“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all” runs Thumper’s law. Dan Jarvis’s speech this morning applied this principle to Jeremy Corbyn. Keir Hardie, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Rachel Reeves (Jarvis’s shadow chancellor-in-waiting), Tom Watson and Alan Johnson were all namechecked by the Barnsley Central MP. But Labour’s current leader was entirely absent. An outsider would never have guessed that he existed. It couldn’t help but feel as if Jarvis had filled the post himself.
His address at Demos (where he was introduced by former Blair speechwriter Philip Collins) contained plenty of criticism by implication. Hardie, he noted, once remarked that “the British are a practical people, not given to chasing bubbles.” Jarvis, the bookies’ favourite to succeed Corbyn, added: “The people I meet, the people I am talking about, don’t attend economic seminars [a rebuke to John McDonnell]. 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.” When he insisted during the Q&A that “The remarks that I’ve made today are in no way seeking to be a critique of anyone in the Labour Party”, one audience member muttered: “bollocks”. But since Jarvis will need the support of at least some of those who voted for Corbyn, he was wise to speak in code (deploying the leader’s call for “an open debate” as cover).
The former paratrooper’s backstory is well-known and he used it to good effect in the opening of his speech (though his military past may be less of an asset among Labour’s selectorate). What Jarvis has lacked, one senior party figure, recently told me is a “front story”. Today’s address was aimed at filling the blank page.
If Jarvis’s analysis of New Labour’s flaws felt familiar it’s because it was. The party he said, in a dig at Peter Mandelson, was “intensely relaxed about things” it “shouldn’t have been intensely relaxed about.” So reminiscent of Ed Miliband was this line that one of his former aides was asked by three people whether he wrote the speech (he didn’t). Channeling Blair in order to repudiate him, Jarvis declared that “Labour needs to be tough on inequality, tough on the causes of inequality” (though he may be wise to avoid any association with the former PM altogether). The “capitalist system”, he added, should operate “as servant, not as master” – another Miliband-esque flourish.
With this message, Jarvis is pitching directly at Labour’s soft left: the section of the party that voted for Miliband and (in some cases) voted for Corbyn but is open to change if JC proves not to be the messiah. Andy Burnham was often dismissed as a “prettier Ed Miliband”; Jarvis is offering himself as a tougher one (one feared by the Tories) – and a more rooted one. In an echo of Blue Labour, a project that Miliband flirted with but never embraced, he declared that the party must offer the “dignity of work, support for the family, prosperity for the community” (a line that bore the hallmark of former Cruddas aide Jonathan Rutherford, now working for Jarvis).
Jarvis’s policy prescriptions were sound: delegating infrastructure decisions to an independent National Infrastructure Commission (though at the cost of reducing accountability), encouraging long-termism in business through corporate tax and shareholder reform and rebooting trade unions for the age of automation (there was praise for these influential members of Labour’s selectorate). But Jarvis as yet lacks a defining idea or campaign capable of giving him national presence. The front story has begun but there are many chapters left to write.