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.