In an era of ideologues, how do you sell moderation? Amid the clarion calls of Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, consensus building is the least fashionable political platform since yogic flying. But Chuka Umunna, once tipped to lead the Labour Party he left so dramatically earlier this year, is passionate about just such an ideal. The MP for Streatham and spokesperson for The Independent Group (TIG and, later, the proposed Change UK), a new coalition of Westminster centrists, believes that the humiliation, mismanagement and divisiveness of Brexit means the country badly needs some radical non-radicalism.
Umunna is convinced that the British political system is unfit for the 21st century, although his values bestride post-War social-democratic traditions and get-on-your-bike Thatcherism. In 2019 he sees the way forward in cross-party co-operation, harnessing, as he puts it, the “insurgency” of the centre ground.
Here, this son of a Nigerian businessman and an Anglo-Irish solicitor reveals the source of his values, how cultism and racism forced him out of Labour and why he thinks only centrists can heal the wounds caused by Leave and Remain. Umunna (now with a young daughter, he's a true Centrist Dad) and his nascent party have given themselves no lesser task than to put a roof over the head of the politically homeless.
Who informed your beliefs and values?
My family have shaped my politics more than anything else. I wasn’t born into one of the two main parties, but both my parents had a strong sense of social justice. My father was a working-class black man who arrived here in 1964 with nothing and became a successful businessman. He really believed in the value of standing on your own two feet – he didn’t want handouts. And he wanted to contribute to British society. That’s shaped me much more than a historical figure.
Is there a big idea behind TIG?
There is a progressive politics in our country, which is pretty much where the majority of people are. The values that underpin it are a desire to go forward with the different facets of the country marching in the right direction to achieve collective aims. It sounds wishy-washy, but many people reject this way of working. It’s unfashionable and has been described as “centrist” because it doesn’t seek to set different groups against one another – the oppressed and oppressor, the class enemy.
We are a parliamentary democracy and we just don’t do things by mob rule. That’s been challenged by the populists of the right and on the left. Finally, we need a sense that Britain has a role to play in the world. So [TIG] is patriotic and internationalist. These are a broad set of values and I don’t think they are universally shared across the whole of politics, but I think that’s where the mainstream majority of Britain is. That’s not the Britain we are now because of all the divisions and the impact of globalisation on how we relate to one another.
My politics has delivered in the past for the country. Brexit is the biggest crisis we’ve faced since the Second World War. What was it that helped Britain beat fascism and then put in place a post-War consensus to reduce poverty and inequality more than any other agenda in the history our nation? A group of politicians drawn from three different political traditions who came together and carried our country through and then continued by the Attlee government and then carried on by the [post-War] Conservative governments. When centre-right One Nation Conservatism, the social democratic tradition and the liberal tradition come together they have delivered and taken our country forward. I believe we need to go back to that.
How do you make progressive politics seem exciting?
We had one million people marching against Brexit, who were principally centre-ground progressives saying, “Enough of this shit storm,” which was curated by the hard right but also the hard left. People are not going to put up with this any more. There is an insurgency in the British centre ground.
But the two main parties seem more powerful than ever.
The left/right thing is not irrelevant, but it’s nowhere near as relevant as it used to be. Your age, your education and qualifications, whether you’re socially liberal or conservative, whether you have a global view of the world or are nationalistic, your ethnicity – all these things impact on voting more than ever. One of the big global challenges is how we are going to make new technologies enhance the common good. This is not a left/right thing. It’s actually both and the old-fashioned way of looking at things doesn’t work. If a left or right-wing solution works I’m cool with that. Don’t avoid doing something that works for ideological reasons if it helps fulfil your goal.
How do you and TIG break through the established system?
The politically homeless are voting to keep the other lot out or because they consider one side the least worst option. If I’m wrong about that why is it that “don’t know” is the most popular option for who people want to be the next prime minister? Brexit has left people disgusted with politics. It’s ten times worse than the expenses scandal. The idea that people want to go back to business as usual when they have an option to vote for someone they actually want to vote for... well, we have an opportunity to reset the system.
Should social democrats be more aggressive in calling out extremism?
Yes, and we do that. So many colleagues have said to us [in TIG] that we speak with a freedom we didn’t have before. For all the claims of careerism, the least careerist thing we could do is leave our parties. We have done it out of principle. There is this issue with authenticity: too often this has been defined by how extreme you are. So if you are [Jacob] Rees-Mogg or Corbyn you are authentic and if you are from the centre ground you are not.
That was always Farage’s trick.
And it’s bollocks. If you are on the centre ground you can do authenticity, but you need to be true to yourself. Sometimes progressives feel it’s a bit cheap to talk about who they are and where they’re from because they think, “That’s not what we should be talking about,” but in order to have authority and to win trust, people need to know where the hell you are coming from. We don’t do that enough.
The one benefit of Brexit is that the snake-oil salesman have been exposed for the frauds that they are. People were told, primarily by the hard-right in this country, Farage, Boris and co, and by the hard-left who were the co-sponsors of Brexit, that this is the cause of all your problems in life and if we leave the EU it is the easy answer – in particular, stop all immigration – to all of our problems. The next time someone comes along selling an easy answer, it’s going to be much harder for it to be a runner.
What will TIG do when a general election is called?
Our aim is to establish a new party to give people an alternative at the ballot box. We met the Electoral Commission and found out how to do that and they made it clear that if we want to stand candidates we need to register as a political party [the proposed Change UK]. We want to stand candidates across the country when the next general election comes.
When will we see policies?
I don’t think it would be wise to jump to writing a manifesto for a general election when we don’t know when it will come. We have a clear policy on the EU, because it’s the biggest issue of the day. We’ll unveil a few policies to indicate our political orientation, but when you get to an election we’ll do an all-singing, all-dancing manifesto.
What are the most important qualities of leadership?
An ideal leader is somebody who can ensure decisions are made, suggest a route forward while ensuring there is frank, open discussion with all the stakeholders. It’s a delicate balance. Much as I respect Tony Blair and think he did a huge number of good things in government, with regard to Iraq it’s an illustration of where you can go too far in one direction. On the other hand, if you don’t make decisions and don’t have a direction then Theresa May is an example of what can happen. What I absolutely reject is the deification of the leader.
I can’t think who you mean...
There were many moments when I began to think the Labour Party I knew no longer exists, but one of them was on stage at one of the last conferences I went to. Jeremy Corbyn was presented by a member with a picture of himself with a halo on his head and I thought, “This is crazy.” It demeans the members of a party when the leader is held up as a messianic figure. I also don’t think it’s very modern.
Is there anyone you wouldn’t share a room with?
No. Well, there are some people. Terrorists or fascists. I don’t think I’ll be getting in a room with Hezbollah.
You said you didn’t want your personal life scrutinised when you stood for the leadership in 2015. Has that changed?
At the time I had been on this crazy trajectory since I was selected to be a candidate in 2008. With hindsight, maybe I got too carried away with it. I was too drunk on the hype. My life had become completely taken over by politics. I knew standing for leader would affect me, but I didn’t realise how much it would affect the people around me. I decided to pull out when the media arrived at my now father-in-law’s doorstep and I had to call him and apologise. I hadn’t even met the guy. At the time he was just my girlfriend’s father.
What about the rumours?
Of course, there was loads of speculation about drug use, sexuality, family scandals. A producer from ITN asked me if someone in my family was in Boko Haram.
How do you feel about Labour activists campaigning to unseat you?
I’ll leave them to it. Leaving Labour was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do and it was not a cause of jubilation or happiness. I did it with great sadness, but you have to put the country first. I didn’t feel like I could go out to my community, let alone the rest of the country, and say I think Jeremy Corbyn and the team around him should be put in charge of our national or economic security and I sleep very easily having made that decision.
Are you anticipating more MPs will join you?
We hope so. We don’t know. It was an easier decision for me to make because I never wanted to retire in politics. I would like to go back to the private sector at some point. But I’m not ready to leave the field any time soon.
How long had you been considering leaving Labour?
I started thinking about it at the beginning of 2018 and I emotionally checked out of the party in April or May last year. That was after the betrayal of the Labour interest of working people on Brexit. The position the leadership adopted on the Skripal poisoning – I could not believe they were parroting the same line as the Russian embassy. And then the anti-Semitism.
I have to confess I had no idea how bad it was. The denial of obvious racism and the endemic and institutional problem in the party I could not deal with. I found it difficult to understand how others didn’t feel the same.
Did you detect other forms of racism in the party?
I’d never come across outright racism in my local party, but I’m sorry to say that after 2015 I definitely did feel my race was an issue nationally in the PLP. When I briefly stood for leader, some MPs told my team that their white, working-class constituents wouldn’t vote for a black man. So they couldn’t nominate me. I never said that before I left the party. Now that I have, instead of saying that is a terrible thing, some Labour MPs attacked me for saying it. I’ve been called an Uncle Tom online. Some of those most critical of me for calling out institutional anti-Semitism were some of the party’s BAME MPs. The backlash I got from the PLP BAME WhatsApp group for daring to say there was a problem with institutional racism was something to behold.
What can TIG achieve?
People can say building a consensus and not having “enemy politics” is a bit idealistic, but [Lambeth] has the highest Remain percentage in the country and after the referendum I spent lots of time in areas that had the highest Leave vote, particularly Boston and Skegness. All their anxieties were being driven by the same problems that my community in Lambeth face: a lack of decent housing, not enough well-paid jobs, exploitation. There is a unity here whether you’re Leave or Remain, there is a shared agenda that can unite these communities because they have the same problems and the same ambitions. That makes me hopeful for the future. One of the reasons I think TIG will succeed is because you have people from different political traditions and if we are capable of reaching a consensus on policy, we can definitely come up with an agenda that can unite our country.
Subscribe now to get six issues of GQ for only £15, including free access to the interactive iPad and iPhone editions. Alternatively, choose from one of our fantastic digital-only offers, available across all devices.
Chuka Umunna will be speaking at the inaugural GQ HEROES summit, which will bring together an eclectic mix of leading cultural, political and sporting figures at Soho Farmhouse in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire between Wednesday 8 and Friday 10 May 2019