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Geopolitics

Meet Chuka Umunna, UK Labour Party's Answer To Obama

Umunna speaking at the Labour Party Annual Conference in Brighton
Umunna speaking at the Labour Party Annual Conference in Brighton
Marc Roche

LONDON — A conservative British politician? Stereotypes would call for him to be educated in an expensive private school, to wear tailor-made suits from Savile Row and to be able to recite Shakespeare sonnets without an accent. We would expect him to have been a lawyer, a banker or a chartered accountant — and to be Anglican.

Chuka Umunna, 35, fits the description, with one exception: He is a member of the Labour party. “I want a fairer, more equal, more sustainable world,” says Umunna, explaining his left-wing views.

Like the Daily Mail newspaper, many see in this son of a Nigerian immigrant father and an Irish lawyer mother, the “future British Obama.” A tall, charismatic mixed-race law school graduate, the South London native shares some features with the current U.S. President.

The hope of the Labour party aspires one day to be the first black person to occupy 10 Downing Street.

Umunna’s rise is spectacular. It is a story of social and multicultural success worthy of Hanif Kureishi’s novels. Consider the story of his father Bennet, a Christian Nigerian belonging to the Igbo ethnic group. He arrived in Liverpool without a penny in 1964, before creating a successful import-export business with Africa. His mother is a white Englishwoman whose Irish father was a judge at London's High Court after being a magistrate in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders.

Chuka (which means “God is the greatest”) attended a prestigious private school, St. Dunstan's College. A good student, he played the cello and took part in the famous choir at Southward Cathedral. But in 1991, his father went into Nigerian politics as a candidate for the position of governor. Running on an anti-corruption platform, he was assassinated. Just a teenager at the time, Umunna understood that only relentlessness and education would help him to recover from his immense grief.

After studying law in Manchester, Umunna became a lawyer and worked in London’s financial district. Despite his own personal success, poverty and unemployment of those left behind by Thatcherism outraged him. That’s why the young attorney saw the 1997 election of Tony Blair as a sort of liberation, an end to 18 years of bronze conservatism. “I am a child of the fall of Thatcher and the achievement of the New Labour,” he says, explaining his political commitment.

Umunna campaigning for Labour in Manchester — Photo: Joel Goodman/ZUMA

Urged by friends to run for election to parliament in South London's Streatham district, a Labour bastion, he was in fact elected in 2010. And since 2011, the talented orator has held the position of Shadow Business Secretary.

Target on his back

Umunna has become a marked man for Prime Minister David Cameron"s conservatives as the the 2015 general elections approach. But they will have to contend with Chuka's considerable image. “The character is more than a politician. This is a brand, a concept, a franchise of British modernity,” the conservative political magazine Total Politics wrote in admiration.

Umunna, a supporter of tax increases on the richest, has managed to spin his policy bent successfully with employers, who are full of praise about this pragmatic pol attentive to their complaints of Labour. “This is someone with whom we can do business,” says the head of the Confederation of British Industry.

But Chuka Umunna also has detractors. Some within his own party accuse him of having ulterior motives. His goals are perceived by some as more supportive of a personal ambition than an actual social project. He describes himself as a European social democrat without going into more detail.

His critics also believe that everything has been too easy for him. Does he actually possess the necessary qualities to steer the British left — pulled as it is between parliamentarians, trade unions and activists — out of the rut?

And there are only 27 elected representatives from ethnic minorities among the 650 members of the Lower House. Paradoxically, the Conservatives are more innovative than the Labour party in choosing their leaders. Their leaders have included a Jewish man (Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century), an unmarried man believed to be homosexual (Edward Heath in 1965), and a woman (Margaret Thatcher in 1975), which reflects this relative openness. In contrast, the traditional white working component of the Labour party is reluctant to change, which means Umunna may have chosen the wrong party to keep rising.

But Chuka Umunna couldn't care less. Already a legend, he is burning to write a new page of British history.

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