The Greasy Pole column from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
There are a number of personal qualities which need to be developed by anyone with ambitions to rise to the top through the pressured universe of politics. For one there is the motivation to refashion the meaning of certain words so that, for example, poverty can be described as security, ruthless calculation as an enduring concern for human fallibility, a ready resort to falsehood as an unshakeable devotion to truth. Also an energising requirement of a talent to face full up to the observant cameras. A recent example of this is Tristram Julian Hunt who, apart from being encouraged to prefix his names with the word Honourable as the son of Baron Hunt of Chesterton and who performed so satisfactorily at Cambridge to earn the title of a FRHistS, won his way into Parliament as the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Until, that is, he was offered the job of Director of the world-respected Victoria and Albert Museum. And apart from all that the 6ft 3 Hunt is a past-master at the photo pose, suitably arranged for someone on the climb – looking straight through to the adoring public beyond with a gently-smiling expression of combined strength and human concern. It also helps to have some relevant architectural masterpiece as a background – in Hunt’s case Westminster Bridge, Big Ben – and to offer a fringe of youthfully ruffled hair across a brain-stuffed forehead.
This pose was at one with the fact that Hunt had been more or less dumped on the Stoke constituency. Before that he had been rejected as an applicant for the candidature at two other seats. At some stage he had been noticed by Lord Mandelson, Labour’s master of dark manipulation (once described by Hunt, after he had been drinking, as ' . . . the most important ****ing minister in this ****ing government') as a rising star in the drive to turn the party away from the bad old days of attachment to Clause Four. Time was short then to prepare for the 2010 election so Hunt was selected as the Labour candidate (in some quarters said to have been ‘parachuted in’) for Stoke by the National Executive without any reference to the short list prepared by the local Party. This provoked the secretary Gary Elsby, who regarded himself as the obvious choice, to be angry enough to get himself nominated as an Independent candidate – with the full title of ‘Gary Labour Candidate Born In Stoke-On-Trent Elsby’ and to annoy the local party by using the red rose to decorate his election literature. But he received a total of 399 votes against the 12,605 which ushered Hunt into the Commons – which did not apparently instruct Elsby about the cynically determined methods so readily applied by the parties of capitalism when they are under pressure.
In spite of his powerful backers, with the implied assumption that he would soon be among the leading political lights in Westminster, Hunt’s time there was not free of emergencies and doubt. His performance did not in general come up to expectations as he failed to deal with the theatrically loutish bullying. After a short spell as a Shadow Secretary of State for Education he progressed into the Shadow Cabinet in full charge of the Education portfolio, which the more envious of his colleagues described as him being ‘forced like a stick of rhubarb’. He did not come up to the demands of his new responsibilities, in particular those originating from his special rival Michael Gove who wallowed in overseeing Education where his own inadequacies did not prevent him sneering at Hunt for ‘. . . inconsistencies thy name is Tristram’. In February 2014 Hunt produced a book about Frederick Engels, praised by one reviewer for its ‘affectionate objectivity’, but he was not thereby persuaded against breaking a picket line of London University academics who were on strike over cuts in pay. Shortly after this it was revealed that he had received some £74,655 in payment for a research assistant by the financial adviser firm Price Waterhouse and Cooper, who deny having any political associations but agree that they ‘. . . provide limited and fully disclosed technical support to the main political parties in areas where our expertise and knowledge of the business environment can help them better understand technical matters and the consequences of their policy proposals.’
Victoria And Albert
But as his disenchantment with the prospects of a life in politics became more obvious Hunt told the Labour Club at Cambridge University: ‘You are the top one per cent. The Labour Party is in the shit’. Which was a forerunner to his decision in September 2015 to try to appease his ‘substantial political differences’ from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by resigning from the Shadow Cabinet. When he was interviewed last September about the Labour conference, where he was said to have ‘injected some exuberance into the proceedings with a spirited speech that verged on stand-up comedy’, Hunt did not so much as hint at any doubts about continuing as the MP for Stoke: ‘It is a profound privilege being an MP but you want to have Labour in charge. That’s what we’re here for’. But three months later he announced that he would be resigning from the Commons to take that equally glamorous – and much better paid – job as the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. An especially pertinent comment on this came from ex-Chancellor George Osborne, who wondered if there will ever be another Labour MP by the name of Tristram (Osborne’s first name is Gideon). Hunt commented that he was ‘. . . sorry to put you, the party and the people of Stoke-on-Trent through a by-election. I have no desire to rock the boat’. But the stability of that boat is in doubt. The constituency has been damaged by the decline in the potteries and of the clay and coal extraction which historically provided its wealth. Unemployment has been well above the national average and it recently needed an intense, high profile charity campaign to ensure that the famous Wedgwood Collection should stay in Barlaston while on loan from the Victoria and Albert. The exhibition had been threatened by a debt of £144 million resulting from a subsidiary being broken up and sold – as ordered by rulings from the High Court and the Attorney General. Just another episode in the history of Tristram Hunt and his political ambitions, typical of the blundering politics of capitalism for inhuman cynicism and stress.