Chuka Umunna arrives at Perfect Blend on Streatham High Street, slumps down in the chair and exclaims, “Oh God, I’m so tired!” It is one of the only moments in the next 45 minutes when he reveals something more than just ‘Chuka , the up- and-coming new Labour candidate’. He has just been at an estate in the Streatham constituency (which includes Brixton Hill ward) where he is hoping to become MP, meeting with residents and listening to their stories. As well as holding a part-time job as an employment lawyer at Rochman Landau, he attends tenants’ meetings, party strategy meetings, is a governor at Sunnyhill Primary School, sits on the boards of Sunnyhill Children’s Centre and Generation Next, twitters incessantly and, of course, goes doorstepping every week. He has a right to be tired.
Some politicians have a ‘line’ for the public; others are more honest but subject to making life tricky for themselves by saying something out of ‘line’. Peter Mandelson might be said to emulate the first type; Ken Livingstone the second. Chuka Umunna is neither a Peter Mandelson nor a Ken Livingstone. “I don’t want to be one of those android politicians. I never have a ‘line’”, he says. Indeed, he is outspoken and, for many, even inspirational. But he is also a totally polished package. I’ve never met a smoother person. Even saying that he doesn’t want to be an ‘android’ – something he has repeated in other interviews – fits perfectly into the reputation he has built as a star of a new Labour generation offering something different in a climate of scandal and spin.
Chuka Umunna grew up in Streatham and, if he is elected, he will be the first MP in the constituency to actually come from the constituency. “I just love Streatham”, he enthuses. It’s the second time he really breaks out of polished campaign mode and speaks with real gusto. You can tell that he really cares about the people here – he has known many of them since childhood, he loves meeting new constituents and he embraces being out and about in his ‘patch’. What he loves most about Streatham, he says, is its diversity. “Not just the ethnic diversity, which is what everyone thinks of first, but the amount of different types of people from different backgrounds. Lots of people see Streatham Hill as just a road to go from A to B, but there is a lot going on here.”
Umunna is taking over from Keith Hill, who retires this May after 18 years as Streatham MP. He and Hill come from very different Labour traditions. Hill’s voting record is overwhelmingly New Labour – he voted for the Iraq war, anti-terrorism laws and replacing Trident; he voted against an Iraq investigation. In an interview with the Guardian, Umunna claimed that 1997 was like a ‘birthday’. Now, 13 years later, he is vehemently anti-New Labour. “I’m just plain Labour”, he says. How has he been able to stay Labour faithful at all? “There was a lot of soul-searching after the invasion of Iraq. I would never vote for an illegal war”. Yet he insists that Labour is not a one-trick pony and has members of many different persuasions. Umunna is part of what he calls the ‘soft’ left of Labour, a rising star in the leftwing pressure group Compass.
His policy ideas are certainly more progressive than we’ve come to expect from Brown and Co. He suggests that Trident should be the first to go in the round of public spending cuts to come after the general election, he is a fervent supporter of proportional representation and he has campaigned against higher student ‘top up’ fees. He cites flexible working times for parents of teenage children to encourage a more family-orientated community and prevent kids from areas like Lambeth finding a family-replacement in gang life. For Chuka, we need to listen more to what young people say and he is critical of an approach – taking place under the Labour government of course – which has painted urban boys as hoodie-wearing thugs.
More specific to Streatham itself, Umunna has campaigned hard against Tesco’s provarications over the ‘Streatham Hub Project’. He is hazier about what exactly he has been doing in Brixton Hill, but cites his support for Philippe Castaing’s ‘Brixton Green’ project and the Q&A session on climate change he organised with Ed Miliband in Brixton Town Hall.
Is he worried about not being able to fulfil his promises to the Streatham voter? “No, not really. If I win, I am making a contract with the voter.” He stresses that even with a Conservative majority, he would work with his opponents as much as possible to get the things he has promised into law. He adds the obligatory qualification – “obviously I don’t think the Conservatives are going to do a good job”.
A week after the interview, I realise what has confused me about Chuka – he’s outspoken, he’s progressive, but he’s not angry. That’s why he can be so smooth. He’s wearing red-for-Labour tie and cufflinks, for goodness sake. For some people the fact that he’s a positive politician is a fantastic thing, but what if it is anger that ultimately creates real change?