It didn’t come as any surprise when I saw the tweet last night that the former Labour and ChangeUK had announced that he was joining the Lib Dems. The writing had been on the wall for some time and they’ll likely be more dominoes to fall in the coming days. The main reason Chuka wasn’t a surprise was I think he has real ambition in politics and having seen his Labour Party being taken over by the radical left, he needed somewhere that would give him a platform for him to sing from his own hymn sheet.
The story in the Mail on Sunday about him wanting to stand for the Lib Dems in his constituency of Streatham at the weekend had no quotes but obviously came from someone with at least a rough idea into the mind of the 40 year-old. At the point of reading it, I dismissed it due to the lack of on the record quotes but clearly it had some basis of truth but hey, here we are.
Personally I’m relatively laid back about MPs joining the party as long as they are broadly liberal. Chuka has said some extremely nasty things about the Lib Dems in the not so distant past and it is widely believed that he was the instigator of the infamous ChangeUK leaked memo about how to crush Vince Cable’s party. That certainly isn’t a good look and having scepticism along with cynicism about the reasons he’s joined are perfectly valid.
One thing can’t be dismissed however and that he is an excellent orator, good campaigner and the type of person who wouldn’t have looked at the Lib Dems years ago but now realises they are the obvious choice to capture and grow the all important centre ground. The Tories are splitting left almost as fast the Labour are splitting left. The Lib Dems need to grow if they are ever going to recover from post 2010 and to do that you need to attract new voices to the ranks. Holding somebodies past against them forever isn’t fair and if Umunna is fully on board with Lib Dem domestic policies then he’d likely be a fine asset to the party.
One of the biggest questions now is what does he do for the next General Election? Having leapt out of the fire to join the abject failure that was ChangeUK, setting up shop within a political party who could theoretically win his constituency and has other prime London seats available, his political career suddenly isn’t in the free fall that it looked to be not so long ago.
Sticking in Streatham is the clear and most obvious choice. The way in which Helen Thompson, the woman who’d already been selected as the PPC for the seat welcomed him publicly I thought was key. Having MPs join the party is often going to knock local campaigners noses out of joint. Having fought against someone for years and then seeing them waltz in can be infuriating and immensely frustrating.
However there are other options, which are far less palatable on the outside.
In The Guardian today the following was typed:
One Lib Dem source suggested he could stand in Richmond Park, the seat held by the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith but which was won by Cable’s former chief of staff Sarah Olney at a byelection in 2016.
Cable’s Twickenham seat could also become vacant, if the 76-year-old decided to step down at a future general election.
Now I hope to hell heaven that is complete and utter horse shit. Sarah Olney is the right person to be in line to take on Zac Goldsmith the next time voters go to the polls in Richmond Park. Any decision to parachute Umunna in would be extremely counterproductive. The fact Sarah lost her seat by 45 votes in 2017 whilst Vince next door won by going on for 10,000 is a stain on the party. I won’t call it sexist (although I know many others do) but the way that Vince got so much support when he was well on his way to victory whilst Sarah succumbed to a devastating defeat six months or so after having won the by-election is something the party need to ensure never happens again.
Twickenham is also a top seat where if Vince decides to step down, a plan of succession should be put in place and if Chuka wants to apply for it then so be it. What shouldn’t happen if for him to be slid in having had the wheels well and truly greased.
My personal point of view is if any MP from another party (or The Independent Group) want to defect to the Lib Dems and they broadly share liberal values then I’ll happily welcome them with open arms but on one proviso, that they aren’t promised a top seat and instead vow to grow the party where they currently stand (at least in the next election). Should say they stand and lose but apply for another seat next time then that is fair enough but they shouldn’t be given preferential treatment.
The Lib Dems are a pretty broad church and the overwhelming issue that is Brexit is clearly widening the congregation at the moment. Just going after the ‘core liberal’ vote won’t win just like Labour can’t win by harvesting a ‘core Labour’ vote and the same with the Tories. Winning in politics is about appealing to people who wouldn’t usually support you.
Attracting Chuka Umunna may well be a matter of convenience to both parties (for him a chance to keep his political career going and for the party, a chance to add another well known voice and potentially grow the party in a seat that has never returned a Liberal Democrat MP) but if both sides are happy then why not?
So overall I’d like to welcome him to the party. Do I have some concerns? Sure I do but the biggest thing to me is that any talk of him running to Richmond Park gets shut down ASAP. As he says himself, he’s a Streatham kid and he could actually win that seat as a Lib Dem, running for pastures new would not be a good look.