Kitchen table conflict

As he contemplates his future as Sheffield City Region mayor, ex-military man and Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis says he is battling both the pandemic and the levelling-down policies of government

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“There is something of Groundhog Day about life at the moment.” Dan Jarvis gestures grimly to the Zoom screen – “digitally and physically”.

“The important ask of Labour is what is our alternative levelling-up story?”

A year of lockdowns has grounded ministerial travel to Westminster and given the Sheffield City Region mayor and Barnsley Central MP time to reflect on the future of his twin roles. The dual pressures of being both an MP and a mayor have been magnified by the pandemic, and at times the “tsunami” of balancing both has left Jarvis feeling “deluged”. To survive, he has relied on “leaders’ legs – when you have to lead a team in a crisis the momentum and adrenalin drives you forward. It’s been a tough time but I am always at my best when my back is against the wall.”

In his 2020 autobiography, The Long Way Home, Jarvis reflects on lessons from his years in the military and the role of National Service in shaping his approach to politics. He describes the pandemic year as the “most challenging since 1944”, a controversial assertion. “That point of comparison speaks to the restrictions Covid has placed on our way of life and its impact on our society. Like the post-war period, we now face the challenge of rebuilding and that will involve huge investment and massive thought about how to move forward together.”

With more than 10 years’ experience in battlefield conflict, he is perhaps better prepared than most for tackling the post-Covid world.

“It does remind me of my previous operational experience in the army and I have definitely drawn on my time spent dealing with adversity in the last 12 months. I just never thought that my next conflict would largely be fought from my kitchen table.”

Jarvis admits his role as mayor has undergone a profound transformation since he was elected in 2018. Championed by George Osborne and Gordon Brown, the metro mayors initially enjoyed cross-party favour and began on good terms with prime minister Boris Johnson. “At the start of the pandemic, the PM kept saying that he saw mayors as the means to economic regeneration coming out of the crisis. Now he doesn’t say that to us any more.”

In the battle to negotiate regional tier deals during the pandemic, “communication issues and tensions” grew to the point where “mayors are out of fashion with this government”.

Lessons in adversity – Jarvis served in Iraq. Photo: Keith Waldegrave/Shutterstock. Main image: Richard Saker/Shutterstock

In Greater Manchester and Merseyside, mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram went head to head against the government. Although Jarvis negotiated a tier three deal for his own city-region on seemingly civil terms (“I pick my battles”), he is also critical of Conservative handling of devolution.

“This government needs to be clearer about what it wants from devolution, what role it wants for mayors and what powers it wants to invest in them.”

In the interim, he is keen to shape his own vision of what mayors and ministers can do to level up the UK.

“It is incumbent upon us to lay out our vision for the future and our counter-narrative to their levelling-up agenda. Their version of levelling up has no substance to underpin or deliver it. If the government aren’t able to do it, Labour needs to be clear what our intentions are to deliver this.”

His own economic plan for South Yorkshire was published mid-pandemic (“why waste time?”) and outlines a roadmap to transform the region through a more inclusive economy, better paid and higher skilled jobs, and a green agenda. The strategy offers Labour a model of how to weave aspiration with a clear economic map for financing real change. Is he not in danger of getting a bit ahead of his party, whose leadership has been criticised for failing to put forward real alternatives?

Jarvis is unapologetic. He is clear that he “wants to shape the future conversation” and is keen to help Labour own the levelling-up agenda.

“I can’t criticise the government for not having a plan to level up the country if I don’t have a plan to level up South Yorkshire.”

Mobility lies at the heart of his new social, economic and cultural strategy.

“Where you grow up shouldn’t determine where you end up. If you believe in social mobility then you have to enable practical mobility – transport systems that will give you access to educational and employment opportunities.”

Although he admits that buses are not a sexy campaign issue, they are vital to pursuing his education, transport and skills agendas, “because it’s connectivity that counts in any future vision of the North”.

Recently, Jarvis has become more confident in calling out central government, most recently for reducing funding to the North. The last nine months have seen government roll back on the Local Development Fund, planned flood defences, the Sheffield to Manchester road tunnel, HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. Boris Johnson flatly denied in the Commons that Transport for the North was facing a 40 per cent funding cut despite some fairly powerful documentary evidence to the contrary. There were even accusations of reduced vaccine supplies to the North.

Jarvis shakes his head ruefully at each item on this list. “It’s crazy. We are being levelled down in front of our eyes.”

His answer is a mixed method approach to levelling up that moves away from a current Conservative obsession with capital build.

“Government only focuses on infrastructure as a way of levelling up but it needs to be more than investing in railway projects. It needs to be health, education, and culture.”

His own plans for rebalancing Britain are “more ruthless, because they need to be. The failure to unlock the potential of the North is an act of national self-harm, because doing so will benefit the whole country. We are worse off in the North now than we were before the pandemic. The important ask of Labour is what is our alternative levelling-up story?”

The former army major is preparing to fight on another front in coming months, as the battle for the future of the United Kingdom heats up. He admits there is a “huge threat that exists to the union right now” and sees mayors and devolution “as an important part of making sure the union is fit for purpose in the 21st century”.

Although he admits that the union “needs to change”, he will not countenance claims of an inevitable dissolution.

“I can accept that we have left the EU, but I am not prepared to accept that we are going to ‘leave’ the United Kingdom. We all have a responsibility, with every fibre of our beings, to defend it and improve it.”

With local elections approaching, Jarvis is also acutely conscious of the need to rebuild trust in the Red Wall. “May is the biggest test ahead of the next general election and it will be fascinating to know where people are and what they think.” But will these elections be a test of where people are emotionally, rather than politically, post-Covid?

“It will come down to how long people’s memories are. If we had a general election tomorrow then the government would fare pretty badly, but things can and will change. It’s not a given that because Labour has a new leader and a stance on Brexit that those Red Wall voters will come back to us. It is beholden on us to demonstrate that we are listening and understand the lives and struggles of working people in the North of England. Regaining trust is a significant challenge and the road back to power is a long one.”

Jarvis’s role in Labour’s path back to power is subject to much speculation. Widely lauded as a future party leader in his early days as an MP, Jarvis fell out of favour under the Corbyn administration.

“I am the only Labour mayor in government. This means that I see the limitations of devolution under the existing model. I spend too long tinkering as a mayor, when I could be transforming. The reality is it’s only as an MP that you have access to Treasury to deliver transformation.”

Does this mean that his days as a mayor are numbered? “I have to make a choice, because it isn’t sustainable to keep doing both these roles for the long term. I have to make my mind up soon – and I will.”

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