Barely 37 and born of a Nigerian father in London, he is one of the four ‘Nigerians’ that won parliamentary seats in the United Kingdom elections last Thursday. But the new black kid on the block is not attracting attention just for winning his reelection on the platform of Labour Party; he is now being touted as the likely new leader of the Labour Party, following the resignation of Ed Miliband who led his party to a crushing defeat last week.
Labour Party in the UK has always appealed to blacks and immigrants, just like the Democratic Party in the United States. It is therefore not surprising that a blackman is among the five likely contenders in its quest to find a new Tony Blair, who will return the party to power and keep the Tories at bay as Blair did in three successive elections.
In Umunna, Britain seems to have found its own Barack Obama, who is emerging in all his youthful glory, with an African heritage and from the Left to launch a paradigm shift in one of the most important Western countries. On Tuesday, Umunna finally declared his intention to run for Labour’s top job after wide consultations, saying he is “pleased to put himself forward for the leadership of the party.”
The tradition in the UK, like in many part of the West, is for leaders who fail to lead their parties to the Promised Land to exit for a fresh candidate to take charge. With Ed Miliband’s failure to deliver last week, giving David Cameron-led Conservative Party an unexpected outright majority, Labour needs a new helmsman to take charge as the opposition leader who will also prepare the party for the next general election in five years.
His political experience may be lean, having entered Parliament only in 2010 and served as the Shadow Secretary for Business. But the London-born Umunna is getting a substantial nudge to run. His biggest encouragement is coming from Blair’s camp through his ally, Lord Peter Mendelson, who sees a potential leader in the University of Manchester-trained Umunna.
It won’t be an easy run though if the five other contenders finally throw their hats into the ring. Already, Liz Kendal, who, like Umunna, became a Member of Parliament in 2010 and has served as Shadow Minister for Care and Old People, has declared her intention to run. There is of course Yvette Cooper, who has a Scottish ‘advantage’; Andy Burnham, who is more experienced in parliament and the journalist/lecturer MP, Tristram Hunt. They are all seen as potential candidates. Yet, there is the possibility of David, Ed Miliband’s elder brother, who lost five years ago to return to the fray, as the real successor who has had sufficient tutelage from Blair.
Can Umunna hold his own in a keen contest with two women and three other men who are all white? First, age won’t necessarily work against him, even though he is the youngest of the lot. Aside David Miliband who is 50, the age of the other likely candidates at between 41 and 46 is youthful and reflects the sharp contrast between what obtains in the West as against that of Africa.
Ed Miliband was 40 when he became Labour leader in 2010. Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party at 39 in 2006 and 43 when he was elected Prime Minister in 2010. Blair was a 41-year-old lawyer in 1994 when he became the leader of the party. He later led Labour to a landslide victory to become Prime Minister three years later.
Age and personal experience seem to count for little in the UK in so far as the manifesto of the party addresses the needs of the people. What seem to matter are the deep understanding of the structure of government as well as personal charm and charisma of the candidate to galvanize the media and the electorate.
These two important factors are in Umunna’s favour. He has just won an important reelection into the Parliament, which will further establish his knowledge of government; and as the youngest and only black of those jostling for Labour leadership, he just might appear tailor-made for the role, if majority of Labour party members are persuaded that Britain is ready for a leader from the minority.
A recreation of the Obama magic, by drawing the similarities between the two black brothers, may be part of the subtle manner to etch this young man into the British consciousness. Like Obama, Umanna is a lawyer and lawmaker. While Obama’s Kenyan father went to America in search of education, Bennett Umunna was an immigrant in search of greener pasture in the UK. Both fathers later returned to their countries only to die in road accidents.
While his African heritage is not in doubt, Umunna, like Obama, sees himself as British, and rightly so. His girlfriend is white and like Obama, he is suave, good-looking, eloquent and very ambitious. In fact, the only thing that can be held against him in the British media is that he is too “smooth” for his party. Some even say he is too “consistently polished,” without gaffes and scandal-free, that you would think he was a Tory.
And this is why Nigerians at home and abroad who have decided to appropriate Umunna and the three others elected MPs: Helen Grant, Kate Osamor and Chi Onuoha miss the point. Their familial roots in Nigeria will be of no advantage as Kenyans have since learnt about their ‘son’ in the White House. If we could not accept Michael Adebolajo and Mike Adebowale as Nigerians for murdering a British National, Lee Rigby, in a suspected terror attack in London in 2013 why patronise an Umunna who does not understand ‘Kedu’? The argument with Adebolajo and co was that they were British-born and had never visited Nigeria. Same should apply to Ummuna and co who are doing well in their country of birth.
While we must celebrate their accomplishments, Nigeria does not need to either appropriate our brothers from other mothers abroad or see redemption in them. They are able to function well because the society where they live encourages accountability and abhors corruption and impunity. Once we fix our rots at home, millions of home-grown Umunna will emerge to steer the ship of Nigeria in the right direction.