The shadow education secretary said on Wednesday he would instead endorse the campaign of Liz Kendall, the other party moderniser in the campaign.
At the end of a lengthy speech on the causes of Labour’s electoral reverse, Hunt said he had not been prepared for the speed of the leadership campaign after the election defeat, admitting he did not have the depth of the connections of the other party candidates. He said: “I have not got the necessary number. I want as broad a range of candidates on the ballot as possible and to do that I need to step back.”
He said if he did not there was a real risk that Kendall might not make the ballot paper. “Like other potential candidates in recent days, I have made a lot of calls to potential supporters among my parliamentary colleagues. I found that the bulk of MPs are already committed to just a couple of candidates,” Hunt said. “It is surprising that the nomination process to select a leader for at least the next five years appears to have been largely decided within, at most, five days of a devastating general election defeat.”
He said it was up to others to decide if he had been naive or inefficient in failing to prepare for the leadership campaign before the election result. “All I will say was I working flat out for a Labour victory right up to the dreaded exit poll,” Hunt said.
It is understood that Hunt, probably the most serious intellectual of the five candidates in the field, was struggling to win more than 10 nominations. He found himself blocked by the number of MPs that had quickly committed themselves to the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, or to the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper.
There are only 50 or so modernisers or Blairites in the parliamentary Labour party. Many of those were committed to Kendall. Hunt, supported by Gloria de Piero, encountered much goodwill across the party, but simply did not have wide enough firm backing.
Hunt, a member of the 2010 intake and education secretary for two years, probably had never been involved in the networking in the Commons tearoom required to build a base of support. Some have also criticised his performance as shadow education secretary, though he probably felt it was difficult to engage Ed Miliband in the issue of public services reform. Others will say Hunt misread the politics of the parliamentary Labour party and never stood a chance of becoming leader.
Hunt decided not to ask Burnham to lend him some surplus nominations to get the ballot paper in the way that Diane Abbott had been lent support by David Miliband in 2010 leadership election.
Asked if he was guilty of naivety, he replied: “I don’t think it is a crime right up to polling day to work for a Labour government. I thought the conversation we would be having after polling day was how we could get a progressive government, and not be about a defeat.”
Hunt spent most of the election in key marginal seats that Labour did not win. He said in future he hoped he might be involved in the issues of devolution, but in practice his views on the subject are very different from Burnham’s.
Hunt stressed it would be a mistake to jettison the work of the past five years and some of the critique of the impact of globalisation and how you respond to labour communities concerned by immigration. He said a route was needed to avoid the party being trapped with a leader mid-term that did not have the country’s confidence. He said he hoped the party leader would be willing to put themselves up for re-election, perhaps through a trigger process.
He also said he was bullish that Harriet Harman, the deputy leader, would ensure the election process was fair and some of the inequities in the 2010 election would be prevented.
In comments likely to be seen as being aimed at Burnham, Hunt warned that if the party turned further inwards it could “wither away”. “We did not lack for political ideas, what we lacked was political courage. In our strategic straitjacket we refused to accept them, to make the argument for them, or to build them into a new sense of mission,” he said.
“You need to demonstrate you are on people’s side and earn the right to be trusted with their future. I believe that only comes when we offer a broad-based, forward-looking Labour project. A 100% strategy. Not the timid, institutionalised caution which led so many to believe we had a 35% strategy.”
Kendall responded: “Tristram is a big talent. I am delighted to have his backing to be Labour’s next leader. Tristram’s support and ideas will be important as we seek to change so Labour can win back the trust of the British people.”
Discussing the idea of a break clause in 2018 for the party leadership, Hunt said: “A lot of colleagues talking about break clauses and the willingness of candidates to sort of renew their vows, as it were, with the Labour party in the run-up to the general election ...
“I certainly think we need to reform the leadership rules, which means that there is a sort of escape valve if there are fears about the future of the party, there’s a route to avoid some of that sentimentality that the party has within it. And whether that’s a break clause or a sort of putting yourself up as leader to a vote of confidence, you need to judge it carefully because you don’t want these things to happen all the time and undermining the leadership, but I think you could also get to a position whereby, if there is a lack of confidence from a certain number of MPs, then you have a trigger process.”
He also aired his differences with Andy Burnham over devolution, saying: “This is the ‘home rule parliament’; this is the big issue for the coming years and what we have to do and what the leader of the Labour party has to do is have a really clear, strong, progressive view on how you roll out that devolution.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010