Alan Hurst, who has died aged 77, was a bird-watching, cricket-loving Southend-on-Sea solicitor with a slightly old-fashioned manner who captured Braintree in the Labour landslide of 1997 and narrowly retained the seat four years later.
His victory in the Essex rural and commuter constituency ended the 23-year Commons career of Tony Newton, Leader of the House and one of seven members of John Major’s Cabinet to lose their seats that night.
Arriving in the Commons aged 51 in a large and star-studded New Labour intake, Hurst had no ambitions to become a minister, but served his constituents well on local issues and as a member of the Agriculture Select Committee.
Deputy leader of Southend council and an Essex county councillor when selected for Braintree in 1995, he lost no time persuading the county to put beef back on the menu in its schools amid the panic over BSE. At Westminster he opposed the ban on beef on the bone, calling for “all and sundry” to be encouraged to eat it.
Alan Arthur Hurst was born in Southend on September 2 1945, the son of George Hurst and the former Eva Mote. From Westcliff High School for Boys, he read History at Liverpool University, then studied Law, being admitted a solicitor in 1975.
From 1980 he was senior partner in the Southend firm of Law, Hurst & Taylor, continuing to practise part-time after his election to Parliament. In 1992-93 he was president of the Southend-on-Sea Law Society.
He was elected to Southend council in 1980, becoming its deputy leader in 1994, and from 1993 was also a county councillor.
Hurst went into the 1997 election with boundary changes impacting on Newton’s 17,000 majority, but little expectation of winning a seat that had been Conservative since 1955. Nevertheless he fought it hard, campaigning on school transport, the problems of local businesses, excessive planned housing developments, accident blackspots, rural library services and affordable housing for locals.
Four days before polling, with Tony Blair heading for a landslide, an ICM poll for The Observer put Hurst 3 per cent ahead of Newton with the Liberal Democrat vote collapsing to him. On the night, he captured Braintree with a majority of 1,451.
At Westminster he first attracted notice co-sponsoring a motion demanding that the director-general of the BBC apologise for a self-confessed paedophile having appeared on Kilroy.
Hurst was appointed to the Agriculture Select Committee, proving an incisive questioner during the foot and mouth outbreak that forced the postponement of the 2001 election. At that election, he caused a further surprise by holding his seat with a majority of 358, Labour’s second narrowest.
In his second term, he served on the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen. He opposed New Labour’s moves toward proportional representation and occasionally voted against the government on judicial issues.
Hurst’s greatest display of independence came over the Bill introducing university top-up fees, enacted in 2004. In an attempt to increase universities’ funding without their students having to foot the bill, he backed an amendment removing the top-up fees while retaining the measure’s other provisions.
At the 2005 election, with Tory fortunes reviving and Labour supporters opposed to the Iraq War switching to the Lib Dems, Hurst lost Braintree to Brooks Newmark, his opponent from 2001, by 3,893 votes. On his death, Newmark paid tribute to him as “a kind, gentle man and well-respected locally”. The constituency’s current MP is the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
Alan Hurst married Hilary Burch in 1976. They had two sons and a daughter.
Alan Hurst, born September 2 1945, died January 31 2023