Dan Jarvis MP went on a nine-day, nine-region campaign. Photo: Twitter/@DanJarvisMP
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Late decisions, the Ukip temptation, and NHS fears: a Labour MP's doorstep marathon

Britain is undecided: we must help it decide, one conversation at a time, argues Dan Jarvis, who went doorknocking in nine regions in nine days.

The clock is ticking down to the general election. But though the lights may still be on in parliament, the real politics is taking place far away from Westminster.

That’s why I’ve been out on the doorstep.

I’ve just got back after a nine day, nine region campaign marathon, travelling more than 900 miles to 27 seats that will help decide whether Ed Miliband walks into Downing Street on 8 May. From Thurrock to Plymouth, up to Bury, Redcar and a lot of places in between. 

Why did I do it? Because I believe Labour is working to achieve something that no other party is trying to do – win for the whole country. We’re the only party fighting to win seats all the way from the south coast to the Midlands, through Wales, the North and into Scotland.

What did I find? Some people are undecided. That’s only natural. For the first time ever, we have a fixed-term parliament and people know when the election is. They know they’ve got time to weigh things up. Others are focused on paying their bills, getting the kids to school and haven’t given any thought to politics yet. One man in Chatham thanked me for stopping by to tell him there is an election in May. "I promise to look out for it," he said.

That’s why my feeling is that this will be a "decide late" election. As a Labour MP, that gives me confidence. Because when it’s a close election, what happens on the ground is all the more important.

At a time when people are increasingly asking who it is they are sending to bat for them in parliament, Labour have fantastic parliamentary candidates. We’ve got more organisers than ever before and we’ve got the most committed campaigners in the country.

The Conservatives seem to me like an increasingly virtual party. In many communities they appear to exist only on billboards and the glossy leaflets they pay people to deliver. By contrast, Labour supporters are stuffing envelopes and pounding pavements at all hours and in all weathers.

Two things very quickly became clear during my time on the road:

First, no matter where you are, people have a very human respect for those who are willing to spend a cold January evening on the doorstep. They care about which party is taking the time to come and knock on their door. 

Second, the increased focus on our NHS in our national debate isn’t some party-political construct. It’s a reflection of what people are feeling across the country.

The NHS was raised with me more than any other issue. I remember the conversations I had in Harlow with Livingstone, a nurse who’s worked for ten years at the local hospital; with Caroline, a public health registrar from Worcester; and an elderly couple in Lancaster, worried about the services they rely on. They all told me that they would be voting Labour to protect our NHS for the future.

These concerns about the health service speak to a wider feeling I felt across the country.

People want a government that is on their side. To protect us from forces and dangers that we cannot face alone. And to get big things done so this country will work for the many. The battle we have to win is convincing them that this is still achievable through the ballot box.

There’s a popular wisdom that we should blame political disenchantment on the expenses scandal, the two-party duopoly, Nick Clegg and tuition fees, or controversial conflicts overseas. But I think it’s more than that. There’s a basic feeling that our problems have outgrown our politics. Our lives are now shaped by complex global forces. Tumbling oil prices, wages being eroded by globalisation and new technologies, our livelihoods being thrown into crisis by property speculators on the other side of the world.

Questioning whether traditional politics as we’ve known it can make a difference is not a disillusioned response, it is a rational response. I heard it first-hand from a man called Michael, a father and a gas-fitter, on a freezing evening in Morecambe. He told me how we was leaning towards Ukip because he felt Britain’s only option was to shut the borders for five years. "We’ve got to get our house in order," he said.

But as we talked about immigration and Labour’s priorities, it became clear that Michael didn’t feel any particular warmth for Farage or his party. He wanted reassurance about how a future government would make life better for people in his shoes. We shook hands and parted on good terms, with him a little closer to a decision.

There are countless other Michaels out there. And for many, the decision they make on polling day won’t be who they vote for, but whether they vote at all. The only way we can build a better Britain for them is if we boldly make the case, one conversation at a time.

Dan Jarvis is Shadow Justice Minister and the Labour MP for Barnsley Central

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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