In 2002, the people of Hartlepool chose H’Angus the Monkey for their directly-elected mayor. Real name Stuart Drummond, he initially ran as a Hartlepool Utd publicity stunt with the promise of free bananas to local schools. Once elected, Drummond abandoned the gimmick, took his role seriously, and went on to win every subsequent election as an independent mayor, until the post was abolished in 2012. Peter Mandelson, Hartlepool’s MP at the time, was furious. Labour has only won one mayoral election in the Tees Valley this century.
Hartlepool Council was in and out of Labour control while Mandelson was MP. There have been splits, acrimony and people switching parties. Going into this election on May 6th, the council was ruled by a coalition of Independents, former Brexit Party members and Conservatives; Labour held only six out of 33 council seats.
The Hartlepool result is neither a shock, nor an endorsement of Conservative policies. The constituency polling done by Survation for the Communications Workers Union (CWU) showed landslide support for socialist Labour policies like free broadband, public ownership of the Royal Mail and giving nurses a large pay rise. Survation also correctly predicted a large Tory majority in the seat.
Northern voters are neither a monolithic bloc, nor obsessed with self-identity. It’s not purely about Brexit either, which was always a symptom, not a cause. All this talk of connecting with Englishness and waving flags is political homeopathy.
So, what is it about? Economic competence – always was, always will be. A retired hedge-fund manager will see the economy through a different lens from a minimum-wage shop worker. Labour’s job is to represent the vast bulk of our population who want to pay the bills, make a home and have enough left over for a rainy day. They want hope for the future and hope for their children.
It wasn’t sleaze that brought down John Major. It was the 1992 ERM fiasco. Tony Blair inherited a 20-point lead in the polls after John Smith’s death. Since then, we’ve lost seats at every general election this century except 2017. I don’t ascribe that to Jeremy Corbyn’s personal appeal, any more than 1997 was down to Tony Blair. It was because people genuinely thought that Labour would stick up for them.
In the North of Tyne, Labour stands strong. More Hadrian’s Wall than Red Wall, Newcastle remains Tory-free, last electing a Conservative in 1992. In Northumberland this time round, the Tories retained control literally on the luck of the draw, after an exact tie. They won some seats, but lost others to Lib Dems, Greens and energetic young Labour women who’ve engaged their communities. In North Tyneside, Labour still dominates the council with 51 seats out of 60, up from 48. Labour’s Norma Redfearn was re-elected with an overwhelming mandate as borough mayor. Kim McGuinness has romped home as a Labour police and crime commissioner.
Everything we do in the North of Tyne is aimed at improving people’s lives. After two years as mayor, I should be on target for creating 670 jobs. In fact, we’re way ahead, with 4,310 good jobs, backed by our Good Work Pledge. We’re supporting small businesses. We’re implementing a Green New Deal. We’re listening to people directly with our citizens’ assembly on climate change. We directly engage with communities, allowing them to decide which projects we fund.
Steve Rotheram has just been returned as Liverpool City Region mayor with almost 200,000 votes. He has implemented solid, progressive policies, with integrated transport and Community Wealth Building. Andy Burnham stormed home by standing up for his people, with a pledge to bring the buses back into public control, and increased his popular vote by an astounding 113,000. Welsh Labour made gains on a socialist platform.
Have the Tories benefited from a vaccine bounce? Anecdotally, it seems so. But they’ve also made U-turn after U-turn over the last year, and “let bodies pile high in their thousands”. What Keir Starmer should be worried about is the national polls. He needs to do three things.
One, push the policy pledges Labour members elected him on. Labour should be owning the Green New Deal, committing to the climate targets the science shows are needed. It brings affordable transport, better housing and creates jobs.
Two, unite the Labour Party as promised. Provoking and prolonging a civil war will lose votes and let down the people who need us. Three, break out of the controlling and centralising pull that enthrals all Westminster leaders.
Let me, Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram, Dan Jarvis and now Tracy Brabin win back the North, jointly with our local MPs and council leaders, and ultimately our members. Dan Norris has won in the West of England, and Nik Johnson in Cambridge and Peterborough. Mark Drakeford’s record has delivered a swing to Labour in Wales.
This approach means committing to proper powers for the English city regions. I’m pushing the government for a regional wealth fund and fiscal devolution as part of a new devolution settlement.
The narrative has shifted. The relationship with Westminster is under question like never before, with talk of Scottish independence, devo max for Wales and levelling up the North. Labour mayors are showing that the party in power is both compassionate and competent. That’s how we’ll win public trust and get a Labour government.