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Forget the Lib Dems – Barnsley is another indictment of Labour

Tom Fox on Labour's embrace of right wing populism in the Barnsley by-election.

March 9, 2011
7 min read

The Lib Dems’ transition from last hope of the left to soap opera villain seemed complete last week, with Friday’s humiliating sixth place finish in the Barnsley by-election paving the way for interesting local elections on May 5. Nevertheless, voter punishment for the Lib Dem amalgamation into the Conservative party shouldn’t distract from a significant and illustrative feature of the by-election: the background of Labour’s candidate and the narrative the party seeks to present.

Dan Jarvis was a Major with a fifteen year career in the Parachute Regiment, the sort of candidate who always used to be associated with the Tories but who has now been welcomed with open arms by Labour. He was also the first person outside of Yorkshire and unconnected with coal mining to be put forward as a Labour candidate in the constituency since 1938. In a bizarre role-reversal, even the Tory candidate could claim a miner for a grandfather.

This was brought about by Labour’s worrying compulsion to shift to the populist right when it comes to parliamentary elections. Their response this year to the British National Party threat in the area was to abandon the strategy used in 2009’s council by-election in the St Helen’s ward – an attack that saw Hope not Hate and Unite Against Fascism, with union backing, take on the BNP with the result that the Labour majority rose. Yet as has been pointed out there is an apparent contradiction when pressing people to vote “anyone but BNP” when that means voting for one of the parties of the status quo that voters are so disillusioned with.

This criticism certainly seems more convincing now that Labour have decided to pander to populism by putting up a candidate impervious to the BNP’s rhetoric of patriotism. Nick Griffin, who had initially planned to stand in the constituency, likely fled because he knew that he’d look like an idiot arguing about patriotism with a veteran. Confused fascists then had to concoct an incoherent argument about why Jarvis wasn’t the sort of hero they had in mind when they used all those pictures of soldiers and Spitfires, and the eventual BNP candidate seemed not to bother with it at all, presenting herself as a simple community organiser.

It is worth questioning whether adopting the patriotic rhetoric of the far-right is a particularly good idea, if effective in the short term. The praise Jarvis won from even the Murdoch press is illustrative of  how his candidacy is a microcosm of the militarism still at Labour’s heart. Jarvis’s selection is part of a campaign led by Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of Defence, to get more ex-servicemen on the Labour benches. Since there was only one before Jarvis’s victory, his selection for the seat therefore killed two birds with one stone (or airstrike, perhaps): out-patriot the BNP outside the House of Commons, stop the Tory monopoly on the armed forces within it.

Murphy recently gave a speech about Afghanistan in which, in an amazing piece of logical acrobatics, he tried to present his support for the war as somehow not being pro-war: “the argument is not for war, it is the case against what is unacceptable in the world.” When Ed Milliband visited at the end of January he told troops of “our support, our respect and our admiration for what you are doing for our country”, and emphasised how the parties were “united” behind the war. This was remarkably similar to the core of Jarvis’s rhetoric, where he drew from his army experience to present himself as a natural public servant: “My service to our country will help me to be a strong voice for this constituency.” Labour’s genuine delight at his former career was illustrated when Tom Watson, Jarvis’s campaign manager, gushed over his military experience and, like a schoolboy with a crush, dubbed himself “Sergeant Watson”.

The link between Jarvis’s experience and his ability as a constituency MP is not remotely evident when looked at rationally, but regardless his campaign literature had plenty of photographs of him holding guns and standing in uniform, an Edwardian glorification of a war that has dragged on for a decade and is looking increasingly like one without an end. Worryingly, in his speech Murphy suggested that despite popular anti-war sentiment, “as events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown we cannot afford to duck out of global events”.

The arms and equipment provision to Libya begun by Labour and continued by the coalition (the use of the word “afford” is instructive) shows that the UK and its allies never will duck out of global events. Chillingly, Murphy does not see the current revolts as an indictment of Blair’s legacy – proof that people can overthrow despots on their own, and not with ‘interventions’ that leave millions dead – fearing instead that in the future “we may intervene militarily less quickly, less effectively and with more people than ever saying not at all.” That a party that claims to be social democratic fears a future in which the population continues to express anti-war sentiment seems obscene.

Murphy’s generation (he entered parliament in 1997) is the one that made Labour the war party abroad, and now they try to profit from it at home. This is less crass and offensive than Phil Woolas’s “shit or bust” strategy, when he tried to “make the white folks angry” by spreading lies about his Lib Dem opponents and the Oldham and Saddleworth Asian community during last year’s General Election, yet is still alarming since it accepts a core part of far-right iconography: the heroic and politicised returning soldier. Labour have used the image before, but in 1945 the soldier was a conscripted, working class Private, returning home from an anti-fascist war to the promise of socialism. Now it is a Major returning home from two pointless, bloody wars to a status quo that has no use for progress, optimism or hope. A lot has changed in six decades, and for the worse.

Adopting jingoism means a party that is equally enthusiastic about the cuts ideology can avoid any serious debate with the “natural” working class support that it has steadily abandoned. By conceding to the anti-immigration right, Labour establishes the ground in which the fascist BNP and ultra-Tory UKIP can gain ground. With the three major parties adopting the same economic logic and now the same position on migration and the nation, what hope is there to challenge a rise in the nationalist right?

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