Stuck in the middle with Chu
MP Chuka Umunna was Labour’s next leader in waiting; so what’s he got planned for his next move?
Handsome, ambitious, urbane: four years ago, Chuka Umunna was all set to be the next leader of the Labour Party — Britain’s Obama, our Macron, our Trudeau. But he pulled out of the leadership contest in 2015 and he's been in the wilderness ever since, a lonely liberal centrist left behind by a polarised Parliament. Is there a way back for the former future of British politics?
And will it take the nation collapsing under Brexit for his star to rise again? “let me show you something, man,” says Chuka Umunna, the 39-year-old Labour politician, striding up Brixton Hill in south London. He stops outside a big, windowless slab of a building, with an old-style cinema awning, now called the Electric Brixton. “Did you ever used to go to the Fridge?”
My policy in such circumstances is to lie, claim more knowledge and experience than I have, but something about an MP quizzing me on my clubbing history catches me offguard. I reply no, I did not ever go to the Fridge. Umunna’s handsome face seems to crumple just a little, but he launches into a potted history of the venue, a landmark for New Romantic music, the putative site of the first “chill out” room and longtime home to seminal gay night, Love Muscle.
“This you’ve got to see,” Umunna continues, bounding on a few steps. Halfway up the wall, between the alarm and a security light, is a black plaque the size of a dinner plate: “Soul II Soul first gigged live here in 1991,” it reads. He stares into the middle distance. Soul II
Soul was Umunna’s first live concert, aged 13, up the road at Brixton Academy and he considers theirs the “quintessential” British soul sound, so original and infectious that it took on America’s best and won a pair of Grammys. Unveiling the plaque in 2012, with the band’s leader Jazzie B in attendance, is one of his giddiest moments as a politician. Then, as he does today, he talked with blazing eyes about how Soul II Soul were nominated for five Brits in 1990 and 1991 and came away with none. Jazzie B looked on, sanguine. The Mobo awards, Umunna notes, were partly set up to correct this injustice.
Whenever a politician professes a fondness for a particular music act, it often feels suspect, like a team of advisors and an algorithm have been engaged. But on this Friday morning in early June, one is left in no doubt: Chuka Umunna really likes Soul II Soul.
Umunna’s tour of Brixton keeps on movin’. He points out the route Nelson Mandela took in July 1996, on his first state visit to Britain as South Africa’s President. The crowd was tendeep and Umunna remembers he heard word that morning and broke off revising for his A-levels to attend. Then he gestures down the road at the railway bridge. That’s where he was in April 1981, just as the first Brixton riot kicked off. He was two-and-a-half at the time, his sister one, and his mother had to gather them and the shopping in her arms and run.
“I don’t have any memory of it, but my mum, my god, the stories she tells,” says Umunna. “There was a feverish atmosphere, there’d been lots of problems with the police up to that point, community relations were in a terrible place. And this one guy said, ‘Lady, you want to take your kids with you, and get out of here fast.’”
Today’s itinerary — which includes a school visit and some local campaigning for a People’s Vote (most definitely not a second referendum, oh no) on whatever Brexit deal is agreed by the Conservative Government — has been suggested by Umunna’s office, and it’s not hard to see why. He grew up round here and now, as the Labour MP for Streatham, he represents the people he has lived alongside his whole life. Later, when we’re in his car, a VW Golf with a child seat and sun shade in the back for his one-year-old daughter, he reflects, “I think that does make a big difference in terms of how you feel about a place. I don’t have to put the GPS on to know where I’m going in my constituency.”
In fact, the excursion is not that different from the tour Umunna gave Will Smith in March 2013. Umunna met Smith at a party, when the actor was chaperoning his son Jaden, a rapper, who was appearing with Justin Bieber on tour. Umunna suggested that, if Smith grew tired of five-star hotels, he might like to see “London’s Harlem”. To his surprise, Smith agreed and a couple of days later they were walking the streets with the late Tessa Jowell, another local MP. They made a surprise drop-in at a local girls’ high school and there’s fantastic, authentically blurry footage as Smith starts singing The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme and the room descends into bedlam. Umunna, dressed in a suit with a mauve tie, emerged with huge credit: there’s a couple of seconds when Smith starts rapping where you imagine Umunna’s thinking, “Is this going to sandbag my career forever?” But then his shoulders begin rolling and he pulls off the no-mean-feat of dancing in a suit and not looking like your dad at a wedding.
“I tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Umunna recalls of his day as a tour guide for Smith. “Grown men in their sixties behaving like school children. Extraordinary.”
In some ways, it couldn’t — and wouldn’t — get any better than this for Umunna. He was 34, shadow business secretary, one of the biggest jobs in the Labour Party, and trusted lieutenant to the leader Ed Miliband. He was that most rare of politicians: somehow he could be all things to all people, whatever your party leanings. His father was a Nigerian immigrant; his Anglo-Irish mother came from a storied line of QCs, not least her father who had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. He went to a fee-paying secondary school; he also worked on a market stall at weekends and in the box office at Crystal Palace FC. At university, he weighed up becoming either an employment lawyer or a DJ. Umunna had impeccable leftist credentials, but his pronouncements on business and wealth creation would not fluster most Tory voters. In the press, he was often compared to Barack Obama; one profile even noted that their names had identical syllable counts.
‘Politics is terribly old-fashioned. Both main parties are reaching for old solutions to tomorrow’s problems’
And Umunna just looked and felt right: the kind of modern, transformative politician you would sketch out if given a blank sheet of paper. He was a slick, articulate and charismatic social democrat, fierce in debates and fluent in new media. He could come across as a bit too polished, his detractors always noted, almost like he actually had been sketched from a blank sheet of paper. But still, it seemed his destiny to steer his party, to run this country.
Five years on, though, the fresh prince has not become king. As falls from grace go, it’s been a sobering one. He is currently a backbencher in the House of Commons with no official remit. Not only is his party not in power, but he seems to have few influential friends and no defenders any more. He did flirt with a leadership bid in 2015, but that immolated within 72 hours, amid whispers that he must have some kind of deviant past. Almost overnight, we decided that we wanted unflashy, conviction politicians (Jeremy Corbyn), not smooth, metropolitan ones (Tony Blair, David Cameron).
Umunna is mainly heard from these days as an outspoken anti-Brexit talking head, a “Remoaner” in Faragese. From looking like a politician who could bridge the chasm between left and right, he’s chosen a bleak hill to die on: the most wearisome, hopeless and divisive topic of our times. So what went wrong for Chuka Umunna? And does he have a strategy or even the desire to put it right? an amazing wife and not everyone has that. My close mates always laugh at me because I say I’m blessed, but I don’t know what I did to deserve it. And this is an extraordinary job, you have a lot of these moments when you pinch yourself. You never wake up on a Monday morning thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go to work today.’ It doesn’t really work like that.”
And, in south London at least, Umunna remains little short of a cult figure. When he first contested the Streatham seat in 2010, it looked in danger of being stolen; Labour squeaked through with a majority of 3,000. After five years, Umunna had almost quintupled that figure to nearly 14,000. Last time out, in June 2017, he stretched the gap to 26,285, winning a Putin-esque share of the votes cast. Umunna deflects some of the credit to Jeremy Corbyn and to Brexit: Lambeth, the borough in which both Brixton and Streatham fall, voted 78.6 per cent to stay in the European Union, the highest figure in the ballot of anywhere except for Gibraltar.
Still, there don’t seem to be many people round here who don’t know who he is and broadly what he stands for. And he’s a natural, instinctive communicator: whether it’s talking to teenagers at the school (“It’s a ridiculous, nonsense spectacle,” he says of Prime Minister’s Questions, “but it’s the biggest event in politics. It’s box office”) or charming the old dears outside Brixton tube station (“Brexit is not going to solve the causes of Brexit”). “It’s a people job, I love it,” Umunna explains. “On the street stuff, I’d much rather do this all day than sit on the green benches in some long-winded debate. The funny thing is I get surprised by how many people don’t in this job.”
If Umunna can sometimes seem like a shapeshifter, then he thinks his unusual background and upbringing are responsible. His mother, Patricia, was well to do, but half-Irish, so she never qualified as posh. She worked as a probation officer. His father Bennett Umunna, meanwhile, arrived in the Liverpool docks from Nigeria in 1964, carrying his suitcase on his head, basically penniless. He washed plates in the kitchens of a South African diamond-mining company and learned to cook English food; he cleaned limousines and then sat in the back and studied for his business and accountancy exams. Eventually, he ran a successful import-export operation between Nigeria and the UK. Patricia and Bennett met at a party in London in the Seventies; she was 6ft 1in, he was a fraction over 5ft. But they clicked and Chuka (which rhymes with “cooker”) was born on 17 October, 1978.
Bennett’s business did well, and when they weren’t happy with Umunna’s state primary school — “The system in Lambeth then had a terrible record of discriminating against black and minority ethnic kids, writing them off, stereotyping them, and the same thing happened to me” — they moved him to the fee-paying St Dunstan’s College in Catford, south London. He played the cello and was a chorister at Southwark Cathedral. But then, in 1992, when Umunna was 13, Bennett died. A few weeks earlier, he had stood for the governorship of Anambra State in Nigeria with a promise to wipe out corruption. He lost and then not long afterwards a truck carrying logs crashed into the car in which he was travelling. Nothing was ever proved but there were strong suspicions of foul play: the incident happened at night and Bennett didn’t have his usual driver. “There’s been quite a lot of speculation in terms of the circumstances of my father’s death, whether he’d been assassinated,” says Umunna. “The truth is we’ll never know.”
Has Umunna tried to find out what happened? “Well, it’s not going to bring him back, is it?” he replies. “The way things were in Nigeria then… If somebody died under dubious circumstances here, there would be a full-on police investigation, forensics, and that is not how it was in Nigeria at that time. So we really just concentrated on trying to rebuild our lives.”
Rebuilding meant Patricia having to qualify again as a solicitor aged 46; at the weekend, the family had a market stall at Merton Abbey Mills, a scaled-back version of the business Bennett had operated. “My mum went back to work, we all went to work,” Umunna says, with a mirthless laugh. “It was all hands to the pump really after he passed away. It wasn’t an easy time or certainly an affluent time.”
When you ask Umunna — as I did, as everyone does — whether he believes it’s his destiny to be a party leader or even prime minister, he always replies a similar way. It never felt remotely possible, growing up, that he could do
anything like that; even becoming a member of parliament seemed an outrageous fantasy. It’s a deft way of swerving the question, but it makes a valid point. Back then, there were only four MPs out of 650 in the House of Commons from black or Asian backgrounds, people who, in Umunna’s words, “looked like me”: Labour MPs Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and Keith Vaz were all elected for the first time in 1987. South London was not the rapidly gentrifying spot of today; it was the Brixton riots and Del Boy and Rodney with their comical dream of becoming millionaires. “I didn’t have time to do a lot of politicking,” he sighs.
Bennett lives on in his son in ways both superficial and more profound. Umunna has been hammered for liking nice watches, expensive tailoring — the Mail on Sunday frothed that his suits cost £1,200 — but for him, it is “quite an African predilection”. He says, “My dad always made a big thing about having wellcut suits. It’s partly a cultural thing, but for him, looking sharp and presenting yourself well was very, very important. And it’s partly just arriving in the mid-Sixties, small little black man, all the shit you have to put up with, but the first statement you’re making to somebody is how you appear and how you look. Before you’ve even opened your mouth. That was definitely passed onto me. It was a big thing, the suit.”
But Bennett’s life has also informed his approach to politics. When Umunna told his mother that he wanted to leave his job as an employment lawyer at the City firm Herbert Smith Freehills and become an MP, she was “not at all enthusiastic” about the prospect. But now, he thinks that what happened to his father teaches him to not take his job too seriously. “Politics in Africa can be quite life and death, it’s pretty cut-throat,” he says. “That’s probably completely the wrong words to use, but people think it’s challenging here, and over there it’s another thing altogether. It can be quite dangerous, actually. So I suppose some of the nonsense here, maybe it puts it a bit in perspective.”
a week after we wandered around Brixton, I meet Umunna at his offices in Westminster. He wears a slim, royal blue suit made by Alexandra Wood, one of the only female tailors on Savile Row. “I’ve known Ally since we were teenagers and we used to go clubbing together,” says Umunna. His hair is clippered, croquet-lawn short, as it always is these days. He had a flat top as a teenager, but he cut it all off when he went to law school and now he buzzes it every week. He married Alice Sullivan, also an employment lawyer, in 2016 and a pushchair idles next to his desk. Empty I should note; his daughter is downstairs in the House of Commons crèche. “My wife’s doing a big case at the moment,” he says. “And so” — raised eyebrows — “the juggle.”
The fact that such a situation is possible (“I thought at one point my daughter would be walking around while we were doing this”) tells Umunna that he made the right decision to withdraw from the leadership contest in May 2015. It was an odd period, he reflects now, of political and personal upheaval. Labour, under Ed Miliband, had just been trounced by an unforeseen margin in the general election. Umunna had not long been dating Sullivan. When the couple appeared, holding hands, to record the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, the press did what the press does. Umunna’s sister was contacted in Denmark, where she now lives. Photographers turned up at Sullivan’s parents’ house. “I haven’t even met him,” her dad told one reporter. “This is very early on.”
‘If we hit economic choppy waters in the future, where MPs are on the issue of Brexit will never be forgotten’
Umunna announced he was standing, was installed as favourite by the bookies, then withdrew. This all took a little over three days. The official line was: “I have been subject to the added level of pressure that comes with being a leadership candidate. I have not found it to be a comfortable experience.” Of course, there were plenty of unofficial lines, too: that he was gay; that he had a druggy past; that he had relatives back in Nigeria who were members of Boko Haram.
“Being in politics, people were like, ‘Oh was it your drug habit?’” says Umunna, smiling. “Or whatever. I never had a drug habit but it was all like, ‘There must be something. There must be some skeleton in the closet!’ And I was like, ‘There really isn’t.’ It’s as simple as love. And wanting to have a better-balanced life. I was 36 at the time. It’s a time when I feel that you’ve got the rest of your life to do stuff. But now I look back and like I said, I’m a very lucky man indeed.”
No regrets at all? “No!” he almost squeals. “Not at all. Is that the wrong thing to say?”
The Corbyn era has taken a thick red pen to Umunna’s immaculate CV. Shortly after he won, the new Labour leader phoned him — Umunna happened to be in a pub, so he moved outside and took the call in front of a chicken shop — and by the end of the conversation, he was no longer shadow business secretary. Umunna insists he neither resigned nor was fired; the pair just agreed very convivially in fact, because of their differing stances on EU membership, to uncouple.
Still when, at last year’s Labour conference, Umunna hinted that he would, if Corbyn asked, rejoin the party’s front bench, no invitation was forthcoming. The party has moved sharply to the left since 2015 and Umunna notes that he, and others on the centre-left, are denigrated now as “red Tories”. He’s often taunted that he should leave Labour and join the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. This from people technically on his side of the political divide. His relationship with the shadow chancellor John McDonnell is especially febrile. How about Corbyn? “Personally, my relationship with him has always been very good,” says Umunna. “But I want to get away from one’s relationship with the Labour Party being defined by what you think about him. And too often it is about him.”
Are we past peak Corbyn? “Don’t know really,” he replies. “I think there’s far too much discussion about the personality and the cult. I thought the same under Blair, the fan worship of one individual never sat terribly comfortably with me. If Tony Blair hadn’t become leader of the Labour Party I wouldn’t have joined it, but I couldn’t deal with the fandom, which is why it pushed me in a way to the soft-left of the party. And equally, at last year’s party conference somebody presented Jeremy with a picture of himself with a halo on his head on the platform! I was just like, ‘We’re a political party! Not a fan club.’
“So it’s the wrong question for me,” Umunna goes on. “I don’t do the whole cult thing and I don’t care who the leader is and I never ever particularly subscribed to that way of doing politics.”
Like everything that Umunna says, this sounds smooth and compelling, but it is not hard to find people who believe that his best — and perhaps only — chance of becoming Labour leader is in the past. Each year since 2007, the right-leaning blogger and LBC radio host Iain Dale has convened a panel to select the 100 most influential people on the left. Umunna has been a fixture since 2010, with a top-10 ranking from 2012 to 2014, but in recent years, his position has been on the slide. Last year, he was in 20th spot and when the new line-up is revealed in September, Dale expects him to drop further down the list.
“I don’t see that he has had any material influence within the Labour parliamentary party, apart from on Europe,” explains Dale.
“And I think he’s been eclipsed on that subject by one or two people as well. Not surprisingly he wasn’t in Jeremy Corbyn’s top team, and he has been a little bit of a thorn in Corbyn’s side ever since, but not really a rebel that’s caused Corbyn massive problems. So my suspicion would be that he would go down, probably quite a bit, because he’s never mentioned in the next leader conversations any more, partly because of the makeup of the Labour party membership now. So it’s quite difficult where he goes from here, unless there’s some sort of completely unexpected development.”
and yet. It doesn’t feel time to give up on Umunna just yet. A phrase that recurs in our interviews is that “politics is temporary”. There’s certainly plenty of evidence to support that statement from the last few years. The first time Emmanuel Macron runs for any office, he becomes the President of France. Likewise Trump. Corbyn.
“Anything’s possible based on world politics over the last two years!” says Jonathan Reynolds, a Labour MP who has known Umunna since they were at Manchester University together and Umunna’s email address was “ukspeedgaragefreak”. “There’s no sense of Chuka retreating from frontline politics, which is great, he’s still got a big hunger for it and you see that in the Brexit stuff. And I think he’s not obsessing about that leadership stuff, maybe like he was before that contest, which is a good thing, because it means he’s much more comfortable in being himself and doing what he thinks is right. So who knows what that will lead to? There’s no doubt he’s one of the most talented people on our benches.”
Iain Dale, too, notes that there are few Labour politicians that the Conservatives fear as much. He recalls doing a radio phone-in just before the 2015 general election when one caller announced that if Umunna was in charge, he’d vote Labour. It hadn’t been what they were talking about, but for the next hour, caller after caller said exactly the same thing. “It was completely spontaneous; I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Dale. “If Chuka walks into a room, people turn round and he becomes the centre of attention. Oh, if he’d taken over from Ed Miliband he would have been incredibly dangerous to the Tories. Because he’s got that appeal across politics, which all successful politicians have: Margaret Thatcher had it, Tony Blair had it and I think he’s got it.”
For now, Umunna will keep talking to anyone who will listen about Brexit, which he calls “the biggest issue facing this country since World War II”. But when I suggest that he’s gambling on Brexit proving to be a disaster, he seems affronted. “I believe it, so I don’t really see it as a gamble,” he shoots back. “I don’t see it in that way at all. Look, I’m very happy to be proved wrong, that would be great.”
Gazing out of his window, over Parliament Square, he has a doomy prognosis for both parties. “This place thinks that if Brexit happens, things are going to go back to normal,” he says. “So the Labour Party thinks that ultimately it will be seen as the fault of the Conservatives, which I think is wrong. I think, unless we adopt a more distinctive anti-Brexit message, we will be seen as co-midwives of the project, particularly given we did not do enough in 2016 to win that referendum. So the idea that we will be absolved of any responsibility for the fallout is just for the birds.”
When Umunna talks, it’s hard not to feel that he is mentally preparing a future manifesto. He believes that the stance each individual MP takes on Brexit will come to be as significant as where you stood on the Iraq War: “If we hit economic choppy waters in the future, where you are on this issue will never be forgotten,” he predicts. “It will define politics after.” That’s why he spent the early summer attempting — though failing — to convince colleagues to vote to stay in the European Economic Area. And there are other passion projects: he wants a designated NHS tax; he wants to turn the Houses of Parliament into a museum and replace it with a modern electoral system with some form of proportional representation; he wants to reduce the voting age to 16.
“My overwhelming sense really is that the way we do politics is terribly old-fashioned,” he goes on. “Both the two main parties are looking very stale and almost hubristic about the election result last year and not terribly modern. Both the main parties are reaching for old solutions to tomorrow’s problems. Having had time to think, get out, go and see things, that is my feeling.”
It is not often you hear a politician criticise both the opposition and his own party — it sounds like a cagey pitch for a new centrist party. The idea that there’s a vast, mostly overlooked middle ground between the Corbynised Labour Party and a Conservative Party egged on by Jacob Rees-Mogg comes up every so often: in April, it was revealed that a small group of entrepreneurs and philanthropists had secretly raised £50m in funding for a new party. The names most often mentioned as potential leaders are Blair, David Miliband and Umunna.
Umunna knows that trap, and swerves it. “A lot of people talk to me about it, people come up to me on the tube and the bus in London and on the train out of London,” he says. “It’s a growing topic of conversation and it’s the cry of the grass roots and the public for our politics to be different. And the two main parties have an opportunity to address that.”
umunna turns 40 in October. That’s not old, certainly in a job where the average age is 50-ish. But he’s had a bruising, attritional ride. As much as he appeals to voters from both the main parties, he clearly appears to threaten
the politicians from both wings. An example: in 2013, it emerged that the earliest comparison between Umunna and Obama was made in 2008, on a Wikipedia page that was actually created on a computer in the law firm then employing Umunna. Not a great look, and when the prime minister David Cameron taunted him in the Commons, “Can we change our Wikipedia entry? Yes we can!” the line got laughs from the Tory MPs, as you’d expect, but also guffaws from the Labour benches.
Politics is a greased pole, with the participants scrabbling to reach the top like contestants on a Japanese game show. That’s not news, but Umunna does appear to get singled out for special vitriol. The week we first met, he was embroiled in a new row about unpaid interns. I’ ll spare you the back-andforth, but the matter ended with the hashtag #PayUpChuka trending, and a briefing note sent to the entire party reminding them of Labour policy on the matter. “Poor Chuka,” the New Statesman’s “Media Mole” commented. “A salutary lesson: for the leader’s office, revenge is a dish best served in front of all 256 of your colleagues.” A prominent Labour figure, who asked not to be named, tells me: “They are going for him, oh totally. Anything they can do to take him down a peg or two.”
Umunna is not at all easy to get a read on. You have conversations with him that you can’t imagine having with any other British politician (about the Fridge, say, or the protracted discussion he has with the schoolkids in Brixton about how Clarks’ Wallabees, which he used to wear, and Kickers, which he didn't, are now on trend again). He has a sharp intelligence, and he’s drawn to intractable problems: Brexit, with its infinite, abstruse technicalities is perfect for him in this regard. You just know he must have been a formidable lawyer. And, to me at least, he seems sincere in his drive to improve lives, address inequality. But Umunna, to tinker with Alastair Campbell’s declaration, doesn’t do vulnerability. I felt that I could have interviewed him for 100 hours and the real Umunna would have remained a mystery. And perhaps this is fair and sensible: he has the innate suspicions of a man who knows he has many enemies desperate for him to slip up.
Our interactions for this article fell into a pattern. I’d tell Umunna that being a member of parliament looked like a relentless grind, and he’d reply that he had the best job in the world. “Look, politics can be tough,” he says. “Now you say all that, you make me think I should be miserable! Ha ha! I’m an optimist, right.” Umunna has many showy qualities, but these past three years have revealed a new one: resilience. “You get a very thick skin, I suppose,” he says. “You have to in this job.”
Umunna gets called an Icarus, and in a rare — but clearly considered — moment of fallibility, he doesn’t entirely dismiss the suggestion that he rose too high, too fast. “The problem is, you can get a bit drunk on that,” he says. “Particularly if you’re new to politics.”
Is that what happened then? “I hope I didn’t… Maybe I did a bit. But I don’t think I did. What do I think?” He leaves a long pause, which is even more noticeable in such a fluent speaker. “I don’t think I was drunk on it, but it’s a good question to ask. Maybe I’d say, I got slightly carried away with that. The other thing in politics, I think President Macron acknowledges this, is that what you do is only half the story. You don’t control time and place often. And I suppose that’s the thing.”
Macron is in some ways a touchstone for Umunna: same age, similar politics. They met when Umunna was shadow business secretary and Macron was François Hollande’s minister of economy, industry and digital affairs. Before Macron launched his party En Marche! he shared the plans with Umunna — “I was quite bowled over by it,” he says, “very bold” — and it’s said they still swap texts, though Umunna won’t confirm. Another kindred spirit is Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. When Trudeau was in London earlier this year, there were unconfirmed reports that Umunna organised a gathering for him and young centre-left politicians and activists in a pub just off Trafalgar Square. Again, Umunna’s saying nothing.
But, Umunna concedes, Britain is not France; the political system is closer to Canada, which also has first-past-the-post elections, but there are plenty of differences, too. Right now, his strategy is starting to mirror the playbook of a very different politician. Like Umunna, he sat on the backbenches of the House of Commons for years espousing views that seemed not only unfashionable but miles from the zeitgeist. He was beloved in his London constituency, but there was a perception that he was too divisive, too much of a rebel, not a team player. No one believed he could unite his party, let alone galvanise the country behind him.
For Corbyn in 2015 you could read Umunna in 2022. You can almost hear the chants at Glastonbury: “Oh Chuka Umunnaaa…!” It scans rather well.
‘Unless we adopt a more distinctive message, Labour will be seen as comidwives of Brexit, given we did not do enough to win the 2016 referendum’
Chuka Umunna, photographed in 1980 in the garden of his family home in Streatham, south London. Since 2010, he has been the area's Member of Parliament Opposite left: Umunna’s father, Bennett Umunna, who died in mysterious circumstances in a road accident in Nigeria, in 1992 Opposite right: Umunna, his younger sister Chinwe and their mother Patricia at a friend’s recent wedding on the Isle of Wight
for the record, Umunna would no doubt dispute that analysis and, to be fair, he does not strike you as a hollow, unfulfilled person. “I honestly do feel like the luckiest man alive,” he insists, over lunch at Batch and Co, a coffee shop in Streatham. “I have a beautiful daughter,
Umunna marriedAlice Sullivan, an employment lawyer, in Gloucestershire in 2016
Above, left: Umunna with Emmanuel Macron, then France's Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, Paris, October 2015 Above, right: alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a policy network reception, London, 2015