Tristram Hunt has the easy charm, quick wits and good looks that you would expect of a TV historian. His blond hair has the hint of a curl to it and the only surprise about his appearance is that there isn’t a college scarf wrapped round his neck. His Commons office, where we meet, resembles a don’s study, with books piled high on the coffee table, old maps on the wall and a selection of tea-sets on display.
Three years ago, Hunt made the transition from academia to politics. Despite having voted for David Miliband in the leadership contest, he has emerged as an intellectual outrider for Ed Miliband and is, according to the Westminster grapevine, in line for a big promotion in the coming reshuffle. He is the most cerebral member of one of the most important groups in the Labour party, what one might call Blairites for Ed. If the Labour leader is going to win his fights both inside the party and out, he is going to need this group’s support.
Some vestiges of Hunt’s Blairite past are still visible. Contrary to Miliband’s position, he concedes, ‘I have personal reservations about taking 50p in the pound off people’s income.’ He’s also clear that it is an ‘uncomfortable reality’ that public services now have to be concentrated on the worse off. Talking about Sure Start children centres he says, ‘Can we afford places for middle class families to take their kids to when nothing else is on at that point? No, we can’t. At the moment, it’s got to be targeted.’
When I ask Hunt if he’d still call himself a ‘Blairite’, there’s a long pause. This normally fluent man then trips up on his words, before replying, ‘I’ve always been happy with progressive Labour and parts of that are absolutely Blairite, yes, and I was delighted to work back in ’96/97 with Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. That was brilliant. But there is no doubt the world has moved on.’
One other thing that makes life difficult for Hunt in today’s Labour party is his background: he went to a private school. Miliband has made much of the fact that he attended a comprehensive, implying that it has given him greater empathy for other’s struggles. When I push Hunt on whether he thinks he’d be a better politician if he’d gone to a state school, he says, ‘I was very lucky, I went to a very good north London private school where Harold Wilson sent his kids and where Joseph Chamberlain went in the 1840s. There was a liberal Hampstead tradition there and you saw Michael Foot when you went to school in the morning along with Peter Cook so it was a lovely collection.’ In other words, private schools are fine as long as lots of other Labour types send their children there.
Hunt’s almost evangelical support for the younger Miliband is predicated on his belief that ‘he would be a radical Labour figure in office’. But his observation that ‘we’ll just have to get him there’, does suggest some doubt about how sellable the Labour leader is. When I ask him why Miliband’s ratings are so low, he concedes that Miliband’s style of leadership ‘is more cerebral, it’s a bit geeky’. He also admits that the Labour leader’s refusal to do eye-catching photo-ops ‘makes it sometimes more difficult to break through’.
Having, to the irritation of the unions, been parachuted into a safe seat just before the last election, Hunt has a distinct perspective on the whole issue of the unions’ relations with the party and the selection of candidates. ‘The interesting thing is, both sides think they are hopeless at getting their own people into places,’ he remarks — then quickly corrects himself to say that there isn’t a Blairite side and a union side, but the cat is out the bag.
It is, to Hunt’s mind, only Ed Miliband — ‘a party man’ with a ‘more natural empathy and stronger relationships’ with organised labour than Tony Blair or David Miliband — who can reform Labour’s union links.
Hunt claims he is ‘surprisingly optimistic’ about the next election because ‘without being too Marxist, the raw materialism of the situation in terms of living standards’ favours Labour. He is, though, happy to state that he’d back a Labour-led coalition with Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister if necessary. ‘You always want to be in government,’ he says. ‘There are certainly some in the party who would be aghast at that but I’m more pluralist than that.’
Whatever happens at the next election, Hunt is likely to go far. He has that ability to talk to Middle England that the Labour party needs if it is to build a new electoral coalition.