Umunna warns of ‘Trumpification’ of British democracy
British politics could be facing a period of "Trumpification" where divided economic and racial groups increasingly single each other out for blame for the country's problems, Chuka Umunna said this morning.
Speaking at the launch of an all-party parliamentary group on social integration, the former Labour leadership hopeful warned that the rise of far-right politics being seen in the US and mainland Europe could also reach the UK.
"If we don’t take action now to bridge the divides in our communities, I fear they will grow into gulfs – and there is a real risk the British people could respond to the challenges of the Twenty-First Century not by asking 'how can we solve this problem together?' but by asking 'who can we blame?'," he said.
"That is precisely what is happening in the United States right now. Populist parties which typify this are already in national and/or regional governments across Europe, like the Front National in France.
"Some say it wouldn’t fly in modern Britain, that people here could never stomach a prime minister in the mould of Donald Trump – a major party leader who would slander and stigmatise a whole faith group and advocate building a wall to keep immigrants out of our country, who would say anything to get elected and bully and shout down anyone who spoke up against them. But we are already on that slippery slope.
"If we continue down this path, we could face nothing less than the Trumpification of British democracy."
The former shadow business secretary highlighted the strength of the Ukip vote in the 2016 election, which – while only securing the party one MP – still saw it win 4 million votes.
"Last year's general election, and the European elections the year before, should have been a wake-up call to the growing and pernicious divides in our national politics," Umunna said.
"Nearly four million of our fellow citizens voted for a party whose leader got stuck in a traffic jam and blamed the traffic on immigrants, a leader who brought up the idea of stopping immigrants with life-threatening illnesses from entering the country during the first leaders' TV debate."
Umunna also highlighted a growing trend in British politics to identify voters by their region, age or class and play them off against one another, typified for many Labour supporters by the Tories' exploitation of voters' anxieties over an SNP-Labour coalition at the last election.
"It was an election which more than ever before seemed to be fought on a region-by-region and group-by-group basis, where the political and cultural divides between the north and south of England as well as Scotland and England became yet more stark, where the class divides which have always been a part of Britain's history gained renewed and far greater prominence. And where the difference between the urban and the rural seemed bigger than ever before."
Umunna also laid the blame for the change on the inability of politicians on the mainstream right and left to speak to voters about their concerns in a convincing way.
"In the run up to the general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that here – just like in the States – people are losing faith in the idea that politics can make a difference to their lives.
"It's exactly that sort of despondency that drives people to turn to the populist politics – of the left and the right – of blame, division and recrimination. In towns and cities from Brighton to Sunderland, I met people who are afraid and people who are angry, afraid because the world is changing in ways which they feel are beyond their control, angry because what it means to be British – or, more specifically, English – seems to have shifted around them. Their sense of identity and belonging seem under threat."
Umunna's comments come as Trump seems to be hurtling towards the finishing line of the Republican presidential nomination, with little evidence that the party establishment can stop him.
Many British politicians have watched the Republican race with a sense of growing alarm that something similar could happen in Britain, where a populist politician could just as easily exploit the low levels of trust in the mainstream political parties and the power of social media to achieve similar levels of success.