Dan Jarvis interview: There’s nothing progressive about ignoring the concerns of voters
After the intense media storm over his leadership challenge that never was, Dan Jarvis has kept a low profile in Westminster. But the former paratrooper is returning to the frontline of politics as he takes on the government over child poverty targets
When David Cameron announced he would be standing down as prime minister, it didn’t just present the Conservatives with a leadership problem. More prosaically, it meant party managers had to find a new parliamentary office for him, given he would no longer be entitled to the comfortable billet behind the Speakers’ chair which had come with the job.
One solution was for him to be given a large office space in St. Stephen’s Tower just off Westminster Hall occupied by no fewer than six Tory MPs. Another possibility was that he would take Dan Jarvis’ office one floor above.
Discussions were had, and a decision was reached. The six Tory MPs had to find new lodgings.
Jarvis’ well-documented military background taught him all about refusing to back down when confronted by the enemy – and is one of the reasons why he is regularly touted as a future Labour leader by many on the party’s moderate wing.
Sitting in the office he refused to give up for Cameron, he says the only people who ask him if he wants the job are journalists. That probably explains why his answer is well-rehearsed.
“I’ve not come into politics with any plan, other than to serve my constituents and do the best job I can for them and the Labour party,” he says. “Much more than that, I don’t have any grand ambitions for the future other than to do my bit.
“We went through all this after the last election and there was a huge amount of speculation as to what my intentions were. I’ve got a small family, our lives are not rooted in central London, but in central Barnsley, and I just want to get on and do the best job I can serving my constituents and the party.”
It’s in his capacity as MP for Barnsley Central that Jarvis will next week present his Child Poverty Bill for second reading in the Commons. The draft legislation would legally require the government to set a target for the reduction of child poverty and a strategy for achieving it. It is virtually identical to Child Poverty Act passed in 2010 by the last Labour government, which was rendered obsolete in 2015 when the Welfare Reform and Work Bill scrapped the child poverty target.
Jarvis says his aim is to test the commitments Theresa May made on the day she became prime minister last July. He says: “I wanted to do something that spoke about my basic belief that every child should get the best start in life. I don’t think it’s acceptable that there are now four million kids living in poverty, and the IFS project that will increase by 50% by 2020.
“Given that Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street and said she would fight burning injustices, I think this is a good opportunity for me to bring forward something I care passionately about, but is also a good test for the government.
“Theresa May rightly has spoken about those people who are just managing, and many of the kids growing up in this country fall into that category. Two out of three families in poverty have at least one person on work, so my bill speaks to the challenges she spoke about when she became prime minister. I very much hope that the government will seek to support this and that it will be done on a cross-party basis.”
The early signs are not encouraging, but Jarvis remains optimistic. “Damian Green [the Work and Pensions Secretary] seemed to indicate in Questions the other day that he thought this was a somewhat old-fashioned approach to reducing child poverty,” he says. “I don’t believe it is, and none of the experts who have dedicated most of their lives to eradicating child poverty think that either. So, given that this was originally done on a cross-party basis in 2010, I really hope that they are going to support it, or at least not stand in its way.
“Are we really saying that in 2017 we have a party in government which doesn’t want to have some metric way of reducing the number of kids who grow up in poverty?”
Opponents of Brexit – of which Jarvis was one – insist that leaving the European Union will damage the UK economy, an eventuality which would surely make reducing child poverty all the harder.
He reveals that coming out for Remain “wasn’t the easiest of decisions I’ve ever reached”, and rejects the notion that the vote on 24 June last year signals disaster for the country.
“I think Brexit provides some opportunities, but I represent a constituency where nearly 70% of people voted to Leave and I have a responsibility to make sure their voices are heard in that debate,” says Jarvis. “Nobody voted for us to be poorer, so the challenge for the government is to secure the best possible deal – one that maximises our trading opportunities with Europe, but gives us a greater ability to manage inward migration.
“In the end, on balance, I decided it was in our national interest to stay. But I went through a list of pros and cons. I also knew from thousands of conversations with my constituents that our membership wasn’t especially popular.
“It could be a positive experience for Britain if we get it right, but if we get it wrong it’ll be a negative one and it carries huge risks to the economy – including areas that voted to leave much more than others, like my own. It would be a tragedy if places like Barnsley were adversely affected as a result of us leaving.”
Immigration was “a massive factor” in the reason why constituencies like Barnsley Central backed Brexit, says Jarvis, who says he has always been against unfettered free movement. It’s safe to say that this stance puts him at odds with the current leadership of the Labour party. Jeremy Corbyn flirted with the prospect of ditching his long-held commitment to free movement last week, but got cold feet following a call from Diane Abbott.
Jarvis is clear that unless Labour changes tack, any chance of victory at the next general election will be extinguished. He says: “Where people come here and want to make a contribution, that is obviously a very good thing and we benefit from that.
"But the Labour party has shied away for too long from listening to, talking about and seeking to address the concerns of people who were worried about the impact that unskilled migration has had on many of our communities. This is one of the reasons that Ukip has been able to gain some kind of traction.
“There has been a view among many people who traditionally supported Labour that we didn’t understand or care about the concerns that they had, and worse than that, that we looked down upon then for having those concerns. That’s a toxic mix for us as a party. If we don’t address those concerns we will have significant challenges in the future.”
Yvette Cooper said in these pages before Christmas that there was a “progressive” case for ending free movement, earning her the opprobrium of many on the left.
But Jarvis says: “There’s nothing progressive about not listening to the concerns of the people we have come into politics to represent. This is about fairness.
“Any Labour party manifesto ahead of the next general election must have an immigration policy which does two things – recognises the benefits but understands the concerns. It’s possible to do that, but if we don’t, that comes with significant consequences, meaning that we will lose seats.
"Not for a moment am I trying to out-Ukip Ukip, but it’s about a fair, reasonable system of immigration which makes it work more effectively for our country than it has done previously. That is a perfectly progressive way to proceed.
“I’ve had many conversations with my own constituents about this. They express very genuine concerns, they are not in any way racist. And they expect us as a Labour party to respond to those concerns. We have to do that.”
As well as immigration, Jarvis says Labour must also adopt more voter-friendly positions on the economy and national security.
“We’ve got to be able to project strength and demonstrate to the public that when it comes to keeping them safe, we can do that,” he says.
That is why he was angered by comments made last week by a spokesman for Corbyn which seemed to cast doubt on Labour’s commitment to Nato, and offered lukewarm support for British troops heading for Estonia to act as a bulwark against Russian aggression.
He says: “We should be thanking our Armed Forces for their service. I understand a little bit about the commitment that is required, and our primary thoughts should be with them and their families, and thanking them for their service.
“Our relationship with Nato provides the bedrock of our security. We do have to be absolutely clear that Nato is the framework by which we are best placed to make a contribution to peace and security, not just in Europe but around the world. In that context, the remarks were unhelpful.”
His concerns about Labour’s current policy platform notwithstanding, Jarvis also reveals that he would be willing to serve on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench if asked. Despite reports to the contrary last year, he was never offered a role by the party leader. But unlike some of his colleagues, he refuses to rule out taking a job in the future.
“It’s not for me to pitch for a job, but the Labour party has always been a broad church and we are at our strongest when the talents of everyone in our movement are made the most of,” he insists. “Brexit amplifies the need for everyone to step up and get involved, and I will always do what I can to support.”
Jarvis has a warning, however, for those on the far-left who threaten to deselect Labour MPs who they believe do not show Jeremy Corbyn enough loyalty.
“I would gently say to those people who think they are being helpful to Jeremy by saying they want to deselect Labour MPs that I think that is precisely the last thing we should be doing,” he says. “At a time when we face very significant challenges, we can’t afford to make it even tougher.
“It would be a great mistake if anyone thought our electoral interests were served by removing any of those people, because that would make it much, much harder for us to compete electorally. That is a scenario that we must seek to avoid.”
Among those said to be in the firing line from local activists is Hilary Benn, someone Jarvis says is “an outstanding Member of Parliament and a great ambassador for the Labour party”.
Both Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have said they will not seek to interfere, arguing that it is up to party members in Leeds Central to decide who Labour’s candidate should be. Jarvis, however, says it would be “helpful and much appreciated” if the pair were to give the former Shadow Foreign Secretary their backing.
Two Labour MPs who will definitely not be around for much longer are Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt, both of whom are quitting their seats to take jobs outside parliament. Like Jarvis, both men are firmly on the moderate wing of the party. But unlike them, Jarvis insists he will stay in the Commons for as long as the voters of Barnsley Central want him to.
“I understand the decision they’ve taken, but I’ve got my dream job,” he says. “It’s not especially easy at the moment, but despite all the things that get thrown at you, it’s still the best job in the world and it’s a wonderful privilege to serve my constituents and support the party.
"I’ve committed myself to doing this for the long term and have no intention of going anywhere.”
His choice of words is somewhat unfortunate. By any measure – and despite his protestations – Dan Jarvis is clearly going places.
This article first appeared in The House magazine.