Dan Jarvis: pitching for the Labour leadership?

Today Dan Jarvis arguably took the first steps in a bid to become Labour leader with a speech for the Demos think-tank setting out his vision for the Party. Echoing Tony Blair, Jarvis suggested that Labour must be “tough on inequality, tough on the causes of inequality,” by increasing productivity, raising wages and promoting corporate responsibility.

In many respects Jarvis’ pitch was similar to that made by Ed Miliband, particularly his suggestion that “the capitalist system” should act “as servant, not as master.” Although Miliband’s vision for “responsible capitalism” failed to gain traction beyond the Labour Party it remains admired by many MPs who feel it needs to be articulated more clearly. Squeezing out “risky” banking practices and supporting long-term investment in technology were just two areas discussed.

Jarvis also touched on the importance of “work, family and community” – themes generally associated with the Blue Labour school of thought. It has long been rumoured that Jonathan Rutherford, a former aide to John Cruddas and collaborator with Maurice Glasman, has been advising Jarvis and his influence shone through.

For the assembled hacks, the highlight undoubtedly came in Jarvis’ warning that though Labour was “at the point in the electoral cycle” where it should be “doing very well”, the party faces a “major test” in May’s local election. Notably, though Jarvis spoke of Rachel Reeves, Alan Johnson and Tom Watson in glowing terms, no direct reference was made to his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Instead he coolly noted that “the people I meet…they don’t follow the doctrinal discussions of the Labour Party. They want to vote for a party that doesn’t just oppose the government. They want a party that beats the government. A party that gets into power for a purpose: to work on their behalf.”

To many Labour “moderates” Jarvis is the party’s greatest hope. A former paratrooper who saw action across three continents, his backstory is often seen as a vote winner in itself. However, Jarvis as yet lacks a defining idea of campaign with which to gain traction across the country, or indeed within his own party. Jeremy Corbyn has been in office just six months and while the polls paint a dreadful picture of Labour’s electoral hopes, party members continue to rally around him. Though the majority of MPs vehemently disagree with their leader on a number of vital issues they are as yet in no position to move him.

One of the most interesting aspect of Jarvis’ address was on the emphasis it placed on the trade union movement. Community Union received particular praise for its work with the Fabian Society in developing the Changing Work Centre think-tank, and the ‘big three’ of GMB, Unite and Unison were mentioned on several occasions. Should Jarvis seek to challenge Corbyn, or any other challenger from the left, union backing will be essential and he has clearly extended an olive branch to them.

In normal circumstances it would be possible to consider Jarvis’ speech on its own merits. His analysis is concurrent with several strands of ideological development within the Party and, though in need of refinement, touched on some of the key challenges facing Labour and Britain more generally. However, these are far from normal circumstances and appeals to MPs and the trade union movement are unlikely to be enough. Instead, real consideration must be given over to how a “moderate” candidate can win support from the 59.5% of Labour members, supporters and affiliates who gave their backing to Jeremy Corbyn and who, despite the grim forecasts of electoral oblivion, seem determined to keep him in post.

Labour leaders have often been accused of talking to the Party and not to the country, but if Dan Jarvis is to assume this office he needs to do the opposite. His first challenges are finding the vocabulary and platform to do so.