David Cameron has his fair share of problems, with Nigel Farage’s UKIP nipping at his heels and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker goading him about Britain’s £1.7 billion EU surcharge. Nick Clegg faces a daily battle to fend off irrelevancy and the implosion of his party. But despite their tribulations, I doubt that either man would volunteer to switch places with the hapless Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband.
The Spectator sums up Miliband’s woes in their sketch of yesterday’s PMQs:
The Labour leader needed a win today. Badly. His poll ratings have dipped to the same level as Gordon Brown’s in 2010, but at least Brown had the excuse of being in a fag-end administration led by a scowling narcissistic tax-junkie.
Indeed. It’s one thing to have terrible personal ratings when you are an establishment figure associated with a party that has been in power for over a decade, but – wait a second, Ed Miliband was all of those things, and still he was installed as the Labour Party leader. The consolation would be that his personal ratings couldn’t possibly fall much further if he did win power and occupy 10 Downing Street, if only the chances of that happy event were not receding quite so rapidly.
And now there are reports that backbench Labour discontent has finally boiled over, at the worst possible time, with several Labour MPs telling the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party that Miliband has to go, and a group of northern Labour MPs considering formulating a defensive strategy of their own to save their seats in the expectation that Labour will lose the 2015 general election.
Damien McBride, Gordon Brown’s former head of communications, was merciless in his assessment of Miliband’s situation:
[McBride] told BBC One’s Daily Politics: “He can’t do much about the fact he comes from Hampstead but he can do something about the fact that he’s constantly acting as though life revolves around what goes on in Hampstead and that there’s no sense of getting out there and understanding what ordinary people are feeling, including about himself, and trying to address that personal problem he’s got.”
However this plays out, it’s clear that a large rump of the Parliamentary Labour Party is looking forward to life after the Ed Miliband catastrophe, and so too are some quick-witted members of the press. The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges, Number 10’s favourite columnist, seems to be warming to one potential candidate in particular – Chuka Umunna – with a breathlessly effusive column lauding the Shadow Business Secretary for being the only one to stand up and take the fight to UKIP. This, of course, is something for which Hodges (who thinks that UKIP and their supporters are out-and-out racists) has been clamouring for months, despite being incapable of doing so himself without descending to smears and insults.
Hodges tries his best to paint Umunna as a bold and principled MP, unafraid to resist what he sees as UKIP’s shallow populism:
The first rule Chuka Umunna has broken is the obvious one. He has accused Ukip directly of “racism”. Politicians are not allowed to accuse Nigel Farage and his party of that. For all their talk of an “honest debate” about immigration and race, Farage and his supporters do not like it when the extremism and prejudice of their party is called out for what it is. Anyone who does so is immediately charged with trying to “shut down the debate”. Taboo number one broken.
This refers to an article that Umunna wrote for the South London Press in which he indeed suggested that UKIP are a racist party. But Hodges overreaches, trying to link UKIP opposition to unlimited inward migration from the EU to genuinely racist sentiments expressed about black and Asian immigrant from previous generations:
The second rule Chuka Umunna has broken is to expose the fake distinction between the “old immigration debate” and the “new immigration debate”. The “old” immigration debate, we are told, was based around colour. It was targeted at “the Blacks” and “the Asians”. That was the wrong sort of debate. But the “new” immigration debate isn’t based around colour. The Poles, the Romanians the Roma – they’re white, just like you and me. They’re European – just like you and me. So it’s not racism. It can’t be. It’s just plain common sense.
Umunna refuses to differentiate between the new migrants and the old migrants. He’s not prepared to indulge Ukip’s game of playing one group off against the other. Taboo number two broken.
This isn’t “playing one group off against another”. It’s pointing out that the Labour Party, which was in power when the A10 countries joined the EU, failed to implement any transitional immigration controls without so much as a thought for what would happen to the bottom end of the labour market, and certainly not thinking to consult the British people about the matter. It’s saying that there is a difference between west Indian and Asian immigrants who settled here, raised families, assimilated and became British on the one hand, and uncontrolled, unlimited immigration from within the EU on the other.
It is certainly in the interests of people such as Dan Hodges to spread confusion and lump these two very different groups together, because he is apparently willing to see the unemployed and low-paid suffer so long as he gets to keep enjoying the fruits of immigration. But that doesn’t make it right.
And then the real Chuka Umunna hagiography starts:
The third rule Chuka Umunna has broken is to implicitly criticise his own party. That’s always a no no, especially with an election only six months away. But it’s there. The statement “If Labour does not make the case then there is no one else in politics who will do so” is a clear rebuke to those in Labour’s ranks who are seeking to deal with Ukip via a policy of appeasement. It’s a rebuke to his own leader, who is currently trapped by his own liberal instincts, the collapse of his precious “35 per cent strategy”, and hasn’t got the faintest idea how to confront the People’s Army. And it’s also a full-on rebuke to those Miliband strategists who have been encouraging Labour voters in Rochester to vote Ukip to give David Cameron a bloody nose.
Regular readers of Hodges’ column will know that getting him to utter praise for anyone in the modern Labour Party, particularly within the shadow cabinet, is a minor miracle. So for Hodges to indulge in this hero-worship of Chuka Umunna for the simple and rather unpleasant act of accusing people with contrary views about immigration of racism is akin to hiring a marching band and parading around London endorsing him as Ed Miliband’s replacement.
But who is this man that Hodges, in his despair at Ed Miliband’s ineptitude and UKIP’s onward march, would praise as the very model of a future Labour leader?
Chuka Umunna is a millionaire, former lawyer, son of a solicitor and grandson of a High Court judge. He gains cultural points for playing the cello and for having been a chorister at Southwark Cathedral, but his biography isn’t exactly salt of the earth, pulled himself up by the bootstraps stuff. None of which is wrong in itself, and none of which in isolation should preclude Umunna from the Labour leadership. But in picking a successor to Ed Miliband, who has absolutely no affinity with the common man and whose skin visibly crawls when he comes too close to a beggar, is it really wise for Labour to go fishing in the pool of London-centric, upper-middle class career politicians yet again?
And there is worse still. Chuka Umunna was for some years a member of the elite social networking site ASmallWorld, an exclusive invitation-only online club where Dan Hodges’ champion once posted haughty messages asking for suggestions for a “trash free” night out in London and complaining that the capital’s best venues were “full of trash and C-list wannabes, while other places that should know better opt for the cheesy vibe.”
If you think that these actions sound like the behaviour of a rather vain man, you would be right – his office is suspected of having made detailed additions and modifications to his Wikipedia entry in order to show Labour’s rising star in the most favourable light possible.
What would a left-wing thinker like Owen Jones, author of “Chavs”, make of a Labour politician who openly despises the working classes and seeks to avoid them in his travels at all costs? Well fortunately we know exactly what Owen Jones thinks, because he attacked Umunna in a recent column in the Evening Standard:
Leading lights from all parties — including Labour’s Chuka Umunna and Ed Balls — are frequently treated to City of London dinners with leading financiers that operate Chatham House Rules, ensuring conversations are off-the-record.
… Our Establishment focuses its ire on the behaviour of groups other than the City: the unemployed, benefit claimants and immigrants. They have little political representation and weak lobby groups. The City elite plunged Britain into one of the worst economic disasters in modern history but its political power shields it from scrutiny or radical reform. And until this stranglehold is broken, little will change.
Yes, Dan Hodges’ role model for all other Labour MPs is intimately connected with the same financial institutions in the City of London that the Labour Party still expends so much effort attacking in order to deflect attention from its own record in government.
Just look where fear and panic leads. Dan Hodges, the establishment’s principled critic of Ed Miliband from day one, has now become chief hagiographer for Chuka Umunna, that smooth, oily elitist who has even less affinity with ordinary people than his boss, and who openly views working class people as “trash”. And yet according to Hodges, he is the saviour of the Left by virtue of the fact that he made a self-serving and inaccurate smear about a political party with only one MP in Westminster. Is this really Dan Hodges’ bright hope for the future of Labour, his model of how the Labour Party leadership should comport itself?
Hodges praises Umunna for defying his own party, as though it were some kind of brave and noble act. But where is the downside in taking a stand against your party when you represent a relatively safe Labour seat, the party’s opinion poll ratings are at their lowest level in months and when your boss, Ed Miliband, is viewed with either revulsion or pity by most of the electorate? Taking some kind of public stand against his own party was about the most self-serving act that Chuka Umunna could make. Some profile in courage, that.
In fact, Dan Hodges inadvertently revealed the truth about Umunna at the very start of his column. He wrote:
Chuka Umunna is starting to break the rules. Up until recently Labour’s shadow business secretary had become a byword for political caution and calculation. “He’s good, but it’s not clear what he stands for”, a shadow cabinet colleague told me a few months ago.
A word of advice, Dan: if a politician is “not clear what they stand for”, then they aren’t “good”. They may be a gifted orator, a coalition-builder, a shrewd political operator or have any number of other talents. But in Britain’s current centrist malaise, another on-message, telegenic candidate who smoothly adapts to suit the focus groups and then conveniently goes off-message to avoid association with his imploding party leadership isn’t the answer that the Labour Party – or the country – needs.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Ed Miliband’s slow-motion car crash has yet to run its course.