Chuka seeks to “weaponise” Swindon

Chuka and Dempsey

Chuka Umunna’s odd decision to launch his leadership bid with an embarrassingly amateur video filmed in Swindon may come back to haunt him. It is hard to disagree with Dan Hodges’s assessment at the Telegraph that:

Formally announcing his candidature via a Facebook video filmed in the centre of Swindon, it was pretty obvious what Umunna was trying to do – refute the charge that he only appeals to a London metropolitan elite. Just in case this message was missed, he then sledge-hammered it home by insisting: “I also, frankly, wanted to get out of London and say what I was going to do here, because of course, we’ve got to be winning in a place like Swindon”.

Unfortunately, it didn’t have the desired effect. The video, which appeared to have been shot on an iPhone, made Umunna look a bit like a student embarking on a media studies project. In fact, as the good people of Swindon circled obliviously around him – he looked a bit like a documentary maker producing a film about an obscure Amazonian tribe: “Chuka’s World”. The overall effect was that by attempting to rebut a negative he merely ended up focusing attention on that negative.

I have some understanding of Swindon’s politics, being chair of the Local Campaign Forum there (though of course this article is written in a personal capacity), and having actively campaigned in the key marginal of South Swindon during the election. While our general election results were unexpectedly poor in the South constituency, our reverse in North Swindon was expected, where I had predicted a sizable swing to the Conservatives before election day.

On the Borough Council we held our own, winning a council seat in the Lib Dem stronghold of Eastcott after years of campaigning there, but losing one to the Conservatives elsewhere. In the marginal council ward of Liden, Eldene and Park South, where I spent election day, we ground out a narrow victory, by turning out the promises through organisation and hard graft.

I wasn’t intending to comment yet on the leadership election, as I am still assimilating and thinking about last week’s results. Indeed, I think that the opinions of those who already made their minds up by Friday 8th May might not be as reflective as we might hope.

How do we judge Chuka’s contention that as leader he could help to win in Swindon? Firstly, one of the successes of the election campaign was a positive engagement through both GMB and the Labour Party with turning out the vote from the town’s large Goan community.

GMB’s standing in this community has been founded on our campaign against exploitation and shakedowns of Carillion staff by supervisors working at the Great Western Hospital. This led to 21 days of strike action by around 150 members during 2012, and a number of court cases are now in progress on behalf of these GMB members. On 10th July 2012, Chuka agreed as Shadow Business Secretary, along with his colleagues, Iain Wright – then Shadow Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Ian Murray – then Shadow BIS Employment Affairs, to address a public meeting in the House of Commons, in support of these workers. At this point, 10 GMB members who had given evidence to the employer about how money and gifts had been demanded by a supervisor in exchange for shift changes, holiday approvals and overtime, were being threatened with dismissal by Carillion, and though the union did successfully defeat this intended victimization, on the date of this meeting the situation was still highly tense.

We consequently organized a coach load of our members from Swindon, hospital cleaners, overwhelmingly women of South Asian origin to go to the Commons to hear Chuka speak.

On the very day of the meeting, with our members already on the coach, Chuka contacted the union to say that not only was he pulling out, but he was instructing all the members of his shadow BIS team to do the same. He had come under pressure from elsewhere, and he didn’t have the moral courage to honour his commitments to these vulnerable, low paid, and exploited women workers.

Fortunately, Ken Livingstone and Katy Clark stepped into the breach at the last minute, but in my view Chuka’s betrayal of these exploited women was shameful. Labour does need to deliver for our voters, and in my opinion Chuka showed that he was not prepared to do that.

More recently, Chuka attended a gala dinner fundraiser in Swindon. From my observation, it seemed more than usually difficult to sell tickets with Chuka as the star turn. The local GMB branch had recently taken a delegation of members to the European Parliament, who work at the M&S Distribution Centre in Swindon. They have a compelling story to tell of exploitation though Swedish Derogation contracts. I therefore spoke to a senior member of the Labour Party, and asked whether it would be a good idea for Chuka to meet them while he was in Swindon. I was advised it would be better not to put our members through that experience, as they would be demotivated by his smarmy indifference.

Now of course, my criticism here is that Chuka failed to engage with the “core vote”, and I concede that winning in a town like Swindon requires Labour to reach out beyond that constituency. So how do we judge Chuka by that criteria?

We do indeed need to win over those who are in well paid or professional jobs, and who are attracted to economic competence. We do indeed need to win over those who are less interested in abstract ideals of social justice, but who will listen to the political parties who address what they see as the best interests of themselves and their families. My experience of past campaigning in North Swindon, is that the electorate there is more than usually transactional.

However, time and again during the campaign, I was struck by how weary so many voters are with slick professional politicians, who see being an MP as a career, and don’t understand the lives of those who work in the real world. This is particularly true of those attracted to UKIP. It is reasonable to question whether a privately educated, London solicitor is the best person to connect with such voters, especially as Chuka talks the language and uses the jargon of a metropolitan policy wonk. Seeing him in Swindon’s town centre, he looks as at home as if he had just been beamed down from the Starship Enterprise.

Which brings me to the bizarre decision by Chuka to launch his campaign with the endorsement of the defeated North Swindon candidate, Mark Dempsey. North Swindon was from 1997 to 2010 a Labour seat held by Lord Wills, which the Conservatives won with a 7060 majority in 2010.

While those of us in the Labour Party, or active in Swindon’s political life, might have a different opinion, the sitting Conservative MP, Justin Tomlinson is seen by voters as a likeable enough bloke, who before becoming an MP ran a successful local business, who energized the local Conservative Party, who is seen as genuinely being committed to Swindon, and is relatively clever and articulate. He does have his vulnerabilities, but Labour failed to exploit them over the last 5 years.

The Labour candidate, with whom Chuka has deliberately sought to associate himself, is just a Poundland Justin Tomlinson, even lacking some of Justin’s strengths. He did not unite the local party, he divided it, and fell out with at least some of the unions. He was timid, and failed to establish himself with the local press as the Labour PPC, and failed to land a glove on Tomlinson during the entire long campaign, because he was too afraid to publicly disagree with the Tories over issues of substance. The result was a 4% swing to the Conservatives.

Chuka Umunna’s leadership pitch therefore seems to be that he believes that Labour can win in places like Swindon by promoting weak candidates that fail to challenge or differentiate themselves from the Tories. This is a one way path to electoral extinction.

28 comments on “Chuka seeks to “weaponise” Swindon

  1. sam64 on said:

    At the other end of the backdrop scale, Andy Burnham looked like he chose a law library to announce he’s running.

  2. Yup, Umunna does not look promising. Certainly, it’s necessary to reach out beyond your core support, but not at the expense of losing them.

    A right-wing Labour party has no reason to exist, and about as much future as the SWP.

  3. Time to recognise that the party that thought Jim Murphy was a good idea for Scotland is lost to the left. There won’t even be a left candidate for the leadership so get out now and help build a real movement for socialism.

  4. Martin Wicks on said:

    Poundland Justin Tomlinson. Yes absolutely. Re ‘turning out the Goan community for Labour’ what proportion? Is it true that one of the GMB shop stewards was the guy who stood for the Libdems in Central?

  5. Andy Newman on said:

    Martin Wicks: Re ‘turning out the Goan community for Labour’ what proportion? Is it true that one of the GMB shop stewards was the guy who stood for the Libdems in Central?

    Yes Tony Lopes is a GMB shop stewards in WH Smith. I really like Tony, and he is a good bloke and a good shop steward, and does solid work with the Goan Association.

    His electoral support however was limited, he didn’t even do that well in the Broadgreen area

  6. james? on said:

    there wont be a left wing candidate for labour leadership is a material fact john mcdonnel and jeremy corbyn admit they have only ninteen possibles and thats with out the agreement on which of the two possible candidates jon trickett and ian lavery would do it. my guess is that yvette cooper is going to win as she seems the candidate best able to pick uo second preference votes from all the other three candidates
    Martin Wicks,

  7. Joseph on said:

    The decision to launch from Swindon was a deeply unfortunate decision that will cast a shadow over the rest of his campaign.

  8. Noah on said:

    james?: my guess is that yvette cooper is going to win as she seems the candidate best able to pick uo second preference votes from all the other three candidates

    OK but do bear in mind that a candidate who wins a majority of first preference votes would win it outright, making the second preferences irrelevant.

    If the (affiliated) unions can persuade enough of their members to convert to being affiliated supporters, are agreed on who to back and explain why to those members, that candidate should stand a good chance of winning on the ‘first round’.

  9. Omagh on said:

    Joseph,

    In some ways it’s a good thing this happened; whether it’s being interviewed by Alastair Campbell in GQ and being accused of playing it safe or mentored by Mandelson, Chuka is ‘clone’ Labour and will be gift for any opposition as Milliband was. He wreaks of ‘too many right-wing meetings’ and is all spin. Worryingly no-one stands out.

    Well done Andy on your efforts. A small gain nonetheless in an impossibly tricky patch and caught between the historical pincers of thee SNP poll panic and the devil-austerity we know. 12billion cuts in welfare is just the start of the ball…

  10. Feodor on said:

    Can anyone tell me more about Ian Lavery. Have seen his name mentioned a few times recently, but know next to nothing about him.

  11. Andy Newman on said:

    Feodor: Can anyone tell me more about Ian Lavery. Have seen his name mentioned a few times recently, but know next to nothing about him.

    Former coal miner and president of the NUM I believe. Principled back bencher.

    MOre interesting would be the prospect of Trickett standing. Former PPS to Gordeon Brown, shadow cabinet members, and I beleive former leader of Leeds City Council. Working class socialist with credible expereince

  12. Andy Newman on said:

    Karl Stewart,

    The interesting detail that He still only had half the nominating MPs he needed. Obvious hubris in publically declaring before he had those votes in the bag.

    He isn’t personally popular in the PLP, I understand, due to a sense of entitlement

  13. Ian Drummond on said:

    He’s chucked it! Granita mark 2 with Cooper or I wonder what newspaper is behind it? Or, I’d like to think, is it this very blog post that was the silent assassin :=)

  14. Tony on said:

    I seem to remember that he was recently reported as saying:

    “Labour needed to do better in Scotland!”

    Quite a profound analysis there!

  15. Karl Stewart on said:

    Andy Newman,
    Got to be more to it than “I can’t take the pressure of a campaign” – this is someone who’s been in front line politics for a few years and can’t possibly not have been aware of the pressures this brings.

    (No doubt editors across the country will be sending their hounds to sniff out the real story!)

  16. Andy Newman on said:

    Karl Stewart: Got to be more to it than “I can’t take the pressure of a campaign” – this is someone who’s been in front line politics for a few years and can’t possibly not have been aware of the pressures this brings.

    I suspect that it is simply that he is the victim of his own hubris, and was struggling to get the required 34 MP nominations.

  17. Karl Stewart on said:

    Andy Newman,

    Either way, it’s great news – hopefully he’ll now join the Tory Party and we can get Andy Burnham elected.

  18. Sam64 on said:

    How about to the tune of Gladis Knight and the Pips Going Back to Georgia:

    Swindon proved too much for the man
    Too much for the man, he couldn’t make it
    So he’s leavin’ the leadship contest he thought he own uhoo
    He said he’s goin’
    He said he’s goin’ back to find
    Goin’ back to find
    Ooh, what’s left of his world
    The world he left behind
    Not so long ago

    He’s leavin’ (leavin’)
    On that 2.30 train to Paddington
    Leavin’ on the 2.30 train
    Said he’s goin’ back
    Goin’ back to find
    To a simpler place in time
    Oh yes he is

    I was going to write a verse about Mandy being with him (you know he will) but couldn’t be arsed.

  19. Feodor:
    Can anyone tell me more about Ian Lavery. Have seen his name mentioned a few times recently, but know next to nothing about him.

    If you read the Morning Star you would know exactly who he is.

  20. jim mclean on said:

    Talking about Mandy, which we aren’t, that he based his whole philosophy on the fact that the proles have nowhere else to go shows his inability to keep up with the times, Peter, they have fucking gone.

  21. John Grimshaw on said:

    You should see Chuka’s exclusive gentle mans club. Behind the Bank of England apparently.