Image: John Watson

Jamie Driscoll: ‘It’s not any other candidate I’m up against. It’s inertia’

The North of Tyne regional mayor on running as an independent—and rebelling against Labour
February 28, 2024

On a dank Sunderland evening, Pop Recs—a small gig venue and community bar—is heaving. Nearly 100 people have turned out to meet Jamie Driscoll, mayor for the North of Tyne region, running on 2nd May for an expanded mayoralty spanning the northeast, which he helped broker into being. The crowd is a mixed bunch: the socialist next to me points to a Tory councillor across the room. 

Driscoll is a leftist fixer, who works with local Tories and swaps texts with Michael Gove. But the Labour machine blocked his candidacy. (The party initially briefed it was because he’d done a cultural  event with Ken Loach, who was expelled from Labour during its antisemitism inquiry, but told me it didn’t comment on individual decisions, offering only generalisations about “standards”.) He walks out to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing”—which he is, as an independent.

He’s had his share of hard knocks, showing me a scar on his hand from an attack at the Middlesbrough school he left at 16. After a spell in a plumbing warehouse, he studied engineering as a mature student and eventually ran his own business. Together with his GP wife, he now lives an ordinary suburban life, with two differences: giving up his car and homeschooling his children.

What single thing would he like to get done? “Sorting out transport,” he tells me, invoking youngsters from Ashington who drop out of technical college for want of a decent bus, and those “from Blyth who turn down jobs in Tyne Valley, 11 or 12 miles away” due to exhausting journeys. He’s chipped in public funds towards the reopening of the Northumberland rail line, which will help in one area. Looking ahead, it’s all about “integrating”: a single “farebox” to cap combined tickets for “buses, the metro system, the heavy rail system, the Shields ferry” in the way Londoners “take for granted”. 

Driscoll is rebelling against an administration that hasn’t happened yet 

The obvious comparison is with Ken Livingstone’s run for London mayor in 2000, after Tony Blair leaned on his MPs to ensure Livingstone’s defeat in Labour’s internal electoral college. But Livingstone is compulsively combative and almost enjoys causing offence, whereas Driscoll is a bridge-builder, in some ways a technocrat, who’s never raised council tax. His 2021 paper on “regional wealth building”—a catalogue of invest-to-save propositions and schemes for capturing rising land values for regeneration—quotes Michael Heseltine and opens with an endorsement from Jim O’Neill, a former Goldman Sachs man and ex-Tory minister. The Labour government Driscoll dreams of would be headed by the similarly folksy Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, though he speculates that the machine would now also “block him” from returning to parliament. 

Another difference with 2000 is that Livingstone was running mid-term, with many voters keen to take the smile off Blair’s face. Driscoll is rebelling against an administration that hasn’t happened yet. Rallying voters to turn out against the official Labour campaign won’t be easy: “It’s not any other candidate I’m up against,” Driscoll says, “it’s inertia.” 

The irony is that Driscoll’s pledges—publicly controlled bus services, targeting wellbeing as much as growth—are in line with the 10, now mostly ditched, pledges Starmer made to clinch his party’s leadership. Under a dour, centrist Westminster administration in tough times, a can-do cheerleader such as Driscoll would likely romp to victory. (In 2002, neighbouring Hartlepool voted for a man in a monkey suit as mayor.) But right now, it feels like a huge stretch. How does the “incumbent outsider” rate his chances? He can’t say, but ventures: “We’ll see what ’appens.”