The Labour exodus continues, with Tristram Hunt’s decision to quit Parliament to become director of the V&A. As I wrote last year:
“Younger, relatively sensible Labour MPs, who want to do something with the next ten years of their lives other than kowtow to Seumas Milne and pray by their bedside that Momentum don’t deselect them, are looking for ways out of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Some will no doubt have considered a move to the large pay packets and comfortable chairs of boardroom life, but most would prefer something that allows them to maintain a political career..”
Like Jamie Reed before him, Hunt has opted for the boardroom escape tunnel from Stalag Corbyn. While the Copeland MP flees to the safety of nuclear power to escape the toxic environment of the PLP, Stoke-on-Trent Central’s fugitive is swapping the dusty relics of Corbyn’s hard left for the much better-preserved relics of the museum world.
It isn’t hugely surprising – indeed, for months Hunt has been my example of choice when talking about Labour MPs who might see no point in carrying on. It’s not his background that’s the problem (as the clutch of public schoolboys around Corbyn shows), it’s his views – he is one of many Labour MPs who aren’t reconciled to Corbynism, and there’s no prospect of him becoming so. What prospects are there for someone of Hunt’s views to do anything beyond sulk on the backbenches in the modern Labour Party? He evidently feels that he has better things to do than be ignored as part of a failing Opposition, and a by-election is his last chance to demonstrate the flaws in Corbyn’s approach.
However, Hunt’s departure is due to more factors than simply his fundamental disagreement with everything his leader stands for. Other factors will have played a part in his mounting feeling that there is no benefit in continuing as a Labour MP.
The referendum looms large. Hunt was an instinctive Remainer, who made a forlorn cameo appearance in John Harris’s excellent film on the campaign in Stoke, only for his seat to vote 65 per cent Leave (according to Chris Hanretty’s constituency estimates). For an MP who already wasn’t exactly embedded in the heart of the core Labour vote, that was a troubling disagreement. To his credit, he conducted a serious inquiry into exactly why his consituents voted Leave and appears to have concluded that the gulf between them and him would be very hard to bridge.
It’s also important to remember that Stoke’s local Labour politics are bitter to a degree that is unusual even in the modern, disunited Labour Party. His constituency neighbour, Ruth Smeeth, has been the target of much Corbynite loathing since her leader failed to defend her from an anti-semitic attack in his own press conference on anti-semitism. Hunt himself has had to engage in regular internal arguments with his local branch of Momentum.
With his own local party split, his leader charging off in a direction with which he cannot agree and his voters piled up against him in the EU referendum, it’s easy to see why life in charge of the V&A sounded preferable.
The question is now what will happen in the by-election. Hunt’s majority was only 5,179 votes at the last election – a low turnout making his 39 per cent vote share seem larger than it really is. UKIP and the Conservatives were neck and neck for second place, with the purple peril ahead by 33 votes. Either could be in contention with the right candidate and campaign, and both May and Nuttall will see the seat as a testing ground for their new messages. While the Liberal Democrats were in a distant fifth place, on four per cent of the vote, Farron’s positioning might be sufficient to do damage to Labour’s majority by diverting those Remainers who are still upset about the referendum outcome.
Tory and UKIP eyes won’t be the only ones on the result. Other Labour MPs will be considering whether and how to make their own home run escape from the Parliamentary Labour Party. As Matt Hancock tweeted, just about straight-faced, this morning when announcing Hunt’s new job: “Delighted to confirm @TristramHuntMP will take on @V_and_A. There are many roles in British public life for talented people from all sides.”