Andrew Whitaker: Dan Jarvis should heed Jim Murphy’s lesson

Labour backbencher Dan Jarvis . Picture: PA
Labour backbencher Dan Jarvis . Picture: PA
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Dan Jarvis is currently one of the stars of the show at Westminster, where despite being a relatively unknown backbencher, the Labour MP is now talked of as his party’s leader-in-waiting.

A keynote speech by Jarvis last week, setting out a vision for Labour in the years ahead, was widely seen as a coded pitch for a leadership bid that many of Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors were all too keen to lap up.

Jarvis appears to have it all going for him as a former major in the Parachute Regiment who served in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, part of the military service for which he received an MBE soon after he was elected Labour MP for Barnsley Central in 2011. His decision not to stand in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband in the wake of last May’s disastrous election defeat for Labour came as a blow to many in the party who viewed him as the ideal candidate.

Declining the opportunity to stand due to fears about the impact being Labour leader would have on the children he raised alone after the death of his first wife, Jarvis stated: “My eldest kids had a very tough time when they lost their mum and I don’t want them to lose their dad.” Such an honest statement added to the view many already had that Jarvis would be an idea candidate to take over as Labour leader during a difficult period in the party’s history.

There have been other interesting tales about Jarvis, such as when he faced down a mugger on the London Underground last year, frightening off the man who had threatened to smash a glass bottle over his head unless the MP handed over his wallet.

The MP reportedly stared the man out and replied “that’s not going to happen”, leaving him empty handed.

Jarvis reads like a politician straight from American politics, and sounds almost like a character from the cult US political TV drama The West Wing.

With a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) sceptical at best and hostile at worst about Corbyn’s leadership, a Jarvis-led party would be manna from heaven for many.

Were the rules of the Labour’s Party’s leadership contest to revert back to those of the 1970s and prior to that, when the choice of leader was the sole preserve of the PLP, it’s highly likely Corbyn would soon have faced a coup and been replaced by Jarvis.

But even Corbyn’s most virulent critics will know that if Jarvis was to move against Corbyn when the party leader remains overwhelmingly popular among the rank and file membership and registered supporters, such a bid would be doomed to failure.

Corbyn’s internal opponents instead appear to have a narrative of give the current Labour leader “enough rope to hang himself” and then have a ready-made “moderate” and “centrist” candidate in place to take over in the form of Jarvis.

But perhaps Labour should pause and ask: “Haven’t we been here before?”

Scottish Labour certainly does not have to go back too far to find such a case in which a politician has been hyped up in a similar fashion.

After taking over as Scottish Secretary under Gordon Brown in late 2008, Jim Murphy was talked up as if he was tailor-made to lead the party at Holyrood, with some suggesting he could perhaps even be an eventual contender to lead it at UK level.

Like Jarvis, Murphy sought to portray himself as a swashbuckling type, with a street speaking tour during the independence referendum, when he delivered speeches while standing on an Irn Bru crate and faced down baying ‘Yes” supporters hurling abuse – and the occasional egg – at him.

By the time Johann Lamont stepped down as leader in late 2014, after which it was widely reported that Murphy’s allies had heavily briefed and manoeuvred against the then Labour leader, some within Scottish Labour saw the former cabinet minister as the answer to their woes.

But for all the noise, his leadership lasted for just six months and ended in disaster, with Murphy losing his own Commons seat, as Scottish Labour came perilously close to being wiped out by the SNP in last May’s election.

Jarvis is a much less divisive figure than Murphy, with no real enemies within Labour’s ranks and viewed as a genuinely “nice guy” by those who have encountered him.

Although arguably lacking in substance, Jarvis earned respect from colleagues for editing a book in the run-up to last year’s election which set out the reasons people should back his party, titled “Why Vote Labour?”

But Labour members should ask themselves whether the backbench MP has actually done enough in political terms to make him a credible leader in waiting. The ill-fated leadership of Murphy is perhaps a cautionary tale to take on board,

There’s also a strong case to be made that Corbyn should get a shot, having being elected leader overwhelmingly last September, and that he simply doesn’t deserve to have what could become a shadow and unelected Labour leadership team operating within his own party.

An ideal response from Corbyn would be to subtly call-out Jarvis by offering him a senior campaign post, maybe even a role as a beefed up party chair-type or election campaign boss.

Such a move could reduce any chance of moves against Corbyn building up too much of a head of steam, as well as bring onside a talented politician.