Leaders: Chuka Umunna put off by public inspection

WHILE we can only take a guess at the full reasons why Labour leadership candidate Chuka Umunna does not feel he wants to be exposed to the scrutiny of the selection process, it is not hard to understand his desire to avoid inflicting unwelcome intrusion on himself, or on the lives of his family and friends.
Chuka Umunna. Picture: GettyChuka Umunna. Picture: Getty
Chuka Umunna. Picture: Getty

There had been argument that Mr Umunna was too young, aged 36, to take on the leadership role. There is no further need for such debate. If he did not feel comfortable with the selection process, then scrutiny while in office would only have been worse.

This begs the question of when, if ever, Mr Umunna would be willing to put himself forward in the future. The potential his political career once promised is now in doubt, although he has said that he hopes to be given a good role by whoever does succeed Ed Miliband as leader.

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The problem for Mr Umunna, and others like him, is that the level of scrutiny public figures now come under is unlikely to change any time soon.

For some, scrutiny represents intrusion. But there are regulations on privacy which must be adhered to, and following the Leveson Inquiry prompted by the phone hacking affair, the media is more aware of its responsibility than ever before.

The difficulty for those in the public eye is that there are aspects of their life they might prefer not to be published, but it is in the public interest for those details to be brought to light. How that person has conducted him or herself in the past could have a relevance to their latest responsibility.

It is also easier than ever before to research an individual’s back story, thanks to the internet. We now have an instant record of significant events in any public figure’s life – as well as the ability for any person to put such information into the public domain and on to the political agenda.

The media has a clear role to play in holding public figures to account. However, that process has a serious downside. As Mr Umunna’s actions have demonstrated, the scrupulous examination of character is having a negative impact on the number of people who are willing to put themselves forward for public office. Who among us has not at some time in the dim and distant past acted in a way that we now regret – or simply made a mistake? Precious few. Who would be willing to have that flaw played out in the press? This has become the price of public office. There will be many capable people with much to contribute to public life, who do not dare risk having to re-live a time they would rather forget.

Even the ranks of those who have done no “wrong” include many who would recoil at the prospect of being made to verify their life story.

There is no obvious answer to this dilemma. As Mr Umunna withdraws from the glare of the spotlight this weekend to reflect on his dashed ambition, many admirers will share his regret.

Rail dispute is test for Tories

NEXT week’s walk-out by Network Rail workers will be the first UK-wide rail strike in 20 years.

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From 5pm on Monday, signallers, maintenance and station staff are due to stop work for 24 hours in a dispute over time-honoured contentions – jobs and pay.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has condemned the strike, stating: “Rail passengers will not thank the unions for inflicting this unnecessary disruption.” It was ever thus. Industrial action has always meant inconvenience, and this dispute has the hallmark of many of its ilk - beginning on what will be a public holiday for many people.

The action is likely to prompt predictions of a return to the dark ages when unions could bring the country to a standstill and plunge our lives into darkness at a moment’s notice. The 1970s, in other words. That was 40 years ago, not 20, but what’s a couple of decades when there is a political point at stake?

In reality, an industrial dispute is almost to be expected. During the financial downturn, many sectors of the economy went for years either without a pay rise, or with a token rise outstripped by inflation. As the economy improves, it is inevitable that new pay demands will be made.

That is of little consolation to those who find themselves unable to travel on Monday and Tuesday. Until then, there remains time to resolve the matter, with talks still possible at Acas.For the new Conservative government, the strike is its first big test on industrial relations as it tries to introduce union ballot reform. How it handles this episode will have wider significance than this single dispute, because the action is unlikely to be the last such challenge it faces.