I first heard the name ‘Dan Jarvis’ on a dance floor at a wedding in Bath. ‘Move like Jagger’ was thumping through the speakers, and most people had given up trying to chat, but I’d been collared by a cavalry officer who was damned if he was going to let disco get in the way of his politics. ‘Not enough soldiers in the Commons,’ he yelled at me, ‘and the ones who are there are a bit flawed. There is one chap though,’ he paused for effect: ‘Jarvis, he’s called Dan Jarvis. A Labour MP, but who cares? He’s a proper soldier. Just what the country needs. Should be prime minister. I’m telling you.’ The glitterball threw a veil of little lights over his military chin.
The next week, I heard Jarvis’s name again — from a life-long Conservative now so weary of what he called Cameron’s ‘inept modernising’ that he might be persuaded, he said, to vote Labour if a chap like Dan were in charge.
What is a chap like Dan? One tailor-made for Tories, that’s what. He’s an ex-para who’s served in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. As a young man, he set off to climb K2 in a tweed jacket and his grandfather’s flat cap. There’s a sad side to Dan, too. In 2006, his wife was diagnosed with cancer — which is, in part, why he left the army — and in 2010 she died, leaving him with two small children. But paras don’t mope. Utrinque Paratus: ready for anything. Just a year into his political career, he’s already shadow arts minister and has made a name for himself defending local libraries.
If there was a final push needed, to get me to Barnsley to meet this paragon, it was a whisper that the very existence of Major Dan Jarvis MBE was giving Cameron’s gang the heebie-jeebies. This is cheering because they need a jolt, but it also shows rare good sense. If Bradford West can leave Labour for George Galloway, then that’s not just a problem for Labour: safe seats everywhere are up for grabs. And someone like Jarvis — combining the left’s rep for caring with a soldier’s credibility — spells trouble in toryland.
So come Saturday morning, I’m on Shambles street, due for my date with Dan. But first, a quick chat with Rita Britton, Barnsley’s ‘queen of fashion’, who owns a lovely boutique (Pollyanna) just nearby. Rita is in her late 60s and full of vim. She’s red to the core: ‘Thatcher ripped the heart out of Barnsley,’ But she sees that living on benefits has sucked the soul from Barnsley and she’s got some advice for Dan. ‘Listen, I was born in a terrace house not far from here,’ she says, ‘and in our whole row only one guy didn’t work, and he was a disgrace! It’s the work ethic that drives the civilised world and we need to find it again in Barnsley. We’re up to three generations on benefits now, that’s what’s really wrong. If it gets to a fourth, we’ll be lost. So there you go, Dan,’ she laughs.
Dan and I have coffee in the basement of Barnsley central library. He’s tall with scruffy, sandy hair; a bit like Simon Maccorkindale from Manimal, if you were into 1980s TV. And quite handsome. Which is maybe why I begin more aggressively than I mean to: ‘So why Labour, Dan? I can understand it in the days of oppressed factory workers, but isn’t it now just about protecting bureaucrats?’
He’s a touch taken aback: ‘The Labour party is in my blood, I suppose — my parents are both supporters. And I believe absolutely, passionately in the value of public service. That’s why I joined the army, and that’s why I became a politician, too.’ A soldier’s sincerity in an MP! It’s like a category error.
But why didn’t you stay in the army and serve the public there? ‘My hand was forced when my wife died,’ Dan looks down. ‘And I had two small kids. I had to decide whether it was the right thing to do to go back to Afghanistan, and I took the judgment that it wasn’t.’
Why politics, not, say, social work? ‘Well, I had a bit of a kind of road-to-Damascus-type moment in Afghanistan,’ says Dan. ‘I was watching the 2005 general election, a bit frustrated with not being able to express my views, and I thought: at some point, that’s what I’ll do.’
Did you admire Blair, then? Dan makes a face. I don’t think he subscribes to the Blair-worship in vogue amongst coalition types. He says: ‘Look, I admire the fact that Blair could reach out across the country. We’re not going to have a Labour government in 2015 unless we can reach out to the people who voted for him in 1997.’ A Labour government in 2015? Really? ‘Absolutely,’ says Major Jarvis, with an unblinking stare.
And this is one of the things that frightens the right most about Jarvis. Unlike Ed Miliband, he sees the importance of the centre ground. He’s a vice-chair of Progress, the Blairite think-tank, and mentions David Miliband, the more Blairite brother, with admiration. But isn’t your party moving left? ‘In some areas, yes, but I’ve consistently said that there are a number of key marginals which will decide things. Swindon, for instance. So we’ve got to be thinking about the sort of things that people in Swindon are thinking about. Actually, the way I do opposition,’ he’s getting into his swing now, ‘is that there are no no-go areas. I was in Bracknell a couple of weeks ago, in the Tory heartlands. I’m going to Oxfordshire, I’ll do an interview with Country Life.’
See? DJ is perfectly poised to do a Galloway to some Tory stronghold. And his hobby horses will appeal to both left and right. Or ‘across the piste’, as he says, endearingly. There’s his antipathy to politicians who go straight from Oxford to Westminster. ‘We urgently need to get more people who have experience of doing things in the real world: management, leadership, practical things.’ Do the Milibands swim into his mind, too?
Then there’s his horror of MPs just in it for the glory, who’ll toe any party line: ‘I believe more politicians should feel free to think independently, not just follow the agreed line or worry too much about what the press say. I have a lot of respect for people on both sides of the house, like Douglas Carswell, who hold true to their beliefs.’
Most of all, though, he’s into hard work, getting the job done. It’s a measure of the man that he is the first non-Yorkshire-born Labour MP ever to be selected here and he succeeded, he says, because he ran his campaign like a military operation. ‘If you’re in Afghanistan, fighting a battle, you’ve actually got to do it. In politics, quite often you can get away with just looking like you’re doing it. To be a mediocre MP doesn’t require a huge effort. You can bumble along. But to do it properly, it consumes your life!’
This should give Ed Vaizey, his Tory oppo, the vapours. Dan’s not a natural for the arts. He’s a physical, practical chap full of army jargon about realities on the ground. But since he became shadow arts minister, I’m afraid he’s been knocking Vaizey for six. ‘I had a go at him again yesterday,’ says Dan with a grin. ‘He says that the library closures are local government’s fault. I say, that’s not good enough! He should show some leadership and champion libraries. Get out there! I asked him if he was a champion for libraries and he had to ignore the question because he couldn’t possibly say he was. No one could, except his close family. Ed was articulate in opposition, but in power
he just doesn’t bother.’
Despite all his good ideas about libraries, Dan’s heart is really in defence. He’s a great believer in humanitarian intervention and deeply worried about cuts. ‘I think we’re sleepwalking into a period of strategic shrinkage in terms of the deployment of military force and our diplomatic leverage in the world. We must develop a proper strategy about how we operate on a world stage.’ Jarvis is looking urgent now — this is important to him. I’m not entirely sure what he means by ‘proper strategy’ but he later texts to say that he wants to place this primarily in the context of any involvement we have in Iran. This is most alarming.
Dan Jarvis is a terrific guy — a bit cocky maybe, but sincere. If there’s one thing that worries me about him as next Labour leader, say, or PM, it’s that he was prepared to vote to intervene in Libya despite knowing how ill prepared the government was. ‘It cost me a lot of sleep,’ he says. ‘I knew the government’s plan was just to keep bombing and hope for the best.’ So why vote for it? He never really explains.
Back down the hill, in Pollyanna, Rita has another more pertinent worry. ‘They’re grooming him to be leader, aren’t they?’ she says, gleeful like a child. ‘Well, he’s very nice, but I just hope he understands business. We had Ed Miliband here the other day and do you know what he said? He said he was going to make it harder for employers to sack people. Harder! And that was supposed to be a good thing! Honestly, does he think employers want to sack good people? I hope Dan sees how daft that is.’ I do, too, I tell her.
Back in London, as I’m rhapsodising about Dan’s guts and determination, a clever friend warns me that army types have one fatal flaw: they think, he says, that with a good team and a good leader, you can solve anything. That everything is an engineering problem. But if you’ve any experience of running business, you’ll know that sometimes government must just get out of the way. There’s no top-down solution.
Does Dan understand this? I’m not quite sure. He’s got the conviction — no problem. ‘If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would undoubtedly still do this job,’ he says, ‘I care about my constituents, and the country, passionately.’ I believe him. But I think he will only rise to the very top if he listens to Rita.