Chuka Umunna interview: Change UK must be about more than just Brexit

Change UKGetty

  • Chuka Umunna speaks to Business Insider about the "tension" in what his new party Change UK is trying to achieve.
  • The former Labour MP is the chief spokesperson for the fledgling pro-EU party.
  • The party is competing in the upcoming European elections against the major parties and Nigel Farage's new anti-EU Brexit Party.
  • Umunna insists Change UK must be about more than just Brexit.

BRISTOL, UK - In recent weeks two new political parties have been launched in the UK, which between them could fundamentally alter the fate of British politics and Brexit.

The first - the Brexit Party - is an anti-EU populist party led by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, which is bent on forcing Theresa May's government into the hardest possible exit from the EU.

The second - Change UK - is an alliance of pro-EU former Conservative and Labour MPs whose central aim is to prevent Britain leaving at all.

Farage's latest vehicle, with its clear anti-EU position, has had an explosive start, surging to the top of some polls in the upcoming European elections. These elections, which were due to be scrapped had Britain left the EU on March 29 as originally intended, are now set to be held in the UK next month following May's decision to delay Brexit until October.

Change UK on the other hand has had a much less successful beginning, registering in the low single figures in some national polls as it struggles to forge a unique identity.

That identity struggle is evident in its name. Originally titled the Independent Group, this was rejected by electoral authorities as being not distinctive enough, meaning that the party is now known by the awkwardly double-barreled "Change UK - The Independent Group" title. To confuse things further, they are also known as TIG, or "the Tiggers" and at their launch on Tuesday started referring to themselves as the Remain Alliance.

Their chosen logo has also caused confusion after being rejected by electoral authorities for including a hashtag, forcing the party to resort to a new logo of horizontal stripes in a variety of colours, although they insist that black and white are their "core" theme.

Speaking to Business Insider at Change UK's European elections launch on Tuesday in Bristol, their official spokesperson Chuka Umunna dismissed criticism of the party's branding as "Westminster bubble speak."

"Different colours. It's not relevant," he says.

"That is Westminster bubble speak. You're used to the reds who are Labour, the blues who are Conservatives, the yellows who are Liberal Democrats. Oh my God. We've dared to use three or four different colours. Listen to yourself. That's the same old Westminster way."

"The fact that using more than one colour is controversial tells you all you need to know about our broken politics."

The fact that using more than one colour is controversial tells you all you need to know about our broken politics.

Part of the confusion may stem from Change UK's reluctance, unlike Farage's party, to be seen as solely defined by Brexit.

"Obviously people will make comparisons [with the Brexit party]," he told Business Insider at the party's European elections launch on Tuesday in Bristol.

"But there's a key difference here. The Brexit Party is a nationalistic, xenophobic, opportunistic outfit which is solely fixed on our exit from the European Union."

"Our mission is about a much bigger agenda, which is fixing Britain's broken political system, disrupting the status quo, and offering a genuine alternative at a general election.

"We are seeking to build a party which in the long term can actually play a part in the government of this country. So, of course, there is going to be a difference. And that's why we don't call ourselves the Remain party or the anti-Brexit party."

Nigel Farage Brexit partyGetty

The Brexit Party's European elections launch last week was a masterclass in simple political messaging. Its mission is reflected in its name, its turquoise branding is slick, and there is an effective social media campaign. And it is fronted by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a household name who has proven capable of marshaling many Leave voters to his cause.

Meanwhile, Change UK-TIG - as Umunna refers to it - is not precisely pitched as an anti-Brexit outfit, despite its MPs repeatedly referring to it as "the Remain alliance."

Search for Change UK on Google and a link to the party's website does not appear on the first page of results, instead yielding many results for a charity of the same name. Search for the Brexit Party and the first link is the party's own webpage.

It is that glaring difference between the two parties which many believe will hand the Brexit Party a significant advantage in May's European elections.

Because while the Brexit Party is unashamedly a single-issue movement calling for the UK to leave the EU at any cost, Change UK - comprising seven former Labour MPs and four former Conservative MPs unified in their support for a second EU referendum - is seeking to achieve two things which appear to exist in conflict.

One the one hand, it wants to be recognised as the sole party of Remain which sweeps up much of the anti-Brexit vote in May's European elections. On the other, it doesn't want to become defined solely by Brexit - instead, by a much wider set of policies which will one day deliver the party to government.

"We could do the short-term opportunistic thing because it might lead to some nice polls... but Britain deserves better than that"

Umunna recognises the inherent contradiction of that position.

"Of course there's a tension there. It is undeniable," he says.

However, he says it is "intrinsic" to the party's values to take a longer-term view, one that is focused on a broader set of policies.

"We could do the short-term opportunistic thing because it might lead to some nice polls for a few weeks," he says.

"But in the end, Britain deserves better than that. We are seeking to build a party which in the long-term can actually play a part in the government of this country. That's why we don't call ourselves the Remain party or the anti-Brexit party."

Early polls suggest that this strategy has not yet succeeded. A survey for ComRes on April 16 found that while 17% of voters intend to support the Brexit Party at the European elections, just 9% intend to support Change UK. Because of the nature of the electoral system, such a showing would be unlikely to return the party many successful candidates.

Time will tell if the party can turn its fortunes around in time for the European elections on May 23, however.

Ultimately, Umunna says it would be unfair for his party should be judged by the end of its campaign rather than by the beginning of it.

"We want to establish the character and mission of Change UK - The Independent Group in the public mind by the end of this European election campaign," he says. "We only came into being last week."

Our Brexit Insider Facebook group is the best place for up-to-date news and analysis about Britain's departure from the EU, direct from Business Insider's political reporters. Join here.

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