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Dan Jarvis on levelling up: There is an institutional bias against the North of England

The former Mayor of South Yorkshire and Barnsley MP on levelling up and Labour’s electoral offer.

By Jonny Ball

People once spoke about Dan Jarvis as a future leader of the Labour Party. A 2015 New Statesman profile posited him as a potential prime minister. Jarvis, a former British Army officer, had served with the parachute regiment in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, and entered parliament as the MP for Barnsley Central in 2011. Then Corbynism happened.

For some figures in Labour’s broad church Jarvis’s military background was seen as the ideal antidote to the anti-imperialism and perceived pacifism of the party’s leadership, making him at one time the preferred successor for despairing centrist factions. After Labour’s heavy defeat in the 2019 general election – its lowest seat tally since 1935 – there was speculation that Jarvis would make a run for the leadership. He told reporters there needed to be a “clean break” with the party’s left-populist experiment (it “wasn’t credible” on the economy or on national security, he claimed). In the event he did not run, supporting Lisa Nandy’s unsuccessful candidacy instead.

Three years on his analysis of what happened in the last general election remains largely unchanged. “Let’s be honest,” he tells me during the first of two video calls, “people just didn’t look at the Labour Party in December 2019 and think we were a credible government in waiting.”

Jarvis, 50, who was born in Nottingham and was the first mayor of South Yorkshire from 2018 to 2022, is far more comfortable with the leadership of Keir Starmer than he was with Jeremy Corbyn’s. “We have made very significant progress,” he says. “Keir is well-supported by credible figures in the shadow cabinet.” This assessment will not please the party’s left, which has been successfully purged from the top jobs.

Jarvis was once closely associated with the Blairite internal party pressure group Progress (now Progressive Britain), acting for a time as its vice-chairman, but he has tried to avoid being pigeonholed, perhaps to the detriment of building up a solid following among the parliamentary party. He is also a member of Unite (the union seen as a stronghold of the Labour left), as well as Unison and the Fabian Society, an organisation so ideologically diverse that it has counted as members both the doyen of Eighties Labour radicals, Tony Benn, and staunch defender of austerity economics, Ed Balls.

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“I want the next Labour government to be delivering big, transformative change,” he insists, keen to dispel any image of political timidity that might linger on the party’s left flanks, who castigate figures like Jarvis as defenders of the status quo who prefer mild, market-friendly reforms.

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Those fears won’t be assuaged by revelations that came to light following our interviews that Jarvis was one of three Labour MPs to have received a combined £340,000 in donations from an opaque investment firm, MPM Connect, with no website, contact number or obvious line of business. All three have defended accepting the donations, which were registered with the parliamentary authorities, and have confirmed that the company is run by Peter Hearn, a long-time Labour donor. The news was an unwelcome distraction for a party trying to build momentum (small “m”) as it tries to set out an alternative vision for the country.

So what does his party need to do to consolidate its lead in the polls? What can Labour offer against the backdrop of the Conservative Party’s near-meltdown, and the generalised sense of malaise and economic decline across the country? “Let’s think big,” Jarvis reiterates on our second call. “Let’s be ambitious. Let’s be radical.”

If only to ensure our conversation checks all the boxes on the Labour bingo card, he invokes 1945, a year imbued with mythical status in party circles, when despite intimidating levels of wartime debt and huge deficits, the government of Clement Attlee founded the NHS and the modern welfare state. Today, Jarvis contends, there are parallels. In a battered economy still suffering from the long hangovers of Covid, the war in Ukraine, the mini-Budget disaster, Brexit’s trade frictions, the 2008 crisis and more than a decade of stagnating living standards, “there is a massive opportunity for us to deliver a big, bold programme”.

Some of that programme has started to appear in recent weeks. Alongside reforms to NHS bureaucracy, Starmer has promised a wave of decentralisation and devolution of decision-making away from Westminster. The thinking behind the policy, billed as measures to “take back control”, is that SW1 has spent decades “hoarding power” in one of the most centralised political systems of any wealthy industrialised nation. The key to good governance and the hallmark of any Labour administration led by Starmer, so the story goes, will be “giving power away”.

It’s a narrative that will please Jarvis as a former member of Labour’s team of metro mayors, who preside as directly elected tribunes of “city regions” (the party holds eight of the ten offices). Along with his counterpart in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, as well as Liverpool City Region’s Steve Rotheram, West Yorkshire’s Tracey Brabin, and North of Tyne’s Jamie Driscoll, Jarvis advocated persistently for more powers and more investment for the North of England.

“I am absolutely convinced,” he says, “that there is an institutional bias against the North of England. It’s much easier to unlock the purse strings for projects in London and the south-east.” He points to the Elizabeth Line as the latest megaproject to grace the capital. Its sleek trains stand in stark contrast to appalling services across the Pennines, where plans for “Northern Powerhouse Rail” have been continually delayed and downgraded.

Nevertheless, as mayor he helped to cobble together a new devolution settlement for one of England’s most fractious counties. “Most of the other metro mayors turned up with a devolution deal and an office already in place,” he points out. “I didn’t have any of that. I had to fight like mad.” He says that, as a consequence of the deal he oversaw, almost £2bn of investment has been leveraged for the area under South Yorkshire Metropolitan Combined Authority.

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In 2015 David Cameron was overheard joking ahead of a speech that “we thought everyone in Yorkshire hated everyone else, we didn’t realise they hated each other so much”. His government’s original plans for a “Sheffield City Region” included Chesterfield and Bassetlaw, which had fallen apart when Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire county councils accused Sheffield of “predatory behaviour” and a “land grab”.

Soon after, the residents of Barnsley and Doncaster, two of the key constituent authorities of the proposed city region, rejected the model in a referendum. Those two authorities made it clear they’d prefer to be part of a larger devolved body for all of Yorkshire – the so-called “One Yorkshire” project – rather than confining themselves to just the southern part. After these delays it wasn’t until two years after Jarvis became the mayor with no office, no budget and an organisation that existed only on paper that parliament approved the new combined authority’s powers and funding. Barnsley and Doncaster eventually fell into line. “I inherited a chaotic situation,” he recalls.

With pledges of bold constitutional reform and the commitment to transfer more powers to local bodies than ever before, Starmer would do well to take note of this saga: devolution isn’t always plain-sailing. The latest devolution agreement for the north-east has hit difficulties, with no shortage of acrimony and party-political manoeuvring between neighbouring local authorities.

And new powers also need to be backed up by new investment, something Labour has so far shied away from in attempt to assure voters of its “fiscally responsible” credentials. The Northern Powerhouse and levelling up agendas were big on promise and had no shortage of lofty ambition. “It meant different things to different people,” Jarvis says. “But what it didn’t mean was a serious long term funding program to level the playing field… the concept was never backed up with a meaningful programme of investment and funding.”

After decades of regional policy initiatives meant to close the wealth and productivity gaps between this most divided of countries, inequalities have only continued to grow. Today the divergences between the north and London and the south-east are more acute than between West and East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“To reduce regional inequality,” he says, “we need to actually bring forward a significant programme of investment.” He singles out Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2 as two essential projects for a Labour government that “will shape our railways for a hundred years to come”.

He excoriates the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who as Chancellor gained a reputation for restraining some of Boris Johnson’s more spendthrift tendencies, a trait he has carried into No 10 promising a new era of belt-tightening. “He was constantly frustrating efforts to unlock resources,” Jarvis tells me. Senior ministers would back the mayor’s plans and were aligned with his proposed solutions. Then, he says, “while [the Levelling Up Secretary] Michael Gove is a big hitter, and has got the wherewithal to corral the forces of Whitehall together, the big obstacle was always the Treasury.”

While combined authorities can tap into extra revenue streams from centralised funding pots and secure new funding deals from Westminster, extended periods of austerity have hampered their utility. Barnsley council, sitting in Jarvis’s constituency, has lost £1bn in central government funding over the last decade, according to its leader. At times of severe fiscal constraint – which for many local authorities has been the case every year since 2010 – much of the mayoral role has been confined to acting as an ambassador and champion of their areas, talking up private sector investment opportunities and prodding Westminster for improved financial packages and powers.

Having stepped down from his mayoral role and now sitting solely as an MP, Jarvis argues that mayors should be “front and centre” of his party’s policy agenda. Last May he was predictably replaced by Labour’s new mayoral candidate, Oliver Coppard, elected on a landslide in a region once known as the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire.

At a time when public finances are increasingly stretched and the British state is confronted by multiplying crises, the balancing act between fiscal responsibility and a transformational message will be a difficult one to perform. Crucially, Jarvis wants to emphasise, “people can’t just be fed up with the Tories – people need to be inspired by us.”

[See also: “The Tories have given up”: Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll on revitalising the north-east]

This article was originally published on 17 January 2023.