Eliot Wilson

Labour had a lucky escape in the North East

North East mayor Kim McGuinness (Getty Images)

The election for the first North East of England mayor should have been a gift to the Labour party. Its candidate Kim McGuinness has duly won the role, but her tally of 41 per cent is superficially modest. This region is one of the Labour movement’s heartlands, steeped in coal-mining, shipbuilding and steel-making. It gave birth to the Jarrow March and the Durham Miners’ Gala. Ramsay MacDonald, Hugh Dalton and Manny Shinwell all represented Durham seats. The culture of the region is steeped in working-class pride and struggle. But, last year, something odd happened.

For weeks there have been anxieties in the Labour leadership that Driscoll might win

Labour began the process of choosing its candidate for the mayoral election over the summer. An early and obvious front runner was Jamie Driscoll: born in Middlesbrough, he was a councillor in Newcastle before being elected inaugural mayor of the North of Tyne in 2019. He was one of the driving forces behind the devolution deal agreed between local government leaders and Whitehall to create the North East Mayoral Combined Authority. This encompassed seven local authorities, stretching from the Scottish border to the edge of North Yorkshire and comprising two million people.

In June 2023, however, Driscoll was excluded from the selection process. Some suggested the decision was provoked by Driscoll appearing on stage with and interviewing director Ken Loach at a festival in Newcastle some months before. Loach, a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, was expelled from the Labour party in 2021, seemingly for supporting others who had been given the boot by the party. The Labour leadership was suspected of hostility to Driscoll’s left-wing views including full employment, strong action on climate change and a fully integrated, publicly owned transport network.

Labour proceeded to nominate Kim McGuinness from a three-person shortlist but Driscoll was defiant and found support from major figures in the party like John McDonnell, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram as well as Unite the Union. He resigned his party membership and declared he would run as an independent candidate. Within two hours, he had raised £25,000 in crowdfunding. You could almost hear the glee in the voice of Momentum’s spokesman when he described the situation as ‘a mess entirely of Keir Starmer’s making’.

For weeks there have been anxieties in the Labour leadership that Driscoll might win. He did not need to draw the comparison with Ken Livingstone – passed over for Labour’s mayoral candidacy in London in 2000, he won as an independent – but he did it anyway. In the end, McGuinness was comfortably elected, but her 41 per cent and Driscoll’s 28 per cent shows how formidable the left-wing total could, maybe should, have been.

Driscoll’s strong showing illustrates the power of an authentic local candidate, in the same way that Conservative Ben Houchen’s victory in neighbouring Tees Valley, far outperforming his party’s national support, shows the importance of a connection with voters. That is something to be welcomed for anyone who thinks that England’s diverse cities and shires should have influential leaders rooted in their communities.

The flipside of it, however, is the sensitivity to perceived outside interference and a parallel disenchantment with conventional political parties. In Sunderland, part of McGuinness’s new empire, Labour were celebrating after entrenching their already-dominant position on the council, where they now hold 53 of the 75 seats. The single Reform UK councillor, Paul Donaghy, who defected from the Conservatives last year, lost his Washington South ward to Labour.

Under the surface, though, there is much disenchantment. Reform may not have won any seats in Sunderland, but in Redhill, one of the city’s most deprived areas, Conservative support collapsed and Reform won a third of the vote from a standing start. This neatly illustrates both the potency and the limitation of Nigel Farage’s project: he and his vicar on earth Richard Tice are championing a message which resonates as a protest among those who feel the existing system has nothing to offer. At the same time, there is no sign of Reform making the transition from an angry shout of frustration to a plausible institution of administration.

Labour had a lucky escape in the North East. But the number of voters who chose Driscoll over McGuinness shows that the tight bonds of tribal loyalty have been broken. How Sir Keir Starmer addresses this is not clear, but his problem is encapsulated by an incident from the new mayor’s schooldays.

When she was in the upper sixth form at Gosforth High School in 2002, the then-prime minister Tony Blair descended on the school for the formal opening of new buildings paid for partly by the government’s New Deal for Schools. But a perfect media opportunity was marred: Blair was heckled at the gates by 100 firefighters from the Fire Brigades Union striking for better pay.

The major parties were not overwhelmed by an electoral insurgency. But their respective leaderships should reflect on how high the tide has risen. If they cannot offer coherent and convincing change, voters might be seduced by new movements with a fresher face.

Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Topics in this article