows?’ ”

Umunna refuses to say whether Jeremy Corbyn should resign if Labour is defeated. “We’ve got to aim to get as many Labour MPs and as many votes as possible. Talking about Labour losing is not really a place I’m going to go.”

Corbyn allies say that he will remain leader, certainly if he exceeds Ed Miliband’s 2015 vote share (30.4 per cent). But Umunna warns: “What I have no time for is any debate about degrees of failure and what degree of failure is worst or best for the Labour Party. I’m in the Dave Prentis [Unison general secretary] camp on these things, which is: the only thing we should be seeking is government. What that means for me is that the test in this election for the Labour Party is getting more seats than the Conservative Party. It’s not getting more seats than we got in 1983 or 1931: it’s getting more seats than the Conservatives now.

“So we can actually get into government, stop them demonising benefit recipients, stop them taking away support for disabled people, stop them not providing the support that people with mental health difficulties need, stop them taking away opportunities from our young people. Unless we get into government, we can’t do those things. For me, the ultimate test here is we’ve got to get more seats than the Tories – end of story.”

Ever since 2015, when he withdrew from the Labour leadership race just four days after declaring, Umunna has been spoken of as a potential candidate. Along with Yvette Cooper, he is one of those most in the party expect to stand in the next contest. But he wisely swerves the question. "I’m not going anywhere near that issue because there’s not a vacancy, there isn’t a contest, and we have got to make sure that we get as many Labour votes as possible.

“If any of us start indulging in that kind of chat, I think all the people out in the sun right now, who are spending time with their families, would be rightly very pissed off with me and anyone else who went down that avenue.”

I press him: does he rule out standing? “I’ve said what I’ve said about that in the past. I’m not going anywhere near it with you today.” Tomorrow, however, could be another matter.

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.