Friday, 20 June 2014

We need to talk about Tristram

I'm a member of the Labour Party. Being a member of any political party makes me a little bit weird - formal participation has been declining for many years. I'm even weird amongst my friends. Most of us are socialists, and we're not especially welcome in the Party. But I carry on because I'd like to have even a tiny say in the policy determinations of a party that has a strong chance of winning a general election. I admire my friends who spend their time arguing over the minutiae of leftwing ideology before standing in the rain selling three sectarian newspapers a week, but let's face it: that's more of a hobby than a plan for government. 

So I'm in the Labour party. I joined to vote for John McDonnell in the leadership election that led to Gordon Brown's elevation. What can I say? I unerringly support the losing side. I wanted Denis Kucinich to win the US Presidency. I've met both Milibands, and far preferred Ed. David struck me as an unreflective and cynical machine politician. Ed, for all the scrapes he gets into, seemed to be principled and genuinely interested in the people he met.

But my party doesn't make it easy for me to remain a member. There's the whole embrace of neoliberalism, for a start. Then the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture, the kidnapping, the deregulation etc. etc. ad infinitum. There's the latest wheeze, which is to punish young unemployed people for the bankruptcy of Britain (caused by the financial sector) by reducing their social security support. It's marketed as 'help to train' so I'm sure it's a complete coincidence that the 'help' is significantly lower than the current rate of unemployment benefit.

But most of all, there's the Honourable Tristram Hunt MP.

Tristram is the privately-educated son of a Lord (not that I'm particularly bothered about that: Benn and Dalyell were both quite posh) who was unaccountably parachuted into the poor and socialist constituency for Stoke-on-Trent Central, apparently thanks to the machinations of his friend Peter Mandelson. Tristram is an historian, or as the newspapers put it, a 'distinguished' historian, i.e. one who can produce a decent narrative from interesting though not essential material without troubling the reader with tricky metaphysical questions.

Tristram is the Shadow Secretary of State for Education. That means his job is to oppose the work of Michael Gove, the man who thinks that education should be given to private corporations who'll reproduce the atmosphere of Mr Gradgrind's drone factory and make a profit along the way. Mr Gove wants you all to become junior Empire Loyalists who know that Muslims are Bad and the British have been, are and always will be White, Christian and Nice.

Tristram isn't up to the job. Worse than that: he agrees with everything Mr Gove does. He simply feels that Michael could be a little more efficient. For a very clever man, he seems incapable of thinking anything through beyond the question that obsesses all rightwing Labour politicians: 'what will the Mail say about this?'.

Not only is Tristram incompetent, deeply conservative and entirely lacking discernible Labour values, he actively works against his party's history, beliefs and members. A few months ago, this former academic went back to Queen Mary College to deliver a lecture (apparently he doesn't consider being an MP and shadow cabinet member constitutes full-time employment). To do so, he crossed a legal picket line of his own colleagues. The subject of that lecture? Socialism. The biographer of Friedrich Engels stirred the workers with his principled defence of the right of exploited workers to withdraw their labour:
"I support the right to strike for those who have balloted to picket. I have chosen not to join the strike." Mr Hunt, who is also the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said his "personal commitment remained to the students" he was lecturing.
Funnily enough, that's the exact same claim deployed by my scab colleagues here at The Hegemon. It is, of course, transparent bullshit. I took strike action because I'm committed to my students: I want them to be taught by rested, decently-paid academics who have the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research, not by exhausted hourly-paid ones exploited by a management that cares for nothing beyond bums on seats, while the financial sector or whatever creams off potentially great thinkers.

I won't be going to my constituency party's summer party to be lectured on Labour values by a man who betrays his colleagues and his comrades. The continued presence of Tristram Hunt, while marginal compared with all the other failures of the political class, has become symbolic to me of a party leadership which can't throw off the mental shackles of the New Labour period, a clique which is more concerned with appeasing the right than developing the self-respect required to make a case for socialism and persuading the voters of our cause.

I know that my party's local and national representatives will write off my whinging as typical of a privileged élitist, but they're wrong. You don't have to be a raving Trotskyist to understand that you don't cross picket lines, especially when you're a massively rich person earning a second or third income by taking work done by former colleagues protesting about eight years of declining pay.

Tristram is the touchstone of the debate, a symptom of the cowardice and isolation of the upper reaches of the Labour Party. If you can't find anything to argue about with Michael Gove, you're in the wrong party and the wrong job.

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