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Goodbye to Tristram

Tristram_Hunt_009It was nice for Stoke-on-Trent to make the news for something other than footy and the BNP. Less nice that it was my constituency party and my MP at the centre of it. Yes, as the world and its uncle now knows, Tristram Hunt is resigning the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat to take up the leadership of the Victoria & Albert in London. He can now spend more time with his young family, and it’s a role he’s temperamentally and culturally suited to. This then is going to be the first of two posts – the second will look at Stoke-on-Trent Central, the state of the local party, potential candidates and Labour’s chances of holding on to the seat. This one is all about Tristram.

First things first, Tristram’s announcement was greeted with the crows of his opponents, and the commiseration of his friends. For those identifying with the Corbynist left, this proves he was a careerist with no interest beyond self-advancement. For those arrayed against the leadership, Tristram’s resignation is a loss of talent that reflects badly on Corbyn’s prospects. There is no attempt to analyse or understand. Pigeonholing is the order of the day. The truth lies between these two poles, and I know. Because not only do I know him, have shared the local party with him for almost seven years, I used to work for him too. So if you came here hoping for a denunciation, you will be disappointed.

Readers with long memories might recall the circumstances in which Tristram became the Labour MP for Stoke Central. The fag end of Gordon Brown’s short tenure saw a scramble for seats as the 2010 general election loomed. Coincidentally, a long-running factional battle in this constituency centered around the local directly-elected mayor reached its climax. Early that year, the NEC intervened and put the CLP into special measures – in effect, the Labour Party’s version of direct rule. Letters were issued to members ruling the upcoming AGM out of order and attendees were threatened with suspension and sanction. Said meeting went ahead and the whole constituency party was placed on the naughty step. The ruling on this came very quickly on the heels of the incumbent MP – Mark Fisher – unexpectedly announcing his retirement. Two months from the election and Labour was without a candidate.

Because of the special measures and because of the proximity to D-Day, longlisting and shortlisting was the province of a NEC panel. It was at this point that Tristram’s name first surfaced, with the FT getting the scoop. Being foolish I didn’t believe he stood much of a chance – little did I appreciate the dark arts of Peter Mandelson and how brazen the party can be when sorting sinecure for the favoured. I then thought selections were a meritorious affair. Pah. The longlist was a varied field of local folks and people from outside Stoke. And then came the shortlist: it was basically Tristram and two also-rans cynically tacked on so the local party had no choice but to rubber stamp the NEC’s favoured choice. Seriously, I’ve interviewed dozens of candidates for the local government panel and I struggle to remember anyone worse than this pair. But as stitching goes, this isn’t the most egregious. I digress. Tristram was duly selected and the Potteries moved into the light of a new dawn.

Locally, Tristram made a bit of a splash. The sort of plaudits getting heaped on him now echo those greeting his arrival in Stoke. Tristram had glamour, had connections, had ambition. He was going places and that made him a good catch for Stoke-on-Trent. He was lauded by local notables as a future Prime Minister, or at the very least someone who could open doors for the city in The City. As I was unemployed and despairing of ever finding work, Tristram was kind enough to offer me a job as a caseworker in the constituency office. Given the political distance between us it did give me pause, but in the end making a living came first. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. In addition to the casework, each of us in the office had a number of projects that aimed to define the shiny new MP in some way. For example, I was charged with putting together the ‘Stoke Stories’ conference in conjunction with the RSA to strengthen relationships between local third sector organisations, and lend any assistance and support the office could give them. Others over the last seven years included the backstamping campaign, the annual get together of local business leaders, the Maths Excellence Partnership, a campaign to save nursery provision, and securing an exemption for beleagured potteries from the renewables obligation. There were more! In addition to this, Tristram and his office got through a heavy caseload and secured some notable victories at the local council, with the DWP and sometimes (sometimes!) the government. Small shifts in policy or getting back monies owed isn’t Bastille storming stuff, but it is important and makes a difference to those affected by them.

Meanwhile, Tristram was something of an object of fascination for the left. As one of the best known Blairites in the PLP, and being one of the few unafraid to (occasionally) avow himself a disciple, I always found it strange why he had a weird fan club. Was it the glamour? The proximity to Mandelson? His book on Engels? Far from getting a hostile reception, trade unionists in Stoke couldn’t wait to meet him. I had self-identified Trots from elsewhere always asking after him. And even after that picket line crossing episode to deliver a lecture on Victorian civic culture and not, as per received myth, to speak on Marxism, he remained the left’s favourite Blairite. Even if to hate and troll.

The mystery didn’t end there. In person, Tristram is pleasant and funny, isn’t overly posh and doesn’t come across as a snob. But he remained an enigma both to his staff and the local party. Hand on my heart, despite working closely with him I cannot say why he decided to become a Member of Parliament. Nor, unlike Liz Kendall and her liberalism can I honestly say what his politics are. There would be many times he got up in front of the CLP to defend the Blairite commonsense about winning elections, of securing the southern marginals so we can help best Stoke-on-Trent, but there was never a sense of vision. For someone heralded as an ideas man, there were no ideas. For someone who was and remains passionate about education, I never understood where that sprang from. There was no patrician concern for the poor, which some might have expected. Nor a desire to get into power and reform our way to the New Jerusalem. Absent too was the obsession with power for its own sake – he never struck me as someone who had a personal hunger for government. On a number of occasions when asked about Tristram, I often likened him to the gentlemanly Victorian who was passing through Parliament on his way to other things.

The absence of politics was also the root of his mistakes as a politician. In the days following the 2015 defeat, he was shocked to find his opponents had laid the groundwork for their leadership challenges among PLP colleagues well before election day. As a result, the MPs not already signed up for others and happy to back him were quite modest. This absence of nous touched on other areas of work. As I wrote previously, one of the benefits of having Tristram as a boss was that he’d leave you to use your own initiative. He was not the kind of Member who took the correspondence home to check the spellings and tone. This also meant he didn’t take as much of an interest in local politics as an MP should. Meetings with councillors were ad hoc and infrequent, local party strategy was something he fought shy of, and keeping the CLP happy wasn’t a high priority. The latter undoubtedly helped contribute to it near-unanimously voting to endorse Jeremy Corbyn last summer. Unfortunately, like many Labour MPs, Tristram doesn’t and didn’t understand much the party or movement of which he is part, and didn’t show interest in advice from staff and other local Labour people about how to navigate these choppy waters. He might have avoided the embarrassment of picket-linegate if he had, for instance.

Lastly, I was not surprised to learn of Tristram’s departure this morning. Even before the election, local comrades knew my belief that if we didn’t win in 2015, he wouldn’t contest 2020. That became increasingly obvious after the Boundary Commission slated Stoke-on-Trent Central for deletion in the great Tory gerrymander. And there was the summer’s grumblings that saw a local branch take a vote of no confidence against him. If Tristram wanted to hang on he would have had a torrid time, and not in a good way. The V&A position with its reported £300k salary has saved him from all that. Other Labour MPs in similar pickles are no doubt looking for gilded exits and hoping something like this will fall from the sky.

I don’t bear Tristram any ill will. I shall always be grateful for the two-and-a-half years I carried bags. It was a fantastic job and, bleeding heart that I am, I helped a lot of people out in shit situations. We all did. But like him or not, the politics of his departure leaves the party in a weakened position and a by-election that is going to be difficult. Legacies should be celebrated. It just saddens me that Tristram’s is something Stoke Labour is going to have to overcome.


  1. jeffrey davies says:

    hmm carry his bags you must be mad anyone who uses his post being a mp to further advance himself shouldnt be in it being a blairite isnt about labour but taking thatchers rule of thumb greed the time of greed could be coming to a end and true labour people who will rule fairly not grab all they can sorry labour lost a greedie one

    1. James Martin says:

      Phil B-C also supported Yvette Cooper rather than Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election. The lad talks a good left fight on occasion but actions speak louder than words don’t they?

  2. John Penney says:

    This article tells us a lot about the upper class , Oxbridge, dilettanti , that Progress has foisted on constituency after constituency over the last 30 years. Every comment I’ve come across from those who met him also say how unconnected Hunt was from the unfortunate, impoverished folk of Stoke Central and their terrible local problems of economic meltdown.

    So, as with so many parachuted in , utterly neoliberal PLP members, Hunt is basically an overprivileged Tory, just “passing through” Parliament as yet another sinecure job . That , with no relevant experience at all, he has now been slotted into the huge salary V&A role, shows just how much of a totally trusted creature of the Establishment he is. And this uncaring toff is one of the PLP the press constantly bigged up for Party leader !

    Yet despite all this , Phil B C , you blithely declare that ;

    “I don’t bear Tristram any ill will. I shall always be grateful for the two-and-a-half years I carried bags.”

    Well hurrah for you , Phil. I don’t think the citizens of Stoke will be so generous. The man is an utter anti-working class scoundrel and parasite , like all his neoliberal PLP kin. A bit of genuine class hatred for his rotten ilk is in order methinks, not your insoucient “forgiveness, and gratitude that you personally benefitted from his short sinecure sojourn amongst the impoverished Stoke proletariat.

  3. verity says:

    Pleased that there are opportunities that may encourage many other Labour MPs to move on and upwards. A bit disappointing though that the Party has not the strength to flush these people out due to the absence of any real merit as Party contributors.

    A great book on Engels though – his other writings were mediocre though. Notice that the Guardian felt it reflected the downfall of Labour – so some progress at last.

  4. Ric Euteneuer says:

    Thanks for the hagiography and the no doubt dispassionate and independent assessment of your work and effectiveness as aide de camp for the MP in question. Quite why I would expect anything other than a lengthy self-justification and needlngless and pointless pop at the existing party leadership is anyone’s guess.

    “Tristram’s resignation is a loss of talent” – I’d like the author to quantify “talent”. He may be – no, I am sure he is – a competent administrator and in possession of good communications skills.

    But it takes a whole lot more than that to be a successful MP and Minister (shadow or otherwise). And still more to do the same for the Labour. And Hunt was singularly unsuccessful at both of these, as both a carpetbagger and unashamed elitist of the worse order.

  5. Peter Rossetti says:

    When your CLP pass a vote of no confidence in you – this would always be on the cards. Lets hope Angela Eagle see the light soon Wallasey CLP can get back to normal and get on with business

  6. Sue says:

    Nice guy or not this confirms that he should never have been a Labour MP.

  7. Rob Green says:

    The whole of New Labour belongs in a museum.

  8. As one of the few people on this site who has actually met and discussed with Hunt political issues – education, for half an hour, and to be fair he sat down and gave me a hearing – I could not understand his politics either.

    However, I am surprised you mention the name of the Dark Prince. As again I know the constituency and used to know Mark Fisher, the previous MP, and have some grasp of how Hunt came to be selected. But no one I know who knows the story has ever published the name of the Dark Lord before, so thank you for that.

    As to the departure, do you have any idea why the V&A appointed him? No administrative experience or managerial experience, No experience in musuems that I can see. The enduring issue with TH is why?

    He has a reputation as a historian which is justified to some extent. But as someone who had to read his comments on E P Thompson’s classic THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS – which are not worth digging up – I had to come to the conclusion that he did not understand the C19th working class or E P Thompson, who I studied under.

    That he did not understand the C21st working class goes without saying.

    So why? A second rate academic historian, a failed politician and someone with no track record in museums…. what is the attraction?

    I did read his book on Engels, but gave up. Though Engels is the second rater, Hunt could never cope with Marx, it was not very good. Competent but no more. So the question for his place in history is…. why?

    Apart from having a profile, which Oscar Wilde once said was decisive, what makes Hunt worth anyones attention? You knew him. Is this a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

    Trevor Fisher.

    1. Verity says:

      One possible explanation for his appointment was that he had made public statements supporting the introduction of Museum charges – although has latterly gone soft on that view. What could be better for a regime than finding a (former) prominent Labour figure to make the change – not for the first time of course. If charges are imposed then it will be possible to see that as an explanation.

    2. James Martin says:

      Mandelson’s involvement was known about from the start and was not particularly hidden. In fact, when BBC 2 ran this documentary on the domination of rich people in politics in 2011 Gary Elsby, who was carved out to allow Hunt to stand, mentioned it in relation to what had happened in Stoke (1:10):

  9. David Pavett says:

    I struggle to see the point of this article. Those with an interest in Phil B-C’s CV may find a few points to note but if they want an assessment of the political idea and actions of Tristram Hunt they will have to look elsewhere.

    It is surely a little strange to comment on the Hunt’s political trajectory without mentioning his role in the highest office that he held: Shadow Secretary for Education. All we are told is that he “was and remains passionate about education”.

    “Passionate” maybe but to what end and who for? As Shadow Minister he was worse than useless. He reinforced all the worst elements of Blairite educational policy in the Miliband years. He supported academies, he favoured the expansion of faith schools, he opposed efforts to shift Labour policy against grammar schools. He even favoured private schools demanding only that they share some of their magic by teaming up with state schools to show them how to do the job. He was also an advocate of performance-related pay in education despite an absence of any evidence for its efficacy.

    And it is not only that his educational policies were awful, he was terrible in the Commons. His confrontations with Michael Gove in Parliament are embarrassing to read. Again and again he would come up with some half-baked question only to have Gove slap him around the face with a wet-fish for five minutes or so.

    So in just what way does Tristram Hunt’s departure represent a “loss of talent” for the Parliamentary Labour Party?

    He will perhaps best be remembered as the man who was so keen to talk about 19th century working class history that he was prepared to cross picket lines to do it.

    I hope he does a better job for the Victoria and Albert museum than he did for the Labour Party. It is a great museum.

  10. No David, this is a really important post. Over the last 20 years Labour has been subject to a take over. Not impossible to understand, as those of us who formed Labour Reform in 1995 showed. The trajectory was clear from the start. The hollowing out of the party was the PRoject, and it is now having its effect.

    The Hard Left never understands what happened and is happening. While the soft left around Labour Reform had a clear idea that the New Labour Project had to be stopped and allied with the CLPD to form the grassroots alliance, we found that even the best comrades on the hard left like the Derers did not understand the Project.

    All insights into the Project and the strange people who were its supporters are worth their weight in gold.

    Trevor FIsher

    1. David Pavett says:

      Trevor, you say that the article is “really important” but you don’t explain why. The rest of what you say doesn’t seem to have much to do with what Phil B-C wrote.

      I don’t have a problem understanding the hollowing out of the LP. It seemed clear to me where Blair was taking the party from the start more than 20 years ago.

      It is not at all clear to me what it is that you are claiming the “hard left” failed to understand and that the “soft left” did understand. Perhaps you could spell this out.

      I also suggest that we avoid the distorting media terminology of “soft/hard” left and go for something more analytical and objective.

  11. Tim Barlow says:

    I think this illustrates that there is a case for legally preventing MPs from bailing out on their constituents in this manner. (At the moment, sadly, the people of Stoke Central probably don’t have a case to sue.) They should be compelled to stick out the 5 years, unless they’re fired for gross misconduct or other egregious misdemeanour, no matter what job vacancy takes their fancy.

    On the up-side, that’s flushed out another careerist neo-liberal from the party!

    1. Susan O'Neill says:

      I would have thought there was an even stronger case for demanding that the NEC have limits set on how much they can interfere in the CLP’s to stop this kind of parachuting in of the favoured select. Any MP should be facing an annual review and possible statutory deselection/reselection options if the CLP and it’s membership are dissatisfied. Why would Stoke want Hunt to continue in his privileged post when he was such an abject failure. The answer should have been to scour the rank and file for replacement possibilities and let him know he was on notice. Party big guns and other elitists like Mandelson should never have had so much influence in the first place, which is what is wrong with the now less than democratic Labour Party.

  12. there is a need for a serious history of the New Labour project, and in this the Tristram Hunt episode would be a classic case study. If you want to understand how the party was hollowed out, then this is a good place to start. As for Phil’s excellent post, take note of the technique. Put up the candidate you want to get selected and two people who couldn’t run a whelk stall, and the allegedly democratic process is fixed. Since everyone wants a media friendly candidate.

    If you say you understand this, most don’t. I have never seen the technique spelt out till Phil spelt it out, and we never touched this in Labour Reform for obvious reasons.

    As for soft and hard, try centre and left if you want, though I am a left winger who doesn’t back the Bennite left and has not done so since the early 80s. The accepted terminology is Used by the centre left Grassroots alliance and has been so for over a decade and a half. The CLPD side of this successful and productive alliance is told in the files in the Bishopsgate Institute. Sadly the Labour Reform side doesn’t have an archive. And it is time there was, if the storm inside the party ever allows time.

    Trevor FIsher.

    1. John Penney says:

      I’m utterly mystified by the completely undeserved, self congratulatory tone of your comments, Trevor Fisher:

      You say in a previous post , re the, obvious, apparently only to you from early on ,damage of the Blairism/Progress Project:

      “The Hard Left never understands what happened and is happening. While the soft left around Labour Reform had a clear idea that the New Labour Project had to be stopped and allied with the CLPD to form the grassroots alliance, …”

      and :

      “…. though I am a left winger who doesn’t back the Bennite left and has not done so since the early 80s. …..The CLPD side of this successful and productive alliance …”

      This is self deluding fantasy of the first order. The surely obvious fact to everyone else, is that none of the various factions of the Labour Centre Left or radical Left, had the slightest success in preventing the 30 year well-planned, year on year neoliberal, careerist, hollowing out politically and in personnel of the Labour Party.

      Regardless of the Corbyn Leadership today, Labour is still a thoroughly neoliberal Party in terms of its Conference agreed policies, and will remain so unless Corbyn and the new Left majority membership get to grips soon .

      The “Corbyn Left Surge” and Leadership victories of 2015 and 2016, had absolutely NOTHING to do with any of the endless trivial manoeuvrings of your faction, or the “Labour Left” generally over the last umpteen years. It was a flukey manifestation of the Europe-wide “Left Surge”, that caught the Left just as much by surprise as the hubristic Labour Right.

      But then your delusions about your Labour centrist grouping having had any impact at all on the previously unfettered advance of the neoliberal careerist Right in the Labour party, is as one with your repeated delusion that somehow the UK isn’t actually going to leave the Single Market, and your belief that the EU is some sort of “progressive” institution. .

    2. David Pavett says:

      Trevor, I guess that this a reply to me even though you don’t say so and didn’t click on appropriate Reply link.

      I don’t see how the corrupt mechanics of Hunt’s selection is a good place to start understanding the cave-in of New Labour to neoliberalism. I would have thought it better to study Labour’s cave-in to neoliberalism rather more directly. It should also be said that undemocratic practices in the LP are not exclusive to New Labour.

      The shenanigans surrounding Tristram Hunt’s selection, including the refusal to allow local candidates, was widely reported at the time and so hardly a new revelation about Labour’s underhand methods of selection. Besides, many of us have seen plenty of this sort of thing in the LP.

      Your view that the language of “hard/soft” is okay because it is “accepted terminology” and has been used by the centre-left Grassroots for ten years is an interesting point of view but hardly a convincing argument.

  13. Bazza says:

    To the tune of High Hopes.
    “Whoops there goes another ‘Great man of history” man!
    But left wing democratic socialists shouldn’t talk of deselections.
    “On CLP shortlists if a trigger ballot decides there should be 6 candidates of which at least 2 should be working class, 2 women, and at least 1 BME/LGBT/Disabled” I move.
    Then we choose the best left wing democratic socialist.

  14. James Martin says:

    “…hand on my heart, despite working closely with him I cannot say why he decided to become a Member of Parliament. Nor […] can I honestly say what his politics are”.

    Of course you can’t, that’s because all Hunt ever was is a careerist, nothing more nothing less, and his politics such as they were came after that career not before it. Yet another bit of political naivety from Phil B-C, hot on the heels of his surprise the other week that the EU campaign was full of propaganda. He’ll be working out that politicians can lie at this breathtaking rate of development.

    Anyway, Hunt. Glad to see the back of the weasel. Utterly useless shadow education minister, never laid a glove on Gove and allowed Gove to walk all over him while Hunt gave the impression at purring contentedly at the experience. He never understood education despite having a part time job mixing with the proles in it. I was still teaching myself when Hunt was a shadow minister, and we used to groan every time the eejit opened his plummy gob as it was normally to say something entirely ignorant of the profession, education or the crisis in schools. It took quite some doing but he managed to make even Stephen Twigg look like he was capable next to his own dire performances.

    But the worst of it is, and why I am happy to call Hunt out for being a piece of absolute garbage, is that it should be that being an MP and representing your local area and labour movement in parliament is an immense privilege, one that most of us will never ever experience. But not for him, obviously, as it was just a rung in his salary progression. And let us not forget when this Blairite public school sock puppet was parachuted into Stoke it was at the expense of popular CLP secretary and open socialist Gary Elsby who was stitched up and carved out. When Elsby understandably resigned along with other long-time activists who had between them hundreds of years of party membership to stand against Hunt as an independent socialist he was even threatened with legal action by the Labour apparatchiks unless he stopped wearing a red rosette. Such was the level that the Party had fallen during the Blair-Brown years, although even so none of that seemed to put Phil B-C off when it came to carrying some bags and making the tea for that awful specimen and disgrace of a Labour MP.

  15. Chris says:

    Hunt represents everything that’s wrong with the Labour Party. Why do people who aren’t socialists try to join? I don’t get it.

    1. James Martin says:

      Well in Tristram’s case and during the New Labour years it was basically for the same reasons I’m guessing as you’d join the Communist Party if you lived in China, which has very little to do with actual communism these days but does seem to help you to ‘get on’.

  16. Karl Stewart says:

    Labour’s Zac Goldsmith – good riddance.

    Let’s hope Stoke gets a decent, local, working-class Labour MP.

  17. Tim Pendry says:

    Regardless of my strong opposition to Hunt’s politics, I would like to thank the author for a thoughtful and fair-minded piece that educated me (and others?) about the man rather than offered a polemic against him or a hagiographical tribute. I wish more writing on the Left could appeciate the complexity of political life as this piece does.

    1. I agree with Tim P that this is an objective, fair and balanced piece by Phil which gives a rounded appreciation of Hunt from personal experience. I learnt a good deal about a constituency party I have known, but not well, over the last decade. It is indeed rare to have a piece which understands complexity. As we are now into 5 party politics in England and in Stoke Central the local anti fascist activists are mobilizing to stop UKIP taking the seat, we need to understand alliances. I would be far more critical of Hunt than Tim, based on what I saw of him at Stoke Trades council when he had to defend walking through a picket line, but to be fair to Hunt he is a man who genuinely does not seem to understand that anyone could object to what he does. Period.

      But he was parachuted into the seat. Its the people who decided he was the right man who should be blamed. The word in the locality is that he was the second choice, and the machine decided the first choice should be moved aside to allow him in.

      That is for history to investigate. For the immediate future colleagues should back NORSCARF – the North Staffordshire Campaign Against Racism and Fascism – and the people they are allying with to stop UKIP.

      Recriminations are a luxury at this point in time.

      Trevor FIsher.

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