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3 August 2023

The war on Jamie Driscoll

Britain’s last Corbynista has fallen foul of Labour’s authoritarian machine.

By George Walker

Jamie Driscoll, the Mayor of the North of Tyne dubbed the “last Corbynista in power”, may not be in power for much longer. In June he was blocked from the Labour candidacy for a new mayoral role that will link up the entire North East.

To join the longlist, Driscoll was interviewed by a panel drawn largely from the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). After processing his application, they sent Driscoll a mundane rejection letter that said “you will not be progressing further as a candidate in this process”.

Senior party figures briefed the press that Driscoll was excluded for having the temerity to hold an event with the socialist film-maker Ken Loach, a previous party member suspended two years ago. Despite confused claims to the contrary from the shadow chancellor, Loach was suspended for appearing on a platform with Labour Against the Witchhunt, an organisation speaking out against the party’s handling of anti-Semitism allegations, which it regarded as politically motivated. The group was soon proscribed, and the exclusion was rigidly enforced by the NEC: any party member who publicly supported the group would be nigh-on automatically suspended. Loach had spoken with the group years before it was banned by the leadership.

The event in question in Driscoll’s case was an interview with Loach discussing his work and his new film The Old Oak, a drama based in Driscoll’s patch about an impoverished County Durham village. The mayor was criticised for not holding Loach to account, despite the event having no relation to internal Labour disputes; his candidacy would, a Labour source claimed, have been “incompatible with our promise to have zero tolerance of anti-Semitism”. One wonders at the legitimacy of blocking a mayoral candidate on the grounds of zero tolerance to anti-Semitism when their supposed sin is sharing a platform with someone who wasn’t even expelled for anti-Semitism himself.

Driscoll is Labour to the bone, always keen to cite his family’s membership of the party when he was young. In a scathing letter resigning from the party Driscoll gave Keir Starmer a bloody nose, criticising the centralisation of decision-making in Labour’s London HQ, the party’s frequent U-turns, and highlighting his own popular work in Tyneside, such as the Child Poverty Prevention Programme, which helps more than 2,500 children and families.

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Starmer’s latest U-turn, on abolishing the two-child cap on benefits, came after Driscoll’s polemic. Nevertheless, he put the charge to the Labour strategist John McTernan on Newsnight last month that such a policy change is both morally and fiscally responsible. Now ready to stand as an independent in the North East mayoral election next year, Driscoll has significant local and national support, with a fundraiser for his campaign sitting at nearly £130,000.

[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t save the British motorist]

Devolution and a commitment to the expansion of democratic decision-making across the nation was always supposed to be a large part of Labour’s appeal to the country.

In December 2020 Starmer commissioned the former prime minister Gordon Brown to “settle the future of the union”. Brown established a commission of Labour councillors, MPs, peers and academics to make proposals to reform the constitution. Their report “A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy” contained plenty of social-democratic radicalism. It chastised “an outdated neoliberal economic dogma” and committed Labour to the abolition of the House of Lords. While undoubtedly limited in said radicalism, proposing fiscal devolution “where relevant and beneficial”, and thus presumably in accordance with the demands of the central party, it contained many echoes of Corbynism.

Yet there is a widening gap between what the leadership has said and what it does, in this area and many others. Within his own party Starmer has suppressed democratic processes, fixing selections for parliamentary candidates from Glasgow to Camberwell and Peckham, and culling even the soft left – Neal Lawson, head of the Compass think tank and an advocate of progressive co-operation, was threatened with expulsion for retweeting a Lib Dem MP’s tweet about working with the Green Party. As Jeremy Gilbert put it in a recent column for the New Statesman, the cadres of professionalised Labour politicians and party officials who feared their careers were over in the Corbyn years are back, unwavering in their commitment to reproduce themselves.

Whether Driscoll’s exclusion is justified by appeals to ideological unity or his association with Loach, the heart of this story is democracy. Driscoll was given strong support by his fellow metro mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham, which raises the question: how many more Driscolls might we see if Starmer’s crackdowns continue?

Just last week Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, was thrown under the bus after Labour failed to win the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, which was attributed to his expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) across Greater London. At the party’s National Policy Forum the policy, which charges drivers of polluting vehicles, was explicitly blamed for the loss in an area with high car ownership. This amounts to taking the Tories’ culture war bait.

This is not the only time Khan has been on a collision course with Labour HQ. A recent piece in the i detailed the confused and often outright hostile relationship between the party leadership and metro mayors, with an anonymous mayoral adviser in London claiming: “They are furious with Sadiq Khan about free school meals.” Burnham has also clashed with the leadership, and many in the party see the Greater Manchester Mayor as a more charismatic, unifying soft-left figure who could challenge Starmer for the leadership. The awkwardness of this relationship was perhaps best exemplified during a dispute over Labour MPs standing on picket lines, with Burnham publicly speaking out against Starmer’s prohibition on doing so, waving his freedom from the whip like a badge of honour.

Driscoll has gone one step further, doing the brave thing that Khan and Burnham probably won’t: challenging the party at an election. With nothing to lose and support behind him, there’s little reason he shouldn’t be able to emulate the successes of Labour left-wingers turned independents like Lutfur Rahman and Ken Livingstone. Uncompromising on his principles, Driscoll has left a party increasingly monopolised by a stasis of thought and by authoritarian discipline. There is no room for the popular policies needed if a commitment to regional democracy is to mean anything beyond empty focus group sloganeering.

[See also: Keir Starmer will bury Blairism]

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