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Blocked! Who’s next? An interview with Jamie Driscoll

Andrew Hedges discusses local leadership and democracy in the Labour Party with North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll

10 to 12 minute read

A portrait of a white man in a suit standing in front of a river in an industrial setting

Last month the Labour Party blocked Jamie Driscoll, the Mayor of North of Tyne since 2019, from being on the shortlist for Labour’s candidate for Northeast regional mayor ostensibly because he had appeared alongside film director Ken Loach. Andrew Hedges talked to Driscoll about his work as Mayor of North of Tyne, what lies behind his exclusion and its wider significance for democracy in the Labour Party.

Andrew Hedges

Labour officials told you directly that you are not accused of antisemitism? Yet there has been an implied association with antisemitism. What do you make of this?

Jamie Driscoll

The email I received said ‘thank you for applying. You have been unsuccessful’. No reason given. My question is ‘why am I good enough to be a mayor but not good enough to be a candidate to be a mayor?’ This is an untenable position without saying what in my record as mayor they are unhappy with.

The fact that Labour at no point have commented on it but ‘sources close to the Labour Party’ have shows that the party has spent time briefing against me. I have been mayor for four years and never once has the Labour press office helped me with anything. Are these people acting in the interests of the Labour Party or are they acting in the interests of a faction of the Party?

I believe in public ownership of our key infrastructure because it makes better economic sense. As mayor, I delivered thousands of jobs ahead of target. Every pound we invested returns three pounds to the treasury in tax. Since last year we were the number one region for inward investment and job creation. The party should be holding us up as an example of good local governance. Instead they remained silent for the last four years and then briefed these McCarthyite smears.

Local Jewish residents have put out an open letter which says ‘we all take part in our religious and cultural heritage but we don’t expect our heritage to be dragged into factional disputes within a national political party.’ I won’t get drawn into definitions of antisemitism. For me it’s fairly simple: antisemitism is the hatred of Jewish people for being Jewish. And there has been no allegation of that from Labour at any point.

Andrew Hedges

And what do you think the implications are for the wider issues of democracy in Britain and Labour?

Jamie Driscoll

The wider public don’t don’t care about inner party politics. But when unelected party officials block an elected sitting mayor, that provokes some public reaction. Business people, trade unionists, public sector workers, people in the street come up and tell me this is outrageous. It’s going to damage Labour because what people want from politics is getting the job done.

It might seem strange that they are blocking me despite my record as mayor, but what would have happened if the Labour right had let someone with my politics stand as a beacon of good governance? It would undermine their argument that the people who call for public ownership, stronger workers’ rights and robust action in dealing with the climate emergency lack credibility.

What is really damaging for democracy here is an unelected clique telling the people of the North East that they can’t have a say on who is their mayor. This leads you to question whether the Labour Party’s claim to extend devolution and move government back to people is just an empty slogan.

Andrew Hedges

You have spoken about building a new democratic system in Britain and advocated proportional representation. What should the powers of regional local government play in your vision? Do we need radical constitutional reform?

Jamie Driscoll

Britain’s political system has not seen significant change since it was an empire spanning a quarter of the globe. The Westminster and Whitehall ministries still see the regions as part of an empire. A senior Tory told me recently ‘yes let’s call it what it is – imperialism’. There are lots of people across parties who are advocates of regionalism and localism and I work with them to advance this.

I believe in public ownership of our key infrastructure because it makes better economic sense

The regional transport system I want to create needs to get money in but also needs to create its own funds. Why don’t we work towards a system of common ownership that can’t be captured? We need to end this winner takes all culture. That’s why I favour power being devolved out of Westminster, including through PR.

Our current centralised system is inherently unstable. When you talk to government civil servants they say ‘you just get something started and then someone comes along and stops it’ so they barely even bother anymore. The average tenure of a Minister was between 18-21 months before Johnson. Regional government is very different.

Andrew Hedges

Let’s talk about your policies – the venture capital fund you built for example; they seem to reverse Blair’s private-public partnerships and instead put the public in the driving seat. Is your policy actually sustainable or is it just constructed by the circumstance of being in a limited mayoral role?

Jamie Driscoll

You have to play the hand you’re dealt. My main rule is ‘done is better than perfect’. The approach pretty much everywhere in local government, particularly in Labour across every faction, is to say ‘central government are a bunch of bastards, they won’t give us the money and we need it’. Now I happen to agree but it’s not adequate as a solution to the problems of the people you represent. So yes negotiate, but negotiate from a position of credibility.

You do have to find a way to get people who hold the pen to write the cheques. If you were a worker in dispute, what would you want your union rep to do? Would you want them to go to negotiations and start quoting the transitional programme or would you want them to go in and get you a pay rise. There is nothing inherently good or bad about money or profit, but there is something potentially good about surplus. If you don’t make a surplus then you can’t invest, train people or give pay rises. So we do want a surplus under public control.

The standard economic model for the last forty years has been to privatise the assets and cream a bit off the top. This financialised system has meant peoples’ rent and mortgages have increased exponentially. Now you have to be thirty or forty years old before you can even afford a deposit on a bedsit. We are seeing the stripping away of wealth from working people. If you are in the Labour Party and you have decided you would prefer donations from people who own American private health care firms over members and trade unions then you have decided you want to go the way of the Democrats in America rather than the workers’ movement.

Andrew Hedges

It sounds like your approach to understanding the economy is influenced by Ann Pettifor and Yanis Varoufakis’ ideas of rentier capitalism?

Jamie Driscoll

Yeah I have read quite a lot of their work. I am a bit eclectic when it comes to my ideas. I have also read Adam Smith and David Ricardo. They are all there in the mix. You have to tailor it to where you find yourself. As an engineer by background, I care a lot about academic writings.

I have no doubt we are hurtling towards a climate emergency. I have two boys who are 15 and 17 and by the time they are my age they will be in a very dangerous world. We must deal with this and we need a new economic model. If I had central state power I would do things differently. What I wouldn’t do is create an economic shock.

I have no doubt we are hurtling towards a climate emergency

We need to regulate out the profit maximising model of the privatised companies. Fine the water companies out of existence for their raw sewage pollution. That will impact their share prices and then we buy them. We don’t need to break international trade treaties, established property law.

What we want is that everyone in Britain has a stable enough home life where people aren’t stressed out by bills and have agency over their own future. Owning a big car does not give you agency over your future. Having a huge pension pot doesn’t give you this agency. Having enough that you aren’t worried about money does.

Andrew Hedges

You spoke to Starmer back in 2020 with his leadership campaign and demonstrated your commitment to pluralism and democracy in Labour. After your recent experience has your commitment changed? A lot of the left now call for a purge of the right wing. What do you think about that?

Jamie Driscoll

Should the left do this? I think what you would want is not take people out but positively lock democracy into the system. The reason we want plurality is because monocultures fail and collapse. We need diversity in thinking. If we had a party of Starmer clones or Blair clones it would end badly because people won’t speak out.

These politicians don’t have a hinterland to make sense of politics. If Jeremy hadn’t turned up and said what everyone was thinking – that austerity wasn’t working, we would have seen the Pasokification of Labour and that is what we will see if the Labour right are successful in getting rid of me and others.

Andrew Hedges

Can pluralism absorb people who are fundamentally opposed to democratisation?

Jamie Driscoll

At the moment pluralism in the Labour Party is dead which is dangerous. We have readmitted people, like Streeting, who openly advocate for private companies to get involved in the NHS, a policy that will openly exacerbate the recruitment and retention crisis and profit gauging. There are few things from a policy point of view that are more iconic to Labour than the NHS.

Labour, hopefully, will win the next election because despite all their shortcomings they will be way better than the Tories. But what risk is a Labour government inheriting and failing to address our ruined public finances. Public sector workers who haven’t had a pay rise in five years, sickness rates through the roof and a collapsing rent system.  We have an attitude in public services and local government that ‘we might just get a Labour government’ but if Labour get in and then fail to deliver and fix these problems then we will see those voting Labour abandon the party.

Pluralism in the Labour Party is dead, which is dangerous

The Tory core vote hasn’t abandoned them – these are people who vote on culture war issues or are frequently on fixed pensions and so don’t face the same wage suppression as workers. If they fail to address workers’ needs, we will see a Labour Party very unpopular in the polls and that will get the leader out. This is the impetus behind the current factional war because if you have someone like Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham or even Angela Rayner, they will be the go to leadership candidate for Labour members. So Starmer’s exclusion squad are likely to weaken and discredit those to their left.

Andrew Hedges

Starmer claims that everything he does is for electoral success. As someone who won for Labour in a very difficult year for Labour, do you have an alternative view of how to win?

Jamie Driscoll

I was elected in May 2019. On the same day as I was elected Labour was defending 121 council seats across the North East and lost 57. We lost exactly one third of the seats that day including the local authority mayor in Middlesbrough. Yet I did better than predicted.

If Labour want to win then they must appeal to people who want financial security for them and their children. For those that worry about the future of their elderly parents. For those who worry about ambulance waits. The public want the sense that someone is trustworthy and working in their interests; someone who will guarantee public transport that will get people to work on time. A lot of the public aren’t interested in the details of policy.

Andrew Hedges

Was local government forgotten about in the Corbyn years?

Jamie Driscoll

Yeah it was. Local government was almost castigated by some in the Corbyn project. Local government doesn’t feature in our public discourse in any meaningful way. Instead it is all about Westminster. Labour councillors frequently didn’t like the leadership between 2015-2019 and felt threatened by the change because they had been around so long. But also there was a long term longing on the left, since the 1970s, that we should renationalise everything and centralise it. But that doesn’t match with local government.

Giving away power is what guides my approach as mayor. I have projects that give community groups money to run their own projects and they decide on how to spend it. The policy assembly I run lets others in industry design policies, for example on the climate crisis. We are implementing those ideas of participatory democracy. There are some decisions that do need to be centralised but others where we can and we should give power away.

Andrew Hedges is a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group representing the north of England

Jamie Driscoll is an independent politician who currently serves as the metro mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority

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