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8 May 2024

Labour is yet to win over the north

Also this week: red-on-red mayor wars, lessons from the locals, and Michael Gove’s hanging baskets.

By Katy Shaw

On 2 May a host of new metro mayors took office in England. In the post-Covid period, mayors have emerged as political superheroes. They are effective advocates for their regions and achieve better public recognition and higher popularity polling than most MPs. In the north-east, we have a new mayor who will represent the extended North East Combined Authority: an area that stretches from the Scottish border to the boundaries of Teesside, with a footprint similar in size to Wales.

The mayor wars to win this territory have caused significant ructions in Labour. By deselecting the former party member and serving North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll in favour of the police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness, Labour created a cause candidate. Driscoll crowdfunded his campaign and squared off with McGuiness in a red-on-red battle at the ballot box.

Although McGuinness was victorious, the strong showing for Driscoll and overall low turnout – just 31 per cent – is a timely reminder that local does not always translate into the national. Labour has some way to go in selling itself – and devolution – to the north.

Shape of devolution

Sitting as part of Gordon Brown’s future of the Union commission, I saw how Labour can shape the future of devolution. The combined authority model requires mayors and local leaders to work together in an Avengers Assemble approach. Yet dealings are often more Game of Thrones. The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has been put into special measures by the government, and relations in the West of England Combined Authority have also turned sour. Further north, the freeport saga in Ben Houchen’s Tees Valley is a reminder that for mayors, as with superheroes, great power comes with great accountability.

Tees out the Tories

Teesside has once again fallen for the rhetoric-over-delivery of its controversial mayor, with Houchen re-elected on 2 May. If, as London-based media buzzed, his fate is the fate of the Conservative Party, then things could be about to get interesting. Houchen appeared keen to distance himself from party politics, failing to mention his party in his speech, “forgetting” his blue rosette and acting like an uncomfortable ex, standing awkwardly away from Rishi Sunak for the press call.

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While Tory campaign tactics in Teesside leaned into personality over party, the opposition did the opposite. Labour could have run a red balloon with a face drawn on it and still lost. There is no point, to quote the poet laureate of pragmatism Taylor Swift, taking a knife to a gun fight. The personalities of metro mayors now precede party allegiance. Perhaps the ultimate logic of devolution is for all mayors to be independent, making relationships with the party in Westminster more equitable, freeing them from the prison of party policy.

Culture shock

The new cohort of metro mayors must work out how to align multimillion-pound funding streams with crumbling local authority structures. It’s like sticking a Grand Designs-style extension on to a building riddled with Raac – optimistic and fraught with risk. Culture has been the first sector to feel the impact. In the same week the new North East Combined Authority was granted powers for culture, Gateshead Council announced it had tendered rights to its stadium, meaning Gateshead FC can’t compete in play-offs for promotion to the Football League. Meanwhile, Sunderland council and university quietly announced the closure for 2026 of their National Glass Centre, despite local appeals to save it.

The optics of having culture budgets devolved to mayors while cultural assets are closed by councils are wild. In principle, devolution should operate like an octopus, with tentacles that reach across multiple areas. In practice, competing finances and politics are a major risk to effective delivery of the new trailblazer deals.

Levelling off

This month marks the second anniversary of the publication of the levelling-up white paper. At its launch in May 2022, Michael Gove warned that the project couldn’t just be about improving places with hanging baskets. Two years on, no hanging baskets have appeared – largely because councils don’t have the cash for baskets, let alone flowers, and have resorted to flogging off arts, leisure and sporting facilities.

The only way for any incoming government to mitigate the risk to devolution posed by crumbling councils is to commit to fiscal devolution and single-pot settlements, and to disband the word-salad Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The message from the local elections is clear: devolution is delivering; levelling up is not.

[See also: The wrench of standing down as an MP – my dream job since childhood]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll