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19 September 2014
A balanced approach

A balanced approach

Chuka Umunna’s father arrived in Liverpool in the mid-1950s, by boat from Nigeria. “He came here – like so many immigrants – to create a better life for himself and to make a contribution,” said Umunna. “But, like every other person of colour in 1960s Britain, he faced rampant discrimination. Remember the famous signs on hostel windows: ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’.”

Bennett Umunna started out washing cars but went on to establish his own import-export business. He married Patricia Milmo, a solicitor, and daughter of Sir Helenus Milmo, the High Court judge and a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Nazi trials. They had two children – Chuka has a younger sister – and lived in Streatham, the constituency that he now represents.

Chuka Umunna’s world view is strongly influenced by his father’s experience and Labour “leading the charge for equalities legislation in the 60s and 70s”. As well as tackling racial discrimination, it benefitted working women too - like his mother - who were paid less than their male peers. Today, Patricia Umunna is a partner in a law firm, specialising in social housing. Chuka Umunna’s father died in a car accident in Nigeria in 1992. “It was incredibly painful. Obviously, it had a huge effect on my life,” he told The Financial Times earlier this year.

Umunna recalls an early awareness of social divides, visiting his father’s relatives in Nigeria and growing up in Streatham. When he went to study law at Manchester University he joined the Labour club. He also developed a love of “soulful house and garage” music and clubs, a distinction which political enemies would later use to characterise him as something of a playboy. After university, he trained and practised at the international City law firm Herbert Smith where he acted for businesses large and small, from global conglomerates to family-run firms.

He also began writing commentary pieces on Labour for political magazines and, eventually, mainstream media. In 2008, Umunna was adopted as the Labour Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Streatham and was elected at the 2010 General Election. His ascent within the party has been rapid; he served on the Treasury Select Committee and was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ed Miliband. In 2011, he became a Shadow Minister in Labour’s Business, Innovation and Skills team and then in the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Secretary of State, replacing John Denham.

“As a movement, we’ve always worked to ensure the right balance of power between those who have and those who do not. That ideal endures,” he told delegates at the TUC conference earlier this month. “But let’s face it, the context in which we seek to achieve social justice – to ensure people have good, fulfilling work – is changing.

“We’ve all seen the winds of change blowing through towns and communities across Britain. The emerging economies of the South and East are posing greater competition than ever to our firms and our workers. New technologies are transforming how business is done. Yes, creating new jobs, but also making many of the jobs people have done for generations disappear; and the new jobs are not always better jobs.

“And, the thing is, we cannot stop this change: we can’t stop the rise of international competition. We can’t stop the onward march of technology. Doing so through protectionist measures, for example, would be entirely counterproductive.

“But we can and we must shape these forces of change together to build the kinds of jobs and the better future we want for our children, our families, our communities. We must ensure our firms are the ones producing and creating those new technologies the world wants, enabling us to pay our way in the world, building an economy of good jobs and higher wages for all.”

Labour’s long-term plan for growth, with its ‘Agenda 2030’ industrial strategy at its core, “will animate the whole of government, backing our businesses and those working within them,” he said. “A strategic and strong pro-worker, pro-business agenda that has us all working together – employers, trade unions and government – to ensure the UK and all of our people succeed. It’s the only way we will rise to the challenge of building a new economy for this modern, global world.”

Over the summer, the think tank, Policy Network, published Owning the Future, a book edited by Umunna with contributions from economists, business leaders, entrepreneurs and politicians. Referring again to the “winds of change”, Umunna said: “In some places, people have had the tools to harness what these winds of change can bring. Think of London with its global reach, Cambridge with its IT and biotechnology firms, Leeds and Edinburgh with their financial services. Some – but by no means all – of the people in those cities and elsewhere are thriving in this world of Bitcoin, Kickstarter and AirBnB.”

But millions have had no such luck, he said, as the wages of ordinary workers have become disconnected from growth in the economy overall. He cited Ed Miliband defining the task of remaking this link as the challenge of our age. “Our task is to build a high wage, high skill economy, with good jobs offering a career and a future,” he said. Umunna described the “hollowing out” of the labour market. Lots of jobs are being created at the top, among bankers, lawyers and consultants. Lots of jobs are being created at the bottom, among cleaners, carers and administrative staff.

“We should celebrate the creation of these jobs. But we should also regret the decline of the ‘in-betweeners’; those in well-paid, secure jobs in the middle which require technical skills. Like a gale, it can throw things we thought had deep roots and foundations up in the air. This decline matters. It means the steady exclusion of people from the benefits of the globalised, high-tech economy. In the past, many factory workers and middle managers could make enough money to buy a home, sustain a family, own a car and enjoy an annual holiday. Increasingly, that is not the case.”

He said that the places that are seeing the greatest success – Singapore, San Francisco and Sydney among them – are doing so by “enabling more and more people to build the windmill that is needed”. That involves strengthening social resilience and the collective ability to absorb risk, reforming vocational education, increasing access to finance for new ventures, and guiding entrepreneurs into new markets.

“Britain can learn huge amounts from such places. But it has a distinctive economy of its own. We need to adapt such lessons to our own situation. It [will] only be through aligning the policy horizons of politicians with the investment horizons of our businesses that we could build an economy generating balanced, sustainable and inclusive growth.” 

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