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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.