Chuka Umunna – A pro on what Labour must be pro if we are to win again

by John Slinger

During Phil Collins’s gentle jousting with Chuka Umunna today, their savvy wit was evident. While light-hearted at times (always a boon at conference) there was much substance.

First dodging the brickbat of why hasn’t Labour apologised more on the economy: “we’ve learnt the lessons of the crash” and the debt and deficit rose due to falling tax receipts not profligacy. This is a line that hasn’t resonated enough yet.

Chuka does the big picture well and was expansive on the three challenges Britain faces: “delivering social democracy in a fiscal cold climate, transformative technology, and global competition”.

Politely disagreeing with a questioner on modern technologies he argued that they shouldn’t be feared and can help “transform public services”.

He’s keen to utilise and promote the dynamic and the new, not build up defensive walls against it. Handing out certificates at school in his patch, he’d told the kids that they’re up against others from “Mumbai and Singapore who perhaps want it more as they’ve had perhaps had to struggle more”. Teachers and parents appreciated the straight-talking about how globalisation cannot be turned back. He’s right: dealing with such challenges starts in the classroom and goes way beyond there.

The wit was there, from Collins of course, but while refuting the “nonsense” charge that Labour isn’t sufficiently pro-business, Chuka reminded all that New Labour weren’t exactly flush with business endorsement in ’97, having been “elated to get Richard Branson on a train with Tony Blair”! It was good to hear what should be both a defence against the anti-business charge, and an attack on the newly the newly rejuvenated europhobes of Cameron’s Tories: that “the biggest concern of British business is our exit from the EU”.

In 2012, he’d chaired an event on entreprensurship and small business for the organisation I chair, Pragmatic Radicalism. What more, I asked, ought all members and CLPs do to reach out to local businesses, not just unions and community groups (vital though this is)? He’d championed Small Business Saturday and flagged up this year’s on 6 December, also CLPs should engage with Business Improvement Districts. I’ve long thought that we can’t just rely on Chuka to defeat the Tory lie that we don’t “get” or like business. We’re the party of work after all.

He touched on last week’s referendum, concluding that we need not just “big ideas” but a “big tent” and reminding us that the1997 tally of 59 southern English Labour MPs now stands at 10.

Of course Chuka wouldn’t be interested in any future leadership election, quipped Collins, to much merriment and wry smiles, but which colleagues “might be contenders”? Cool as a cucumber, Chuka retorted “there’s only one person to look out for: Prime Minister Miliband”! There were smiles too when Collins asked why Len McCluskey got slightly more rapturous applause than greeted him: “Len and I have different roles”. He was respectful but confidently deflected this sidewinder.

We all know Chuka’s a pro. But I’d rather focus on the substance not the style. He set out some things from his portfolio that we as a Labour Party must be “pro” in order to win in May. Pro-business, pro-getting business talking to primary students, pro-entrepreneurship, pro-social enterprise, pro-raising the status of youth workers, pro-straight talking. I forgot one last one…pro-Ed Miliband. Sounds like a winning formula for Chuka and Labour.

**Thank you to the good people at Fujitsu for letting me type this in their zone!**

John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant and Chair of Pragmatic Radicalism. He blogs here

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