BARNSLEY is famous for many things: our market, our football team, Sir Michael Parkinson, Dickie Bird, Darren Gough and Arthur Scargill to name just a few. There is talk that we might cap the lot. Could the South Yorkshire constituency of Barnsley Central have given the Labour Party its next leader and, potentially, the country’s next Prime Minister?
Our MP, Dan Jarvis, who only joined the Commons in 2011, was being talked of as a contender until he announced last night he was not going to stand. His name could have been in the ring alongside several big hitters, including Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna and David Lammy, all of whom have considerably more experience of front bench politics and Labour’s internal machinations. There are even whispers that David Miliband, ousted by his brother in the last leadership election, could return from the USA to somehow take back what many think was rightfully his.
If the love-in on my Facebook feed is anything to go by – and it’s probably a better bellwether than most opinion polls – local people think that Dan was the man for the job. And from this point of view, this was no surprise.
Mr Jarvis has been an irreproachable constituency MP to date. He’s not just an approachable chap with an interesting “back-story” of Army service in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the tragedy of losing his first wife to cancer. I know for a fact that Jarvis, 42, has worked indefatigably on behalf of individual constituents to sort out their problems. And, at the same time, he has made a series of impressive speeches in the House of Commons, juggled his Westminster life and his Barnsley life – shopping in the town centre with his three children and new wife, popping into schools and care homes and church fetes – and as far as I am aware, never let down anybody who has asked him to do anything.
How many times in the past few days have you heard a Labour politician say “it is time for us to reconnect with ordinary people?” There is no need for Mr Jarvis to say or do this. He sees the issues in his town through no filter, hears it directly from the teenagers trying to buy the legal highs he would like to see banned, and the cancer patients given no mercy by benefit cuts. It is, however, naïve to think that a good constituency MP makes a good party leader.
A good leader needs to be ruthless, calculating, aware at all times of the risks to his position, and capable of surrounding himself with a trusted group of advisers and thinkers who won’t stab him in the back. Was Mr Jarvis ready for this? At heart, despite the frontline Army service and recently fending off a London mugger, is he just too jolly nice?
I don’t especially want to see him propelled along on a path of hype and expectation just to answer the Labour Party’s prayers. The leadership timetable has yet to be decided, but there is a danger of rush and panic, especially given the clout of the Conservatives resurgent and the sheer numbers of SNP members in Parliament.
His independence could be his strength; that lack of experience means no damaging associations with previous administrations. And let’s not forget that as an outsider in Barnsley, Mr Jarvis has already cracked a tough nut.
There were many in this town who didn’t want him as an MP in the first place, because he hails from Nottinghamshire. However, he has turned those potentially negative connotations into a positive attribute. If he can win over a bunch of stubborn Barnsley folk with long and bitter memories of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, could he turn around a distraught and dysfunctional Labour membership?
Dealing with the flak that will be flying here could make returning to Helmand Province look like a preferable option. However, we have to remember that being a leader is not just about leading, it is about having a big idea. Just ask Tony Blair. Whatever you think about “New Labour”, its existence was based upon a thorough and painstaking belief system devised impeccably by Blair and his architects.
Although those long years in Opposition in the 1990s gave them plenty of time to construct their vision, at least there was a vision. It is early days, but neither Jarvis nor any of the front-runners appear to have much of a grand plan. Voters need something to believe in, as Ed Miliband finally admitted too late, and to his catastrophic cost.
Those who have already anointed the Barnsley Central MP as leader should look then to the widescreen version. On the edition of BBC Newsnight following the election result, the debate inevitably turned to the Labour leadership and the name of Jarvis came up. “But who is he?” asked the slightly-incredulous presenter, Evan Davis, who went on to share his pally views about the other possibilities.
It was a stark reminder that whatever happens, the next Labour leader will never be decided on the streets of Barnsley, but in the political salons and secretive meetings of the London metropolitan elite.