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?


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank


9