27 March 2017

Dan Jarvis won’t save Labour – no one can


There’s nothing quite as tedious as a left-wing politician on manoeuvres. At least you know where you are with the Right: treachery, faithlessness and an almost pornographically explicit self-interest. Just think back to the last Tory leadership contest – knives in the front, blood on the walls and hemlock in the coffee, and that was just Michael Gove. Look at Farage, Banks and Carswell, currently dismembering Ukip simply because they loathe each other. It’s all tremendous fun.

The Left are nicer but also more awful. How many hours of our lives have been lost reading coded, meandering, syntax-torturing articles in the Guardian or the New Statesman by the drear Milibands and their like, setting out their latest big new “idea” with all the elan of a pig on ice.

These pieces are usually accompanied by a front-page news story that decodes the guff as paving the way for a leadership challenge: “World Exclusive: Labour leader dramatically put on notice – the new New Labour must be reconstructed as a new new New Labour that emerges organically from a post-neoliberal ecosystem effectively synthesising the Marxian, the Randian and the Venusian, with social justice at its heart.”

Said leadership challenge never actually materialises, of course – the volcano threatens to erupt for a few months before emitting a pathetic parp, and everyone gets bored. The supposed challenger leaves parliament to work for a charity, stopping only to deposit an unreadable autobiography directly into the remainder bin at Waterstones.

I’m sorry to tell you that it’s all happening again. As Jeremy Corbyn’s asphyxiation of the Labour Party nears completion, a number of his backbenchers are effectively declaring themselves “very angry indeed”, and have begun delivering the kinds of sermons mentioned above.

In recent months we’ve been treated to the much-of-a-muchness supply-teacher visions of Lisa Nandy, Chuka Umunna, Stephen Kinnock, Tom Watson, Alison McGovern, Bridget Philipson, Wes Streeting and Clive Lewis. I’ve probably missed some. This weekend, at last, the himbo of the House, Labour’s LL Cool J, the Major with a majority, Dan Jarvis, entered the fray.

In a 5,000-word piece for, yes, the New Statesman, Jarvis set out his pitch:

“We have to: Reset our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world; Increase our productivity to both generate more wealth and support an ageing population; Prepare for the opportunities and challenges that new technology will bring; Respond to the demand for wealth, power and opportunity to be spread more fairly around the country, as clearly expressed in the Brexit vote; And lock environmental sustainability into everything we do.”

He included the by-now-familiar staples: New Labour was a better government than it’s given credit for, but got a lot of things wrong; politicians are no longer trusted; neoliberal globalisation has created too many victims.

Dan has a slogan fit for a Miliband, too: “a civic capitalism in the public interest”. This will include everyone’s policy du jour – an industrial strategy – plus the delivery of “educational excellence everywhere” (just how is left unclear), and, intriguingly (or perhaps suicidally), the imposition of a Corbynbite-grooming one-off wealth tax “that could be used to help bring down the deficit”.

This, he argues, “would echo the unique contribution asked of the wealthy by the Attlee government after World War Two and the windfall tax on privatised utilities imposed by the incoming Labour government in 1997”. He then adds that “there may be a case for going even further”, which was presumably the point at which the nurse tightened his arm restraints.

We’ve waited a while to see the cut of Dan’s jib. He has been a chiselled backbench presence, a much-hyped contender, for a few years now, making occasional forays into the public eye and trailing that impressive back-story. He showed good judgement in refusing to stand against Corbyn, on the basis he’d get thumped. He seems to have adopted a “less is more” strategy in his long march towards the top job.

The danger of this approach is of course that when you finally get the “more” it turns out to be, well, less. If this was Jarvis’s big reveal, it left a lot to be desired: a checklist of the bleedin’ obvious with a few sweeties thrown in for the bairns.

And this, I think points us to a truth. It’s not that Dan’s useless – he’s clearly a smart, able and admirable man. Neither are his colleagues listed above anything less than decent, engaged people.

But none of them has yet answered the great questions that confront them and their party: what, today, is the point of the centre-Left? Who are their people? Are they socialists or just nicer Tories? Do they genuinely believe in the market, or is that merely an attempt to accommodate the grim prejudices of the electorate? And if not the market, what? What, in the end, is the simple message that will bring voters back? It sure ain’t “a civic capitalism in the public interest”.

Labour have been horsed at Westminster and in Scotland because voters look at them and see nothing much that they want. The party expresses its loathing of its one popular modern PM at every opportunity. It has twice voted in an incompetent scarecrow as leader, who every time he opens his mouth makes you long for the oratorical skills of, say, Lassie. It has failed to come up with anything as credible or compelling as New Labour. And from the looks of things, that’s not changing anytime soon. Meh Labour, No Danger.

Chris Deerin is a political commentator