Lots of us are talking about Chuka Umunna this week. Since the Streatham Labour MP and shadow business secretary announced that he'd be running for leadership of the party, we're all over the former garage DJ like a bloody rash. Because let's face it: who wants to watch Andy Burnham eat a bacon sandwich every day for the next five years. Exactly. No one.
Thing is, though, peek behind the sheeny surface of Chuka, and you'll notice a dark, looming truth. Look at his fingers. Bit naked, aren't they? Bit... old. Note his ring finger, and how it doesn't have a ring on it. Note how his shoulder doesn't have the soft, gentle hand of a camera-ready wife resting gently upon it. Look at his eyes, and how bright and clear and full of hope they are, yet to have their youthful shimmer extinguished by entire weekends spent looking through kitchen catalogues. Yes: Chuka Umunna, potential Labour leader, has the temerity – the sheer fucking gall – to be an unmarried man. And get this: he has a girlfriend.
Luckily, this morning an op-ed appeared on political website The Conservative Woman making us all, finally, aware of Chuka's failing, all the while offering the kind of piercing, prudent commentary that makes you roll backwards on your desk chair for a few moments and say "blimey" at least twice.
"Chuka Umunna has thrown his stylish cap into the ring for the Labour Leadership," wrote the website's co-editor, Laura Perrins, because single young men wear more stylish caps, don't they? With their hip-hops and their basketballs. Perrins insists she won't follow this "Labour leadership bloodbath" too closely, though she stresses in the piece – titled: "Too cool for school Chuka is also too old to have a girlfriend" – that the one "thing" in the whole sorry mess that has caused her consternation is Umunna's girlfriend, Alice Sullivan, and the fact that she exists, currently and still, in her flagrantly unmarried state.
"How odd," Perrins writes, that Umunna has a girlfriend, and "not a wife".
The former barrister blanched and trembled, you imagine, as she sat down to write: "Where I come from, 36-year-old men don't have girlfriends, they have wives." Her self-proclaimed "socially conservative" mind warped like a hot record as her fingertips tapped out the words, "sixteen-year-olds have girlfriends, twenty-six-year-olds have girlfriends, heck even a thirty-year-old man might have a girlfriend, although really at that stage it should be a fiancé... that sets off alarm bells."
What do those alarm bells sound like, I wonder? A bicycle bell being rung under a canal footpath bridge? A car alarm ringing a few streets away? A smoke alarm, louder than thunder, that won't stop screaming because you've burnt some meat? Some questions might be helpful here, as, let's face it, Perrins definitely won't be alone in her barely turn-of-the-20th-century thinking. If last week's election result taught us anything, it was that our own rock pools of political thinking and social media commentary tell us very little about what the rest of the country is thinking. There are a million shades of Perrins out there. So:
i: Where is this cluster of 36-year-old married men? Can we get a precise postcode, or latitude and longitude coordinates? Because where Perrins is from, apparently, every single man over the age of 35 has been wed. I found this puzzling. Because in my own – disclaimer: pretty loony lefty! – social circles I can think of a great many 36-plus men who are happily relationship-ed, long cohabiting and, in some cases, baby-ed with their partners. The word "marriage" has barely floated into their conversations. Why? Because they sort of just are, in their relatively grown-up, loving homes. Not a single one is part of the "hip liberal North London set" that Perrins' piece speaks of. Some of them live in Kent. Some in Stroud. Some in Bishop's Stortford. Basically, though: wherever you are, men, you better be getting a fucking move on, because –
ii: The "cut off point" for the "wife-girlfriend thing" is 35. Unless you've only been together for six months, then you "get a year". After that, it's "decision time"! But what exactly are we deciding here, and who is deciding it? Doesn't a marriage involve another living person? Not always. You can, like a character in Chris Morris' Jam, marry yourself, if you like, and it'd be really lovely. Generally speaking, though, another human is involved. Which poses another question: What if marriage actually matters very little to Umunna's girlfriend?
What if Alice Sullivan – the voiceless but prominent spectre in all this – is perfectly happy to function both within and outside her relationship without being a wife? What if she (forget him for a minute) doesn't give a flying fuck? Because any assumption made about Umunna's relationship choices don't stop at him, they immediately cast his partner under the same, knackered old spot light: that you can't be someone unless you're a legally "settled" someone. Unless you're proper. One woman is saying to another, by proxy, "Listen, babe, until you marry this man, no one's going to take you seriously."
Watch our related documentary – The New Wave: Labour
iii: Umunna introducing the electorate to his girlfriend (rather than his wife) indicates, apparently, what kind of character Umunna is "and indeed has been". An attempt to translate this thesis, on first draft of this piece, came out as: "black man can't be taken seriously because he's been too busy getting his end away to get married like a good lad". FYI, I did a Google image search, and there's not a single one of Chuka Umunna wearing a "stylish cap". There's not a single one of him wearing any kind of hat. So where did Perrins get that image from? (It's called a "snapback", for future ref.)
iv: If Umunna has been "dragging his heels" over his decision to get "hitched" it means, according to Perrins, one of three things: that he is either "lazy and not bothered with getting married", "unromantic" or a "narcissist" who thinks "no woman is really good enough for him". But does this apply to every unmarried man over the age of 35? Since when are laziness and marriage inextricably linked? When did "good enough" become defined by signing both your names in a massive book? And, again, what if both parties just don't give a shit about being married to one another but love each other all the same? What if any woman in a relationship with a 35-plus man can separate the idea of romance from fucking marriage?
This piece might be best laughed away. It may not be worth getting angry over. Umunna and his girlfriend may well read it and chuckle before loading up an episode of Bloodline on Netflix. But isn't it a bit frightening to be reminded that people still think like this? The stakes aren't quite the same yet, but in the same way that Ed Miliband's past sexual encounters (and the fact that he was more or less press-ganged into marrying his wife, Justine, in 2011) were used in the tabloids for some kind of infantile smear attempt, Umunna is being attacked within similar perimeters because, in 2015, he's a man who hasn't yet married his girlfriend.
More from VICE: