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'Chuka's brief candidacy taught me new code words for black'

CHUKA UMUNNA: Pulled out of Labour leadership race

HE CAME, he saw, he withdrew. Chuka Umunna, the great black hope, threw in the towel before the first punch was thrown. In fact, he threw it in even before the starting bell had been sounded.

I am sure that I speak for most people, especially the audience of this paper, when I say that it was heart-breaking to see Chuka Umunna withdraw from the race to be the next leader of the Labour party. Why? Because if he would have won it, he would have gone all the way. I suspect he would have become Prime Minster. And oh what a night that would have been outside Downing Street – the Notting Hill Carnival would have had nothing on it.

In retrospect given the timing and the depth of disarray in the Labour party pulling out may have been the wiser move. It would be terrible for him to waste his potential as a caretaker leader.

But what can we learn from Chuka’s three day candidacy? Here are some observations.

First, Chuka is quite good at marketing: it is hard not to love the Facebook video with which Chuka announced his intention to run. One simple video managed to convey so many messages.

LEADERSHIP

It said he was running for the leadership, but it also managed to convey his understanding of the wider country outside of London and his thoughts on the reasons Labour lost. It showed he understood the tools of modern campaigning. He had listened, he had learnt and he was ready for action. His video made much more of an impact than the announcements of all of the remaining contenders.

Second, proliferation of code words for black. As predictable as dark skies at midnight, there were a series of new code words for Chuka’s ethnicity in the press. A series of writers with dodgy histories on race popped up in papers with dodgy histories on race to spew subtleties for the hungry masses: ‘trendy left’, ‘metropolitan elite’, ‘ghetto music’, ‘ghetto chic’, ‘multicultural’ (as in “Chuka is multicultural”) and many, many more. Progress should be noted: one of these very writers in the past referred to black people as ‘wogs’ (short for golliwogs).

Third, “sharp suits” and “nice watches”. Never has the suit a potential leader wears or his choice of wristwatch been analysed so much in a major political debate in British history. Almost every report made a reference to Chuka’s attire and jewellery. It would be understandable if he was wearing Evisu jeans, Wale Adeyemi hats and Jacob wrist watches (in part because it would make it clear that he is out of touch with the times) but he wasn’t. He was simply wearing what every other man in his profession wears: blue suit, white shirt, black shoes, nice watch.

Chuka’s village (that he has probably never been to) was about to be raided; the word is that there was a huge upswing in media visa applications to Nigeria when Chuka announced his candidacy.

Rumour is that his father’s village was about to be torn limb for limb in search of stories or titillation.

The older folk in the village could have been forgiven for thinking that the white man was back.

EDUCATION

Fourth, having a good education can and will be held against you. The message was clear - how dare Chuka Umunna go to good schools, get a good education, attain a great career and wish to attain the top job in the nation. What a sinner. He should have come from a ‘sink’ council estate, dropped out of primary school, been stabbed a few times, shot at least once, shot at least one person, sold crack, and eventually rotted in prison so a nice loving journalist could write a book and film about him. Perhaps I exaggerate, but you get the message.

Fifth, black aspirations don’t matter. When Chuka withdrew you could have been mistaken for thinking that from a black and minority ethnic perspective nothing special or unique had happened.

Kind of like if, say, Mary Creagh had just withdrawn. Chuka was the first visible ethnic minority in British history to ever have a credible shot at the top job. Yet only the usual (pale and male) suspects were invited to opine in print and on celluloid. What was Diane Abbott up to? It was surprising to see Diane being needlessly critical of Chuka out of the gate.

I was left wondering, was Diane trying to drag Chuka down or was she purposefully trying to create space between the two of them in order not to damage his (or her) brand by association? In that little moment, we either just witnessed the best of black politics in Britain or the very worst. But we will never really know for certain.

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