Shortly before the House of Commons rose for the summer recess, Dan Jarvis allowed himself a rare break from work and family. “I went out on my own for a bike ride. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and from nowhere a storm descended.” Jarvis cycled on through the hills near his Barnsley constituency, cavalier in the face of risk.
“Two people died in the Brecon Beacons that day. I was completely zen, but there was lightning forking all over the place, and thunder and torrential rain. I thought how lucky I was. I’ve had the perfect apprenticeship for this place. Things have happened that could have finished me or steeled me. Basically, they steeled me.”
The influences to which he refers are war and bereavement. A decorated soldier and a former major in the special forces, Jarvis served in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan before leading a company of 150 men on a six-month assignment in Helmand Province. Though his unit of paratroopers all survived, several were badly hurt during the perilous mission to train Afghan recruits.
Before he embarked on that foray, his wife Caroline had been diagnosed with the bowel cancer from which she died three years later in 2010, leaving two very young children. In the following year, Jarvis was elected to serve as Labour MP for Barnsley Central, replacing Eric Illsley, who stood down after being convicted of fraud for his part in the MPs’ expenses scandal.
“If I was getting deep with you, I would say that politics is the most perfect distraction I could have had. For the first few months I was busy looking after my kids. Then I was here, and it provided me with a focus. This is a different way of making a contribution.” Jarvis is settling into the office once occupied by Harriet Harman, and the walls are still bare, apart from a snapshot of him, wearing fatigues and touting a machine gun.
Although Jarvis hung up his army boots four years ago, the dust of the battlefield clings to him still. While he does not draw any comparison between war and politics, he fought the last election with the same determination that he once deployed in military action. Bar his cycle ride, he has taken no time off since polling day, and he has the air of someone who runs on overwork and adrenaline.
Some thought that, even before Ed Miliband lost, Jarvis was seriously thinking of whether he might stand as the next Labour leader. Is that true? “No. Let me be incredibly clear and straightforward. I gave it no serious thought before the election. I was essentially running on empty. I was on the point of exhaustion. I’d been to scores of marginal seats [and] I had no time with my family. There was a bit of florid speculation that if we didn’t win, people might come to me, but I never really seriously considered it. I never had time.”
Jarvis, who had “sensed it [election victory] was drifting away from us,” had barely come to terms with the scale of Labour’s defeat when his phone began to ring. Weary as he was, he had to weigh the pressure of MPs urging him to stand against his responsibility to his second wife Rachel, a freelance graphic designer whom he married in 2013, as well as to their three-year-old daughter and his two older children, now 12 and 10.
“My initial instinct was always that this was not the moment. I barely see my kids as it is. My son’s just off to secondary school, and my oldest two have had a really tough time with the loss of their mum. We’ve just now found our rhythm as a family, but my younger daughter’s first formed sentence was: ‘Why is daddy always at work?’ It was a pretty reasonable question.” Two days after the election, he gave his decision. “I made it clear that I would want to do my bit in terms of supporting the party, whatever that might be, but that it wouldn’t be as leader.”
Jarvis’s next task was to decide which candidate he would back. “I saw them all. I spent a lot of time interrogating their analysis of why we had lost and … what they thought we needed to do.” While some colleagues had expected that Jarvis’s views would make him a natural ally of the most Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, their “robust discussion” did not in the end elicit his endorsement.
It was perhaps a foregone conclusion that Jarvis would back Andy Burnham, whom he had first heard speak in 2010. “It was a very emotionally charged speech – brilliant, moving and uplifting.” Jarvis’s first wife was then only weeks away from death, and the fact that Burnham’s own wife was undergoing major surgery provided a common bond. “It was a tough time for us both. I never had that conversation with him at the time … but I think we have reflected back on it. He’s been very good to me.”
There was, however, little room for sentiment in Jarvis’s assessment. “Who is the person best placed to lead the party to a place where it can win in five years’ time? My decision was based purely around that analysis.” He agrees that winning in 2020 will be difficult, even if his favoured team of Burnham with Stella Creasy as deputy were chosen.
“It’s a long and tough road back. We can be in a position to compete in 2020, but it’s going to take a lot of doing. Business as usual is not going to work for us. We’re not in one-more-heave territory. The way we do politics has fundamentally to alter, and the way we exist and function as a Labour party needs to be overhauled. We have it in us, but it will take a great deal of pulling out.
“Whoever is the next leader will have a tough time of it, and they will require everyone to get behind them.” But harmony and cohesion are hardly the hallmarks of an acrimonious leadership contest and a split within the party over whether the left winger Jeremy Corbyn should even be on the ballot paper.
The decision by Unite to endorse Corbyn must, I suggest, have dismayed the Burnham camp given that their candidate was expected to get the Len McCluskey blessing. “I can’t say it [Unite’s choice] was the biggest surprise I’ve ever encountered. What’s important is that members of trades unions think about who is best placed to deliver a Labour government. I don’t think it’s Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t think even Jeremy thinks it’s Jeremy Corbyn.”
Might Jarvis still hope one day to run for the leadership? “We haven’t even elected the next leader of the party. Whoever it is will have my full support. I will do my bit and hope that person will be prime minister. I will do everything I can to make that [happen]. But much more than that I have not thought about.”
Jarvis’s current focus is on analysing how Labour can tackle the threat of UKIP. “We kept on saying that we were going to take on UKIP, but we never really did. We were much more comfortable taking on the Lib Dems.” Labour voters defected to UKIP, in his view, partly because “our policy offer just wasn’t broad enough.” While such voters recognised that Labour would take on vested interests at the top and protect those at the bottom, “what was left in the middle was a gaping chasm.
“The ironic thing is that it was Ed Miliband who first wanted to talk about the ‘squeezed middle’, but in the end the middle was squeezed out. Millions of people felt we had nothing to offer them. It got to the stage where, if I walked up a driveway and saw a white van, I knew what was coming – and someone who used to vote Labour was going to express extreme disappointment.” Immigration, he believes “was used as a proxy for a broader concern about a range of issues.”
To win back UKIP voters, and to staunch any further drift, Labour will in his opinion have to acquire a different type of recruit. “We don’t have enough people in the parliamentary Labour party who have done other things and who have real life credibility. If people understand you have experience and challenges in your own life, you are more than half way to winning the battle.
“We need to get better at talent-spotting. We’ve got some amazing local councillors, but we’ve also frankly got people who have taken the public for granted for far too long.” Given the success of special advisers with powerful patrons (a definition that covers all the candidates bar Corbyn), does he think that Labour should introduce targeted shortlists, along the lines of all-women shortlists?
Jarvis is an admirer of the “future candidates programme”, which trains and mentors people “who don’t have long links into the party or the patronage of unions or senior political figures.” Promising candidates should, in his suggestion, receive financial backing because “there are some extremely capable people who can’t even afford to be Labour candidates. If you could draw down resources, you are in a stronger position to compete. For Labour to exclude working people because they don’t have the money or the time skews the process from the outset.”
The party should also focus much more heavily on education, skills and training, in his view, if it is to win back UKIP voters. “What we were saying on education was … tinkering round the margins with no big appealing offer.” He also calls for bold thinking on adult education and retraining. “I just don’t sense we tapped into that agenda in the way we might.”
Jarvis recently moved from a shadow frontbench role with the justice team to a shadow Foreign Office job. One of his first tasks was to frame a reply, with Harriet Harman and other senior colleagues, to Michael Fallon’s move towards endorsing military strikes on Syria. Having indicated that it would look carefully at any such proposal, assuming it met certain basic criteria, such as legality, Labour is now awaiting developments.
Almost all of Jarvis’s past life is bound up with the military world. Although his parents, a college lecturer and a probation officer, came from a civilian background, he went to Sandhurst after graduating from Aberystwyth University and went on to serve with distinction in successive war zones. He met Caroline when both of them were working for General Sir Mike Jackson – Jarvis as Jackson’s aide-de-camp, and his future wife as the general’s chef.
While the instinct to serve his country runs as strongly as ever in Jarvis, his fervour for military adventures does not extend to the political realm. Asked whether he would have voted for the Iraq war, he says: “I think some people are mistakenly of the view that because I was in the army I’m more [gung ho]. If anything, it’s the opposite.”
In recent weeks he has called for an investigation into the errors made during the Afghan war. That suggestion was greeted with horror by some senior colleagues, who wrongly accused Jarvis of trying to instigate a second Chilcot inquiry and tried to warn him off. “There was significant concern that any kind of inquiry would turn into a witch hunt. I’m not looking to hold individuals to account but to demonstrate to the public that we should look to the [Afghan] campaign to inform future decisions.
“This was a campaign that ran longer than two world wars combined, led to the deaths of 453 service men and women … and cost billions of pounds. Some people don’t like it. But to me there’s an inescapable logic. We owe it to the people who lost their lives. And if someone has a problem with that, I’m sorry. But there are a lot of grieving people out there. We must look back and learn.”
In the future, he believes, Britain needs to ask much more searching questions of our long-time allies who nurtured the extreme Sunni movements that give rise to Islamic State and who fail to stop funding reaching terrorists. “Yes, I think we do. One of the questions I asked about Afghanistan was whether we were using our leverage to stop corruption.
“It’s the same with [the Middle East]. Billions [of pounds] are siphoned round the world, and we need to use our leverage to cut it off. Some of it comes out of the Middle East. We need to be very clear … that we need to work with [allies] to stop the money at source and stop it funding the terror that it undoubtedly is funding. That involves having some tough conversations with our partners.” Such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar? “Absolutely.”
Closer to home, he warns that the travails of Greece could have an impact on a Britain struggling to define its own relationship with the rest of Europe. “We need to be mindful of our referendum,” he says, warning that “the fallout of a Yes vote could unleash a tidal wave of nationalism across England. There are big questions on devolution. If Labour wants to be sustainable over the long term, it has to be at the heart of that debate.
“We have been an extremely well-meaning but largely amateur operation in recent times, against a ruthless Tory machine, largely run by [George] Osborne, who will probably be the next PM and our opponent in 2020. We need to professionalise every aspect of our being. And we should be under no illusion that, if we don’t, we are in for a battle for our continued relevance.” And perhaps for the party’s very existence? “Absolutely. There is no rule in politics that says there needs to be a healthy, functioning Labour party.” Should Labour founder, it will not be due to any lack of effort on the part of Dan Jarvis. Affable and good company as he is, he has devoted himself to politics with an ardour that even he finds extreme. “My wife and I keep promising that we will get a moment to ourselves. You do need time with the family.”
Though he is looking forward to a two-week break in August, he does not expect to get a taste for leisure. As he reflected, on the day he rode his bike through a lightning storm, his priorities lie elsewhere. “The army wasn’t pretty, it was often tough, but it gave me the opportunity to serve. Now I have been given another chance to serve, and people have invested their faith and trust in me.
“I am not going to let them down. I work too hard, and I commit more to this than perhaps I should, but it is the most amazing privilege – fighting to build a better country.” Should Labour win that battle in 2020, Dan Jarvis will have earned himself one more award for valour.