Active History, Hunt and Stoke

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Photo credit David Rayner CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

Photo credit David Rayner CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

By David Zylberberg, PhD Candidate, York University

The United Kingdom is in the midst of an election campaign with a May 6 poll. Despite numerous suggestions that this is the ‘most important election in a generation’, the limited media coverage on this side of the Atlantic has tended to focus on which opposition leader invoked recent Canadian developments as a reason to vote for their party. There are many aspects of this election that should interest Canadians but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss one that is of particular importance to the Active History project, namely, the controversy over the Labour Party nomination in the constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Following the recent retirement of long-time MP Mark Fisher, the seat became vacant. Labour Party practice is to have interested candidates apply to the central party, who then send the constituency party a three person short list to vote on. Interest was high in representing the party in one of its safer seats and many applied. The resulting short list included the prominent historian Tristram Hunt, but none of the three nominees have any connection to the region. Hunt received the nomination on April 1, after which Gary Elsby, secretary of the Constituency Labour Party in Stoke-on-Trent Central, resigned from the party and is running as an independent. Similar things have happened in recent years, notably in 2005 in the South Wales constituency of Blaenau Gwent, which had been an even safer Labour seat. At that time the central party sent a short-list of three non-local women in the hopes of improving the gender balance of MPs, the local constituency got upset and has taken to returning independent socialists at every level of government since.

Stoke-on-Trent is an industrial city of 250,000 about halfway between Birmingham and Manchester (60-80km from each). The area first boomed in the 17th and 18th centuries as local deposits of clay and coal made it a leading centre of ceramics manufacturing with the conurbation still known as The Potteries. Recent decades have not been kind to the region as the coal, steel and ceramics industries have moved elsewhere, leaving 1 in 5 adults currently receiving out of work benefits and the city ranking in the bottom quintile for every measure of educational attainment ( Politically, the area has a strong tradition of voting Labour with each of the three Stoke constituencies having returned Labour MPs in every election since they were created in 1950.

While there are many fascinating aspects to the Hunt controversy, I would like to discuss its implications for the Active History Project. Hunt is an intellectual historian of 19th century Britain, whose most important book is Building Jerusalem. In it he argues that the civic pride of leading citizens inspired them to use municipal governments to create impressive architecture and important infrastructure that made their cities better place to live. The book’s conclusion claims that contemporary Britain would be well served in learning from the prominence of municipal government and urban life in the late nineteenth century. He also has a regular column in The Guardian, where he uses the knowledge gained by historians to offer intelligent insights into contemporary politics. (a recent example) In this regard he has increased the level of public discourse and embodies what Active History seeks to do in Canada. The quality of his analysis and the vision offered for improving the country suggest that he will make a very good cabinet minister.

As historians, we spend our time researching, discussing and thinking about how past societies functioned. Along with the analytical skills developed in the process, our research leads to insights that make us well suited to various levels of elected office. However, this incident also demonstrates some potential pitfalls in our involvement. Local representation and an understanding of both the desires and specific problems of each constituency is an important element of the Westminster system. The early Labour Party was the embodiment of this, collecting subscriptions to pay elected coalminers and factory workers so that they could afford to leave work to represent their constituencies in the days before MPs received salaries. This has been lost in the past decades and there is some uncomfortable irony for a historian who champions civic pride to seek to represent a constituency to which he has absolutely no connection. Had he ran in his hometown of Cambridge or one of the East London constituencies near where he teaches, this problem could have been avoided. For historians generally, this incident raises questions about how to contribute to our communities without trampling on the agency of less-educated people that so many of us champion in our academic work.

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