By Alexis Costa
With the launch of the right-wing splinter Independent Group in Westminster, people can be forgiven for not noticing a significant local vote, in the North of Tyne contest to be Labour’s mayoral candidate.
But today in an all member vote left candidate Jamie Driscoll (campaign website here) won against the much more high profile leader of Newcastle City Council Nick Forbes. Forbes is also leader of the Labour group on the Local Government Association, councillors’ rep on the party NEC and a very prominent supporter of Progress. On a 56pc turnout, Jamie won 2514 votes to 1930.
The North of Tyne devolution deal covering the councils of Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland has been dogged by problems from the start. Regional devolution and elected regional mayors are not something Labour has championed, being pushed by the Tory government. And the attempts to create a North East regional deal similar to Manchester or Liverpool faltered over a year ago when Gateshead, Durham, Sunderland, and South Tyneside decided not to join. It looked like it was all over.
But Nick Forbes pushed ahead to create a smaller North of Tyne devolution deal, and announced his intention to stand for mayor.
It has been a rocky road ever since. The timescale was ridiculously short. Members in the region received an email giving people less than two weeks to submit an application. Many felt this could lead to a coronation of Nick Forbes as the only candidate.
But four candidates came forward including Nick and newly elected councillor and left activist Jamie Driscoll – who was backed by Momentum and been a key Corybn campaigner locally.
The nomination process was stopped at Christmas after the majority of CLPs had nominated, and started again, urging a woman to come forward. A local North Tyneside councillor came forward but withdrew before the public ballot and it became a clear vote between Jamie and Nick.
Jamie’s campaign benefited from the genuine networks built over the last three years between Momentum and left activists across the nine constituency parties. These started in Corbyn’s leadership campaign and were cemented in regional Momentum organising including coordinating for national and regional party conferences. This meant a large group of experienced and organised activists keen to campaign for a left candidate.
Since Corbyn was elected, local government has remained firmly in the hands of councillors elected in the Blair years, and many of these have been critical of Corybn and the new direction of the party from the right (including Forbes, who supported Liz Kendall in 2015). But council leaders are not elected by party members and so are to an extent insulated from changes in the wider party.
So while this is a much smaller mayoral election than a region like Manchester and will not replace the existing councils and have only limited function and extra funding, it did give all members a vote on which direction for the party. Jamie stood to support policy backed by Corbyn and McDonnell, a people’s bank, more housing and green energy. But importantly support for Living Wage, more involvement of Trade Unions, improvements in local transport and greater transparency.
For this to be significant it needs to be part of the transformation of the party from the bottom up. Challenging the accepted wisdom that decisions are made by councillors in closed off committee rooms without accountability to members. That councillors have almost become full time jobs and many stay in them for decades without challenge. This also needs to be a challenge to trade unionists about how unions locally and regionally are held to account and how in turn they should challenge Labour.
Last but not least we need a criticism of how local government itself functions, including opposition to both mayors and cabinets, and a clear call for councils to be refunded and re-empowered.
Local government has faced some of the harshest cuts from national government seeing almost half the budget slashed in the last decade, millions of jobs lost and vital services decimated. While it is fair to blame this on the government, there hasn’t been a serious fight from Labour or the unions to stop these cuts and this is still a crucial weakness for Labour.
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