Exclusive interview with Mr. Chuka Umunna, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Streatham
It is extremely important for people to become active members of their societies and communities, and to use their democratic rights to make their voices heard, says Mr. Chuka Umunna, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Streatham. He is convinced that “Politics is a primary vehicle for effecting positive change.”
Mr. Umunna is a specialist employment law solicitor by profession. In addition, he sits on the Board of Generation Next, a not for profit social enterprise which provides activities for young people in London, and has been involved in charitable youth work in Lambeth too.
Prior to becoming Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Streatham, Mr. Umunna was Vice Chair of Streatham Labour Party from 2004 to 2008 and had held a variety of positions throughout the local party. He is a member of the GMB and Unite trade unions and sits on the Management Committee of progressive pressure group, Compass.
If elected, Mr. Umunna would be the first MP for Streatham to be from and who grew up in the area. As a person of mixed Nigerian, Irish and English descent, Mr. Umunna would become the first person of Black parentage to represent one of the three parliamentary constituencies covering the Brixton area. Aged 30, if elected Mr. Umunna would also become one of the youngest MPs in the country. Here’s an exclusive interview he granted The AfroNews.
Mr. Umunna, why did you decide to join active politics?
I became involved because politics is a primary vehicle for effecting positive change in my view. Things are a lot better than they were in 1997, but there are still lots of outstanding issues which I feel passionate about and would like to do my bit to address: the persistent inequalities in wealth - why some have so much and some still have so little; the lack of democracy around the world and the failings of our electoral system here in the UK; and, the coming planetary catastrophe which we’re heading for if we don’t get a grip on global warming.
I grew up in and still live in Streatham. During the 1980s the area suffered disproportionately from the adverse affects of Thatcherism and, even at a young age, this made a big impression on me. Also, in my youth I often visited my father’s native Nigeria and came face to face with the extreme poverty one sees in Africa. From there sprung a desire to do something about it and the other challenges we face.
What are the main problems affecting people in Streatham?
Improving transport is important, particularly because Streatham is not as well connected as many other areas in London. Housing is a huge issue nationally, and this is reflected locally in Streatham - we need to ensure that everyone has access to high quality, affordable, decent housing. Education has improved massively - the number of people going to university has increased by more than 81% since 1997 - but continued investment in future generations is essential, particularly with the high demand for school places in London. Young people have suffered disproportionately from unemployment in the downturn, and we must ensure that unlike in the 1980s, they are not abandoned to the scrapheap.
If elected MP, how do you plan to solve these problems?
If elected, I would be a champion for the area, its people and its needs and would work tirelessly for local people. I have half a decade of experience in assisting the current Streatham MP Keith Hill deal with residents’ problems at local advice surgeries and intend to follow his example and the high standards he has set if local people give me the privilege of representing them. Fundamentally, money and resources are always important. For example, to create capacity to deal with the growing demand for school places we are investing in new school buildings for the local area. We are also investing in building new affordable houses in the area, but nationally there needs to be a fundamental transformation in the housing market so affordable homes are available for everyone.
I am young relative to other politicians but have experience outside of Westminster to bring to the table. I am a solicitor, a trustee of two youth charities and a school governor – this can all be brought to bear on policy and on promoting local people’s interests.
Why should the people in Streatham elect you to become their MP?
If elected, I would be the first MP for Streatham to be from and who grew up in the area. I love my community – the place and its people. I understand what makes it tick because it is where I am from and where I grew up. I am part of a new generation which, contrary to popular myth, is not apathetic about politics but disdainful of party politics and the traditional ways of doing things. Politicians need to listen more and lecture less, empower people to make their own decisions, and not patronise. I would work to implement a transformational constitutional reform agenda to bring about the change we want to see, so more people in Streatham and beyond are moved to get involved with and benefit from the democratic process.
You’ve been referred to as the British Obama. How do you feel about that?
Although of course on one level this is very flattering, I’d much rather be known as Streatham’s Chuka Umunna and it can be frustrating when people define you through the prism of somebody else’s identity rather than your own. I am different, and the British political system is different. We shouldn’t be in the situation where every young black politician is compared to Obama.
Does Obama inspire you in any way?
Of course – he’s inspiring in lots of ways, but more than anything else, I admire his determination to do politics differently. This has included building bridges across party divides, using the internet and social networks to communicate with those turned off by traditional politics and eschewing the personal attacks which too often characterise political debate.
The political system in the UK is due a huge change. We need to elect the House of Lords, reform the voting system and crucially get rid of the partisan knockabout politics exemplified by Prime Minister’s Questions which turns many people off. President Obama’s example challenges us to renew our politics here in the UK.
Why do you think BME are underrepresented in Local and National Government?
The current situation is not good enough. One of the main obstacles is the process by which political parties choose candidates – this is something which affects all parties, not just Labour. Personally, I am in favour of open primaries and feel that, while not a panacea, they would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Currently, selection systems often favour those with access to insiders and connections and there is a tendency across all the political parties for party activists to recruit candidates in their own image, which can be a problem. The result can be that the process ends up being closed to others. 13 of the 15 black and minority ethnic MPs currently in the House of Commons are Labour, and in 2001 we were the party which appointed Britain’s first black cabinet minister, Paul Boateng. Since then we have always had someone of colour in the cabinet, which was never the case previously. So while Parliament isn’t yet representative, we should remember that there has been progress in the last decade.
What can be done to improve representation of BME in Local and National Government?
As well as open primaries, which I believe would make a difference, I am in favour of hybrid shortlists. All-women shortlists have had a real impact in improving the representation of women, and similar positive action could work for BME candidates. It is important to bear in mind, though, that according to some estimates there could be as many as 30 BME MPs after this year’s general election, so things are already changing. In terms of representation, the situation of women is in some respects more urgent: currently, less than a fifth of MPs are women.
Do you think a British equivalent of Barack Obama would find it extremely difficult to become Prime Minister?
In the past I always thought a black premier was less likely in the USA, because the President is Head of State while here the Prime Minister is not. I certainly think it’s possible here in my lifetime.
What’s your view on UK’s Foreign Policies in Africa?
The Labour government’s approach to Africa have been very constructive. Crucially, we put international development at the centre of the government agenda by creating the Department for International Development and the UK has trebled its aid spending since 1997.
Like many other Britons with family in Nigeria, I have been concerned about the apparent power vacuum there and the health of the President. Recently, I obtained confirmation from Foreign Secretary David Miliband MP on the British government’s understanding of the political crisis in Nigeria and I continue to monitor the situation closely.
What’s your advice to young people who would like to join active politics?
Get involved and, as Gandhi said, be the change that you want to see. Our system needs to improve, but unless people become involved and agitate for change we won’t see anything happen. The 2008 presidential election in the United States is a great illustration of this - thousands of people were fed up with the status quo and the way politics operated so they registered to vote and became involved in Barack Obama’s campaign in greater numbers than ever before – without this, he would never have become President. Undoubtedly he was a fantastic candidate, but the way the campaign was infused with energy by volunteers, particularly the young, made a real difference. Now, he is poised to become the first US President to implement universal health coverage, and everyone who helped him get elected can claim credit for that achievement.
CHUKA UMUNNA’S CONTACTS AND LINKS
Mr. Chuka Umunna welcomes all who would like to come and help on his campaign in Streatham.
By Stephen Ogongo
Use your vote to make a difference, Umunna urges young people