Tristram Hunt won't be running for Labour leader. Photo: Getty Images
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Tristram Hunt's non-leadership bid, feat. Eric Hobsbawm, the potters of Stoke, and Brian Cox

...and a whole lot of impatient journalists.

As Tristram Hunt stands up to speak at the think tank Demos – where he interned, by the way, in those “giddy pre-1997 days”. You remember ’97. Labour landslide, with that song called Things Can Only Get Better, which is by D:Ream. And did you know Brian Cox was in D:Ream? That scientist one who’s always on telly? Yeah him! He was the keyboard player! – the gathered press pack is impatiently awaiting a very big announcement.

The last potential Labour leadership candidate who hadn’t yet declared his ambitions, Hunt is giving a speech “dedicated in no small part to explaining how things can also get even worse”. Gettit? Because it’s a contrast with the song, which goes, “Things can only get better/Can only get/Can only get...” And it carries on like that for a little while. But the verses have different lyrics. Anyway, I digress!

He’s all prepared to give a searing analysis of his party’s failings, and to declare his leadership bid. Or not to declare his leadership bid. But enough about Tristram, for goodness’ sake! What about his great aunt Peggy Jay, eh? She was a Labour councillor on the London County Council. Did you know that?

And her husband, called Douglas, was Labour MP for Battersea! No, Labour doesn’t have that one any more. And it doesn’t have Stevenage, or Harlow, or Swindon. “Thank God for Slough,” sighs Tristram. Though of course he learnt more about politics from Chicago’s South Side. Or was it Stoke-on-Trent Central?

Either way, it was the poverty he saw that radicalised him. What he saw outside of the Ivory Tower. The Ivory Tower is that place where people lived called Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Gary Becker, Ed Miliband and Eric Hobsbawm. Tristram loves Eric. In fact, he reread his 1983 essay “Labour’s Lost Millions” recently. A far better pastime than ringing round the entire parliamentary Labour party all the time.

Anyway, Hobsbawm wrote: “Unless Labour can once again become the party of the majority of the working class it has no future, except as…”

A wave of muttering from the assembled reporters. BBC Breaking News is reporting that Hunt won’t be standing for the leadership and is endorsing Liz Kendall.

But do pay attention!

“…a coalition of minority pressure groups and interests. Yet there is only a modest future for a party which represents only such groups, and social forces on the decline,” wrote Hobsbawm.

The journalists fidget and rustle. Sky News is also reporting that Hunt will not be running.

Interesting you should mention sky, actually, for it is under that very blue expanse that progressives built a vibrant civic democracy, confronted vested interests, and created the great age of Victorian and Edwardian civic pride.

Just look at Stoke. The pits and the pots. The politicos and the pundits. Prospect and Progress. The pressurised public purse.

“Let’s be blunt,” says Tristram. “There is no quick fix.”

As the media begins to wonder whether there is a man imitating Tristram (Zac Goldsmith, maybe?) giving interviews elsewhere about his lack of leadership ambitions, he gets to the point:

“It is a leadership that prioritises the organisational changes the party desperately needs – transforming our industrial model of party management, born of the 1890s, into something that resembles the modern world – more digital, embedded in civic society and better funded…”

WILL YOU RUN TRISTRAM?

“And it is a leadership hungry to project an optimistic, future vision of Britain confident about its ability to manage the challenges of mechanisation, globalisation, climate change and an ageing society…”

ARE YOU HUNGRY TO PROJECT THAT VISION?

“The way in which that Labour leader is chosen needs to reflect the seriousness of the crisis in which our parry finds itself. We need a debate that is open, vigorous, iconoclastic, fraternal and sisterly…”

The sound of stories being written up straight from the BBC copy echoes around the conference room.

“We need more of the Demos – the individual members, supporters and affiliated supporters who make up our party. And we need less dictation by individuals and individual factions that still seek to wield and influence that is both disproportionate to what they deserve and contrary to the egalitarian principle of one member, one vote…”

Journalists eye the exit.

“I want party members, registered supporters and affiliated supporters from the trade unions to have an effective choice about Labour’s future. And it is why this morning I am announcing that I will not be entering the race to be Leader of the Labour Party.”

No quick fix, indeed.

Now listen to Anoosh’s dramatic reading of this piece on the NS podcast:

 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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