The Labour MP tells Tim Walker that voters won’t forgive politicians who put party politics before the national interest.
If there is one individual in Westminster who has not been transfixed by the latest dramatic episode in the Brexit soap opera – David Davis, Boris Johnson and Steve Baker being dramatically written out of the series – it is Chuka Umunna.
‘It wasn’t surprising that they would have to go because although they clearly didn’t like the mish-mash of ideas that Theresa May had proposed at the Chequers summit, they couldn’t come up with a viable alternative,’ says the 39-year-old Labour MP for Streatham in south London.
‘The one interesting thing that did come out of this was Baker’s admission in his resignation letter that the parliamentary arithmetic was constraining the Government’s room for manoeuvre. Up until now, the Brexiteers haven’t got their heads around the fact that the Tory Party no longer has a big majority in the House and they can’t just ram through whatever they like.’
Umunna’s office in Porcullis House is in the shadow of Big Ben, which is currently encased in scaffolding as the workmen attempt to stabilise the crumbling edifice within. The symbolism is not lost on him.
‘There are a lot of people around here who think that, after we’ve got through all of this upheaval, it will be business as usual again,’ he adds. ‘Labour will get back to focusing on an anti-austerity agenda, and the Tories – once they have dispatched Mrs May – will start to try to mend fences with the business community.
‘But things can never be the same again as the system we have has clearly broken. Our system requires our two parties to be broad-based coalitions of interests, and, at the moment, neither can claim to be that. The traditional class-based, left-right fulcrum that British politics used to revolve around is still relevant, of course, but it is not as determinative as it has been.
‘People define themselves in new ways now – as, say, nationalists or internationalists or social liberals or social conservatives – and this has already resulted in voters being much more prepared to switch parties between elections. Certainly, with all the things that we are now seeing changing – the nature of our economy, the geographical demography of the country, technology disrupting everything – the idea that this place gets preserved in aspic forever is absurd.’
Umunna is not a tribal politician and unhesitatingly accepted a place on the serious violence task force set up by Amber Rudd when she was home secretary. He took the view that stopping blood being shed on the streets of his constituency was more important and urgent to him than party politics.
‘The ultra-tribal adversarial form of politics we had in this country is now rather old hat and anachronistic and it turns off the public,’ he says. ‘I recall when Anna Soubry and I went on the Marr show earlier this year to talk about Brexit, we were both a bit nervous about how our respective parties would react. In the event, the response – certainly outside of the Westminster bubble – was positive and I think now the public are unforgiving if politicians don’t find common cause when it is in the national interest.’
Umunna insists that he is determined to fight from within to see the Labour Party modernise and reform itself so it can meet the new challenges but, inevitably, there have been rumours about him jumping ship. Earlier this year it was suggested that he and Soubry were about to join the Lib Dems and, more recently, he has been spoken of as a leader of the campaign group Open Britain – if and when it transforms itself into a political party.
‘The thing that I find curious about the whole concept of a new force in British politics is that the people who talk the most about it – certainly on the left – are on the extreme side of it and they have spent the best part of two years telling social democrats at the centre like me to ‘get out of the party, you are a red Tory, go and join the Lib Dems or whatever,’ he replies.
‘Now these very same people are writing pieces saying that anyone who does that will be sabotaging a future Corbyn government, but they can’t have it both ways by telling people like me, on the one hand, to get out, and, on the other, say if you do get out you are sabotaging the party. Seriously, the idea of a new force in British politics emerging is more a question for both of the main parties because they would be its midwives.’
As a moderniser, Umunna’s relationship with Jeremy Corbyn is necessarily fractious. He admits that he feels ‘anger’ that the party under Corbyn did not campaign as passionately in the EU Referendum as it did in the 2017 general election. It worries him that young voters, who in the main believe in the EU, are turning away from the party as a consequence.
Umunna feels strongly about Brexit because it goes to the core of who he is. His father was Nigerian and his mother Irish-English. He has a Danish brother-in-law, a French aunt, and Spanish blood, too, in the family. Voting for Article 50 was therefore the hardest decision he ever had to take in his political career. He had, however, visited the Leave heartlands after the result to try to understand what had precipitated the result and came to the view that, having signed up to the referendum, MPs could not then refuse to abide by the result.
‘I felt that to do that would cause still more division, but I always made triggering Article 50 conditional so far as I was concerned on whether it was possible to deliver Brexit in the terms that it was sold to the British people.’
To put it mildly, Umunna had reasonable grounds for not believing that the Brexiteers would be able to keep to his terms and conditions, which was why, last summer, he agreed to set up a grassroots co-ordinating group that laid the groundwork for the People’s Vote campaign.
‘I think bringing together all the pro-EU and anti-Brexit groups – with all the parties represented – has proved very effective. We have gone from the idea that we all had to reconcile ourselves to a hard and disastrous Brexit, to seeing 100,000 or more marching on the streets of London, Mrs May rubbing out all those red lines of hers, amendments to the legislation being put down, and the Brexiteers starting to complain how we are now making the weather in this debate.
‘If we get our vote, then we must not re-run the mistakes of the referendum. We need to address, in particular, the issue of immigration head-on. We need to level with the British people and make it absolutely clear that the causes of Brexit are not going to be solved by Brexit. The reasons that led people to believe we had to reduce the number of EU citizens coming here – the shortage of school places, pressure on public services, not being able to get a decent job, not being paid enough – these are all things that are going to get worse as a result of Brexit, not better.
‘Above all things, we must not allow these nasty chancers who are trying to silence constituency MPs, the judiciary, business, the Bank of England – and anyone who says anything they don’t like – to get their way. Now it’s time for all of us to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. This is where we can make history.’