NIGERIAN-born Member of Parliament for Streatham Chuka Umunna has joined the Liberal Democrats just four months after he left the Labour Party and founded a new political association known as Change UK.
A passionate believer in Britain remaining within the European Union (EU), Mr Umunna got disillusioned with the Labour Party’s refusal to oppose Brexit and spearhead the Remain campaign. Consequently, in February, he and several colleagues left Labour and founded Change UK but after the party performed very badly in the recent European elections, Mr Umunna has decided to move on.
During the last European elections, Change UK only got 3.4% of the vote and realising the party had little chance of making an impact, Mr Umunna said he was wrong to think millions of politically homeless people wanted a new party. He added that he had massively underestimated just how difficult it is to set up a fully fledged new party without an existing infrastructure.
He was one of six MPs to quit Change UK last week and now he has joined the Liberal Democrats, increasing the number of the party’s MPs in Westminster to 12. During the European elections, the Liberal, Democrats who, like Change UK, campaigned on a strongly pro-EU message, saw a surge in support, coming second in the polls after Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
A former shadow business secretary, who had previously criticised the Liberal Democrats for enabling Tory austerity during the 2010 to 2015 coalition government, Mr Umunna acknowledged that not everyone in the party would welcome his arrival. He said, however, that things have changed, as the Lib Dems had voted against every single Conservative budget since 2015 and stood on an anti-austerity manifesto in the 2017 general election.
Mr Umunna said: “If you want to end austerity you cannot do that if you are going to sponsor Brexit in the way that the two main parties are doing. There isn’t room for more than one centre-ground option in British politics.”
He added that he had believed there were a good handful of Conservative and Labour MPs who knew their parties were broken and could also be prepared to join the Lib Dems too. Mr Umunna, who withdrew from the 2015 Labour leadership contest days after announcing his candidacy, said he did not want to take sides between the two contenders to replace Sir Vince Cable as Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey.
Welcoming him, Sir Vince said: “Chuka and I have worked together effectively for many months, campaigning for a people’s vote and to stop Brexit. I know that he will be a great asset to our party not just on Brexit but in fighting for the liberal and social democratic values that we share.”
When asked if he expected other MPs to defect to his party, the Lib Dem leader confirmed he was in conversations with other independent MPs. Ms Swinson said the Lib Dems were the rallying point for people who want to stop Brexit and fight the climate crisis, while Mr Davey praised the Streatham MP’s huge courage.
Change UK, formerly known as The Independent Group, was formed by MPs who quit Labour and then joined by some former Conservatives. It pledged to push for any Brexit deal negotiated by the government to be voted on at a referendum, in which it would campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.
After last month’s European Parliament elections, however, six of its 11 MPs quit. Labour Party chairman Ian Lavery called for a by-election in Mr Umunna’s constituency, mocking him that there should be a referendum on his candidacy.
Mr Lavery tweeted: “Three parties in as many months, who’s next? Put your immense popularity to the good people of Streatham and let’s have a people’s vote on you and your principles.”