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Chuka Umunna: inner city pressure

As the race for the Labour leadership heats up, we revisit our 2011 interview with man of the moment Chuka Umunna

Yesterday, Streatham MP Chuka Umunna declared his candidacy for the Labour leader. Revisit his interview from our October 2011 issue, when he spoke to then-editor Rod Stanley about the London riots, his Nigerian roots and his secret past as a garage DJ:

In a world where politicians seem to have as much of a clue what life is like for young people in our cities as Rupert Murdoch apparently does about his own company, Chuka Umunna is refreshing. Labour MP for Streatham, whose constituency covers part of Brixton, he’s the youngest MP in London, smart, part-Nigerian, grew up in the area he represents, worked in the “real world” before politics, and has a genuine interest in music and youth culture. His previous work as a lawyer allowed him to catch out Barclays boss Bob Diamond about his company’s tax arrangements (literally hundreds of subsidiaries in such vitally important business districts as the Cayman Islands), and he was quick to ask useful questions in the media after the August riots. At 32, he’s already been tipped as a future leader, which if nothing else says that hype is as much a problem in politics as in today’s indie scene, and he has also –  somewhat inevitably –  attracted the tag of Britain’s Obama, something he has shrugged off with the stock reply, “I’m quite happy being Streatham’s Chuka Umunna.”

On the sweltering day we first meet at his parliamentary office, Hackgate is in full swing – photographers hang around outside the security gates and the smell of scandal hangs headily in the air. One month later, we talk again, after the worst rioting in the UK in decades erupts out of the blue and tears apart London and other cities, including parts of Umunna’s own constituency. In a political world as volatile as this, we wanted to find out how someone as seemingly grounded as him made sense of it all.

What drew you to get involved in politics in the first place?

Chuka Umunna: I’d happily sit with my mum at the age of seven and watch the news. I think it’s a mixture of that and growing up in an area like my constituency in the 80s, and it was hard. Inequality was rife. We had the Brixton riots. I remember the first time the riots came along – my mum was out shopping in Brixton with me and my sister when it kicked off. You can’t not be affected by that. Also, I’m part Nigerian, and we used to travel there when I was younger. I came face to face with extreme poverty and it made a massive impression on me as a young child.

You went into law first, though?

Chuka Umunna: I’d love to tell you I was a trailblazing human rights lawyer – not at all. I wanted to go into business as a teenager but found I was better suited to law. I lost my father when I was 13 but he always wanted me to go into business. My dad was proper rags-to-riches, he arrived here with a suitcase on his head in Liverpool, washed plates in restaurants, then built up a very successful import-export business. I enjoyed law but didn’t think I was making a big difference doing it. That’s where I think the impatience to get involved in politics came from.  

When did you last travel to Nigeria?

Chuka Umunna: I’m hoping to do a trip there later this year. I haven’t been back for a decade. Nigeria has been let down by people who have gone into politics for the wrong reasons and been incredibly corrupt. The last time that I was there was for my father’s funeral, so it’s going to be a big trip but I’m really looking forward to it. It’s an amazing country. Security is a big thing for me now, though – I didn’t realise until the Foreign Office said, but my election attracted a huge amount of attention there, and it was covered very widely in the media. I can see it being maybe a little bit overwhelming, but it’s a long overdue trip… and my dad will be smiling from upstairs.

“One thing that I am very keen to reiterate is that this is not the 1980s. These are not race riots” – Chuka Umunna

How did you feel when you found out there had been rioting in your constituency for the first time in a decade and a half ?

Chuka Umunna: I drove into Brixton to check things out at around 10 or 11 o’clock on Sunday evening. There were disturbances on the high street but there seemed to be police around, and I didn’t foresee anything full-scale occurring. The next day, the priority was to restore law and order on the streets as there was a sense among our constituency that the authorities had lost control of the situation, and people were afraid of going out. 

Do you think the authorities had lost control?

Chuka Umunna: I think the police faced an impossible situation because they had different venues being targeted all over the borough, and to ensure they had assets at every single target was impossible given the resources. What people did was opportunistic and unacceptable, but what was it about their circumstances and the context in which they did these things, that made them think that they could do this with impunity, and that they had nothing to lose by doing so and everything to gain?

What do you think those causes are, and what can you do to stop the riots happening again?

Chuka Umunna: There are likely to be a range of causes but I don’t pretend to know what all of them are.  I think we have a group of people who are leading parallel lives and living by a different set of rules and norms. And how we give them a stake and pull them back into the mainstream is going to be a challenge. I think we have to be careful about labelling it as just young people’s problems – we had instances of families rocking up in a car and looting a place. 

Do you think there is too much negativity in the portrayal of young people in this country?

Chuka Umunna: I do and I’ve said that long before the riots have happened. In respect to urban youth, there is a tendency to demonise them and I think the problem is that will contribute to a sense of not belonging – a sense of not having a stake in society. 

Do you think there’s a danger the far right will use these riots to their advantage, and make race an issue?

Chuka Umunna: Myself, David Lammy (Tottenham) and Diane Abbott (Hackney) initially did a lot of the media on the Labour side, partly because we had constituencies that were immediately impacted. Obviously as it broadened out, other MPs’ areas were affected as well. But one thing I was very keen to reiterate was that this isn’t the 1980s. These are not race riots.

Do you think the debate is moving in a positive direction, after all the kneejerk threats to make people homeless, take away benefits and so on?

Chuka Umunna: There was an attempt by some people to label anybody who even thought of entertaining a discussion as appeasers and people excusing the violence – I don’t think that kind of argument has held scrutiny. I think the conversation has moved on to a debate on why this has happened. I think the attempt to shut that down has singly failed, and that’s why I’m confident,  because the ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ approach doesn’t seem to be the direction in which the national conversation has gone. So, I’m optimistic.

“In my early teens, I was really into reggae. Then I went through a phase when I was into jungle… we didn’t call it drum and bass back then” – Chuka Umunna

How do you get away from the pressures of politics?

Chuka Umunna: I’ve got a fantastic family of mates, and I chill out by catching up with them and they keep me grounded. I love my music too. I used to DJ quite a lot, I haven’t in a very long time actually. 

Just at parties, or out in the clubs?

Chuka Umunna: At friends’ parties, and I used to do a few regular things in my constituency – I’m not going to say where though! In my early teens, I was really into reggae. Then I went through a phase when I was into jungle… we didn’t call it drum and bass back then. Then I discovered house and garage, but UK garage – the 90s underground scene. And when it went mainstream in the late 90s, it was exciting because there was something very essentially ‘London’ about it – this fusion of cultures from the English part of our society but also Jamaican, Latin and everything fused into one. 

Do you still keep up with it?

Chuka Umunna: I haven’t bought records for ages – the problem is that I have to be so careful where I’m seen. So, I’m very low key. I did go out to a place in Lambeth… 

You don’t want to be pinpointed as the clubbing MP?

Chuka Umunna: No. And I’m not. On the one hand you want to be authentic and normal, but on the other hand… well, somebody in their early 30s who likes music and occasionally going out and having a drink, you can’t do that in this position. But I accept it because I know it comes with the territory. 

How do you feel about your reputation as a snappy dresser?

Chuka Umunna: I like my clothes. But I’m rather bemused by it, because if I was in any other context than politics, like the City… Well, most people wear a sharp suit. But here…? (Laughs) 

Do you hope you’ll inspire young people to get involved in politics?

Chuka Umunna: I’ve seen the people who come from that privileged public school background who walk around this place with a sense of entitlement. There’s no doubt about it  – they waft around here like they own it. And my message to the youngsters out there is that you have as much right and entitlement to be here as they do.

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