With a new administration making its mark and a new opposition finding its feet, these are interesting times at Medway Council. One of the key figures in the Labour cabinet is portfolio holder for community safety and enforcement, Tristan Osborne, who has big plans for the local authority and himself.
In the first of a series of councillor profiles, local democracy reporter Robert Boddy caught up with him to find out more.
Tristan Osborne is a Medway native, and although he’s travelled far and wide, and held a variety of jobs in a range of sectors, he’s always been drawn back to his hometown, and into local politics.
He attended St William of Perth Primary before gaining a scholarship to King’s School through being a chorister at Rochester Cathedral.
“I’m a local lad, so to speak,” said Tristan when I met him in Deaf Cat Coffee on Rochester High Street. “Medway is in my DNA really. It’s my home and it’s where I really care about.”
As a young boy, he had little interest in politics, and instead was dedicated to singing and his studies, particularly in the sciences and geography.
Tristan went to Durham University and had his first interactions with politics, where the energy of Tony Blair’s New Labour as well as the campaign for LGBT rights sparked an interest in activism.
“What Blair did was win the future. He made an argument for the future they wanted for the country and packaged it in a way that the public could buy into.”
As a student, his activism was featured on the front page of The Pink Paper in some “direct action” for the LGBT rights that he wouldn’t advocate now he’s older and wiser.
After graduating he thought he had left politics behind, going to work for a banking start-up focused on financial risk, but following the financial crisis he became involved in advising political parties about regulations for businesses.
He was also drawn back to Medway to be close to his parents and his hometown, and was asked to stand for Rochester East and Warren Wood which he won in 2011, making him at 28 the youngest councillor in Medway.
In 2017, he decided to make a career change to get involved in the Medway community from a different angle, qualifying as a geography teacher and taking a role at Strood Academy.
“I wanted to use my people skills to support people and actually make a substantial difference to students’ lives,” he added.
“People asked me what on Earth I was doing, but it was just the right decision for me. I knew it was what I wanted to do next.”
Tristan admits politics occupies most of his time, and anyone who looks at his social media profiles can tell.
He’s a prolific tweeter, on average more than 5,000 tweets per year, and he’s not afraid to be direct with his political opponents.
“I think the most effective way of communicating with constituents is on the doorstep, but social media has its place too.”
Although he recognised he can be robust with opposition councillors, he thinks he’s always managed to stay on the right side of the line.
“I’m never personally abusive, and I always stick to issues that people care about. As long as I do that, keep the focus on the things that actually matter, then it’s justified.”
Online spaces are a haven for Tristan as, outside of politics, he tells me he’s an avid player of immersive online strategy games such as Stellaris, where he can jet between galaxies and battle with a fleet of spaceships.
Perhaps it’s this flight of fantasy that also draws him to the theatre, being a particular fan of musicals, including those of Andrew Lloyd Webber, such as Phantom of the Opera and Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat.
“I mostly get to go through school trips, and it’s great getting to share those sorts of cultural experiences with the kids. Giving them the chance to see something different, instead of sitting in a classroom all day.”
But some of Tristan’s ambitions haven’t played out in the way he’d hoped, as he’s suffered two major defeats. First, he lost by 11,000 votes when running to be Chatham and Aylesford’s MP in 2015, and then he was defeated by an even greater 38,000 votes when standing for Kent Police and Crime Commissioner the following year.
Tristan doesn’t hide from these failures, reminding me throughout the conversation about the scale of his losses, but he says he learned a lot from the experience and his commitment to Medway hasn’t been diminished.
“Obviously it was very disappointing, but I learned it’s helpful if people know who you are and your track record in the area.
“People want to know you’ve been supporting them for more than five minutes, rather than dropped into an area you have no connection with.”
But a key part, he says, is the performance of the national parties, something he feels has improved in recent years under the leadership of Keir Starmer.
“In 2010, we left the country in a better and a lot more tolerant place compared with where we are now. I don’t think the country is in a healthy place with this government.
“I think there’s a lot of problems at the moment and we need change and Keir Starmer has put us into a more credible place to make the argument that we’re a party that can deliver that change.”
Tristan is keen to be a part of this, and when Labour took control of Medway Council he wanted to get to work right away.
Already he’s begun consultations on measures to reduce congestion with red route roads and school zones, as well as for Public Space Protection Orders to reduce the use of drugs and mopeds in Medway’s parks.
“We’ve had a significant response to these consultations, and we really want to listen to the people of Medway and understand how these initiatives can work best for them.”
But this isn’t the limit of his ambitions. Tristan told me that in a couple of weeks he’ll be putting himself forward to stand again for the parliamentary seat of Chatham and Aylesford, seemingly optimistic that he can overturn Tracey Crouch’s 18,000 majority.
“Nobody thought Labour would win the seat in 1997, but they did. And I think it could happen again.”
Whether it’s online, in council meetings, or when speaking to me, Tristan clearly has an idea of what he wants Medway and the country as a whole to look like and achieve, and he’s not afraid to say it.
Throughout our conversation he’s keen to tell me about the diverse initiatives he and the Labour Council are working on, but it’s clear he has ambitions to put Medway’s concerns across on the national stage as well.
In the meantime, Tristan tells me we’ll be seeing a great deal more of him as he has a lot of work he wants to get done for Medway.
Next time Robert profiles upcoming Tory councillor George Perfect.