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Chuka Umunna: “I’m a product of modern London”

Interview with Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Streatham, South London 14 October 2008. In September, as part of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the European Commission launched the Love Difference Festival, a festival of arts, debate, and film, touring across three major cities: London, Northampton and Bristol, to celebrate Britain’s multiculturalism.

The London leg of the festival introduced a political discussion, paneled by British MP Jon Cruddas, Hungarian sociologist Istvan Hegedus, UNISON Manager Susan Cueva and Labour activist and employment lawyer Chuka Umunna. Mr. Umunna, 29, is Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Streatham, South London. If elected, not only will he be one of the youngest MPs in Britain, but also the only person of African heritage to represent one of the three parliamentary constituencies covering the Brixton area. We caught up with Mr. Umunna to get his overview of the event and the current state of London’s cultural diversity.

chuka7web.gifHow did you get involved in the Love Difference Festival?

It was co-organised by the European Commission and Compass Youth, which is a branch of Compass, the management committee of the progressive pressure group I am a member of. They invited me and I thought that was a great initiative.

Were you satisfied with the points touched upon during the discussion?

Yes, coming from an immigrant background, I thought it was very interesting from a personal perspective. Some of the points about assimilation and integration were very pertinent: I thought it was a very timely debate to be had.

Do you think that the festival got the attendance it deserved? I personally thought it was poorly attended… Could you think of a reason behind this?

Well, there were about sixty people, which I think is not bad given the panel: it is not like any of us are big celebrities. This was more of an intellectual audience and in that respect I think it was well attended. But obviously, this type of event always benefits from more outreach….

What do you make of the BNP’s backlash against the event?

The BNP (British National Party) is a big problem. One of the big problems we have is that there’s been a lot of immigration over the past ten years, and although this is under control now, the BNP have taken this opportunity to gather crowds their side.

You described yourself as "a product of modern London". What is "modern London"?

Well, if you compare New York, supposedly city of the melting pot, you will find that it is still very segregated and that there is very little interracial interaction, whether friendships or romantic relationships. I often use my own background to illustrate this: my dad is Nigerian, my Mum is half-Irish, and we also have Portuguese, Russian, French, Spanish and Brazilian blood running in the family. I really believe that London is the only city in the world to have achieved a true melting pot in that sense.

Attending the event, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that the Love Difference Festival was solely focused on one part of the minority community, i.e. Eastern Europeans. What’s your take on this?

That is a good point, but how do you define a minority? Minorities are usually perceived from an ethnic point of view. If I find a rational behind that, I guess it would be the fact that the Eastern European community has not been discussed much in recent years, and since they have an obvious presence in the country, they should be. I would agree though that one point missing in the discussion was that of the interaction between minorities.

As an employment lawyer, you mentioned that people of colour (Asian and Black) are still more discriminated against than new immigrants such as Eastern Europeans. Is that right?

I’m afraid it is still the case, and neither in my practice nor in the employment law sector, have we encountered many cases involving Eastern Europeans.

You said people can’t be forced to socially and culturally integrate. How do you feel about the integration of African communities in London as a whole?

I do feel it is established. All you can do now is encourage them to integrate even more. But things happen over time.

What do you make of all the comparisons with Barack Obama? How does your approach to politics relate to his?

I find him very inspiring, but I won’t comment on any similarities, as it just gets me in trouble. But all I will say is that I dearly hope he wins the next election…!

For updates on Chuka’s campaign, please visit www.streathamlabour.org.uk

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