Jamie Driscoll, the mayor of the North of Tyne, has a media problem: he can’t shake off Jeremy Corbyn. “The first question I was asked by a journalist when I was selected as the Labour candidate for mayor was: ‘Are you a Marxist?’” he recalled from his home office when we first spoke in early autumn.
In the three years since he was elected in 2019, Driscoll, a socialist, has been described in the media as both Britain’s “most powerful” and one of “Labour’s last” Corbynistas in office. “So much of political discourse is about trying to label people,” he said.
“I’ve had conversations with journalists while I’ve been mayor, while I have a track record of [policy] delivery… and they still ask me: ‘Ohhh, what do you think of Corbyn?’ – as if to say I’m not actually in power and responsible for the economic welfare of an entire region.” I put my questions about the former Labour leader to one side.
But while Driscoll is in charge of a larger region (the North of Tyne’s population is around 820,000), it is Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of the neighbouring Tees Valley region (population: 670,000), who seems to attract more press and political attention. After announcing a smattering of devolution deals to introduce new mayoralties across the country last month, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, specifically namechecked Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, as examples of “inspirational local leadership”.
Driscoll played down the implied snub – eight of the ten metro mayors are Labour – but clearly there is some rivalry between the neighbouring mayors. Driscoll said that he’s only met Houchen twice. “I’ve reached out a lot; he declines meetings… He’s famous for a few big projects that have yet to show results. He’s a big lad, he can talk about his economic plans; but the [results of] stuff I’m doing is already there.”
The mayor was underwhelmed by Hunt’s Autumn Statement: “There was nothing in there that was actually going to address inequality.” The decision to keep Universal Credit (UC) and pensions in line with September’s consumer prices inflation rate of 10.1 per cent still equates to a real-terms cut, he added. “The actual cost of food has gone up by 16 per cent, and the actual cost of fuel and housing is going up by 26 per cent. If you’re someone who’s on low-paid work and getting UC, that’s what you spend your money on.
“Jeremy Hunt’s budget was a budget of a Tory party that’s given up. Tory ministers announcing that they’re not going to run again is a sign of a party that’s given up.”
Driscoll, 52, was born and raised in Middlesbrough in the Seventies. He wrote for Spotlight earlier this year about his experiences living in poverty as a mature student at Northumbria University in his twenties. “Poverty dominates your life,” he wrote, “your life’s horizon becomes paying the next bill… Worst of all, you lose agency.”
The mayor is contending with the realities of deprivation in the north-east on behalf of his constituents. Around 38 per cent of children in the region now live in poverty, the highest level in the country – surpassing London for the first time – a report from the End Child Poverty coalition revealed earlier this year. Nearly 15 per cent of people living across all three of the local authorities – Northumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside – in Driscoll’s jurisdiction are income-deprived, according to the 2019 English Indices of Deprivation.
He worries about the long-term psychological effects deprivation may have on struggling populations – and particularly on young people. Driscoll’s conversations with local schoolchildren about the future are getting a familiar response: “They no longer believe that social contract that was around when I was at school.
“I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, and money was very, very scarce in the north-east. But it was generally believed that if you worked hard at school, you would be better off than your parents.” That hasn’t been true for the last 15 years, Driscoll, a father of two, added, “and that’s long enough so that kids like mine have grown up with that.”
He continues: “What does that do? We talk about aspiration, but frankly, ‘aspiration’ is utter bollocks. It is a buzzword… The model has broken.”
Driscoll never believed in the existence of a meritocracy; it’s clear to him that many of his region’s struggles are rooted in the unequal distribution of wealth. “This idea that there are places of deprivation that we should allow people to escape from is wrong. There shouldn’t be anywhere that people need to escape from,” he said. “We cannot keep flowing billions of pounds out of regions like mine, and then be surprised when we have poorer educational attainment and health inequality.”
Driscoll’s mother was a staunch campaigner and trade unionist, and an organiser in the National and Local Government Officers Association (Nalgo), which later became the Unison union. After tagging along to protests as a child, Driscoll said it “became normal to me to think that if things need to change, then someone’s got to change them – you can’t sit back and hope that somebody else does”.
But his party’s leader, Keir Starmer, while sympathetic, ultimately failed to back strikes carried out by workers across various industries in the summer when they campaigned for better pay and conditions. Amid a round of strikes this month, does Driscoll, a supporter of the strikes, think that Starmer is putting his party on the wrong side of history?
“I’ve never subscribed to the theory that the king and the land are one. A party leader is a leader of the party; he – or she – is not everyone in the party,” Driscoll answered with caution. “I’m absolutely supportive of Keir Starmer being the next prime minister.”
“But,” he added, “I also want people to stay in the Labour Party, even if they don’t like Keir Starmer. There has never yet and never will be a leader of the Labour Party that everybody in the party likes.” As for the relationship between Driscoll and Starmer: “We get on well… we’ll talk on the phone – although not that often, because a lot of what I do is of limited relevance to what’s going on in SW1 [Westminster].”
At last year’s Labour conference, during discussions of strategy, Driscoll recalled being supportive of the party largely sticking to its 2017 manifesto. Starmer confirmed earlier this year that that would not be happening, angering many on the left in the party.
But Driscoll said he was “encouraged” with the policies Starmer unveiled at Labour’s 2022 conference, which, among other announcements, included plans for a publicly owned energy company, Great British Energy; for Britain to have a zero-carbon energy system by 2030; to renationalise railways, as well as the creation of an £8.3bn green national wealth fund.
“It’s far too far away to talk about specific numbers on exactly where you’ll set a tax threshold and the basic rate, for example. But the fact that we’re saying that ‘this is what you can expect from a Labour government’ is exactly the way you win elections,” Driscoll continued.
Are these relatively progressive policies a sign of Starmer shifting to the left? “I tend not to think of it in those terms,” Driscoll said, explaining that, as Labour angles towards government, the party will need to stop fixing on the “shorthand” of whether policy is left or right, but instead focus on facilitating “pragmatic but socially sustainable solutions” in establishing their vision for a “fairer, greener future”.
“I have a reputation of being politically left, but everyone who works with me is always surprised at how close I am to the financial details and how good I am about bringing in private-sector investment.” Within the private sector, Driscoll continued, “there is literally trillions of pounds in managed funds looking for sound investments”. Labour’s focus must be “about making capital available, but on good social and environmental terms, to make sure that we can allow the economy to grow in a good way”.
The mayor has been working on a devolution deal to reunite the regions of the north-east to form a new combined authority by 2024. Driscoll confirmed that he’d like to run for the mayoral position it will create, which coincides with the end of his current term.
It brings together Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside, but not Durham, which pulled out of a last-ditch effort to be part of the deal.
Driscoll was also involved in Labour’s A New Britain report on the future of democracy in the UK, launched last week. Led by the former prime minister Gordon Brown, the review outlined a further devolution of economic powers to English mayors, local authorities and devolved governments. Driscoll worked with Brown and his team on the economic proposals in the report. He has described the review’s suggestions as “solid proposals to clean up politics”.
When we initially spoke in September, Driscoll said the devolution deal for the north-east was all but done. But No 10 had delayed its unveiling – initially because of the collapse Boris Johnson’s administration – so “that the new prime minister”, then Liz Truss, dealing successively with the death of Queen Elizabeth II and her disastrous mini-Budget, “had something [positive] to announce”. Driscoll hopes it will be announced by the end of the year.
The new deal secures more than £3bn of government funding over the next 30 years, and aims to create 17,000 jobs. Additional details of the deal reveal it includes a £900m transport funding package, a yearly £44m budget for adult education, “major steps” to ensure the region reaches net zero emissions, and an investment fund of £35m per year.
Out of all the “good icing” in the deal, however, it is the wealth generation fund – which will total £500m – that particularly excites Driscoll. He believes it could be a template model for all regions to follow. “We shouldn’t be waiting for crumbs from the king’s table [central government] – we should have our own income stream.”
With a wealth investment fund, Driscoll said, local government can effectively invest in local small and medium enterprises (SMEs). “And then we get that money back because we have a share in the company and they only pay us once they’re profitable. So then we have a much stronger, richer economy with a lot more SMEs.”
A booming region with locals in well-paid work would see “a lot of your social problems evaporate”, Driscoll added.
“It’s [like] the old cooperative model. When I talk to Tories and the Policy Exchange [a conservative think tank] about it, they say that model’s dead right – this doesn’t sound a particularly left-wing idea at all,” he concluded. “But you can only do it if you break that model of, ‘The economy is there for rich people to take money out.’
“It is a left-wing idea – but there you go.”