Elected to parliament a year ago, Progress vice-chair Dan Jarvis is one of Labour’s rising stars. He talks to Robert Philpot and Adam Harrison about his time in Afghanistan and the tough fight ahead for the party
It is the day of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens and shadow arts minister Dan Jarvis is clutching a copy of Great Expectations in preparation for a BBC interview to mark the event. The book’s title aptly captures the ripple of excitement in Westminster circles which has accompanied the former Parachute Regiment major’s steady political ascent.
A self-confessed ‘complete outsider’, Jarvis won Barnsley Central in a by-election one year ago this month. After fighting the safe seat as if it were a marginal, and despite a reduced turnout, Jarvis pushed Labour’s majority up by close to 20 per cent. Barely six months later, he was promoted to the frontbench.
Jarvis exudes an air of quiet self-confidence when he considers his first year in parliament. ‘The life skills that serving in Afghanistan and commanding soldiers under incredibly difficult circumstances gives you means that I haven’t been learning about how to get things done because I know how to get things done,’ he begins. Instead, he continues, ‘I’ve been learning about politics; I’ve been learning about how this place works. I guess that’s not something you learn in a month or a year.’
Politics works by negotiation and compromise and often appears to operate in shades of grey – not characteristics that are commonly associated with the military. ‘The army was pretty transparent in the way things were done,’ Jarvis agrees, ‘and the reality is that the world of politics is slightly different and can be a bit murkier.’ In the army, he believes, there is also ‘very much a spirit of working together to get things done’. In a gentle rebuke to the world in which he now finds himself, Jarvis continues: ‘I think we can probably all learn quite a bit from that.’
Those who work and write about politics like to pepper their discourse with military metaphors: ‘electoral battlegrounds’, ‘the air and ground wars’ in campaigns, and parliamentary ‘trench warfare’. For one of the few parliamentarians who has seen the reality of war at close hand, and knows that there are far worse fates than a lost vote, bad headline or poor poll result, does Jarvis find these metaphors bemusing or mildly offensive? ‘People talk about Westminster being a pressure cooker and an incredibly difficult environment and it is to an extent,’ he suggests. ‘But I would always remind people that our country has asked 18-year-olds to go and serve on the frontline in Iraq and Afghanistan and I think that is real pressure.’
Although Jarvis rejects the notion that his background gives him a greater sense of perspective than some of his colleagues, he agrees that it shapes the way he responds to parliamentary life. ‘I was given the opportunity to do some pretty tough things in the army as a company commander in a special forces support group in Afghanistan. A lot was asked of me at a very difficult time in my life when my wife was recovering from cancer, [we had] two small kids, and I was making literally life-and-death decisions on a daily basis,’ he says.
‘That’s never far away from my mind and when something happens here at short notice or when someone writes something in the papers that’s not very nice about you or someone sends a tweet that says you should have done this or you should have done that, or something doesn’t go right, I don’t get overly depressed about it. Because the reality is that, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world providing you can look yourself in the mirror and know you’ve done the best you can.’
This sense of perspective allows Jarvis to reflect on the difficulties and challenges of his life without appearing self-pitying or mawkish. A father of two young children approaching his fortieth birthday, Jarvis talks openly about the loss of his wife Caroline to cancer two years ago and his time in Afghanistan. He refers to his time there in 2007 as the ‘best of times, the worst of times’. ‘It was the best of times,’ he says, ‘because I was doing something that I believed in, I was doing something that was professionally incredibly rewarding, something I’d spent much of my working life working towards and I was part of an extremely close-knit team and we got on very well and we were making real progress in our little patch in Afghanistan. We were doing things that I’m really proud of.
‘But it was also at the same time the worst of times because at that point in 2007 the level of IED threat was very high … And the personal risk that we encountered day in day out was significant and a number of my soldiers were injured; one was killed.’ The tour of duty was also, Jarvis reflects, ‘personally a very difficult time for me’. His wife’s illness meant that ‘I wasn’t even convinced in my own mind that it was the right thing for me to be there, but in an attempt to retain a degree of normality in our family life my late wife insisted that it was the right thing to do.’
Having been granted a commission in the Parachute Regiment a few months after Labour came to power in 1997, Jarvis’ army career – he served in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and twice in Afghanistan – tracked the course of the military interventions undertaken during the party’s time in office. How, then, does he view the now-controversial principle of liberal intervention espoused by Tony Blair? ‘It’s a cliché to say this but the principle that just because we can’t intervene everywhere doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t intervene somewhere I think is right,’ he responds. Indeed, backing the government’s use of force in Libya – not, he says, a decision that he ‘took lightly’ – was one of the first votes Jarvis had to cast in parliament. However, while critical of its ‘bomb and hope for the best strategy’ in Libya, he backed the government because ‘I wasn’t prepared to stand aside and allow Gaddafi to murder thousands of innocent civilians, which I think he would have done.’
More widely, Jarvis believes that where ‘our national security is threatened, where I think we have the ability to act as a force for good in the world, I believe that the principles of liberal intervention are such that we should try and do so’. He accepts, however, that this has been ‘made more difficult’ by Britain’s involvement in Iraq.
Given the lack of direct military experience in the parliamentary party, Jarvis could have been drafted into the shadow defence team. He was fortunate, he says, that he was allowed to ‘plough another furrow for a period of time’. As a national patron, alongside former defence secretary George Robertson, of the Labour Friends of the Forces, Jarvis is, however, keen to stress that he is ‘by extension’ part of the defence team. He is also quick to praise shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy for being ‘particularly effective’ in demonstrating Labour’s credibility on defence and not allowing ‘the lie that the Tories are the default party of defence’ to resurface.
While he accepts that the cultural aspects of his Department of Culture, Media and Sport brief represent ‘the other end from defence and security’, Jarvis presents it as anything but woolly: ‘The creative industries that I have responsibility for, depending on how you calculate it, represent between six and eight per cent of the UK’s GDP, billions of pounds of investment in the economy, and 1.2-1.3 million jobs.’ He also dismisses a recent Guardian profile’s description of him coming to the arts brief from ‘a position of almost complete ignorance’. It is, he says, ‘a little bit misguided … [to] … suggest that the arts minister needs to somehow have spent all of his adult life in and out of the ballet or opera’.
Jarvis’ politics – he became a Progress vice-chair in January – are similarly hard-headed. Although he now represents a rock-solid Labour seat in Yorkshire, Jarvis spent ‘10 tough years’ in the rather less hospitable political terrain of the south-west, helping in seats like South Dorset, Exeter, and in Plymouth, Bristol and Swindon. Labour has to be ‘extremely strategic and systematic’ if it wants to return to power in 2015. ‘We have got to develop a policy agenda that reaches out across the country in the way we did successfully in 1997,’ he suggests, before warning: ‘We are not going to have a Labour government if we don’t win back seats [in the south-west] and that requires a kind of balanced, centrist view of this country.’ Jarvis also cautions against the ‘assumption that just because we’ve got a Tory government propped up by Lib Dems making some deeply unfair decisions that people will flock back to us, because they won’t.’ Labour’s task, he believes, is to ‘fight and compete for those votes’ by developing ‘a dynamic policy platform’.
From a man who can show he knows the meaning of the words, Jarvis’ depiction of the task before Labour is both sobering and salutary: ‘Everyone accepts it’s going to be tough but that’s the challenge. Nobody said it’s going to be easy and it isn’t going to be easy. But it is doable.’
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