By Andy Moxley
The launch of incumbent former Labour member Jamie Driscoll’s independent campaign for Mayor of the North East has met with an electric response. Within two hours of announcement, his campaign fundraising website had raised over £25,000. At the time of writing, that total is over £128,000 from over 5800 different donations – an average of around £22 per donation. Another victim of the right-wing purge of the Labour Party by Starmer and company, their move to block Driscoll from standing could come back to bite them. So who is Jamie Driscoll, what is the appeal of his campaign and how should workers and socialists approach it?
Jamie Driscoll, who has been dubbed by some mainstream media outlets (somewhat inaccurately) as “the last Corbynista in power” is the current Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, soon to be replaced by the wider North East Mayoral Combined Authority for which he’s now campaigning. Driscoll, a Labour member since 1985 and a Momentum supporter, was first elected as a Labour councillor for Newcastle in 2018 and then Mayor in the 2019 elections. Driscoll ran on a left-wing platform and his campaign was backed by major left figures inside and outside of Labour, including John McDonnell, Noam Chomsky and many of the major trade unions. His record in office has been a mixed bag but is generally seen favourably by workers, not in the least because of his regular visits to picket lines, his work on child poverty and housing.
In what should have just been an issue of formality for a popular incumbent in a safe Labour seat, the triggering event for Driscoll’s independent run was the party bureaucracy barring him from becoming its candidate in the next Mayoral election. The only formal explanation cited for this was his participation alongside now ‘suspended’ (de facto expelled) former Labour member and left-wing filmmaker Ken Loach at an event earlier this year. Loach was ‘suspended’ in 2021 for pointing out the politically motivated nature of the accusation of antisemitism within the party under Corbyn’s leadership.
It is clear that this is part of a broader ongoing campaign by the Starmer leadership to purge the ranks of Labour of all left and socialist elements, in order to make the party slavishly loyal to big business at and after the next general election. This is clear in who was picked to be the Mayoral candidate instead, Kim McGuiness, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria and seen by the party bureaucracy as a ‘safe’ pair of hands.
This undemocratic manoeuvre has caused massive uproar in the local party. Five former Labour councillors have left the party to campaign for Driscoll and, undoubtedly, the numbers are bigger among rank-and-file party members. 11 out of 22 of CLPs have now refused to endorse any Labourcandidate as a result.
From a local spark to a national fire?
The danger for the Starmer leadership is not just in North East England, but the possibility that this phenomenon could resonate much more broadly across Britain. While it is clear that although anti-Tory disgust and the crisis in the SNP in Scotland will make Labour the big winner in the next election, it will not be on the basis of enthusiasm for Labour.
Starmer has placed at the core of his policy-making the drive to court big business. He has intentionally lowered expectations about what his government will deliver to the working class, including rolling back core promises on the environment, taxing the wealthy, defending trans rights, abolishing tuition fees and so on.. As Driscoll himself put it in his letter of resignation from the Labour Party “[Starmer has] U-turned on so many promises: £28bn to tackle the climate emergency, free school meals, ending university tuition fees, reversing NHS privatisation”. It is no coincidence the party has lost three-fifths of its membership since the height of the Corbyn era.
Over the last period, there have been a number of small but significant victories for lefts independent of the Labour Party (many being former members), including in Liverpool and London. On a small scale, it reflects the disappointment and anger that can open up on a larger scale under the experience of a Labour government, which is likely to implement significant attacks on the working class.
This is a big part of why there has been an active slander campaign initiated against Driscoll by the establishment, both inside and outside the Labour Party. In reality, the capitalist establishment will fight tooth and nail to drive out anything which hints at a challenge to their system. It was precisely the failure of Corbyn to take this on, and lead a campaign to democratise the party and drive the Blairites out which brought an end to Corbyn’s time as leader.
The importance of campaigns such as Driscoll’s should not just be measured in the immediate election results given the historic collapse in Tory support and the right-wing purge of Labour by Keir Starmer. A victory for Driscoll, or even a strong showing, or more significantly Jeremy Corbyn standing as an independent in the next election could play a major role in the development of a significant new independent force to the left of the Labour Party.
Fighting for a new left party of struggle
As Socialist Alternative has argued, the question of a political organisation for the working class, young people and the oppressed is not something that can or should be confined to the electoral arena. It has to be connected to the actual struggles of workers and young people – actively campaigning on working class issues and built up and run by working people in the neighbourhoods, workplaces and schools, with active and open participation of all.
Supporters will also be attacked by the Labour Party. Already, a senior regional official of the Fire Brigades Union has been victimised for his support for the campaign. The FBU has correctly suspended their attendance and campaigning for Labour as an immediate measure. However, we need not just abstention from what exists but mobilisation for something new. All socialists and trade unionists should be backing Driscoll’s campaign and anyone who is victimised for doing so, whether by Labour or the trade union leadership, should get the full backing of the rank-and-file throughout the movement and any trade union leader considering themselves ‘left’.
This connects to Driscoll’s next steps.
A start was made when on the first Saturday in August about 300 activists filled a meeting room to hear Jamie Driscoll speak about his campaign. His introductory leaflet focuses on demands in three areas: building a total transport network, tackling unemployment and delivering a green new deal that will be the campaign focus. Questions from the floor were limited by time as was the discussion on the actual campaign. He did acknowledge the general absence of younger people in attendance but hoped the focus on environmental issues will attract youth participation. Whilst Driscoll is not proposing a broad socialist programme or a new party, the call to action echoed from local picket lines “Shy bairns get nowt” is a break from the wait and see and promise nothing offered by Starmer and co.
It is not just important he runs but that he actually builds an active campaign based on the mobilisation and active participation of workers and youth. He already has a basis for this in the incredible amount of those who have donated or pledged to support his campaign. Organising not just mass canvases, but mass meetings in key working class areas where people can discuss and debate his programme and how to achieve it can be a first step for establishing local, organised campaigning groups. Resolutions should be put forward in the trade unions for support and mobilisation of their membership, as well as other social and community organisations. The campaign should be visibly supportive on picket lines, in housing justice battles, and so on, appealing to groups of workers and working-class people to participate in his campaign and pledging to fight their corner if elected. Clearly, many will say yes!
Socialist Alternative supports Jamie Driscoll’s campaign, which will need this kind of grassroots basis to resist both attacks from the two major parties, and to hold Jamie Driscoll accountable if he is elected, which is an uphill battle. It could serve as the basis for a new political force in the North East after the election, which could be a model replicated in different places throughout England, Wales and Scotland.
The possibility of Jeremy Corbyn standing as an independent in the next election would be even more significant in this process. Despite the time passed since his leadership, he still enjoys enormous popularity. His campaign would be a lightning rod for large swathes of workers and youth throughout Britain who want an alternative to the status quo but have nothing concrete on offer. Thousands of people have already pledged to campaign for him. Unfortunately, Corbyn continues to equivocate about whether he will stand. He must boldly step forward, launching his own campaign and supporting Driscoll.
Britain is likely already on the verge of a potentially deep economic recession. Unemployment, poverty and inequality will grow and under PM Starmer some new forms of austerity – in ‘redder’ clothing’ – will be introduced. All socialists must firmly stand for no cuts, no layoffs and be part of building a nationally organised opposition, calling for massive taxes of the rich, along with nationalisation and re-nationalisation of key parts of the economy and supporting all resistance by working-class and young people to the crisis of capitalism. By taking this strong, movement-building approach we can win real change and lay the basis for a socialist struggle to transform British society.