Chuka Umunna: I never felt totally comfortable in the Labour party | Politics

Chuka Umunna, who quit Labour last week to form the breakaway Independent Group, has said he never felt “comfortable” in his old party – and found his mixed cultural and class background were “a chain round my neck”.

One of eight Labour MPs who joined the Independent Group (TIG), citing antisemitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of Brexit, the Streatham MP said the decision to leave behind what he called a “culture of fear” in the Labour party had been “hugely liberating”.

“If truth be told, certainly culturally, I never felt totally comfortable in the Labour party, because I’ve never really been a massively tribal politician,” he told the Guardian, as he reflected on what he called the “roller-coaster ride” of the past fortnight, in his Westminster office.

“I have quite a different background from a lot of people in the Labour party – I’m of mixed heritage,” he said. “My father was a black, working-class man who arrived here with no money in his pocket from Nigeria; my mum came from more of a middle-class background, whose father had prosecuted the Nazis at Nuremberg. We have a really rich and diverse heritage in my family – but I sometimes felt it was a bit of a chain round my neck in the Labour party if truth be told.”

He added that when he briefly stood for the party leadership in 2015, before withdrawing, he was warned that being of BAME background could count against him.

“The team who were helping me organise, were told by quite a few MPs that they weren’t going to support me, because they didn’t think their working-class constituents would ever vote for a black man – and I was quite taken aback by it,” he says, adding that his new TIG colleagues are more representative of modern Britain.

Umunna only joined Labour in the 1990s, after the reforms initiated by Tony Blair, and said perhaps the period up to 2010, when Ed Miliband took over, was a historic aberration, and his old party had now reverted to type.

“Maybe what we’ve seen happen in the Labour party since the late 1990s and through to 2010, was actually exceptional, and wasn’t what the Labour party really is?”

The eleven MPs – eight Labour and three Conservatives – who make up TIG are not yet a political party, don’t have a set of formal policies, and admit that previous attempts to break the mould of British politics have not met with unalloyed success.

But Umunna hailed Jeremy Corbyn’s cautious shift towards support for a second referendum on Monday as evidence the group had already made an impact.

“I don’t believe it would have happened, were it not for our resignations. We appear to have had more influence on Labour’s Brexit policy out of the party than we ever had while we were in it,” he says, with a smile – although he still doubts whether Corbyn will whip his MPs to support a referendum.

Chuka Umunna

‘The team who were helping me organise, were told by quite a few MPs that they weren’t going to support me, because they didn’t think their working-class constituents would ever vote for a black man – and I was quite taken aback by it.’ Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“The key test is, will the leader be able to ensure that at the very least, frontbenchers won’t be able to block a people’s vote from happening?” he says.

Asked about the progress of the Brexit debate over the past two-and-a-half years, Umunna is fiercely critical of what he claims is the refusal of some Labour MPs to confront their constituents about the effects of immigration.

“I recognise the challenges – and admittedly I represent a different area – but you can either lie, and say, ‘I agree with you that immigration is the cause of our problems’, which I think is fundamentally dishonest; or you can try and engage with them, and resolve the anxieties and concerns and don’t duck the cultural issues.”

Many MPs across both main parties concluded from the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 that voters would like to see an end to unfettered free movement of people from the European Union.

And some Labour MPs have rejected softer forms of Brexit, such as a Norway-style deal, because they would not allow the government to control who comes to work in Britain from the EU.

Umunna says that when he hears the argument, “Oh, my constituents are telling me that the reason we have challenges in this community is because of immigrants, and I’m not sure I totally agree with that but I’ve got to roll with that”, it makes him wonder how the same politicians would have responded to previous waves of migration.

“I just think, what the hell would you have said in the 1970s when my father came? Would you have been defending him, and many of the people who came from the West Indies, Asia and Africa? Or would you have been saying the same thing: ‘My constituents are saying that these brown and black people are the cause of our problems, so I’ve just got to run with it’?”.

In his own south London patch, he says, there are “more acute social problems – substance abuse, domestic violence, housing shortages and so on, than many of the areas that voted to leave. But we just didn’t believe that voting to leave the European Union was going to solve those problems”.

Umunna brushes off the idea that he and his new ex-Conservative allies will struggle to unite around a set of policies, insisting that the old left-right divide is rapidly being supplanted by others.

“Your age, your academic qualifications, where you live in the country, whether you have a nationalistic or an internationalist view of the world. Whether you’re socially liberal or conservative. These factors are driving people’s voting behaviour more than ever,” he says. He describes what unites them as a “radical centrist” agenda.

And he says the leadership’s response to the quitters has only reinforced their sense that they have done the right thing.

“The points that we were making about the arid, aggressive, bullying culture within the party has been underlined by the reaction of a number of people to the departures that there have been – Emily Thornberry with her ongoing leadership campaign claiming that we will be ‘crushed’, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, calling us scabs, and other such reactions,” he says.

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