Murnaghan Interview with Chuka Umunna, Shadow Business Secretary

January 2015
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Now the old saying is, isn’t it, that elections are always won in the centre ground.  That’s the view of many political commentators and by at least one former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair and he warned last week that a lurch to the left by Ed Miliband could end in electoral defeat for Labour so is the party on the left or is it still in the centre ground?  Well one of Labour’s front benchers who has always been seen as a Blairite is the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, and he joins me now.

CHUKA UMUNNA: Happy new year, Dermot, good to be here.

DM: And a happy new year to you, Mr Umunna.  So tell me about this, you must have read Mr Blair’s comments in The Economist  last week and he said this, didn’t he, about a traditional party of the left and the traditional party of the right and the traditional result and when pushed from that he says the party of the right wins.

CHUKA UMUNNA: Yes, well look, the Labour party wins when it is both seeking to build a more compassionate society which looks after those who can’t look after themselves, the poor and the vulnerable, but also is ambitious for its people and wants to ensure our people have a platform to go on and meet their aspirations, those people who say want to move from their council flat to a house, those people who want to move from a junior position in their workplace to a senior position to running the place.  We want to ensure that they’ve got the skills and that we are helping them achieve their aspirations and dreams so marrying the two together is how Labour traditionally always wins.

DM: Which is what Mr Blair wants.

CHUKA UMUNNA: That is how we won in ’97 and that is how Ed and the entire team is seeking to win in what, less than five months now.

DM: Actually I am just trying to get your reaction to that comment.  So you don’t disagree with it but what you are saying is that Labour has not moved that far to the left?

CHUKA UMUNNA: I don’t believe we’ve moved left or right, we are firmly anchored in the centre ground and in any event, I don’t believe that people watching this programme think in terms of left and right which is often how things are seen here in the Westminster bubble, people look at what is right and wrong.  So is helping more people go on to do real proper apprenticeships, is that the right or the wrong thing to do?  Of course it’s the right thing to do.  Is ensuring that people have more secure work by abolishing zero hours contracts, exploitative zero hours contracts, is that the right or the wrong thing to do?  I don’t think that people see it in terms of left and right and we are firmly anchored in the centre ground and … everyone does see it that way.

DM: Well let’s put another of Mr Blair’s comments to you then and left or right or whatever, he said you can’t be anti-business as Labour.

CHUKA UMUNNA: Well that’s right.

DM: Your leader has characterised some businesses as predators.

CHUKA UMUNNA: What we’ve said is we cannot carry on with business as usual, we’ve got to reform the way our economy works but I am incredibly proud that over the last two years I and my Shadow business team, the Labour Shadow business team, have instigated Small Business Saturday which in 2014 and 2013 saw the biggest celebration of business we’ve seen in this country in a generation.

DM: Okay so they are good businesses but what about the predators?  Some businesses are predators, energy companies, banks?

CHUKA UMUNNA: Well I don’t think you can necessarily make broad generalisations but if you look at the banking sector for example and the problems that caused our economy, that cost almost £1.3 trillion.  If you look at the hike in energy bills that businesses and individuals have been facing, those have been quite extraordinary too but I think what we are seeking, what I want to do if I have the privilege of serving and appointed by Ed Miliband as the Business Secretary in the next Labour government, I want to make sure that we promote those business models, practices and behaviours that promote long term economic growth and also give consumers a really good deal and actually, do you know what, there are loads of fantastic examples of that already in the British economy and what we want to see is that actually permeate through all sectors and through all of our …

DM: So let me get this clear, Mr Umunna, what you saying then is that it was termed Tony Blair’s Big Tent wasn’t it, it is still firmly aloft and you want votes from all sections of society.

CHUKA UMUNNA: Of course.

DM: Well there were comments from one of Ed Miliband’s former advisors saying in an open letter to Mr Blair in rebuttal saying the problem was that your tent was too big, we didn’t want the votes from the rich.

CHUKA UMUNNA: I actually think that one of the disappointing things actually in 2014 about our politics and about the national debate is that I believe that division was beginning to arise, people were setting different groups against each other, you know, basically seeking to blame for example Eastern Europeans for all of the country’s problems and …

DM: And bankers.

CHUKA UMUNNA: … and you saw tensions between people of different religions, different classes and actually …

DM: You are trying to blame the bankers.

CHUKA UMUNNA: Well one moment, actually the bankers are people who have a particular occupation, I am talking about different groups in society.  Actually when Britain succeeds well is when we actually come together and seek to meet the common challenges that we face and for that you need a party which is capable of representing all parts of Britain – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England, the Labour party has representation all over the UK.  You also need a party which wants to represent all of our different groups and pull everybody together so if that’s what your aim is, of course you should be aiming to build as big a tent as possible.

DM: Let me ask you a specific point about that, you mentioned Scotland there, you have got a new leader of Scottish Labour there in Jim Murphy, do you think Ed Miliband should go north of the border to help him out during the election campaign?  Some there say they don’t want to see him.

CHUKA UMUNNA: Well I haven’t heard anybody say that but over the next four to five months Ed will be going to every part of the country, every part of the UK as will I and all the other members of the Shadow Cabinet.  One of the brilliant things actually and the nice things about entering an election period is you actually get into the bread and butter of campaigning and that gets us out of this place which frankly many people feel is remote and gets us into every town, every city, every region and since I became Business Secretary over three years ago now …

DM: Shadow Business Secretary!

CHUKA UMUNNA: Shadow Business Secretary, as I said Dermot, we’re an ambitious party, we want to make sure that we get elected this year!

DM: Well how ambitious are you?  If you don’t get elected, do you want to be leader?

CHUKA UMUNNA: I don’t accept the premise of your question because that is predicated on us losing and I am absolutely, and all of the team, are working towards ensuring that we win in 2015.

DM: So maybe further down the line?

CHUKA UMUNNA: No, no, I’m not even getting into that sort of conversation Dermot, you have tried this on me many times.

DM: Of course I have, I have to try it every time.  Well you’re seen as the heir to Blair, I know you don’t like that phrase, but would you like to see the former Prime Minister and your winningest – I hate that phrase but your winningest ever leader, three elections …

CHUKA UMUNNA: Winningest?

DM: Yes, that’s the American phrase, you must be aware of it – a three time election winner, would you like to see him involved in this campaign?  I mean he’s a wise old bird at campaigning isn’t he?

CHUKA UMUNNA: I feel all parts and all members of the Labour family need to get involved with the effort.  We’ve got a big challenge, I believe we can meet it, I believe this is a crucial time for our country, we’re a great country with a great history, we’ve traditionally punched above our weight on the international field but I think that has really been called into question now.  You look at our approach vis a vis Europe, you look at the approach vis a vis the world, some people suggesting that we shut Britain down for business to other people, to other businesses, to new ideas.  I think that would be the wrong approach for our people, it would be the wrong approach for my constituents in Streatham, that’s what this general election is going to be about.

DM: Just from that, am I reading into that, we’ve just had Nigel Farage on as you know, the UKIP leader, and he said he would do a deal with anyone to get what he wants and in the past he has included Labour amongst that.  Would you write that off?  It’s not any kind of a fit is it, UKIP and Labour?

CHUKA UMUNNA: Frankly I think you see a huge amount of hubris on the part of Nigel Farage and some of the other parties.  At the end of the day we are fighting for a majority Labour government, the people will decide what the result is going to be and then what will happen after, will happen after but if you look at UKIP you have a party where you have got a leader who got stuck in a traffic jam last year and blamed that on immigrants.  You have them getting into bed and forming a grouping with a far right Polish party in Europe, with a Polish MEP who has joked about husbands beating their wives and is a Polish far right party led by holocaust, someone who has questioned whether the holocaust has happened and has engaged in racism on a huge scale.  That is not what British values are.

DM: Okay, we hear all that but is that a deal breaker then?  In the reality of politics you have got a Labour party that hasn’t quite got a majority but he has got ten MPs and says I will support you in everything else you do if you give me a referendum?

CHUKA UMUNNA: I people will decide and we are going to work towards a Labour majority but what I’m very clear about is that I don’t believe a whole lot of what UKIP espouse – privatisation of the NHS, watering down people’s rights at work, giving people earning millions of pounds tax breaks whilst everyone else is suffering from tax hikes – I don’t believe that is the way forward for our country and I certainly don’t believe sowing the seeds of division and setting up different groups against each other, blaming everything on Eastern Europeans, nor do I believe that is the way forward for our country.

DM: And a rebuttal please to the Prime Minister’s charge today that Labour would only add to the nation’s debt.  You can’t refute that can you because you haven’t got any plans to go into surplus and start paying off the debt?

CHUKA UMUNNA: Well the Prime Minister said a number of things about tax and a number of things about debt today and what you see here are desperate claims from a desperate Prime Minister.  For him to start talking about Labour, if we get in, increasing people’s taxes when he has increased taxes more than 20 times in the course of this parliament.  He promised he would not increase VAT before the General Election and just like John Major, who he used to work for, remember John Major in 1992 promising as well to cut VAT – what did he and John Major do after they were elected?  They increased VAT.  And on the debt, I mean please, this is a man who is borrowing £219 billion more than he planned to do at the beginning of this parliament, that is the equivalent of health, defence and transport budgets put together, because his economic plan has failed and he has failed by his own tests.  One thing he didn’t mention this morning anything about were people’s wages, people are earning £1600 less than they were at the beginning of this parliament and that’s why we want to get people’s wages up by increasing the level of the minimum wage, incentivising employers to pay a living wage and through a proper industrial strategy, growing those sectors of the economy that deliver well paid jobs in the first instance.

DM: Interesting campaign ahead, that’s for sure.  Shadow Business Secretary, thank you very much indeed, Chuka Umunna there.

Source: DERMOT MURNAGHAN, Sky

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