The Ineptitude of Chuka Umunna: 5 Signs Labour are Scraping the Barrel

by Dan Whittall

30 June 2014

In a recent piece for the New Statesman, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna – infamous for calling for an extension of the law against squatting – argues that “cities are on the march”. His article makes clear the geographical imagination that underlies Labour’s approach to political economy. What should we make of this window into the spatial vision of any future Labour government, and of its author’s interventions into the field of urban political economy? Here are five signs that Umunna hasn’t done his homework:

1. Chuka Umunna: Labour’s own Thomas Friedman.

“In my job as shadow business secretary, I have travelled to some of the fastest-growing regions of the world.”

This opening line could have come straight out of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, as could the series of examples that follow, intended to reassure any doubting readers. Don’t worry, our author must know his stuff – he’s been to Lagos, Shanghai, Tel Aviv and Baltimore.

In case this should fail to convince the worldy readership of the New Statesman, Umunna deploys a further Friedmanite trick: name-drop authors who’ve written books around your topic, and maybe even quote a suitably abstract statement that makes no real contribution to your argument. For Umunna, enter Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City. The quote? “Despite the technological breakthroughs that have caused the death of distance, it turns out that the world isn’t flat; it’s paved. The city has triumphed.

2. ‘Specialism’ and urbanized capital accumulation.

‘Specialism’ is one of Umunna’s two big ideas for cities. In his seemingly conflict-free vision of the world economy, Umunna thinks the future is for each urban region to “harness specific local strengths and turn them into clusters of expertise and innovation” – an economic strategy that will inevitably allow urban areas to become centres of economic growth. But Umunna’s argument is undermined by a flawed conception of the geography of capital. ‘Specialism’ is not innate to particular cities, and the “self-reinforcing networks of knowledge, suppliers and support” that Umunna sees within them do not just materialize out of thin air. Rather, they are produced and reproduced through a series of profound spatial transformations ranging across geographical scales. Just ask the people of Detroit. For years, the ‘Motor City’ had a perfectly good specialism that served them well as an accumulation strategy, but then the networks on which this specialism rested were eroded and now city authorities find solace in their ability to deprive residents of water. Specialism can take away just as quickly as it gives.

3. The many meanings of ‘urban democracy’.

Okay, so Umunna’s first big idea wasn’t up to much. It’s alright, though – he’s got two of them, don’t forget. Cities, Umunna argues, “work best when they run themselves.” Great, now we’re getting somewhere! Worker’s councils and community decision-making bodies running urban areas – that’s what he has in mind! Oh wait… it’s not. It’s ‘democracy’ (here we go again). It soon becomes clear that what Umunna actually means by democracy turns out to be little more than localism. Give more powers to elected local officials, he argues, and British cities will become engines of economic growth. Umunna cites an IPSOS-MORI poll that suggests 79% of people trust decisions made by local government, well ahead of the paltry 11% for Whitehall decision-makers. Never mind that actual voter turnout at local elections is shrinking, and that average voter turnout in as high-profile a Mayoral election as London’s only averages 37.9%.

Again it is the question of geographical scale that really matters here. Umunna renders ‘local’ as inherently good. Elected officials are closer to events, know their places better, and are in a more advantageous position to shape policy. Devolve power locally and you’re guaranteed better results. To support his argument, Umunna highlights the work of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, admired for honing in on ‘barriers to fulfilment’ in Chicago and “systematically bulldoz[ing] the obstacles.” Presumably we’re not to worry about the fact that amongst Emmanuel’s ‘barriers to fulfilment’ were unionised airport janitors, and that his ‘bulldozing of obstacles’ saw him unleash a wave of damaging privatizations.

4. Place matters! But how?

For Umunna, unleashing the pent-up dynamism of British cities requires that we recognise ‘the power of place’. Yet again his geographical imaginary is frighteningly limited. Place matters, he argues, because there are lots of different places, and they each have their own distinct specialisms. To borrow a metaphor from Doreen Massey, Umunna’s geographical imagination sets places up as self-contained billiard balls rolling around on a flattened earth’s surface, occasionally colliding with one-another but not in such a way as to have any transformative impact. There is no scope here for capital’s dynamic production and reconfiguration of urban space, nor for the real geographical differences that affect urban growth. Umunna’s urban world is, just like Friedman’s, flat and non-hierarchical, with no sense of the barriers to capital accumulation facing certain urban areas, nor of the profound social damage that such accumulation can cause even when it does take hold.

5. ‘The flat, pluralist world of business class’.

Writing of Friedman, the late urban theorist Neil Smith suggested that “the world may be flat for those who can afford a business class ticket to fly around it,” but “for those in Bombay’s shanties, or for that matter in New York’s Harlem or London’s East End, the price of the same business class ticket to see the world as flat is just as prohibitive.” This gets to the crux of the limited spatial imagination offered by Umunna. For all that he vaunts the opportunities for capital accumulation represented by British cities, he skims directly over the dire social circumstances for the many who live in them. His is a flattened vision of urban Britain suitable only for the global capitalist class, sanitized of urban riots, freed from the pressures to provide affordable housing, and foreseeing the total gentrification of inner city areas. If this vision seems unrealistic worry not, for Umunna has one last platitude to reassure us with: “The new era of the city is benefiting people across the world. We would be mad to miss out on it.”

We’ll see.

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