Sun, 19 May 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
An international call to G7 leaders for financial commitments to fight neglected tropical diseases Partner content
By Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases
Harnessing North East Devolution Partner content
By Port of Tyne
Construction sector could cut prison leaver unemployment with right support Partner content
How the next Government can start planning for growth Partner content
Press releases

Jamie Driscoll predicts 'big upset' for Labour in North East mayoral race

Jamie Driscoll (Photography by Chris Davis)

12 min read

North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll speaks to Sienna Rodgers about quitting the Labour Party and why he is confident of winning the North East mayoral race as an independent

Jamie Driscoll is the North of Tyne mayor who eyes a bigger prize: the new North East mayoralty, which will cover a much larger area and replace his current combined authority in a settlement that he spearheaded. Driscoll is confident of a win on 2 May. “This is going to be really interesting. I think there’s going to be a big upset,” he tells The House.

It would be an upset because Driscoll is running as an independent, having quit the Labour Party last summer. Elected as a Labour mayor in 2019, he was blocked from its North East selection race under Keir Starmer’s leadership last year. Northumbria police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness became the approved candidate instead. 

“This is going to be really interesting. I think there’s going to be a big upset”

Local councillors quit in protest and 11 of 22 local parties refused to endorse anyone, but without a route to appeal Driscoll left Labour the following month after almost 40 years of membership. His independent bid was confirmed when he crowdfunded £25,000 in under two hours, and he has now raised the £150,000 necessary to run a campaign.

Labour did not give a specific official reason for barring Driscoll from the longlist but sources close to the leadership say it was because he shared a platform with film director Ken Loach, who was expelled over his support for a group proscribed by the party. 

The mayor had interviewed Loach at the Live Theatre in Newcastle, a move criticised by the Jewish Labour Movement, which called it “hugely upsetting”. Yet, asked whether he regrets the event, Driscoll replies: “No. You should always stand up and do the right thing. People who subjugate their conscience for political convenience are not people you can trust.”

“In the North East, Ken Loach has made three feature films: I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You and The Old Oak,” he says. Referring to the latter film, released in 2023, he continues: “Why wouldn’t I talk to him about it? The film’s set here in the North East; the Live Theatre as part of their anniversary celebrations. Surely a regional mayor should be doing that.”

One senior Labour source suggested to The House that Driscoll had done it as a “dog whistle” to please the Labour left – “but unfortunately for him, we all heard it”, they added. When this is put to him, Driscoll remarks: “That is so Westminster bubble, isn’t it?”

Jamie Driscoll (Photography by Chris Davis)
Jamie Driscoll (Photography by Chris Davis)

Driscoll claims he wasn’t surprised by his blocking because Labour had already repeatedly denied him access to membership lists, which elected officials are entitled to, then said the contacts would be handed over only if he could confirm he would not seek selection.

The mayor never has to worry about the party line any more. Does he feel liberated? “It’s great because I go to far fewer meetings,” Driscoll chuckles. “I never changed what I was going to say on the basis that it might upset somebody in London, not least because they change what they say so often!”

“Half the people in the Labour Party are campaigning for me; most people in the Labour Party are going to vote for me”

His new message can be summed up as “a plague on both their houses” – and the hope will be that enough voters feel the same way next month. “You’ve got this situation now where you have two parties in Westminster, pretending they hate each other. And on every economic decision, they agree. So, where’s the democratic choice?” he asks.

“How on earth can you have spent the last 14 years shouting at the Tories and saying ‘austerity doesn’t work’, and then say, ‘right, we’re going to go into power and we’re going to prove that austerity does work’? After that budget a couple of weeks ago, there’s a £20bn hole and that’s going to come from non-protected departments. That’s local government, and that’s where all the Labour councillors are. They’re not going to be happy and they’re just going to walk.”

The Labour leadership would point to its planned pursuit of economic growth in government. Driscoll calls this “the magic growth bunny”, echoing complaints from the party’s left when he says: “You can’t have a successful modern economy without decent public services. To say, ‘no, our answer is growth’ – that’s not an answer, that’s a wish.” Like many of Starmer’s internal critics, he is scathing about Labour’s decision to ditch its £28bn green investment pledge.

“I was talking to the global CEO of Mitsubishi at dinner one time,” the mayor recalls. “I was asking about investing in green hydrogen. ‘Are you going to do it?’ He says: ‘I’m not going to spend half a billion pounds on product development unless someone guarantees that this stuff’s going to be on sale for the next 30 years.’ And neither would I in his position. So where are the signals to the market? You can’t say, ‘we’re going to have £28bn green investment – actually, no, we’re not’. It’s not a tap that you turn on.”

He shares a prediction espoused by many on the Labour left that there will be a very short honeymoon if the party wins the general election. “What you’ll see is this moment of glory in national government, and everything else disappearing,” he says. “My real worry is that you’re going to see some very nasty policies brought in by either a future Conservative government or some sort of Conservative coalition.”

With no polling or doorstep data, it is difficult to get a sense of the likely result in the North East mayoral election. Supporters say Driscoll has the three ingredients needed for a successful independent candidate – name recognition, popularity, and an energised base – but, even if that’s true, victory is far from guaranteed. He agrees it is hard to measure his support, though stresses the political breadth of his backing.

“There’s a lot of Reform people voting for me. Because they feel left behind. They want somebody who stands up and fights”

“Half the people in the Labour Party are campaigning for me; most people in the Labour Party are going to vote for me. After Gaza, the entire Muslim community is pretty much disgusted by the Labour Party. We have Tories across the region saying, ‘we like this lad, he’s not put up our council tax, he’s delivered value for money, and he doesn’t play daft political games’.”

Are Labour members really campaigning for him? That would be a clear breach of party rules. “Yes. I’m not going to give you any names,” Driscoll replies, adding: “Look at how many anonymous donations I get.” 

Driscoll is even going after votes from Richard Tice’s party. “There’s a lot of Reform people voting for me. Because they feel left behind. They want somebody who stands up and fights and just does the job, doesn’t mess about playing political games.”

Far from “the last Corbynista standing”, as he has been labelled many times, the mayor says he is difficult to pin down politically. He is a socialist who does not shy away from business or profit, and who works remarkably well with Conservative MPs from Greg Clark to Simon Clarke.

“It’s my background; I’m an engineer. There’s an old joke that the optimist says the glass is half-full, the pessimist says the glass is half-empty, and the engineer says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. That’s the way you’ve got to look at this,” Driscoll says. “I don’t know where I fit in politics, but it works.” As proof, he cites the venture capital fund he has set up.

“We’ve already had cashouts. There was a company called Grid Finder, we gave them £10,000 start-up, and then when they wanted to grow, we invested a £100,000 equity share. A couple years on, they sold it in January for a multi-million-pound settlement. The exact figures are commercially confidential, but we got a load of money back as a result of that. And that’s the model.”

Driscoll is also delighted with his communities fund, whereby people set up a crowdfunder for their project and, if enough support is shown for the idea, the combined authority kicks in with the rest of the money.

“If you put out a call and say, ‘send me your idea’, and you read through them as mayor and say yes or no, then you become the bad guy immediately. Every time someone says ‘I’ve got this idea, right, now hear me out: if we had a monorail…’” he laughs. 

“So, you test it by saying to the community: if you can raise 10 per cent of it through crowdfunding, we’ll back you. Now, that is real democracy. It’s not ‘we will have better consultations and we will ask more people’.”

Jamie Driscoll (Photography by Chris Davis)
Jamie Driscoll (Photography by Chris Davis)

Driscoll’s first investment pledge as mayor was £2m to the Newcastle United Foundation, a charity separate from but supported by the football club. Its Nucastle project – transforming an existing community centre – was based on the community wealth building model of which Driscoll is a fan. The foundation’s chief executive Steve Beharall says: “We raised £8.5m and 95 per cent of that was spent within 25 miles of the centre.”

Taking the mayor and The House on a tour of the building, Beharall tells us: “We talk about being a mile deep and an inch wide in some communities, and this is one of those communities.” Nucastle is now a community hub that equally serves as a sports centre and college, while offering local families everything from showers to food to sanitary products. 

The facility, which boasts classrooms, a gaming zone and a rooftop pitch, is valued by locals, the CEO explains, because in the NE4 postcode “every second door is a free school meal”, “suicide is prevalent” and there are “a lot of displaced families”. “Just work with people, empower them to have a successful life. That’s about the most socialist thing you can do,” Driscoll says.

The mayor, who before entering politics was a stay-at-home dad home-educating sons Leon and Nelson (“probably the best job I’ve ever had”), expresses particular interest in helping young people. He is incensed by Labour’s U-turn on scrapping the two-child benefit cap and a key pledge in his campaign is offering free public travel to under-18s.

Unlike the North of Tyne mayor, the North East Combined Authority will have control over transport, and Driscoll could not be more enthusiastic about his plans in this area. He promises to create new metro lines, with the help of pension funds match-funding central government (“£2bn, I was talking with one of them about”) and land value capture (a kind of windfall tax on owners of property that has increased in value thanks to a new station being built nearby).

“One of the things I intend to pursue – and I think I can land it, but it’ll test my negotiation skills – is salary sacrifice. At the moment you get salary sacrifice to buy a car, to buy a bike, for childcare, but not for public transport,” he explains. “The Treasury see that as deadweight. They think, well, people are buying this stuff anyway. But that’s not true, especially in a region like ours. It’s because they’re all based in London they think that. 

“Instead of thinking of it as ‘that’s just deadweight, we pay for something’, they should think of it as a triple multiplier. What they give people in their salary sacrifice, when someone buys that public transport – in effect – season ticket, they’re putting in three times more than the subsidy.”

Jamie Driscoll (Photography by Chris Davis)
Jamie Driscoll (Photography by Chris Davis)

Fizzing with ideas and keen to dive into detail, Driscoll often sounds more like an economist than a politician. “The role of mayor, you’ve got to think of it as you’re the CEO of the region,” he says. “You’re not really a politician. You’ve got to work with everybody. You’ve got to get stuff done. You’re not a legislator, you’re an administrator.”

Asked whether he would use transport to help foster a unique regional identity, like the Bee Network in Greater Manchester, Driscoll proposes a new idea: “canny” travel cards. Locals would then say “gan canny” (‘go carefully’ in Geordie).

Driscoll is clearly a fan of Labour Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, who – along with Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram – backed him in the selection row. “I think he would make an excellent prime minister.”

Could Driscoll see himself joining a party in the future? “If I’m elected as an independent, I’ll stay as an independent. That’s a promise you make with the electorate.”

But is he high-profile enough to pull off an independent win against a well-organised party machine? “There will never be a headline that says ‘mayor quietly gets on and does a good job’,” Driscoll smiles. 

He sums up his approach: “A lot of people spend their time shouting at London ‘give us more money!’ and they’ve got a lot less money out of London than I have. Because I don’t shout at them – I turn up.” 

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.

Read the most recent article written by Sienna Rodgers - Jeremy Corbyn Risks Total Exclusion From Labour After Accepting Donation


Communities Economy
Engineering a Better World

The Engineering a Better World podcast series from The House magazine and the IET is back for series two! New host Jonn Elledge discusses with parliamentarians and industry experts how technology and engineering can provide policy solutions to our changing world.

NEW SERIES - Listen now

Partner content
Connecting Communities

Connecting Communities is an initiative aimed at empowering and strengthening community ties across the UK. Launched in partnership with The National Lottery, it aims to promote dialogue and support Parliamentarians working to nurture a more connected society.

Find out more