Does the selection of ‘war hero’ Dan Jarvis to fight the Barnsley seat signal a shift in Labour tactics?
The imprisonment of disgraced politician Eric Illsley has forced a by-election on 3 March in one of Labour’s safest seats, Barnsley. For the first time since 1938 Labour has chosen a candidate who is neither local nor linked to mining and trade union politics. The surprise choice of a retired Paratrooper major from Salisbury appears to be an attempt by Ed Miliband’s Labour team to outflank the appeal of the BNP in Barnsley and capture the ‘patriotic ground’ reflected in media ‘Our Heroes’ campaigns and the rhetoric of the EDL.
Barnsley, the centre of a year of resistance in the miners’ strike of 1984/5, has been hit in terms of its economy and prosperity by the disappearance of the coal mines and the trade union politics which they supported. The coalfield economy was partially ‘regenerated’ to 2008 with low-wage public sector investment and private sector, mainly low-wage jobs in services, retail and warehousing, but a large number of former miners remain on disability benefits. Now, again Barnsley is to be laid waste through demolition of its public sector, while the town already has one of the worst youth unemployment counts in Britain.
Barnsley council has been Labour since 1945 although now with a only a small majority over former Labour or right-wing Independents and a couple of Conservatives from the suburban part of the borough. Parliamentary representation has been ‘solid Labour’ throughout the coalfields since the 1920s. In fact in the 1930s Labour was actually unopposed in some constituencies.
Many parliamentary candidates have had a local and National Union of Miners (NUM) background. Illsley himself was a legal officer for the NUM, along with NUM research officer Michael Clapham, his more left-wing colleague for Barnsley West, who retired in the 2010 election. In 2010 local born Jeff Ennis retired from the Barnsley East seat at the last moment and Labour parachuted in Michael Dugher a longtime adviser to Gordon Brown and from the old right of the party, born in the nearby mining area of Edlington in Doncaster.
The far Right in Barnsley
The other fundamental shift in local politics has come with the rise of the far Right in local and national elections in Barnsley. For the past few local elections the BNP has had candidates in all twenty-one wards in the town. They have managed up to 20 per cent in some wards. Yorkshire and Humberside as a whole has been, in the past few years, fruitful territory for the BNP with the election of Andrew Brons as one of the party’s two MEPs in 2009. For the past two years Barnsley is one of the few town centres where the BNP has managed to keep and staff a stall each Saturday. It has been visited in recent weeks by Brons and BNP leader Nick Griffin. The BNP chose its candidate on 26 January at a meeting in a local working mens’ club with 100 supporters attending.
The BNP has clung on in Barnsley despite the national set-backs to the party and its humiliation with Nick Griffin’s defeat in Barking and Dagenham. Unlike nearby Rotherham, Leeds and Kirklees no BNP councillors have been elected mainly as a result perhaps of a five-year campaign by the local trades council and a Unite Against Fascism (UAF) group systematically contesting the town centre with counter leafleting and regular union-sponsored events and demonstrations.
Some Labour councillors have joined the trades council and UAF campaigns and the Labour council has supported ‘non political’ policies of anti-racism with an extensive Diversity Festival each autumn, and anti-racist myth-busting campaigns on local minorities and immigration. The council assisted in transforming the town centre last May Day into a massive Love Music Hate Racism day with headline groups and pubs and clubs joining in. Over the past three years, UAF activists and the trades council have sponsored a May Day solidarity event in the Miners’ Hall with refugee and asylum-seeker organisations attracting 100 participants. Also a town petition and charter for tolerance, a successful brass band gathering ‘Brass against Racism’ and on 5 February a large ‘Folk (music) against Fascism’ concert in the new Barnsley Civic Theatre were held.
Barnsley elections and the BNP
In a notable council by-election in the St Helens ward in the autumn of 2009 Barnsley Labour faced the real threat of a BNP victory in a seat where they had narrowed a Labour safe majority to 300 votes. If the BNP had won, Labour would have lost its majority (held since 1945) and the BNP bizarrely could have held the balance of power. Labour decided on a wholesale attack on the BNP and with UAF and Hope not Hate campaigning with them, they decided on a straight anti-racist campaign. The vote went up, Labour voters rallied, and the safe seat returned to its ‘normal’ majority of around 900.
This history makes recent events in the relationship between Barnsley local politics and national Labour electoral strategies and populist ‘narratives’ even more remarkable. The main opposition to Labour given the historical irrelevance of Conservative candidates, the deep and bitter unpopularity of the Lib Dems with Nick Clegg in nearby Sheffield, arguably could be the BNP. The other anti-immigration party, UKIP, has little local presence, and Labour had to choose an appropriate candidate for this scenario. No one seriously argued or argues that the BNP could win Barnsley, but an increased percentage on its 9 per cent share in 2010 on a low turnout could spell problems for the local elections in May.
The Lib Dems seem to have taken the view that the by-election could at least demonstrate their anti-BNP credentials. With the possible threat of a Nick Griffin candidacy, they chose Dominic Carman, who has written an unpublished hostile biography of Griffin. He also stood in Barking and Dagenham in the 2010 Labour demolition of Griffin and the BNP.
Labour had a range of choices with the candidates presented at the selection. They could have supported a traditional choice of a Labour male trade union lawyer, or one of the women candidates in a seat that has never had a woman MP. They selected instead a gung-ho ex-Para major. The national party machine obviously had an eye on its key electoral strategy and ‘narrative’. A trade union candidate would undoubtedly raise the ‘anti-cuts’ agenda in the town – but the national party inner circle now believes they should have raised the ‘cuts and deficit’ agenda themselves earlier to win the last election. As a ‘government in waiting’ (the Blair strategy that prevailed in 1997) the choice of populist narratives has become crucial.
The Conservatives through a David Cameron speech in Munich have decided on triangulation beyond the EDL identifying both ‘Muslims’ who are extremists, and those who are ‘potential extremists’ as targets for monitoring and intervention – playing a traditional ‘race card’ when under pressure. The Conservatives were unlikely to have had Barnsley in their calculations in Munich.
A changing Labour election strategy?
Labour could have ‘triangulated’ in Barnsley with the ‘white working-class strategy’ which was exposed in Phil Woolas’s catastrophic campaign in Oldham. The Barnsley campaign seems to be in the hands of Ed Balls, Michael Dugher and most interestingly ‘Sergeant’ Tom Watson MP. On Labour Uncut he flaunted his credentials for working on the Barnsley by-election: ‘I’m a Yorkshire man. South Yorkshire. With heritage in mines and steel that stretches generations. That’s why it’s so great to be in Barnsley helping Dan Jarvis win for Labour.' Tom Watson was responsible in 2004 for the controversial campaign which enabled Liam Byrne (a hard line immigration minister in his time, and now heading up Labour’s policy review) to enter parliament.
Barnsley actually only has a small number of Asians and refugees, and a few Polish migrant workers. A solid anti-racist campaign candidate from the trade union world would (as in the St Helens ward) have seen off the BNP and held the seat. But out of nowhere, celebrated by the Murdoch Sun as ‘Hero’s MP bid’, emerges Dan Jarvis fully armed and in combat gear on his first election leaflet saying ‘I’ve spent the last 15 years serving my country. Now I’m ready to serve the people of Barnsley.’ In the Daily Mirror he stated that ‘The Army is built on the values of service and selfless commitment to the public good. These are Labour values, too.'
Now the new agenda seems to be a cynical ‘Our Heroes’ narrative to out-distance the EDL and the BNP and to restore a Labour ‘military strength’ and ‘interventionist’ populist image supporting ‘our boys’. (Ed Miliband goes to Afghanistan and firmly supports the ‘mission’ there.)
Jarvis unsuccessfully tried for the South Wales former mining seat of Islwyn in last year’s election. He is no squaddie hero but a retired major from the Para forces: ‘He led a company of 100 elite troops from the Special Forces Support Group in the Afghan badlands. The unit of Paras backs up the SAS (Special Air Service) and SBS (Special Boat Service) on secret operations’.
He has experience in all the Blair interventionist wars in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is apparently a product of shadow defence minister’s Jim Murphy’s push to get ex-army officers recruited as Labour candidates; Michael Dugher is one of his shadow ministerial team.
The Daily Mirror welcomes the new strategy because ‘the Para Major … will yomp it in the Barnsley Central by-election’, ‘the party needs more squaddies like Jarvis’. He is clearly designed to see off the BNP. No wonder Nick Griffin pulled out of the election after visiting the town. Afghan veteran Jarvis wanted to chat to him about patriotism and the forces. Labour’s secret weapon would have won any argument hands down.
Labour’s war patriotism populism
The Jarvis candidacy could be interpreted as a lurch back to support for the Blairite policies which took the UK into wars and arguably led to ‘extremist’ challenges and the bomb attacks. Labour could be preparing us for a populist ‘persistent’ long war with ‘heroes ‘dying every week. It certainly is a high risk call.
Poor areas like Barnsley throughout Yorkshire and Humberside provide one of the biggest percentage of service recruits in Britain – the young men, women and boys who are dying in Afghanistan. But it is not at all certain that working-class people actually want the wars and the sacrifice to continue. Ironically the BNP actually wants to ‘bring the boys home’ but their candidate and literature in Barnsley already suggests that Labour playing the ‘war patriotism’ card has totally confused them. As a local Barnsley website put it commenting on Griffin’s withdrawal as a candidate: ‘British National Party Leader Nicholas Griffin has made the decision NOT to stand, recognising that his racist policies would make little impact on Dan Jarvis, whose personal experiences in support of Britain will make the BNP’s case, look very pale in comparison.'
Barnsley could be testing out a new Labour electoral narrative. Of course there are alternative explanations – it might all be an accident. Local Labour members at the selection report Jarvis ‘simply gave the best speech’. Yes it might be an accident, but any observer of the way Labour has ruthlessly controlled candidate selection for the past ten years, might find it a highly unlikely accident. Safe seats are exactly where Labour is likely to be testing out how it can re-engage with its heartlands.
Barnsley could signal the embedding of a Labour electoral narrative combining war, appeals to ‘common sense racism’ with security against ‘Muslim extremism’ in communities, and secure borders throughout Europe. This is not only a rather depressing scenario for anti-racist campaigners in South Yorkshire but must be extremely worrying for those who are striving to reconvert Labour to a centrist social democratic party working towards the ‘Good Society’.