April 24, 2024   5 mins

It was a scene to bring back memories not just of the Jeremy Corbyn era, but the full-blooded Labour struggles of the Seventies and Eighties — a time when the unions terrified governments of both colours, and when the hard-Left still exercised raw muscle.

Last Thursday evening, the once pro-Soviet Morning Star held a “readers meeting” in the lounge bar of the Tyneside Irish Centre, just opposite St James’s Park, the home of Newcastle United. With people perched around the small round tables, many supping pints of Guinness, the average age must have been well over 60.

A speaker from Women Against Pit Closures, roused the 70-strong audience by saying she wanted a working-class revolt on the streets. “We’ve never, really, truly had a socialist government,” she declared, denouncing Tony Blair and calling Neil Kinnock a “traitor”. A pro-Palestinian campaigner repeatedly accused the Israelis of “genocide” in Gaza, without once condemning Hamas’s own attack.

Sitting on the platform and soaking this all in was their star speaker: Jamie Driscoll, the current North of Tyne Mayor. One of the youngest in the room at 53, Driscoll only became a politician six years ago. But he has rapidly become the most interesting and engaging new figure on the British Left. To applause from the crowd, he called for Blair to be tried in the Hague for his part in the Iraq War — before warning that Keir Starmer was a far more “authoritarian” figure. Nye Bevan would not have been selected as a candidate under Starmer. And nor would Starmer himself, he wryly added, since he opposed the Iraq War.

Viewed in this light, the event will have reassured Starmer’s high command that they were right to fear Driscoll when, last year, they blocked him from becoming Labour’s candidate for Mayor of the North East, a new position due to be elected by local voters next week. He was too much of a dissident and snubbed from the shortlist.

Driscoll’s offence was to have chaired a meeting at a Newcastle theatre last March with Ken Loach, in which he interviewed the socialist film director about his long career in cinema. The setting seemed apt since three of Loach’s recent films — including the award-winning I, Daniel Blake — were set on Tyneside. But that didn’t matter. Three years before, Loach had been expelled from Labour for alleged antisemitism; Driscoll soon found himself accused of guilt by association.

So, Driscoll decided instead to stand as an independent, raising almost £200,000 and going on the attack. He pointed out that Starmer had appeared at length in Loach’s 1997 documentary McLibel, which was about his legal work for the two anti-McDonald’s campaigners; Starmer had even included pictures from McLibel in his campaign video for the Labour leadership.

To voters, meanwhile, Driscoll has been emphasising his record of wielding power. He was, after all, the politician who pushed for his North of Tyne mayoralty to be wrapped into the larger North East boundary, covering a vast patch of almost two million people, stretching 110 miles from Barnard Castle in the south up to Berwick-upon-Tweed. It involved tortuous negotiations with council leaders south of the Tyne. Some were dead against; others said it wasn’t possible. Eventually, Driscoll convinced them it was.

Since when, the independent Driscoll has been forced to walk a political tightrope. At the Morning Star meeting, Heather Wood, the representative for the Women Against Pit Closures, endorsed Driscoll as “a man of principle, a man with a proven track record”, while the editor of the Star said his paper was “proud” to back him. Driscoll was happy to accept their support, but didn’t join the loud applause when Wood said she “wants to be there when the Revolution starts”. He wants to get elected; not launch a revolt.

Unlike prominent open-necked Labour mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, Driscoll dresses like a bank manager: dark suit, white shirt, crimson tie. He stresses his business acumen and financial prudence. As North of Tyne mayor, he’s had the power to add a precept to council tax bills, but never used it — everything he spends comes from central government or from investment deals. “In five years, I’ve never raised your bills,” claims his campaign leaflet. “As North East Mayor, I never will. If you re-elect me, it won’t cost you a penny. Guaranteed.”

“Driscoll dresses like a bank manager: dark suit, white shirt, crimson tie.”

Driscoll was inspired to become a politician by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015. He joined the pro-Corbyn group Momentum, but soon recognised that full-blooded socialism wasn’t going to fly in agricultural Northumberland or the middle-class villages higher up the rivers Tyne and Wear. Addressing two dozen such villagers on Friday in a twee church hall in Stanhope, Weardale, there was little of Driscoll’s socialist and Labour background on show. Instead, he emphasised how he’s already created more than 5,000 jobs in the region. (His Labour rival Kim McGuinness accuses him of “hiding behind misleading statistics” and says most of the jobs were already in the pipeline or haven’t yet started.)

When I meet Driscoll, he is confident and fluent. He’s never stuck for an answer; his words sound inspiring but there’s still something missing. There’s a slight touch of the geek to him; his jokes don’t always land. “He’s not as brilliant as he thinks,” says one former North East Labour MP and minister. “But the party has treated him abysmally.”

Driscoll also lacks the name-recognition of elected mayors Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London. Even in the historic Bigg Market in Newcastle city centre — part of Driscoll’s current mayoral domain — only one of the dozen people I spoke to had heard of him. It was a similar tale on Stanhope’s neat high street. Few voters are even aware that the election for North East Mayor is taking place.

And come polling day on 2 May, most anti-Conservative voters will likely conclude the best way of voicing that is to vote Labour and McGuinness, who boasts as much experience as Driscoll in her current job as Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner. But this doesn’t faze Jamie Driscoll, who is planning ahead. Over lunch in a Newcastle cafĂ©, he predicts the looming Starmer government will soon lose support. “What’s going to happen when Labour doesn’t do it for these Labour councils?” he asks. “The councillors are just going to walk away”, and the party will struggle to replace them. Next time the new mayoralty is contested in 2028, Driscoll may find himself in a stronger position.

When, in the late-Eighties, Michael Heseltine first proposed the idea of directly elected mayors, I was sceptical. Such posts would attract the wrong sort, I argued. Think of the former Liverpool leader Derek Hatton, or the corrupt Labour bosses of the North East, T. Dan Smith and Andrew Cunningham. Fortunately, I was wrong. The best Metro mayors, such as Andy Burnham in Great Manchester and Andy Street in the West Midlands, have established an independence from their parties that allows them to experiment with their local economies and improve their transport systems.

And it’s not hard to imagine Driscoll, an entrepreneur with small businesses, doing the same. The common description of him as the “last Corbynista in power” was always lazy and inaccurate. Unlike many Corbynistas, he backs sending military ammunition and hardware to Ukraine. Nor is he partisan. Over the past five years, he’s learnt the art of politicking across the party divide: “What makes the difference is going to ministers with solutions, suggestions of how to fix things,” he says. “That’s what I did with Tory ministers.”

After a Labour-outlawed Ken Livingstone was elected as the independent Mayor of London in 2000, Blair eventually sued for peace and backed him four years later. Whether or not Driscoll wins next week — and it seems likely that he won’t — Starmer would be wise to follow suit. In a team that’s short on talent and inspirational ideas, Driscoll could play a leading role. And in a period of stringent budgets, the North East needs a mayor who has learnt the art of thriving on a shoestring.

Michael Crick is a broadcaster and writer whose most recent book is One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage (Simon & Schuster). His Selections Twitter feed is @Tomorrow’sMPs