Dan Jarvis: Scottish Labour can achieve in adversity

Hardship and even heavy defeat can provide fertile ground for advancement, as Scottish Labour will demonstrate, writes Dan Jarvis

Keir Hardie addresses a crowd in Trafalgar Square. Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of his death but his legacy lives on. Picture: Getty

Scotland is a nation woven into some of the most memorable moments of my life. From celebrating the millennium at Edinburgh Castle, hazy memories of my stag night, to my honeymoon on the Isle of Skye. I was reminded of another one yesterday while visiting a college with Kezia Dugdale, the new leader of Scottish Labour.

Together we met students preparing for a career in the armed forces. It was inspiring to meet young people who were not only optimistic about their future, but also certain they wanted to spend it serving their country.

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It made me reflect on what led me to make the same choice 20 years ago – long before I ever dreamed of getting involved in politics. Because it’s a decision I can trace back to Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale has the ability to stage a Labour comeback. Picture: Malcol McCurrach

I was 14 years old when we were on a family holiday just off the coast of Mull. My mum and dad decided that 24 hours alone on an uninhabited island in the Inner Hebrides was just what my brother and I needed.

They dropped us on to the rocks and left us there alone. They gave us a tent and a white sheet in case we needed to signal for help – although we weren’t sure how that was supposed to work in the dark.

Looking back on those days now, I think it helped give me a sense for adventure – one of the things that later took me into the British Army.

It was a decision that took me all over the world. I was proud to serve alongside soldiers from all over the United Kingdom – and that spirit is part of what brought me back to Scotland again and again during the referendum campaign last year.

As a Member of Parliament who represents a town in England, who’s lived in Wales, served in Northern Ireland, and who loves Scotland, I remember knocking on hundreds of doors alongside Labour MPs from all over the UK. Together we made the case for solidarity and investing in the vital public services that people rely on every day. We are one people, stronger as one United Kingdom. And we must never forget that.

But we won’t overcome the challenges of tomorrow by rerunning the same arguments of the past.

The referendum raised questions that touched upon the whole make-up of power across Britain. Our place in the world, our shared identity, people’s alienation from traditional politics, a lack of trust in our institutions, and a sense of powerlessness in modern life.

These are big and difficult questions. And wherever we were born in these islands, we are all going to have to work together if we are going to find the answers.

If we want to win over the 45 per cent of people who believed the answer could be separation last September, then we need everyone across the UK who believes in our Union to help make the positive case for cooperation.

The future of our country is never inevitable. It shouldn’t take a referendum to force us to make the case for the more socially just country that we want to see – one where we share resources, look out for our neighbours, and help each other succeed.

But the difference between my party and the voices of separation is that Labour’s ambitions for Scotland are much greater than merely to change our constitutional arrangements. It is nothing less than the creation of a fairer, more decent, and more prosperous society.

Our focus is tackling one of the big issues in our politics today: closing the gap between the richest and the rest.

That’s why Scottish Labour is changing under Kezia Dugdale’s leadership. She has made education our priority – because giving our children the best start in life is something we can all agree on whether we supported Yes or No.

Does it matter whether our capital is London or Edinburgh if parents still go to bed worried that their child will leave primary school without being able to read and write? The fact that more than 6,000 children leave schools in Scotland unable to read properly is a damning indictment of the SNP’s record after eight years in government.

Walking away from our Union won’t help the patient stuck on a waiting list, the entrepreneur struggling to get a business off the ground, or the pensioner who doesn’t feel safe on their own streets. These are shared challenges we must work to overcome together.

I know that Labour has much work to do to regain people’s trust. We’ve suffered heavy defeats this year right across the country and no-one shies away from that. But though we must be humble, we should still have confidence. Because everything the Labour movement has achieved for our country wasn’t just born out of victories. It was also born out of defeats.

It was a defeat in Scotland – a by-election in Mid-Lanarkshire in 1888 – that was one of the catalysts that helped lead to the creation of the Labour movement itself.

The Labour candidate in that election (a certain Keir Hardie) won just 8 per cent of the vote. It started our journey from a fledgling party that didn’t hold a single seat in Scotland just over a century ago, to a movement for change that would transform Britain.

Who says we cannot do it again today. It won’t be easy. But when Hardie died 100 years ago tomorrow, who would have imagined that his vision of votes for women, old age pensions, devolution and a living wage would ever be realised?

Now is the time for Labour to renew our mission and reconnect with our country. If we do that, who knows what victories we’ll achieve together – both for Scotland and for Great Britain.

• Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central.