IT’S funny how things turn out, isn’t it? When Dan Jarvis, the MP for Barnsley Central, pulled out of the Labour leadership contest last year, I have to admit that I was more than a little disappointed.
Although I respected his explanation, which was that he wanted to concentrate on his family, part of me wanted to tell him to man up – high office and bringing up children are not mutually exclusive. Now I see that we may have been too hasty to dismiss him.
Yet are subsequent events down to fate – or part a wider strategy for Mr Jarvis to run for the leadership at a more advantageous time?
When he removed himself from the leadership race, it opened up the field for Jeremy Corbyn. Did Mr Jarvis, who must have learnt a thing or two about tactics as a major in the British Army, take a calculated gamble?
Did he anticipate that within weeks of Mr Corbyn taking control, the shadow cabinet would be ripping itself apart, and the party all but engaged in a civil war?
Did Mr Jarvis recognise that his time would, in fact, come at some stage in the future? Did he imagine that this time might be now?
The only person who can answer these questions honestly is Dan Jarvis himself, and he is too canny to reveal his full hand.
However, what is pretty clear is that he is certainly mustering himself for a fight now. A major interview in a broadsheet newspaper set out his stall as soon as the New Year kicked in, then an article outlining some pretty major policy ideas in the New Statesman and now a victory within the party itself.
His call for the publication of Learning the Lessons, the report into Labour’s failure at the 2015 election, has been heeded within days. Its findings signal two key points for any prospective Labour leader to hone in on: Ed Miliband was believed to be not as strong a leader as David Cameron, and the Labour Party overall failed to deal with issues of “connection” over welfare and immigration.
If I was one of the two policy advisers that the MP has apparently taken on recently, I would be going all out to work with him on these. I have left-wing Labour friends tying themselves into knots over the debate surrounding the Trident nuclear deterrent. I’d say that in the present circumstances, this is something of an intellectual luxury. Whilst a clear policy on defence is important, it is not as vital as getting the connection with the public right. Parties are elected to power by millions of votes from ordinary people who just want a decent wage and a nice country to live in.
I’d argue that a putative Labour leader would be hard-pushed to do better in this arena than Mr Jarvis. The last time I bumped into him in Barnsley, he was rushing off to catch the shops before they closed on a Saturday afternoon. Anyone who saw him hurrying along in the rain in his anorak wouldn’t have taken him for a politician, let alone the man being spoken of as the next Labour leader. I’ve come across some MPs in my time, but I’ve never known one who is so well, normal.
It has been said that this very absence of edge – he asked a telling question at PMQs last week on winter deaths which actually enticed a respectful response from the Prime Minister – means that Mr Jarvis lacks the killer spirit needed for leadership at the highest level.
I’d say to this that we should wait and see. At least he is not giving us a load of guff about “doing politics in a different way”. Remember when we had to endure that from the Liberal Democrats? And remember what happened to them?
Rather, Mr Jarvis is offering some pragmatic starting points for how Labour can begin to marshal itself to operate as a modern political organisation. Membership has been soaring at the fastest rate for 64 years and is now believed to stand at around 270,000 fully-fledged members, plus the ones who affiliated themselves just for the leadership vote.
It’s easy for people to tick a box and sign up online, much harder for these new members to drag themselves out of the house on a dark, cold night and attend a branch meeting. The challenge for any leader is how these members can seize the initiative and start getting involved in shaping the party into a fighting force.
However, party membership is one thing, party support quite another. This is where that big “C” word – connection – comes in. How does the Labour leadership reconnect with a voting public which thinks it is out of touch with their concerns? Dan Jarvis is right here to start by focusing on welfare and immigration. He is making some interesting observations about poverty and its relationship with health issues such as obesity. How he takes on the matter of immigration will need careful handling, but it is vital if he is to avoid accusations that he is ducking the challenge. He has done that once, whether by accident or design. Somehow though, I don’t get the feeling that history will repeat itself.