Beyond the pomp & ceremony

Like any typical lad from the North East, I’d never been to the Guildhall before.  It is deep within the City of London in the Financial District.  The whole place oozes money. £millions change hands at the drop of a hat.  And many of the problems I’m dealing with started here, their roots in financial speculation undermining the foundations of our economy.

I found myself here to attend the Global Investment Summit.  This was a gathering of global business leaders and government leaders from across the UK.  That was on Tuesday last week.  So on Monday I got on a train with a mission to bring more jobs to the region, starting with a formal dinner at the Guildhall on the Monday evening. 

On the way down to London I was reading The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson.  A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting Dan, and his in-depth knowledge of the region piqued my interest.  I’d highly recommend his book (and I’m not on commission). 

He mentions about the Coal Exchange in London.  It’s demolished now but was a magnificent building on the Banks of the Thames, 15 minutes walk from the Guildhall.  Its place in the City of London and grandeur demonstrated the power and wealth that was shared by the North East.  A grandeur that’s still reflected in some of the buildings here.  During this time the North East was known for its hard-working people, inventiveness, and for enjoying a couple of drinks now and then.  I believe none of that has changed.

Today, even closer to the Guildhall, just around the corner in fact, is a Greggs bakery.  

Having trumpeters in bearskin hats at dinner was a new one on me, along with loyal toasts to the Queen.  There was a gentleman known as the Toast Master who introduced the speakers.  To gain attention the usual “Ladies and Gentlemen” was preceded by a long list of Excellencies, Lords, Aldermen, Chancellor, Secretaries of State, and First Commoner.  Not Mayors though.

But beyond the pomp I managed to have some productive conversations about real stuff with the business leaders there.  Low carbon transport, offshore wind, health technology, future of hydrogen.  I even talked to a rep from Mitsubishi about jiu jitsu. 

After the Guildhall Steve Rotheram, Andy Burnham and I decided to find a real pub for a proper pint.  Steve said it was reported that £24 trillion was represented in that room.  I had £30 in notes in my pocket, not sure if that was counted or not.

Tuesday morning, the Global Investment Summit began at the Science Museum. So I wound my way through a huge police presence, and off to the breakfast networking event.  There was as much muesli and yogurt as you could eat…

At the keynote speech Mr Johnson regaled us with his after dinner speaking wit.  I was hoping for detailed plans for the future of our country, but he focused on jokes about Peppa Pig.  And said the free market would sort out the other problems. 

The contacts and conversations were useful.  I’d set up a string of meetings with people about developing their businesses here, in the North of Tyne.  I have a stack of leads for my team to follow up, and we’re working hard to translate them into real jobs. 

Then it was back on the train, laptop out, until that amazing view of the Tyne bridges as you approach Central Station.

Barely had I got my feet back on North Eastern soil, I put my suit jacket in my backpack and cycled over to Verisure’s Centre of Excellence near Longbenton.  

I spoke with Luis Gill, their founder and global president.  I first spoke to Verisure two years ago, when we persuaded them to locate here.  I told them I wanted to build a green economy based on good jobs.  They told me they wanted to build a loyal workforce by treating their employees well.    Two years on, they already employ 400 people.  Now they’re recruiting another 100. 

And as for good work, they’ve just given their staff an average 12% pay rise.  So if you’re after a job, send them your CV. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 25 Oct 2021

Good mental health underpins our individual and collective wellbeing

You’ll have seen it, perched on cliff tops next to the ancient Tynemouth Priory, the Tynemouth coastguard station. Decommissioned twenty years ago, it’s stood empty since.  Now, thanks to the work of local women’s veterans’ organisation, Salute Her,  a new life as a wellbeing centre for women veterans could be on the horizon.

Paula from Salute Her gave me a tour of the building.  We met with staff from English Heritage, the custodians of the site, and Sir Alan Campbell, MP for Tynemouth.

Paula’s vision is for a Health & Wellbeing Centre for women veterans.   Its history both as a place of sanctuary makes it an ideal location.  It’s a safe, women-only space, where veterans will get help with mental health issues and trauma resulting from military service. It will be a first not just for the region, but nationally. It’s early days for the project but I’m keen to help make it become a reality.

Innovation in addressing mental health needs is the hallmark of another mental health project I visited last week. In case you’re wondering why the mental health focus, it was World Mental Health Day last week. I took the opportunity to visit the Recovery College Collective in Newcastle. Better known as Recoco, the college provides peer-led support and education. It supports over 2,000 people with lived experience of mental ill health. I last visited before the pandemic. Since then, they’ve had to deal with a double-whammy of supporting people through lockdown, and of finding new premises.

Covid safety restrictions required creativity and resourcefulness – everything from moving groups and courses online, to simply going for a walk to talk to people. Alisdair, Recoco’s co-director, told me that they’ve also pioneered new ways of working with statutory mental health services. By having services in the same place, it helps people stay connected when moving between services. Take a look at their online prospectus at www.recoverycoco.com. You’ll be impressed with what they have to offer. And on top of this, they managed to find the new premises in Carliol Square in Newcastle. They’ve plans to develop this into a mental health care, treatment and research hub. What an asset to the city centre that will be.

The Combined Authority doesn’t have the remit for public health or treatment services of course. That lies with our local authorities and NHS.  Still, supporting wellbeing and good mental health is behind everything we do.  Creating meaningful jobs and tackling poverty are integral to this.

The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is “Mental health in an unequal world.” Inequality takes many forms. The relationship between poverty and poor mental health is a close one.  Children in the poorest 20% of households are four times more likely to have a serious mental health condition by the age of 11 compared to those from the wealthiest 20%.  Despite this, the government cut £20 per week from Universal Credit. This £1000 a year goes to working families amongst others.  It has plunged an astonishing 840,000 people, including 300,000 children into poverty.  It risks their physical and mental health, and strains our NHS. After ten years of austerity, mental health services have 8.5% less funding than in 2010, but demand has risen by 20%.  No wonder GPs and hospitals are stretched to breaking point.  

I’m working hard with my cabinet to pull together a range of interventions to tackle poverty. We’ve developed a Child Poverty Prevention Programme for our region. This is putting £900k in projects including poverty intervention measures in schools. Our Good Work Pledge challenges the scourge of precarious employment and in-work poverty.  It also requires employers to look after the mental wellbeing of their staff. Our Poverty Truth Commission, launching soon, will develop further measures to alleviate financial hardship. And, we’re working with the well-respected wellbeing authority, Carnegie UK, to become the first Combined Authority to measure wellbeing as an objective, rather than abstract economic statistics.

Good mental health underpins our individual and collective wellbeing. I’m working to make mental health promotion a factor in everything we do at North of Tyne.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 18 Oct 2021

Like Bond, let’s just get the job done.  

When I was elected Mayor in 2019, I joined the group of Metro Mayors already in existence, and became ‘M9’.  The first meeting was in London’s City Hall, where SPECTRE was filmed, doubling as villain C’s HQ.  I was disappointed Sadiq Khan wasn’t stroking a white cat. 

‘I’m straight out of a Bond movie’ I said to my family, who appeared to be less than convinced. I reminded them that I’m a black-belt in jiu jitsu, and own a tuxedo, but apparently being Bond takes more than that. 

Anyway, we all went to see the new Bond at the Tyneside last week – highly recommend and don’t worry, no spoilers – and it set me thinking about the whole series of films.

James Bond has been a British icon since Ian Fleming published Casino Royale in 1953.  Bond is always portrayed as a heroic loner.  But he depends on a backup team.  Q’s extraordinary gadgets – including the visionary message-carrying digital watch from The Spy Who Loved Me. M provides the  political cover to operate.  Miss Moneypenny’s peerless organisation skills.  And a whole team of people providing intelligence and logistical support, sometimes even entire ships’ crews. 

Some of the Bond plots, as with the messaging watch, have been remarkably prescient. Okay, none of them foresaw food and petrol shortages, but then neither did Mr Johnson’s government.

In Quantum of Solace, there’s no moonbase or “laser” superweapon.  The CIA are involved in regime change and the villains are manipulating utility prices by monopolising the access to water.  Take out the stunts, and it’s a documentary.  Which makes me wonder – is the chaos of an unregulated market economy causing the latest gas price hikes, or is Blofeld behind it? 

Bond villains always have grandiose plans that never work.  Often involving improbable construction projects like a bridge to Northern Ireland or airbase in the middle of a river estuary.  They treat their underlings with contempt, and make long speeches instead of taking action, in denial that the world is falling into chaos around them…

Bond doesn’t faff about, laughing maniacally. He just gets the job done.  As I often say, done is better than perfect. 

What would solve our current problems better than Bond’s actions? A high-wage economy, that’s what. Anyone who wants to take over the world would be better deployed making it a better place.

However we view the problem, the solution is the same.  We need the people in the North East to have a higher real income.  That means generating – and retaining – more wealth in our region.  I’m talking about full employment in secure jobs, paying decent wages.  This requires and supports a better transport system, higher levels of skills and education, healthier lifestyles, and affordable, secure homes. 

It requires an economic model where there’s a job for everyone who wants one, and where wages are high enough to live a life of contentment.  That includes sectors traditionally regarded as low-paid, including social care, hospitality, distribution and retail workers.  We must focus on improving the foundational economy with as much energy as the high-productivity sectors of digital and manufacturing.  This means providing more skills training and professionalisation, so the workforce becomes more valued and better paid, resulting in lower staff turnover and higher productivity.

We’re succeeding, but not quickly enough to close the gap any time soon.  I was elected just two years ago, and already the North of Tyne has attracted global firms that practice what they preach, training and developing workers to have careers, not just jobs.  We’re creating jobs in key sectors of offshore renewables, clean energy technology, zero-carbon automotive, digital, and healthy ageing and life sciences.  We have programmes supporting small- and medium-sized businesses by the hundred, investing in innovation, digital adoption and job creation.  We’re supporting freelancers in the culture and creative sectors. 

This new economic model for the North East must be built on a green economy.  Financial security need not consume more of the Earth’s resources or emit more greenhouse gasses.  Our wealth can be spent on art, leisure, entertainment, PassivHaus homes and transport with ultra-low emissions.  We can build a wellbeing economy.  Like Bond, let’s just get the job done.  

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11 Oct 2021

Beyond the headlines in Brighton

It’s two years since I started writing this column in The Journal and The Chronicle.  In that time we’ve had a general election, a global pandemic, a change in Labour leader, and Britain has left the EU. 

Then, as now, I’d just returned from Labour Conference in Brighton.  And then, as now, the reality is different from the TV clips. 

The Conference Hall that you see on TV is the nexus of the conference.  There’s motions, and rule change debates, and the big speeches from the main stage.  The Party managers are concerned about the headlines, of course, and how the leader’s speech gets reported. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The conference centre holds dozens and dozens of exhibition stands.  Trade Unions, think tanks, charities, businesses and journalists.  It’s fascinating to see the TV and radio stations.  They really do create pop up studios.  It’s hard to walk far without appearing in someone’s shot. 

For every news headline, there’s two dozen fringe events spread across Brighton, a hundred private meetings huddled around tables in hotel bars, and politicians and advisors scurrying around finishing speeches on a just-in-time basis.  I became very familiar with the venue security check and bag search.    

I arrived on Sunday evening.  A few meetings and catching up with people I hadn’t seen in person for two years, before a back-to-back couple of days, with meetings from 8am to late.  Conference is the only time it is acceptable to propose a 10pm meeting!  

On Monday morning I bumped into Andy McDonald at breakfast.  As a North East MP, we’ve got to know each other over the years.  We discussed his New Deal for Working People.  It’s a great piece of work that lays out in detail how we change employment law to benefit Britain’s 31 million working people, and still enable good employers to thrive.  It includes a proposal for everyone to be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay.    

Later that day, Andy resigned – unhappy at being told to argue against proposals he was advocating.  Ambitions and headline policies are one thing, but any credible government has to know how to deliver the detail.  Andy will be a loss to the Labour front bench. 

My first meeting was an interview with the Financial Times – how do we level up places like the North East?  My answer – generate more wealth here.  That means investment.  We’re creating thousands of good green jobs at the North of Tyne.  But with more financial tools, we can really start to eradicate unemployment and poverty wages. 

Then off to a fringe at The World Transformed on Community Wealth Building.  On the panel were three other Labour politicians in power, who are also creating jobs, keeping money in their local economies, and tackling economic inequality.  I spoke about “guerrilla economics” – how it is possible (just) to make a local difference even when Government starves our regions of funding.  Most encouraging was a well informed audience of Labour people in local government making a difference. 

Then a series of meetings with Union General Secretaries, and the new Director General of the CBI.  Conference is an efficient opportunity to meet lots of people one after the other.  Zoom has its uses, but it’s not the same as face-to-face meetings. 

More panels – Community Wealth Building with shadow ministers, Tackling Regional Economic Inequalities with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.  And a fascinating panel with Andy Burnham and John McDonnell on a fairer taxation model to replace Council Tax. 

In between were media interviews.  Cross questions on LBC in a makeshift studio discussing the topical issues including Andy’s resignation (sad), party unity (essential) and the fuel crisis (totally avoidable).  My favourite question was from Tyne Tees TV’s Tom Sheldrick: should Labour conference be held in Newcastle.  An enthusiastic “Yes”. 

Lastly I met up with fellow Metro Mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham for a couple of hours (in the bar) and later Sadiq Khan joined us.  Then some late night and early morning Combined Authority business from my hotel room on the overburdened hotel Wi-Fi.

All before heading off on Tuesday evening to Manchester, for the Transport for the North meeting on Wednesday morning. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 04 Oct 2021

The backbone of our economy

Small businesses are the backbone of our local economy. Plumbers, hairdressers and beauticians, charity workers, arts professionals and creatives. In the North East they represent around half a million jobs.  In fact, 95% of businesses in our region are micro-businesses, employing ten people or fewer.  And, sadly, small firms often struggle to get the financial backing they need. 

The pandemic has been tough on them.  Excluded UK represents a whopping 3 million limited companies, sole traders and freelancers left out in the cold by Government and the Treasury.  Locally, the North of Tyne put £5 million into giving a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable, but we were only able to scratch the surface.  Soon, firms will face the combined effects of their VAT deferments falling due, furlough coming to and, Bounce Back Loan payments kicking in, and a host of other temporary support measures all ending within months.  Add in recent National Insurance hikes, and many small firms fear for next year. 

Small businesses often trade with each other.  If a customer goes bust, and doesn’t pay their invoices, there’s a risk of a domino effect.  I’ve suggested to the CBI and others that Government develop a scheme to prevent this.  They’d need to crunch the numbers, but the concept is simple.  If you’ve fulfilled a contract, but your customer goes bust for Covid-related reasons, Government should step in and pay a substantial part of the invoice. 

It’s not dissimilar in concept to insolvency support that workers get.  If your employer goes bust, you can apply to the Government for your outstanding pay and unpaid redundancy money.  So many people are now self-employed one way or another, they need this protection.  I hope this becomes Government policy.   

Even before Covid, though, small businesses faced an uphill playing field against big business.  Access to finance is difficult.  For a bank loan, you typically have to risk your family home as collateral – if you have one.  Even amongst people aged 35-44, only 50% of people are homeowners.  Working class people of any age with good business ideas find it hard to raise the cash to start a business.    

Too often when funding is available, it extracts wealth from our local economy. Loans have to be paid back of course, with interest.  If it’s from hedge funds, or commercial banks, this sucks out wealth to pay shareholders’ dividends and profits.  This rarely feeds back into the local economy.  More likely it gets funnelled through tax havens. 

Last week at the North of Tyne cabinet, we agreed a package of access to finance measures to address this.  Backed by £15 million over five years from our Investment Fund, it will boost small business growth.  It will give people of ordinary means a chance to become their own boss.  And it will recycle local capital, keeping wealth in our region.  

It’s got the heft required to make a real difference. There’s £10 million in the package for equity investment – a challenge the North East faces.  Although we account for 2.3% of the UK economy, only 1.4% of the total UK private equity and venture capital is invested here.  By having a fund to directly invest in small, local firms, start-ups and scale-ups, we can accelerate the economic recovery.  As the fund grows, the money will be recycled, supporting more local firms, and creating more jobs here. 

For cooperatives, and businesses trading with a social purpose, it’s even harder.  Investors expect a vote in your business, and the legal structure of worker-owned or community-owned businesses often prevents that.  So we’ve made £4 million available to directly invest in these businesses, as a source of patient capital to help them grow. 

We’ll underpin these funds with strong ethical values.  I was presenting an award at the North East Business awards on Thursday.  It’s heartening to see how many local firms really want to look after their employees.  How many take real steps to give something back to their communities.  And how many take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

This is a win-win approach.  The investment will pay for itself and do much social good along the way.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 27 Sept 2021

Valuing the arts

Setting aside the Damien Hirsts of this world, most artists don’t take up their craft with the expectation of a private jet and a villa in Tuscany. They do it to satisfy an artistic drive – it’s part of who they are.

‘Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up’. That’s Pablo Picasso. The artists at the Lime Street Studios in the Ouseburn Valley would agree with him.

They agree, too, that the arts and the economy are inextricably linked.

The Government seems to think the arts has little importance.  Why else would they be drastically cutting arts education in schools, colleges and universities?  It’s a false economy.  The arts not only enrich our lives, it employs over 137,000 people.   

I visited the artists at the Lime Street Studios recently.  It’s sandwiched between The Cluny and Seven Stories on the Ouseburn Valley.  I asked them what they needed to keep their artistic businesses vibrant.  

They all have a ‘portfolio’ of ways to make a living.  Selling artworks, taking commissions.  A bit of teaching.  Community art projects, music gigs and music therapy sessions.  Putting on exhibitions.  And art therapy work in hospitals, particularly for those with mental health problems.

Covid, of course, completely pulled the rug out from under all of this.  The artists have shown their resilience, and adapted.  But many of the areas and people that needed the arts most have been hardest hit. 

We talked about the value of art in education.  How it produces more rounded individuals who have insights into other aspects of life that you don’t always get if you only study science or maths. That’s what the arts give you – it’s not only about becoming an artist or a musician – it’s about having a wider personal scope.

The future is going to be all about adaptability.  My kids are good at science and maths – but unlike me, they’re also good at music and fine art.  It will serve them well in a changing world. 

I asked what their economic barriers were. They told me there was a need for more buildings like the Studios.  The need for accessibility and affordable rents.  How artists need the confidence that they can build up their businesses and community networks without the worry of being moved on.  And how these spaces are needed across the region, not just in Newcastle.

They need broadband in the whole building, so they can continue the online work they’ve been able to offer during lockdown.  Which brings us back to diversity again. People with disabilities and mental health issues have had unprecedented access to the arts online.  The Studio artists were very keen to make sure that wasn’t withdrawn.

They stressed the importance of having a space like the Lime Street Studios, but they need investment.  Although they each run their own businesses, the Studio premises is run as a cooperative.  All of the artists in the old bonded warehouse are part of its collective management, and make their own decisions about how to manage the space.  But co-operatives find it difficult to attract investment.

That’s where the Combined Authority comes in.

Our Cultural and Creative Investment programme provides steppingstones to support organisations to emerge from COVID on a more resilient, and sustainable, footing.  Every business’s finance needs are different.  That why our £2.625 million fund has numerous finance options.  Small grants up to £5,000 each.  Loans of around £50,000k to £150,000 at interest rates from 0% to 10%.  And equity investment of up to £75,000.

There’s a separate offer for freelancers to help develop commercial skills such as protecting their intellectual property or developing their brand.   We’re working in partnership with Creative England on the fund – have a look at what we’re offering at www.creativeengland.co.uk/northoftyne

The Studio artists told me how important it was to be able to access funding like this, without the strings or reams of paperwork.  

Economic development has to be low-carbon and inclusive, so everyone benefits from it.  It also has to be enriching.  We need a culture of valuing the arts for their own sake.

And the Combined Authority’s here to help with that.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20 Sept 2021

This Is Our Run

You’re prepping for the race.  Questions racing through your mind.  Am I wearing the right clothes? Have I done enough groundwork?  Am I in the right frame of mind?  Months of preparation comes down to this moment.  I know the supporters will keep me going. 

You’re on the starting line…

This could be the start of the Great North Run.  It’s also a good description of the Mayoral election in 2019.  In between we’ve had Covid.  It scuppered the GNR in 2019.  This year, Covid uncertainty made sponsors nervous.  Spacing runners into waves added complexity and cost. 

On 28th June 1981, the first Great North Run took place. It was a trailblazer. I was 11.  Life in the North East was a bit different then. Come to think of it, life in the whole country was a bit different then. We even won the Eurovision Song Contest.  With 40 years of history, we could not risk it failing. 

I first spoke to Brendan Foster about it back in February.  The GNR is the biggest half-marathon in the world.  Over 50,000 runners.  The North of Tyne Combined Authority put £400,000 funding to keep the GNR secure. 

It’s worth £33 million in economic benefit to the region.  It puts us on the map.  It fills 25,000 hotel bedrooms.  £24 million raised for charity. 

It’s a massive regional success story broadcast live in 137 countries around the world.  We sponsored the film, Great North: A Run, A River, A Region which opened at the Tyneside last week.  It’s on local cinemas – and well worth a watch. 

There’s more to the GNR than numbers, though.  Brendan persuaded me to run this year.  My training was going well, until I got a calf strain a fortnight ago.  My physio has been brilliant – shout out to Jack Gilmour.  “You’re obviously going to run,” he said, “so let’s work out how we can get you round.  But forget any hope of a personal best.” 

Dashing around at the start.  I started the elite women’s race.  My friend, Lord Mayor Habib Rahman, started the wheelchair race.  Best of all was the main race was started by NHS workers: I chatted to Community Nurse Dorothy and Cardiologist Micky, who like me were also running. 

I’ve done long runs before, marathons and half-marathons.  But nothing is like the Great North Run.  It’s the sheer diversity.  The awesome ability of the wheelchair athletes.  The bravery of the blind and visually impaired athletes. 

Before I even got to the Tyne Bridge, my calf-tightened.  We knew it might, and had a plan.  I slowed right down to a jog.  It was a blessing in disguise – I got to pay attention to everyone else. 

The sheer selflessness of thousands of people – doing something so physically gruelling – without any interest in personal reward.  Cancer Research.  Breast Cancer, Pancreatic Cancer, Blood Cancer.  St Oswalds Hospice.  McMillan Nurses. Shelter.  Strokes.  NSPCC.  Mental Health.  Help For Heroes.  British Legion.  Every one of them about healing and helping.  I was running for veterans’ charity Forward Assist.  Apologies to all those I haven’t got space to mention.

Countless people running in memory of loved ones.  Personal stories about healing the grief. 

At mile 9 I had to pop into the first aid tent for some Vaseline.  I hadn’t had a chance to break in my new top, and jogger’s nipple struck – blood soaking through the white fabric like a pair of brake lights. 

I watched the strength and compassion of all those tens of thousands of people.  The runners.  The volunteers.  The supporters.  All the kids I high-fived on the way round.   I’m proud to come from the North East.  That pride – that support – that sheer generosity of spirit – got me round and across the finish line.   

Along the Felling bypass I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  A fellow runner ran past me, pressed a £20 not into my hand, and said, “Good man – good cause.” 

We’ve had a hell of an eighteen months.  We’ve come through Covid.  So many have experienced tragedy.  When we come together in unity, we are strong. 

This is our Region.  This is our Run.  Let the healing begin. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 13 Sept 2021

Showing off our region

We’re at least 280 miles from London.  It’s a long way however you travel.  3 hours by train, 6 hours by car and 27 hours by bike.  But we’re even further in terms of media focus.  The Westminster Bubble is obsessed with political manoeuvrings in Westminster.  Try and get them to cover the creation of thousands of jobs in the North of Tyne, and they’re not interested. 

I guess that cuts both ways.  The impression of London from here can be skewed.  Many see it as a place of opportunity – career advancement, global HQs, the hub of media, arts and culture.  The reality also includes extortionate rents and long commutes. 

On Thursday I had a chance to correct the imbalance.  I showed Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist’s political editor around the North of Tyne.  He was keen to get out of the Westminster bubble. 

I love showing off our region.  Our beautiful coastline, fascinating history, and vibrant culture.  But most of all I love the stories of the people.  We are resilient, entrepreneurial, and passionate.  Too many lack opportunity, though.  We need jobs.  My role as Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority is to fix that.  Removing the barriers that stop people flourishing. 

I took him to visit the Cedarwood Trust in the Meadow Well.  Run by Wayne Dobson and Alison Cunningham, it’s a charity and community centre.  There’s a food club – not a food bank – that sells low cost food.  And with funding from the North of Tyne, they help adult learners get the skills to earn a decent living.  Retraining people on their terms, building confidence and self-esteem.  Our visitor from London was struck by way people’s dignity was a priority. 

Next, we visited Phil Souter & colleagues at Proctor & Gamble’s Advanced Circular Economy Project in Benton.  It’s a partnership with the North of Tyne, P&G, universities and local firms, developing cleaning products that use less heat and water.  Last year Rhona, the R&D Vice President pitched it to me.  She was really up-front, and told me her colleagues had said, “Don’t waste your time.  Nothing happens for years if you talk to government.”  Well, within months the project was up and running, creating high-paying high-tech jobs.  That’s the strength of devolving power out of London, to regional Mayors. 

We visited BritishVolt.  Company Chairman, Peter Rolton, and his colleague Charlotte, drove us round the site.  It is monumental in every way.  Size.  Jobs.  Scale of ambition.  And social and environmental responsibility.  We’re working with BritishVolt to provide the training opportunities to make sure those 3000 jobs go to local people. 

Next to Transmission Dynamics in Cramlington.  They use both human and artificial intelligence to solve complex engineering problems.  Like smart bolts which fit on offshore wind turbines.  It used to be that an engineer would have to sail out to the turbines to check all the bolts were within tolerances.  With the smart bolts this can be monitored from land.  It’s cheaper and saves time and fuel.  Adrian asked development director Jenny Hudson what difference it made having a Mayor.  “There’s someone to focus investment on our region’s strength – offshore renewables.  It means businesses like ours can grow”.  We spoke about the Catapult, our offshore wind projects, and how clean energy will replace our coal-dependent past. 

Our last visit was to Verisure, a global security firm now based near Longbenton.  Kevin Croft was one of the directors I met when we persuaded them to set up here.  “Why did you come here rather than London?” Adrian asked him.  “The people are friendlier.  It’s really true.  And loyal – we want long term development of our staff.  Plus I could by a four bedroom house with a garden for two-thirds the price of my 2 bedroom flat in London.” 

Adrian had never looked round our region in depth before.  He knew it wasn’t all whippets and flat caps, but he wasn’t expecting to see such innovation and potential. 

I explained my vision.  A well-paid job for everyone who wants one, with us as the powerhouse of the new, green economy.  I asked him if he thought I would achieve my vision.  “Yes,” he said.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 06 Sept 2021

Nurturing our communities with goodwill & solidarity

I love getting out and about and meeting people.  Last Monday I met trade minister Lord Grimstone for dinner.  We discussed getting more Government support to bring investment here.  On Wednesday I met the Vice President and the European Ops director of a US firm over coffee.  The meeting was a success, and fingers crossed, they’ll be creating 150 new jobs in the North of Tyne.  Efficient though Zoom may be, there’s no substitute for an in-person meeting. 

Shifting from international to local, I spent part of Monday visiting community enterprises in Newcastle’s West End.  The invitation came from Mayor Habib Rahman.  When I was councillor for Monument Ward in the City Centre, our wards were adjacent, and we worked together on several issues.  Habib is Newcastle’s first ever civic leader from the BAME community.  This is a big deal not only locally but also back in Bangladesh where Habib’s parents hail from.

We both have the title Mayor, but the roles are different.  As Mayor of a combined authority I might be the one with the budget and can pull a few more levers, but Mayor Rahman has got the swankier office by far. Not to mention the bling.

Our first stop was Elswick Pool.  I used to swim there decades ago.  You’ll remember that in 2010 the coalition Government had a political decision to make.  They chose to cut public services, triple tuition fees, and let keyworkers’ wages fall.  In return, they pumped hundreds of billions of pounds into increasing financial assets like the FTSE index and commercial property.  And David Cameron said we were all in it together. 

Locally, Elswick Pool got the chop.  Kids missed out on swimming lessons.  Adults missed out on fitness.  The community lost a vital hub.  And the workers lost their jobs. 

Local people got organised.  They campaigned, and set up a charity.  They learned from Jesmond Pool.  Diane, a leading campaigner is now on the management board of a thriving social enterprise, owned by its community.  It’s a labour of love, she told me.  It employs nine members of staff and supports twenty six part time roles such as swimming coaches.  Twenty schools now have swimming lessons there.  There are dedicated sessions for women to swim, and hydrotherapy for people with disabilities.  The pool’s manager, Phil, described how it’s now a buzzing community hub, helping people get fitter and lose weight. 

Next stop was the Millin Charity, in the Beacon Centre – the old fire station on the West Road.  Run by Shewley and Kirsty, it helps women establish businesses.  (And Sarah, who’s on maternity leave).  For twenty years now they’ve built up trust and contacts throughout their community.  Women from all backgrounds can just drop in or pick up the phone.  They run sessions on business planning, financial advice, and the legal hurdles of being in business.  We spoke about how it can scaled up.  How it was that they’d been able to change the way these women see themselves, and find confidence to transform their lives. 

And it works.  Every year, they work with around 200 women.  On average this results in 30 women setting up a business or becoming self-employed.  Everything from cake or dress making, to business support services.  A further 20 find employment.  45 more go on to further training and education. 

The stories of Elswick Pool and the Millin Charity share something with the US investors I met.  They are about entrepreneurship.  With no reliable funding, with no rich backers, both social enterprises are creating jobs out of nothing more than goodwill and solidarity.  And making people’s lives better in the process. 

The democratic socialism that I believe in is massively entrepreneurial. It’s also about levelling the playing field.  The difference is it’s about making sure that central Government doesn’t tilt the table in favour the corporations with lobbyists on big bucks.  Or hand out contracts to people you went to Eton with. 

When we nurture the people in our communities, they step up and succeed.  That’s why we’re bringing forward a plan to back social enterprises, here in the North of Tyne. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 30 August 2021

Storytelling defines a culture

I get a buzz from seeing talented people do their thing.  Whether it’s sport, comedy or plays.  I’m endlessly impressed watching the skills that have been honed over thousands of hours.  And the joy and passion at performers’ self-expression.  I love seeing people learning their trade, too.  Supporting up and coming talent. 

Edinburgh Fringe has all that in spades.  It’s the tapas of live entertainment.  Lots of little portions which add up make a satisfying meal.  We also ate actual tapas!  I’ve spent the last few days there with my family, and am writing my column on the train back. 

Nelson, my younger son, is learning the guitar.  His choice was “When Judas Met John.”  Two brothers performing and comparing the songs of Bob Dylan and John Lennon.  The lad’s got good taste – I raised him well!  The similarity between Norwegian Wood and 4th Time Around is obvious.

Now fifteen, my older son Leon liked Stand Up Philosophy.  Philosophy teacher turned comedian Alex Farrow hosts stand-ups, and the audience quiz them on their material.  Sitting in the front row, I got asked my occupation.  I always answer questions honestly, “I’m a politician.”  Groans and jeers from the audience.  “What kind of politician?”  “A socialist politician.”  That got a more positive response.  “What’s your name?”  Someone in the Edinburgh audience had heard of me, and I got a whoop. 

This led to banter between the comedians on the nature of democracy, online radicalisation, and a heckle from someone.  “Democracy will never work in the West.  95% of the wealth is owned by 5% of the people.” 

“If only,” said Alex, “there was a political philosophy that tackles wealth inequality,” gesturing to me, and taking the session full circle.  You can’t beat live entertainment.  

The act that will stick with me is Paddy The Cope.  A first-person storytelling of working class hero Patrick Gallagher, founder of the co-op in Donegal.  Accompanied by a fiddler, it took us on the journey of shale mining, love lost and found, oppression by the usury merchants, and the way a community fought back to gain some measure of economic democracy. 

Storytelling defines a culture.  I’ve heard it said that Scots and Welsh devolution is more advanced because of a stronger cultural identity.  Perhaps it’s time we invested in telling our stories of the North East, old and new. 

The Netflix model is to get the whole world seeing the same shows.  But the local variety is what gives entertainment its richness and allows youngsters to imagine what they are capable of.  Don’t get me wrong – there’s some good stuff on Netflix.  But the money we pay Netflix or Sky leaves our region. 

The Fringe shows the power of having a cultural centre to a city’s calendar.  It’s a staging post for launching other activity.  It attracts talented performers.  It makes this a better place to live.  It’s about the most cost-effective advert a city or region can have.    

We don’t want to cut and paste.  What works for Edinburgh might not work for us.  We have a solid base to build on.  Just the week before, we watched the Handlebards perform Macbeth in the grounds of Hexham Abbey.  In the rain.  The Stand Comedy Club is hosting live gigs again.  And I hope to support the Newcastle Improv Festival in coming years. 

This is the focus of our Culture, Creativity and Tourism work.  It’s not just about staging one-off events.  It’s about investing in the content creators and supply chain companies.  Performers and writers, yes.  And everything from make-up artists to lighting riggers.  Jobs people really want to do.  No alienation of labour here.  Providing a support network for creatives to grow sustainably and still be around in 10 years’ time. 

The gig-economy gets its name from the culture and creative industry.  The risk puts many people off following their passion.  Especially kids from working-class backgrounds, who can’t rely on financial support from parents.  Predictable work is the bedrock of flourishing creative and cultural industries.  Any industry in fact!

Hopefully in the not too distant future when asked where best to go for live entertainment, people will say “right here in the North East”.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 23 August 2021

A Solid Investment in Good Work

Much of the work trade unions do is hidden and unsung.  Such as providing workplace learning opportunities through the Union Learn programme. The view of trade unions as “the enemy within” and wreckers of the economy is obsolete.  It’s a far cry from the reality.  When employers work with trade unions, whether in the public or private sector, it’s a constructive partnership. 

Little known to the general public, since 1998 the trade unions have built a network of 40,000 volunteer Union Learning Reps (ULRs).  It’s a national scheme, with public funding.  Workplace reps talk workers through opportunities for training and adult education courses.  Too often, people don’t realise they have unfulfilled potential.  Or just aren’t aware of the possibilities on offer.  Sometimes they think their boss won’t support them to skill-up. 

The Union Learning Reps help overcome all these problems.  Because they’re in the workplace, known and trusted by co-workers, the ULRs can help some of those hardest to reach.  People in “left behind” places and unglamorous jobs have transformed their working lives.  Over the past 23 years the ULRs guided over 200,000 workers to gain qualifications in English, maths and IT skills.  Often their first ever qualification.  It put them on the path to further learning and on a route to a better paid career. 

ULRs are volunteers.  That network of 40,000 reps helping their co-workers depends on the back-up of full-time support workers.  In March this year, Government axed the funding.  Union Learn was to end.  The volunteers abandoned, the scheme binned.  It was a crass decision, even by the standards we’ve seen.  And short-sighted.  Recovery from Covid requires a skilled workforce.

But it’s not my style to idly fulminate at the Government.  Rather than shout from the sidelines, I used my remit as Mayor to make Union Learn even better and transform it for the post-Covid era.

In the North of Tyne, 18% of our residents hold low or no qualifications.  Trapped in low paid roles and denied opportunities for progression.  It’s no accident, then, that 23% of our working population earn less than the Real Living Wage. 

Union Learn isn’t just about the workers. Employers benefit.  Better trained staff are more and productive.  The economy benefits.  Greater tax receipts and national insurance contributions.  A higher skilled workforce supports more productive businesses.  Research from the University of Exeter showed that £1 invested in Union Learn creates £12.87 economic benefit.  A win-win all round. 

So although most of the country will be losing Union Learn, last week I launched our initial two-year replacement.   We’ve partnered with the Northern TUC and our local authority colleagues. Backed by £430,000 from our Investment Fund, the TUC-administered project will employ a regional Union Learn coordinator and three full-time Union Learn reps.  This is stronger than before.  They’ll work with employers in our key sectors to champion opportunities for workplace learning.  They’ll pilot new ways to help more workers skill-up, in a wider range of workplaces. It will transform more lives.

I value the role our trade unions play in creating a fairer and greener economy.  I’ve worked with them since becoming Mayor. I have trade union representation on our advisory boards and regular dialogue through our forum with regional union secretaries. We’re working with the teaching unions to set up a cooperative supply agency to combat zero-hours working. And for accreditation to the advanced level of our Good Work Pledge, employers need to have a trade union recognition agreement in place.  Unionised workplaces are more productive, safer, and have lower staff turnover. 

Our Union Learn Project exemplifies what we can achieve through collaboration.  It’s a solid investment in good work and building a fairer economy.  Best of all, it’ll make a concrete difference to low-paid workers’ lives.  Building confidence and putting money in their pockets.

It’s also an example of how agile the North of Tyne Combined Authority is.  Rather than distant targets or “aspirations”, we’ve fixed a problem within a few months.  That’s why I went into politics.  We’ve created a tangible outcome to improve people’s lives in the here and now.  It’s what I’m here to do, just like our ethical businesses, and just like our trade unions. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 16 August 2021

The Sky’s the limit

Allan Wells. Anthony Joshua. Linford Christie. Chris Boardman. Nicola Adams. Pythagoras. Eliud Kipchoge. Haile Gebrselassie. Nadia Comaneci.

All Olympic champions. 

No, that’s not a mistake, although it’s true that you’re more likely to associate Pythagoras with triangles, rather than the Olympics.

Pythagoras didn’t win an Olympic crown for doing difficult sums. He won for boxing.  And, at the time – 588 BCE – there were no weight classes, only a boys’ category and a men’s. So you had no idea how enormous, or strong, your opponent might be.

It was a huge honour to be selected to represent your city-state or small kingdom. There were no cash prizes, and no medals. If you won, you were awarded a crown made of leaves – probably bay or basil. There was nothing for the athletes who came second or third. You might have had a statue erected, and be given money by your hometown when you returned triumphant. But at Olympia, you competed for the glory of being an Olympian. If you were a free man, that is. Women weren’t allowed to compete.  Or even to watch – athletes competed barefoot and naked. 

Thank heaven that’s changed. It was great to watch the mixed triathlon at the Tokyo Games – and even better to watch Team GB get the gold.  The relay changeover part, where they run and dive into the water, looked so much fun – I’d love to have a go at that.  But I’ll leave the high-speed dismount and run with the bike to the Olympians.  And if you haven’t seen Charlotte Worthington’s BMX freestyle run, do yourself a favour and watch it on YouTube:

For the vast majority of us, we experience sport by watching it.  Often glass, or can, in hand, and with snacks on the side. We don’t take part. Except in cheering.

And yet, immediately after Wimbledon, there are more kids on the tennis courts. After athletics competitions, there are more people running.

We need to use the power of the Olympics, and other sporting events, not just to get people interested in watching, but to get them taking part.

You can pretty much guarantee that Sky Brown, the 13 year old skateboarding Olympian, will inspire a new generation of young skateboarders. But how easy will they find it to get to a usable skatepark? Or one that they can afford?

Sky Brown competing in the Tokyo Olympics

We need grassroots access to all sports.  So people aren’t put off either by price, distance – including decent public transport and secure bike parking – and the funding of equipment and grassroots clubs.  Too much open space is being built on.  Too many school fields sold to fund education.  Too many sport centres and swimming pools closed by austerity. 

I want to do something about that.

Working with one of those Olympic greats, Sir Brendan Foster, there are already plans afoot for a Great North Festival of Sport.  The aim is to increase daily exercise levels for ordinary people and getting them to participate in sports of all kinds. This isn’t for elite athletes. This is for you and me.  

The Combined Authority is also working on a year-round events programme of high-quality cultural and sporting events capable of achieving regional, national, and international profiles.

I taught jiu jitsu for decades – I’m a black belt myself.  One of the most rewarding aspects was watching people start to see themselves differently, and realise the inner strength that they never knew they had.  That’s what sport can do for us.

Back to Sir Brendan.  I’ve agreed (for which read ‘was talked into it by Brendan’) to put my money where my running shoes are and run the Great North Run on Sunday 12th September. I’m fundraising for a fantastic charity, Forward Assist, www.forward-assist.com.  Based in the North East, they help veterans across the country transition from military service into civilian life.  Everything from accessing health services to setting up businesses. 

British swimmer Adam Peaty said at the Olympics recently: ‘It’s a fun event and that’s what sport needs. It needs to be fun.’ I imagine after these Games there’ll be a lot of young people thinking that the Sky’s the limit.  How right they are!

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 09 August 2021

It’s about jobs, stupid

What does “levelling-up” mean to you?  Getting more investment into the North of England?  Closing the life-expectancy gap, perhaps?  Reversing the historic under-funding of the North’s transport infrastructure? 

I’d hoped the Prime Minister’s much-trailed speech on levelling-up would define it.  His 32-minute speech, his “Vision to Level up the United Kingdom”, covered everything from football pitches to bus stops, via a detour into chewing gum on pavements.  At one point he said if anyone can think of a better idea, send me an email.  I imagined his speech writers face-palming in the wings. 

The commentariat were scathing.  An “everything and nothing policy” according to the chair of Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee. 

Back in October 2020 I gave evidence to that Parliamentary committee. I talked about the need for Government clarity on levelling-up.  How it would be put in to practice in regions such as ours. I spoke of the need to give the North control over our own wealth creation.  The powers to turbocharge our ability to create good jobs. Nearly a year down the line and the Government’s levelling-up plans remain as opaque as ever.

Levelling-up is a catch-all phrase designed for electioneering.  Mr Johnson keeps it deliberately vague – that way he can never fail to achieve it.  Come election time, he’ll claim it a success, regardless of the fact that all of the money earmarked for Northern Powerhouse Rail – to connect Northern cities – is being squandered on HS2.  It’s notable the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), due out last year, then January, then Easter, then in July, has been pushed back again.  It seems the IRP is Samuel Beckett’s much anticipated sequel to Waiting for Godot. 

Progressive patriotism is another vapid slogan.  It’s all about branding, I’m told.  We have to “position ourselves”.  You need to raise your profile.  I hear it all the time in political circles.  Well, if I’d wanted to repeat catch-phrases, I’d have become a game show host.  I became Mayor to fix things. 

And I love my job as Mayor.  Last week I signed off two more investments to create highly paid jobs in the software industry.  I’ll not steal the thunder of the companies’ own announcements and name them, but they’re 100 and 94 jobs respectively. 

I may have started the article criticising the PM’s speech, but so did many in his own party.  But once you’re in government, as I am, that means building partnerships to get things delivered.  The electorate expect us to work together to fix things. 

At Tuesday’s North of Tyne Cabinet for example, we agreed an allocation of £7 million to develop 5G and future connectivity programme. This positions us at the forefront of new technology investments.  Developing test facilities and business cases to secure even more high-tech jobs and facilitate lower-carbon living. 

At the same cabinet meeting we approved our Digital Development Cluster, to create 182 jobs, and the Talent Engine with Dynamo creating another 150.  We agreed funding of £1 million to support “Town and High Street” recovery innovation projects across our three local authorities.  

And we’re working with New Writing North to bring publishing houses to the disused buildings in Clayton Street in Newcastle.   These investments will bring new jobs in addition to the 4,193 jobs already in place or in the pipeline.

Job creation is an art – there’s lots of ingredients go into the recipe.  I’ve been working with BritishVolt since last year, along with our partners in Northumberland who’ve sorted the land deal.  Last Tuesday, they broke ground on the new electric-vehicle battery gigafactory.  That’s another 3000 jobs on top of the 4,193 already in the pipeline.  There’s another 5000 in the BritishVolt supply chain.  We’ll be working to develop the skills programme to bring those jobs here – which we can do, because the skills budget has been devolved to the North of Tyne.  Along with transport and digital infrastructure, investment in training and eduction is a key enabler of job creation.

So what does levelling-up mean to me?  If I can paraphrase Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s about jobs, stupid.”  Because that’s what levelling-up is all about: creating well paid, secure jobs, so everyone has a future. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 02 August 2021

Southgate’s teamwork shows the way

It’s difficult to type with your fingers crossed. But by the time you read this, we’ll know whether it worked, and football really has come home. I’m not claiming that it’ll all be down to my crossed fingers, mind.  Or even the now anthemic Sweet Caroline – my wife’s name. 

The key word for the England team is ‘team’.  Including the ever-impressive Gareth Southgate as its leader. To win – to get anywhere in a match or a tournament – they have to work as a team. One player thinking he’s the only man on the pitch is a recipe for disaster.

Teamwork duty has been a strong theme this past week, and not just in football.  Last Tuesday, Andy Burnham and I gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee, looking at English devolution and whether it’s working.  There’s a video link on my website, Facebook & Twitter if you’re interested. 

The British state lacks teamwork.  Projects that have to be delivered locally are still being designed centrally.  Diktats come from the centre, without flexibility of delivery.  Worse still, they are outsourced to firms that leave others to pick up the pieces when it goes wrong. 

Speaking to the Committee, it would have been easy to blame a Conservative government, or the attitude of Whitehall civil servants for the failures of the centralised test and trace, Kickstart, or the now-scrapped Green Homes Grant.  And yes, I’m no fan of this government or the London centric thinking of our national institutions.  But the problems are also structural. 

Every time I speak to a civil servant – from Treasury, Department of Transport, wherever – I find them professional, helpful, on top of their brief, capable of imagining new ways of doing things.  Yet handcuffed by a system that prevents them from doing anything innovative.  Their reporting lines are tortuous.  Sign-off is labyrinthine.  Their departments talk more to themselves than to outsiders. 

In the North of Tyne, we’ve smashed our job creation target, delivered devolved adult education, and implemented our brownfield housing programme.  Despite Covid, we’re ahead of target and brought them in under budget.  Why?  Because we know our region.  We listen to people on the ground.  We build relationships.  In other words, teamwork. 

We understand that everything is linked.  Transport affects housing and planning. It affects climate change – we want fewer cars, not more. It affects skills – you can’t go to college if there’s no bus to get you there.  It affects our economy. It affects our health – faster and cheaper public transport would get more people walking a little every day. 

I’ve been working with Ministers to get transport powers devolved.  We have an offer of half a billion quid on the table – the Intra City Transport Fund.  We’d have to come together as a region, North and South of the Tyne, into one Mayoral Combined Authority.  Not least because the Metro can’t be half-in and half-out of a devolved transport area. 

Our seven local authorities will have to make their own decisions about whether they want this money and these powers.  We already know we can work well together – we’ve been working on the response to Covid and on our economic recovery plans throughout the pandemic.

This time last year, I was asked by central Government to develop a plan. I brought in the south of the region, the Local Economic Partnership, the trade unions, business organisations and the Universities.  In September, we submitted a joint plan to the Comprehensive Spending Review.  I believe we should unite as a region, work together as a team, and land that plan, which will create 55,000 secure, full-time jobs.  And land that £half-billion devolved transport funding.

Ask any Mayor if they’d like more money, and of course we’d say yes. But what I really want is not more fish, but a fishing rod.  The power to generate more wealth here, for all of us.  So there’s a well paid job and lifelong training available for everyone. 

I’m on leave with my family for the next fortnight.  I’ve asked two groups I work closely with to be guest columnists.  Next week you’ll be hearing from Tyne and Wear Citizens, and the week after, from veterans’ charity Forward Assist. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 12 July 2021

Our people are the North’s true powerhouse

There’s a lack of trust between the people and power.

For decades, this has been reflected in Whitehall’s top-down approach to the North East and the other English regions.  Decisions on infrastructure to education to health are made by people without frontline experience, who don’t live here.  The result?  A huge imbalance of power, wealth and health across England.  GDP per capita in the North East is just 73% of the UK average, down from 93% in 1981.  Centralised decision making means less money in your pocket. 

A national one-size-fits-all policy affects our public services, our transport, our job prospects and even our life spans. It translates into us being top of every league table you don’t want to lead.  Lowest business density. Low productivity.  Child poverty up from a shocking 26% in 2014 to a harrowing 37% in 2020.  The 51 central government initiatives to restore regional growth since 1981 have been diktats from the top and haven’t worked.

We’ll only transform the fortunes of the North East by recognising our people are the North’s true powerhouse and our diversity is our strength. Having an elected mayor with devolved powers gives us the tools to do this.  Claiming it’s another tier of government is a lazy argument.  Evidence proves we’re fast, efficient and effective, creating jobs over target and under budget.  Taking the reins from Whitehall is the way to build a strong, vibrant and sustainable North East.  And it allows a new approach to democracy. One where people are trusted, their voices heard, where they shape public policy making in a meaningful way.

Collaboration underpins my whole approach. I’m working in partnership with everyone who has a stake in the North East.  Our three constituent local authorities.  The voluntary and community sector.  Businesses large and small.  And our trade unions.

Collaboration requires meaningful consultation with our citizens, too.  We’ve already delivered our Citizens Assembly on Climate Change.  And I’m putting this in to practice with forums such as the Mayor’s Question Time events.

My next one – the fourth so far – is this Wednesday, 7th July, at 6:30pm.  I’ll be talking about the good green jobs I’m creating in North of Tyne and how they are the bedrock for tackling poverty and protecting the planet.  Great if you can join me – and I promise it will end long before the England vs. Denmark semi-final kick-off at 8pm. 

Co-design doesn’t stop with getting government to listen to us.  It also means we listen to our people, including the North East voices that are often not heard.  Young people, people with disabilities and those experiencing poverty.  

I’ve led a culture inside the Combined Authority which believes things must be done with people, not to people.  It requires trust.  It requires a willingness to tune into what people are saying.  It means seeing marginalised people not as a burden but as resilient, capable and creative partners to solve their own problems.  A bit like how central Government should view us!

We’re putting £80,000 in to the North of Tyne Poverty Truth Commission (PTC).  There’s £20,000 match funding from the Tyne and Wear and Northumberland Community Foundation. Too often, policy makers wring their hands about poverty, but make no effort to understand the actual, on-the-ground problems that trap people.  A PTC directly engages decision makers with the people experiencing poverty first-hand.  The result?  Practical measures that make a difference. 

Co-design also means trusting communities with resources. This Tuesday I’m launching our third Crowdfund North of Tyne.  That’s £200,000 from the Mayor’s Capacity Fund, for Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty projects. It’s a springboard for locally-led greening and food security initiatives. I’m empowering communities so they can directly tackle the climate emergency and food poverty where they live. This goes hand in hand with the work I’m doing to transition the North East to a zero-carbon economy via our £18 million Green New Deal and £25 million investment in offshore wind.

Trusting the regions and local communities with power and resources is the only way to level up. Along with my Metro Mayor colleagues across the North, I’m showing that when Westminster lets go of the reins so decisions are made here, we improve people’s lives.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 5 July 2021

Building a Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty North East

Cooperation is what makes humans special.  Just look at the vaccine roll out.  The way we went from research and development, into production, into the public sector organisation getting jabs into people’s arms.  It also shows how vulnerable our economy is – our very lives are – when nature is disrupted and our environment becomes malevolent. 

I declared a climate emergency two years ago.  Then, Earth’s atmosphere had 414 parts per million of carbon dioxide.  Today it’s 419 parts per million.  To prevent catastrophic climate damage, and keep within the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees of global heating, the levels have to be kept below 430 part per million.  At the current rate, we’re going to break that limit in just over two years. 

“The Government must get real on delivery… Continue to be slow and timid and the opportunity will slip from our hands.” So says Lord Deben, chair of the independent, statutory Climate Change Committee, established by the 2008 Climate Change Act. 

Their report last week praised the government’s promises.  But was damning when it examined the evidence of delivering on them.  All bluster and no bite.  The policies don’t back up the rhetoric.  They are gambling everything on one report due out in the Autumn – the Net Zero Strategy.  It had better be good because Britain’s global credibility rests on it.  Not to mention our future.  And it had better be on time, before COP26 in November.

Last week was a big week for the North of Tyne Combined Authority.  We held our first Green Economy Summit, bringing partners from across the region together to shape our future.  Industry, research, public services, and universities were all involved. 

Covid and the climate crisis have caused us to rethink how our economy works.  It can no longer be about rising share prices or housing bubbles.  It’s about a secure future for everyone.  That’s how we take people with us.  We build a Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty North East. 

Our devolved skills programme is giving everyone a chance.  We fund vocational skills like getting an HGV license or technical skills that lead to high-paying jobs.  And we’ve put £2 million aside for those in high-carbon industries to retrain in clean energy and the jobs of the future. 

Our SpaceHive crowdfunder directly funds community groups to green their places and tackle food poverty.  Our Citizens Assembly on Climate Change has produced its recommendations which we’re already acting on.  Our Good Work Pledge underpins the thousands of jobs we’re creating.  It values the good employers in our region because they value the people who do the work. 

We need better connections into and out of our region.  We’re in a crazy situation where the East Coast Mainline is so constrained by its Victorian infrastructure that we can’t benefit from HS2 or Northern Powerhouse rail until we get the funding to reopen the Leamside line. 

To top it all, there is a planned timetable table change to go from two trains per hour to Manchester, down to one per hour.  It’ll reduce services to Morpeth and Berwick.  Reducing connectivity between northern towns and cities is the opposite of levelling up. 

I’ve pushed back hard.  At Wednesday’s Rail North Committee I managed to get agreement to halt the changes.  Now we need the Department for Transport to step in. 

Last Monday I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps.  I made all these points.  You know what he said?  “Jamie, your nothing if not consistent.  You make that point every time we speak.” Well good, because it’s been too long since people listened to our region, and I’m going keep fighting our corner. 

And of course, we need to decarbonise our energy. 

We’re investing £25 million in our offshore wind and subsea sector.  Improving infrastructure, like stronger cranes to handle bigger turbines.  And we’re investing in minewater heating, to turn our high-carbon past into a low-carbon future. 

Our Green New Deal, our offshore wind investment, our high-tech start-up programmes, our partnership with BritishVolt, our reopening the Northumberland Line.  Creating over 4,000 jobs, and counting. 

The Combined Authority I lead is delivering on climate action and creating good green jobs, right now. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 28 June 2021

Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not

Talent was in the North East last week, along with Hollywood fever.  The latest Indiana Jones film is being shot at stunning Bamburgh Castle. It struck me that Raiders of the Lost Ark was released in 1981.  I was 11. How time flies. I expect Harrison Ford is thinking that, though anyone who saw him cycling through Northumberland, in Lycra, would have guessed he’s 78 years old. But as Indie says in Raiders, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage”. 

I’m not surprised they’ve chosen the North East as a location, though. For over a millennium, the North East has been a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity. If you’re not convinced, take a look at the Lindisfarne Gospels when we bring them to the Laing next year.  The electric light bulb was invented here.  And the train.  We powered the industrial revolution.  In 1878, the world’s first hydroelectric power scheme was developed at Cragside, Northumberland.  Harrison Ford is a climate activist – I wonder if he’ll visit while he’s here. 

It’s this ingenuity, and our reputation as friendly, hard-working people that will restore the North East’s economy.  That’s why as North of Tyne Mayor I’ve launched not one, but three separate funding streams to nurture talent and ingenuity. 

The North of Tyne Culture and Creative fund gives freelancers and small firms the money to make their ideas real.  £2.6 million is available as grants, loans and equity.  That’s backed with skills, advice and making connections to get your project off the ground.  If you’ve got a business idea in culture or the creative industries, check it out.  And tell your mates.  It’s on the North of Tyne website, www.northoftyne-ca.gov.uk/news/creative/

I’ve been crusading about climate change for years. And the Holy Grail of climate change is achieving net-zero. Where we emit less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than nature removes.  Business is a major contributor to greenhouse gases.  And business can be part of the solution.  Any size business can innovate and help. 

The North of Tyne Recovery Innovation Fund is offering businesses £1.5m in grants and one-to-one support to turn ideas into reality.  You can get between £5,000 and £10,000.  To qualify, your innovation has to help either with climate change, creating jobs, or making our economy more inclusive.  Innovation doesn’t need to be complicated. It could be as simple as using different technology, or changing a business process. 

There’s two briefings coming up on Tuesday 29th and Wednesday 30th June.  Register at ntca-innovationrecoverygrant.co.uk, and please spread the word.  Small firms are the engines of innovation. 

You don’t have to own a business to make the world a better place.  Identifying local talent means supporting local communities. Practical, inclusive, projects bring communities together.

The North of Tyne Crowdfunder has had two rounds of funding already.  Things like beekeeping on the Meadowell Estate in North Shields. Planting flowers to brighten up your streets. And community film-making.  Although probably not with the budget of Indiana Jones.  

It’s been so successful, we’re launching a third. 

It works like this.  You have an idea that will benefit your community. We’ll give you help and advice to explain it, with our partners Spacehive.  You build support in your local community – we can give you the tools to help.  And if people in your community like the idea, we’ll give you funding. 

It’s part of my manifesto commitment to tackle climate change and food poverty.  This round is called Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty.  This can be anything from setting up a community garden or allotment, a food club or community café, or your original idea.   Remember, shy bairns get nowt. If you’ve got an idea for improving life here, apply. Better still, get a group of mates and do it together. We’re launching the third round on Tuesday 6th July.  Have a look on our website for more information. www.northoftyne-ca.gov.uk/news/zero-carbon-zero-poverty/

I talk a lot about devolution.  About how our destiny should be in our hands.  And how decision making is better when it’s not centralised.  Well this is me putting it into action.  Directly giving the people of the North of Tyne a chance to nurture their talent, themselves. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 21 June 2021

A rich and vibrant regional economy in our sights

The words “Annual General Meeting” generally have the same effect as prescription sleeping pills.  Appointments to committees, scrutiny reports, and dozens of pages of accounts. 

But they are a keystone of democracy and accountability.  It shows the public, amongst other things, what we’ve spent.  The corporate budget is our running costs:  staff wages, office accommodation, IT spending, legal fees, that we spend delivering our targets. 

We’re smashing those targets out of the park.  We have a commitment to government to create 10,000 new, full-time jobs over 30 years.  It’s two years and one month since I was elected, so we should have 700 jobs in the pipeline.  The actual results? Across 66 live projects, we’ve leveraged in £193 million of extra money, we’re creating 4,193 jobs, and safeguarded another 2,673 jobs.  Over 10,000 people have had new training opportunities.  We’ve a whole catalogue of projects tackling climate change, helping communities, building homes, supporting local businesses and protecting vulnerable people in our region. 

At the same time our corporate running costs came in £599,000 under budget.  Given the disruption of the last fifteen months under the pandemic, that is a remarkable achievement.  I’m proud staff team we’ve built at the North of Tyne.  National government could only dream of being this effective and efficient. 

Yet you won’t see a headline anywhere that reads, “Mayor quietly exceeds his targets while coming in under budget.” Despite the fact that the vast majority of people want their politicians to do exactly that.  So if you could spread the word, I’d appreciate it. 

Instead politicians criticise England footballers for taking the knee.  Or Gareth Southgate’s open letter defining Englishness.  For what it’s worth, I agree with the England manager.  But like me, his tenure should, ultimately, be judged by results. 

So back to the excitement that was the North of Tyne Combined Authority’s Annual General Meeting.  Since March 2020, the emergency Covid regulations have allowed us meet and take decisions online.  But in their wisdom, those who write the regulations coming out of Whitehall tell us we must now meet in person. 

Infection control procedures are still in place, and we lead by example, and maintaining the highest standards of public health.  Masks, distancing, hand sanitizer.  So it was still far from back to normal.  And quite right too – the Delta variant is highly transmissible.  As I said in my opening remarks at the AGM, please make sure you get both doses of your vaccine as soon as you’re eligible.  I had my second dose weeks ago. 

We rotate our meetings around the region.  So there we were, in a function suite in Newcastle Civic Centre, distanced so far apart that we needed microphones to talk to each other.  A warm welcome to new cabinet members Karen Kilgour from Newcastle, Carl Johnson from North Tyneside and Richard Wearmouth from Northumberland. 

Placing thanks on record to our outgoing cabinet members Joyce McCarty, Bruce Pickard and Richard Dodd.  Continuing our partnership with the North East LEP, represented by Lucy Winskell, and the voluntary sector, represented by Robin Fry. 

And agreeing our corporate plan for the next three years, strongly backed by our existing cabinet members, Norma Redfearn, Nick Forbes and Glen Sanderson, leaders of our three local authorities. 

Zero-Carbon, Zero-Poverty is our objective.  We’ve completed our Citizens Assembly on Climate Change, and our Green New Deal is motoring.  The best way to defeat poverty is to create thousands of good, green jobs – and we’re doing that in spades.  But at Tuesday’s AGM, we also agreed our Child Poverty Prevention Programme.  A series of initiatives to directly assist families who are struggling financially. 

That 22% of kids in the North East are in poverty is a moral outrage.  It’s also economically dysfunctional – we all benefit when bairns get a good start in life.  The irony is that over 70% of kids in poverty come from working households.  We need to make work pay. 

We’ll know the job’s done when our regional economy is so rich and vibrant that everyone can build a life here, and our young people don’t need to move away to pursue their dreams. 

AGM’s can be a compelling part of democracy after all. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 14 June 2021

What transport system do we want? How do we pay for it?

When we talk about transport there are two questions. First, what transport system do we want? And second, how are we going to pay for it? It’s the second one that causes all the problems.

Transport is a fundamental part of everything we do.  It’s a mistake to let the market dictate its direction.  It needs long-term planning. 

At the moment, funding is allocated by short-term competitive competitions.  Imagine you’ve got to host a meal.  But you don’t know your budget, or when you have to serve the meal, or what type of food, or even if anyone is coming until an hour beforehand.  You’d have no time to plan, and little opportunity to innovate.  That’s why so many transport schemes end up being variations on the last thing that happened, made from left-over ingredients. 

The planet is on the precipice of a climate catastrophe. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced £1 billion for green transport.  Then triumphantly announced “£27billion for tarmac”.  There’s a mismatch there and I don’t think I’m the only one who sees it.  You can’t level up with concrete. 

We’ve learned to assume that the way to transport an 80Kg human is with a 1500Kg vehicle.  Then leave that 1500Kg vehicle lying around all day before driving it home.  I’m an engineer, the thermodynamics of that just don’t work.  There’s a place for cars, but they’re not as essential as we think. 

It’s not so long ago we all assumed that buying videos and DVDs was the best way to watch films at home.  These days, streaming is more convenient and often cheaper.  Transport should be about moving people, not cars.  We should treat Mobility as a Service – known as MaaS.  But what would that look like? 

We could access all our transport needs through one smartphone app.  The technology already exists to give us options for every journey – Metro, taxi, bus, bike, walk, and how to integrate them.  It can give us real-time location data, buy tickets and reserve us a seat, or an eBike if we need it when we get off the other end.  And it’s all integrated so it will calculate the cheapest ticket all the way to your destination.  It can even book you a car in a car club and reserve a parking space if you need to drive.  When it’s as easy as walking out the front door and turning the key in your car, people will migrate away from cars. 

If we invest in bus priority gates, and drivers don’t need to spend time taking fares, buses can be faster than cars – once you take parking into account.  Mix in secure cycle parking, and invest in showers in workplaces and public buildings, and cycling will increase.  Get ourselves fit and trim, and head off a health crisis that’s coming our way. 

So how do we pay for it? 

The truth is, we already are.  We’re just in denial about it.  It costs £4,600 per year to own and run a car.  Most of the time it’s parked up somewhere rusting.  I’ve just sold my car, and am joining a car club. 

Obesity related illness will cost the UK £49billion a year in by 2050.  Road maintenance is so expensive because we’re taking 1500kg of steel with us every time we go somewhere.  We need to re-allocate the way we spend our national resources. 

We must fund revenue as well as capital.  We’re going to get the first of our new Metro Trains in 2023, but still don’t know if we’ll have the revenue to run them when the current funding runs out. 

In the North we’ve been underfunded by £66billion.  We will only level up when our fate is in our hands.  With long-term funding so we can plan.  I’ve written about fiscal devolution before – the power to generate wealth here, in the North East. 

Without this rethink, we’ll be trapped in transport Groundhog Day.  Asking why some people are stuck in traffic jams, others are stuck in transport poverty, while type 2 diabetes runs rampant, and our planet is burning around us.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 07 June 2021

Welcome to the real North

There are some fascinating photos online by Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.  They cover the North East and focus on Byker, where she lived, showing the gritty, grubby reality of our region in the early 1970s. 

Not that long ago, this is how people pictured the North East.  Pit villages.  Fishing.  Heavy industry.  Not quite the dark, satanic mills, but nigh enough.  It reminds me of that brilliant Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch – ‘a house? Luxury! There were 150 of us living in a small shoe box in’t middle o’t road!’

The rest of the country probably hasn’t moved on from those views, except maybe to add ‘good place for stag and hen parties’. 

Those of us who are lucky enough to live in the North East know the truth.

We know that we can walk in the footsteps of John Dobson and Richard Grainger, marvel at some superb architecture, and enjoy some great food while we’re at it. 

We can go back even further and walk in the footsteps of the Roman centurions, posted to one of the furthest outposts of their Empire.  We can even visit a Metro station with signage in Latin.

We can transport ourselves, and our kids, to Hogwarts and relish over 700 years of history while the kids have a broomstick lesson.

We can walk the miles of stunning coastline.  I know I’m biased, but it really is magnificent.  And we can see seals and puffins in their natural habitat.

We can visit a working fish quay, and choose from an impressive array of fish and shellfish – Fortnum and Mason’s fish counter has nowt on North Shields. 

We can watch some great live shows and theatre, and see films on the big or small screen.

All this, and more, is on our doorstep.  How lucky are we?

We can make things even better, of course.  A lot of people miss out – we can improve affordability as well as physical accessibility.

Everything we enjoy doing needs to be ecologically sustainable, or our grandkids won’t be enjoying those seals and puffins. 

And we need to create a more joined-up transport system, so it’s easy to see how you get from A to B on a range of public transport options, that don’t cost the earth. 

We also need to keep our attractions authentic, so visitors feel they are being welcomed to the real North, and not to a plastic copy.  One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that local people, as well as tourists, want to have a grand day out.  Local festivals are key to this – making local people feel the event is their own.  Things like the Newcastle Improv Festival.  How brilliant to give people the opportunity to perform their own stand-up routines. 

The pandemic is likely to mean lots more people are having a holiday in this country, rather than abroad.  Staying local will be great for the local economy.  We have great scenery and historical landmarks, but we want a rich tapestry of food, music and local entertainment too. 

That’s why the North of Tyne is investing over £3 million in a two-year calendar of tourism and events.  And another £3.25m to support the recovery of the culture and creative industry.  We know that happiness is as dependent on what you do outside of work as what you do in work.

I’ve had several meetings recently with Sir Brendan Foster, and I’m supporting his sterling efforts to get the Government to financially back a bid to stage the 2026 European Athletics Championships in the North East of England. 

This would involve over 1500 athletes and 6 days of competition, showcasing the region, and with the potential to generate tens of millions of pounds of economic impact.  Hundreds of jobs and spin-out opportunities, and bring tens of thousands of visitors and spectators here. 

Brendan also persuaded me to run in the Great North Run on 21st September.  I’ve run marathons and half-marathons before, but not for a while!  We’ll see what effects the lockdown’s had on my stamina and my knees! I hope to see many of you there cheering us on. 


*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 31 May 2021

Coming out of a hell of a year

From B&Bs in Berwick to micro pubs in Newcastle, small businesses across our region are opening up.  They’ve had a hell of a year.  No trading for six months has taken its toll on hospitality and cultural businesses.  The self-employed have been hit hardest, with only a fraction of the support of other companies.  Over three million self-employed people fell through that gaps of government financial support.  Campaign group Excluded UK have been fighting for them.

So while there’s much relief to be moving tentatively back to normal, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are carrying a shocking level of debt.  The Federation of Small Businesses tells me that the total SME debt across Britain is jaw-dropping £100 billion!

Small businesses bring character and individuality to a place.  They bring hard financial benefits too.  Money spent with local firms recirculates in an area.  They buy more local products and services than big corporations.  The multiplier effect of buying local, rather than from a corporate chain, creates more local jobs. 

Right at the start of the pandemic, the North of Tyne set up a Covid Response Fund.  This was £5 million of emergency funding for local SMEs, to plug gaps in government support.  We’ve safeguarded 2,673 jobs over and above the support from central government.

Last week I spoke to local business owners, including Julie, who co-owns the Mean Eyed Cat in Newcastle.  It’s a cracking little pub, loads of character, the sort of place that adds to the vibe of the city.  Julie spoke about getting through the past year for her and other micro pubs.  It’s been hard.  They’ve lost a year.  Eat-out-to-help-out didn’t help them.  They paid their staff top ups above the furlough rate when they could.  Nine people earn their living at the pub. 

Then last autumn, government forced northern businesses to close under the Tier system.  They lowered furlough to 67%.  It was dicey time for local hospitality businesses.  Northern Mayors pushed back against government.  Furlough was restored to 80%, and many SMEs gained more support. “We’ve been looking forward to opening up in full, but it’s a pandemic,” she told me. “We need people to be safe … we’re not going to rush to change things, we’re going to move steadily forwards.” Opening up still means a reduced capacity from pre-Covid days, but just as many staff.  Every customer gets table service, and every table needs sanitising between customers.

The big picture is that Julie’s business is one of the North East’s 40,000 SMEs that form the backbone of our local economy.  SMEs account for 48% of our region’s turnover and 50% of the private sector employment. I’m seeing a lot of research and surveys right now.  They’re all concluding pretty much the same thing:  SMEs in our region face a productivity and sustainability challenge.  

That’s why we’re putting in £1.6 million of our Digital Growth and Innovation Programme.  Hundreds of small businesses will get help to trade online, redesign their operations, and tap in to data science to develop their income. 

We’re working flat out to make a difference, and credit where it’s due, central government support has made a huge difference, despite the gaps for SMEs and the self-employed.  But we’re not out of the woods.  The outsourced and centralised test track and trace system has failed again.  Local health teams were not given the details of over 700 people infected with the Indian Covid variant.  This risks more outbreaks, and reimposition of restrictions.  For £37 billion, you’d expect the test & trace system to do the basics.  Compare that with the vaccine programme, which has been successful because it was run through the NHS. 

We’ve put £1.26 million into a Rural Business Growth Fund.  Our £3.25 million Culture and Creative Recovery Fund launches in a couple of weeks.  Our festivals programme will come online later this year – restrictions allowing.  This will create more local activity, creating jobs but also making the North of Tyne a more vibrant place to live.  After the past year, I’m sure we’re all looking forward to that. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 24 May 2021

Beware of the Leopard

Town planning is as old as cities.  The Romans did it.  In fact, the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley had a planned water and sanitation system 2,600 years before Hadrian’s Wall was built.    

As Britain moved out of the medieval era, towns grew.   People lived closer together, and governments needed to minimise disputes.  The risk of fire spreading from building to building had to be controlled.  Thatch has been banned on roofs, street widths controlled, and bricks and slates made mandatory in most places since the Great Fire of London in 1666.  Grenfell Tower gave us a harsh reminder of what happens when corners are cut and safety comes second. 

In 1947 the planning system brought together various competing interests for the first time. The main push was to improve living standards through better quality housing.  It also considered place-making, green spaces and community facilities.  Planning featured strongly in the 1942 Beveridge Report.  It demonstrated the link between good town planning and an effective welfare state.

Planning is not just about safety and aesthetics.  It has an economic impact.  The amount of land given over to car parking, the ease a bus can navigate an estate.  The ability to travel to and from work, college, the shops or cinema are all affected by planning decisions.  So are the density and locations of GP surgeries and schools.  Good planning improves our health and prosperity and protects us from a free-for-all of short-termism.  It’s interesting that the NHS has kept its special place in the heart of the nation but the value of planning is unsung. 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the 1947 system was placing development rights under public control. Landowners lost the right to develop indiscriminately on their own land.  Using land for existing uses was unchanged, but new uses required planning permission. These decision making powers were given to local councils.  It heralded the biggest shift in power between land owners and ordinary citizens in British history. 

Since 2010 council planning departments across England have suffered budget cuts of over 50%.    Developers spend £millions paying lawyers to find loopholes and haggle down the public benefit.  If they can make an argument for not building a school, or reducing the number of affordable homes, they add £millions to their bottom line.  It’s a David and Goliath battle. 

In last week’s Queen’s speech the government pledged to change planning laws.  Areas will be designated for ‘growth’, ‘protection’ or ‘regeneration’.  In ‘growth’ zones, developers can build without needing individual planning consents.

Local Authorities will have to develop Local Plans designating these zones.  You’ll be permitted to comment when your Local Plan is drawn up.  But that plan will last at least ten years.  Imagine contacting your council to object to a development only to discover you should have objected 10 years ago.

It’s like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Arthur Dent discovers they plan to flatten his home the day before the bulldozers arrive. 

“But, Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months,” he’s told.  “You found the notice, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”

I’m in favour of reforming planning laws.  They should commit to affordable, zero-carbon homes, increasing bio-diversity and protecting our natural world.  And maintaining the right for people to influence what happens to the places where they live.  

I spoke to Robert Jenrick MP, the Secretary of State, about this some months ago.  It was clear to me he’d already made up his mind.  In January last year, Mr Jenrick was asked by Richard Desmond to overrule a previous planning decision.  Desmond was building a £1 billion development along the Thames.  Jenrick did as his billionaire friend asked.  This intervention saved Desmond from paying £45 million to the Community Infrastructure Levy – money for schools, cycle lanes, affordable housing, and parks.  Two weeks later, Mr Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party.  Draw your own conclusions. 

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 17 May 2021

Train the people. Create the jobs. Generate the wealth.

Most political leaders get to choose their cabinets – local authority leaders, Scottish or Welsh first minister, the Prime Minister. Combined Authority Mayors are the exception. Our cabinets comprise the leaders and deputies from each constituent council. I’m looking forward to welcoming the new North of Tyne Cabinet Members, regardless of party.


Despite the narrative about a Labour collapse in the North East, Labour stands strong in the North of Tyne. There hasn’t been a Conservative elected in Newcastle since 1992. 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. Rural Northumberland stayed under Conservative control literally by luck of the draw. Two seats were tied, and results decided by pulling the winner out of the ballot box. Interestingly, two new Green councillors have been elected in Northumberland.

I’m a democratic socialist, and I place democracy on equal footing with socialism. If there’s one thing this election shows us, it’s that devolution is on the agenda. Scottish and Welsh incumbent parties have done well, as have Metro Mayors across the north. In a poll for the Centre for Cities, 83% of people said they wanted their mayor to have more devolved powers and budgets.

The Combined Authority exists to bring good, well-paid jobs here. To improve skills. To enable people to re-skill and change their career if they want to. And to close the prosperity gap, which we can see every time we walk along any of our high streets.

To do that, we need to spend money. And we’re doing that in a highly effective, targeted way. £9 million on regeneration projects like the Shields Ferry landing, repair of the Protection Jetty surrounding the Fish Quay, and redevelopment of three housing sites in North Shields. £10 million on our Recovery Innovation Fund. This includes vouchers to help businesses adapt and utilise new technologies, innovations in tourism, and projects to adapt underused places and spaces.

We’re not just focusing on work. We’ve a rich history of culture and creativity. We’re working with Creative England and spending £3.25 million on a North of Tyne Culture and Creative Recovery Programme which starts this month.

Dealing with the climate emergency is a priority for me. We’re putting over £4 million into clean energy. Our North of Tyne Offshore Infrastructure Fund is preparing the facilities to bring green jobs to the Port of Blyth, and the iconic site of Swans Energy Park – formerly the old Swan Hunter shipyard.

We’re driving innovation in green jobs with our £10 million Green New Deal Fund. These projects will directly reduce carbon emissions and create skilled jobs. This Green New Deal positions us a national leader.

Next week I’m signing the steel at the construction of NUCastle – the new youth centre we’re funding near St James’s. In with the £2.6 million funding is the money to run outreach programmes, using sports to help young people improve their education and job prospects.

We’ve got world-class brains and universities here. We’re investing £5 million in partnership with the National Innovation Centre for Ageing, turning that world-class R&D into jobs and start-up businesses. And another £10 million with the National Innovation Centre for Data creating jobs and innovation with local digital businesses.

On top of all of this, we’re delivering a North of Tyne Poverty Truth Commission. This anchors our work in the real lives and challenges of some of our most vulnerable citizens. We’ll be delivering the recommendations from our Citizens’ assembly on Climate Change. Rolling out our Community Hubs programme. Establishing our festivals & events programme once Covid is over. And funding our inward investment programme to attract firms to set up here.

In total we’re spending £59m, creating more than 4,310 new jobs. Regardless of the election results, all of the Cabinet will work together, roll up our sleeves and crack on with the job. Supported by the amazing Combined Authority staff team we’ve built from scratch over the past two years. Our task is to create a zero-carbon, zero-poverty North of Tyne.

Train the people. Create the jobs. Generate the wealth.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 10 May 2021

Downing Street is a Moral Cesspit

There’s something rotten in the state of Britain.

In 1963, Cabinet Minister John Profumo resigned after lying about an extra-marital affair with Christine Keeler. That was sleaze.

I agree with former Tory Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who said about Coalition minister Chris Huhne’s affair, “What goes on in people’s private lives is a subject that fascinates the tabloid press but is irrelevant to the job they are trying to do.” Mind you, that was before Huhne was imprisoned for perverting the course of justice.

What we’re seeing now goes far beyond sleaze. We’re witnessing an executive spiralling out of control.

We’re grown-ups. We know relationships sometimes break up. No one should be stigmatised for that. But our Prime Minister has a serial history of getting women pregnant while he’s married to someone else. The failure to manage contraception is worrying trait for someone with his finger on the nuclear button.

Which takes us to Jennifer Arcuri, one of his girlfriends while married to his second wife. Johnson denied the affair. She admitted it. He spent taxpayer money taking her on three top-level trade missions, despite her businesses not meeting the criteria.

Wallpapergate and Cash-for-Curtains are not matters of taste. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about snobbery over the “John Lewis furniture nightmare.” My wife and I had our wedding list there. But I literally cannot imagine paying £840 for a roll of wallpaper. The failure to redecorate a flat within the £30,000 taxpayer funded budget is shocking. Johnson is the First Lord of the Treasury. He is ultimately in charge of our public finances.

This is about whether he’s broken the law. Did he fail to declare a donation of £58,000? He says he’s repaid the money now. But it’s no defence in law to say, “I gave it back after I was caught”.

There’s his undeclared conversations about sorting out a billionaire’s “tax problems”. Imagine being able to text the PM to “sort out” your tax bill.

His ravenous pursuit of all seven deadly sins sets the tone for this government.

David Cameron – another former Bullingdon Boy – is up to his eyes in a financial scandal “as close to fraud as you could imagine”. Cameron stood to make £60 million. Rishi Sunak has questions to answer. We taxpayers may get stung for £5 billion! Greensill also offered nurses pay-day loans, profiting by packaging them up into securities, just like the sub-prime mortgages that caused the financial crash. The last thing NHS workers need is more debt. They deserve a pay rise!

Matt Hancock’s implicated with VIP lanes. He owns shares in his sister’s waste disposal company, Topwood Limited. Topwood was awarded a Framework Deal to provide NHS services just months after he became Health Secretary in July 2018.

Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, secured a £12,000 donation from billionaire pornographer Richard Desmond. This was, of course, nothing to do with Jenrick’s personal intervention to rush through a planning deal so Desmond could dodge an infrastructure levy bill of £45 million from Tower Hamlets council. After all, if you were taking a back-hander to let someone off £45m, you’d want more than 12 grand.

Remember Hanbury? The lobbying firm run by Dominic Cummings’s mates, handed £900,000 for opinion polling on the pandemic. Remember Ayanda, the company linked to Liz Truss, fast tracked through VIP lanes, who supplied £155 million worth of unusable face masks for NHS frontline staff? Remember Alex Bourne, who ran Hancock’s local pub? Who despite having no prior experience, was given an NHS contract worth £millions after sending Hancock a WhatsApp message. I could go on, but there’s a word limit on this column.

A report into racism has been condemned for misrepresenting the experts it quoted. Sir Alex Allan, the PM’s advisor on ministerial standards resigned after Priti Patel’s bullying. Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain, a whole cascade of advisors resigning and turning against Johnson. It’s less like Hamlet and more like the final act of Macbeth, with the crazed ruler off the leash, deserted by his lackies, indulging in angry tirades to “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” and then actually letting the bodies pile high in their thousands. If we see any losses for the Tories next week, the sharks will circle for a leadership bid.

Johnson’s biggest mistake is believing voters have “priced in” his immorality. That he’s “non-stick”. Here’s another metaphor for you: the straw that broke the camel’s back.

When Tory stalwarts like the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne say, “Downing Street has become a moral cesspit” and Boris Johnson is “proven to be a repeated and habitual liar”, we know the Rubicon has been crossed.

I don’t believe for a second that every Tory politician is sleazy or every Labour politician is a saint. When you’re casting your vote on Thursday, ignore the hype. Look at values. Look at policies. Look at integrity. Ask your candidates on social media: will they condemn the sleaze that is rotting inside our national government?

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 3 May 2021

Live Your Life With Purpose

Stewart Lee was once given some advice on how to earn a living in the transient world of stand-up comedy. “You get 5000 people to like you, and they all give you £10 a year. That’s a living.

”It’s a risk, pursuing your passion. And it’s not an easy option, as any established musician or actor will testify. Honing skill and building experience takes hard graft. It’s not surprising that most people are encouraged to go for a secure job.

Young people are not getting the chance to take a chance. Students now graduate with debts exceeding £50k. Housing costs are so high that unless they can draw on the bank of Mam & Dad, there’s no time to learn the ropes. Working class kids are priced out of following their passion.

The flip side is the rise of automation and proliferation of the gig economy. Workers of all ages are feeling the insecurity. Manual and clerical jobs are being replaced with robots and algorithms. The nature of work has been changing for a while. Many “self-employed” or flexible hours jobs were sold with the promise of being your own boss. But too many are finding themselves on a timesheet treadmill. They take the risks of no money coming in, and get only a tiny share of the rewards if business booms.

The passion economy celebrates individuality and a hunger to do what you love. Digital platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon and Buy Me A Coffee allow people to earn money from niche creative ideas. In fact, finding that niche idea is a cornerstone described by Adam Davidson in his book, The Passion Economy. Find an idea that’s too small for corporates to bother with, then make it your own. You might only have a few dozen clients, but if you pick the right idea, it could work.

The Japanese idea of Ikigai embodies the idea of living your life with purpose. As with most Japanese translation into English, the nuance is difficult to capture. The western interpretation is depicted as a Venn diagram with four overlapping aspects of life. What you love; what you are good at; what the world needs; and what you can be paid for. Or, in other words, find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

Once I started looking, I saw evidence of this passion economy everywhere. One of my friends set up Sobersistas, which offers support to women who want to control their drinking. Another friend used to teach MMA, giving one-to-one tuition to City of London types. He’s now gone on to set up a successful MMA gym in Newcastle. I’m sure you know people who have had the bravery to follow a passion, maybe you are one of them.

The pandemic and lockdown has got a lot of people thinking about their work. Health, economic growth and jobs are all intertwined now. Do you really want to work 9-5? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. What has been unlocked is seeing what is possible. I’ve seen reports that through furlough and lockdown, tens of thousands of people are considering starting part-time businesses, pursuing their passions

.I’m keen to support people brave enough to set up on their own. At the Combined Authority our Digital Adoption programme provides technical know-how for people to run businesses. Just Google, “North of Tyne digital adoption”. Our Creative and Cultural fund that will be onstream soon, to support freelancers and creative businesses.

Not everyone can take such a risk, though. Stagnant wages and rising costs mean too few people get to build up any savings. If you’ve got kids to feed and rent to pay, that regular pay day has a lot going for it. We need to make all jobs more fulfilling. The unleashing of human creativity is one of the strongest arguments for Universal Basic Income. Giving people the freedom to set-up a creative business, or the opportunity to re-skill for a new career, would benefit us all.

It’s a vision for the future. But like all futures, some of it exists in the present.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 26.4.2021

What Would a Universal Basic Income Look Like

42, as every HG2G fan knows, is the answer to life, the universe and everything. It’s also the title of a crowdfunded book including Douglas Adams’s notes on work, life and technology. His memo-to-self shows that even a writer with his confidence and fluency struggled. “Writing isn’t so bad, really…” he wrote, and “…attack it, don’t let it attack you”

.I’m sure Douglas Adams will have experienced a thrill of achievement when he finished the four books in the trilogy. But that got me thinking about the link between work and motivation.

There’s obviously the extrinsic motivation of work: the need to pay the bills and, if your job pays enough, to build up some savings for a rainy day. Then there’s the intrinsic motivation of work – the enjoyment we get from it, whether camaraderie, sense of social contribution, or the achievement of a job well done.

There was a great academic study funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank, examining the link between money and motivation. They were surprised by their results. If the task was a basic mechanical job – shovelling dirt into the back of a wagon, say – then paying a bonus improves performance. But a task that involves even rudimentary cognitive skill – planning or creativity – a larger bonus reward leads to poorer performance.

Other studies have shown that autonomy and trust – trust in us as employees, and trust between employees – are much, much stronger motivators than money. In fact, the best use of money as a motivator, is to pay people enough to take the question of money off the table. When people know they are financially secure, they work better.

​Which, by the way, blows the argument for £multi-million bonuses out of the water. Serco is the latest example, the firm awarded the privatised test and trace contract. Despite the National Audit Office report that there was “no evidence the £22bn programme had reduced rates of Covid-19 in England”, Rupert Soames, brother of a Tory MP and CEO of Serco, will get a £4.9 million payout this year. Clearly no correlation between social value and personal reward there.

What of the dignity of labour? Most of us instinctively feel there’s a link between work and a sense of self-esteem that goes beyond money. In a report called, intriguingly, ‘The Employment Dosage’, researchers at Cambridge University answered the question: ‘How Much Work is Needed for Health and Wellbeing?’ The study lasted nine years and involved 71,000 people. The result is surprising. One day a week. One day a week gives us all the social and psychological benefits of working 5 days or more.

The automation is already available to enable us to work a 3 to 4 day week. The challenge is not productivity, but the distribution of wealth. I‘d wager that most people would work fewer hours if they had enough money to pay their bills and support their families. But how much would that be? Would a Universal Basic Income be the answer? How would we set the level of UBI?

In 1930, the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. He suggested that, within a century, an enormous growth in productivity and resultant increase in living standards would mean that people could choose to work only 15 hours a week. In terms of basic productive output, he was right.

We should be thinking about which jobs really need to be done. It’s difficult, though – how many people would be happy to say their job wasn’t necessary? A YouGov survey found that 37% of Brits thought their job did not contribute ‘meaningfully’ to the world. So, 1 in 3 people feel if their job was not done, the world would be no worse off.

Which takes us back to Douglas Adams. His Golgafrinchans divided their society into three: the thinkers, the doers, and the “middlemen” – who did pointless jobs. They sent the useless third off to a distant planet (Earth), keeping only the useful people back on Golgafrincham. Sadly, they were wiped out by a raging virulent disease, caught from dirty telephones. And Earth ended up with the telephone sanitisers, middle managers and tired TV producers.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 19.4.21

Invest in Staff and They will Invest in You

The notion of a job for life is fast receding. Not so long ago, a job at “The Ministry” in Longbenton, or maybe with the local council, meant financial security. Not in any sense of luxury, but the stability to raise a family, followed by a decent pension after you’d put in your decades of service. Whole communities thrived around the pit towns and villages in South East Northumberland or the shipbuilding communities along the banks of the Tyne and the Wear.

Even when I started work in the mid 1980’s, the goal for most working class kids was to get into a skilled profession. Apprenticeships date back to the guilds of the middle-ages. The 1964 Industry Training Boards formalised the system. It took at least four years to qualify, and you had a skill that would earn you a living anywhere you went. But with over three million unemployed, coupled with the dismantling of British manufacturing, we saw that quality of industrial training all but disappear. By 1990 traditional apprenticeships accounted for less than 1% of the workforce.

After the riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Chapletown and Moss Side, the 1983 Youth Training Scheme was launched. You got an extra tenner on top of the dole, and an introduction to the world of work at a time when youth unemployment was sky high. The scheme was criticised as a poor comparison to a proper apprenticeship. Lasting only six months to a year, and offering little in the way of skills training, too few YTS placements resulted in permanent jobs. The whole approach was the wrong way round. If your starting premise is, “we have a load of kids who we need to stop from being idle” you’ll never design anything sustainable.

Almost as bad is the “we need to train kids as a supply of skilled labour for businesses” approach. While it seems logical at first glance, it does not survive contact with economic reality. Innovation, automation, and technological disruption make it damn near impossible to train anyone for a lifelong career in an industry that might not exist in ten years time.

Jobs and skills are two sides of the same coin. It’s just under two years since I was elected Mayor. Already we’re creating 3,200 new jobs by supporting local firms and bringing new ones here. This past week we’ve landed 200 more high-skilled, well-paid jobs in Newcastle with Global Software company Xplor. If we’re to thrive as a region, as a country, there has to be a route for people to retrain and get these jobs.

Our jobs can be a source of pride. One of the first things we ask when we meet someone, or when a friend tells us they have a new romantic partner, is what they do for a living. But this can also be self-limiting – people can typecast themselves.

Often, the best way to retrain is inside your existing workplace. Until recently, the Union Learning Fund worked with union reps to encourage people to increase their skills and progress their careers. They could earn more, and their employers benefited from continuity. The withdrawal of this fund by central government was so short sighted. Every £1 spent generated £13 in increased productivity. I’m working with the TUC to see how we can replace it in the North of Tyne.

Everyone needs the opportunity to retrain throughout their life. We’re embedding this principle into the North of Tyne adult education programme. We’re only responsible for a small part of the skills landscape, and that was only devolved in August last year. But we’ve already enabled nearly ten thousand adults to pursue a new career and expand their horizons.

There is a difference between training and education. Training prepares you for a specific set of tasks, but education develops your critical thinking and ability to adapt. We made a big mistake in this country by charging for university education. Britain stands at a crossroads. We can allow millions of our citizens to struggle to find skilled work.

Or we can invest in lifelong skills and education so everyone can find a good job whatever their stage of life.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 12.4.21

When The Boat Comes In

I just about remember the TV show ‘When the Boat Comes In’. It was set in the fictional town of Gallowshields in the North East. If you’ve seen it even once, you’ll remember the theme tune, “Thou shalt have a fishy, on a little dishy, thou shalt have a fishy when the boat comes in.

”It’s sung by Alex Glasgow – who also wrote and sang ‘The Socialist ABC’ with its wonderful sardonic ending. ‘Dance To Thy Daddy’ is based on old Geordie folk song, and predates the chapbook “Songs of the Bards of the Tyne” from 1850. We’ve been fishing from the Tyne for a long, long time.

The origins of North Shields Fish Quay date back to 1225 and Tynemouth Monastery. It was a natural safe anchorage, where the Pow Burn flowed into the Tyne. Today it’s the heart of our fishing industry and England’s biggest prawn port.

The central harbour is known as the Gut, and the Pow Burn still flows into it, albeit through a culvert nowadays. The concrete jetty protects the fishing boats from weather and waves, and the strong tidal currents. Boats moor up at the landing quays and unload their catch. Close by is the fresh fish market, and the processing plants, fish shops and restaurants.

The Fish Quay attracts visitors all year round to eat, drink and take in the heritage of the place. There are beautiful outdoor areas to spend time and enjoy. It’s a unique and valuable part of North Tyneside and is a real celebration of local trade.

You could set up a fish restaurant anywhere, and people do. But it’s the Fish Quay that provides the anchor (see what I did there?) for all these other local businesses to flourish. In a global world of corporate fast food, local character should be cherished.

But the Jetty needs repairing. This part of the harbour has been closed for access since November 2017. The harbour is still in use, but if the jetty goes altogether, we’ll lose our fishing industry.

Which is why the North of Tyne is co-funding the rebuilding of the jetty. This will protect 56 local businesses that support over 300 jobs. I’ve been working with Norma Redfearn at North Tyneside Council on a whole raft of investments.

The North Shields ferry landing is being moved to the Fish Quay. This will integrate local transport links, and strengthen the local businesses.

We’ve provided funding to North Tyneside Council to help with the regeneration of North Shields Town Centre. The North Shields Masterplan is a hugely ambitious piece of work to build hundreds of new homes, regenerate derelict land, and protect our fishing industry while improving the local transport, and the look, leisure and economy of the area.

The North East’s heritage is one of heavy industry and heavy work. Unfortunately that has left heavily contaminated land in its wake. In North Tyneside, we’re using our Brownfield Housing Fund to remediate old industrial land in places like North Shields. And, as you’d expect from a region with a rich seam of coalmining history, there’s a lot of old coal workings underneath our feet. We’re using our Brownfield Housing Fund to grout coal seams to ensure that development that takes place above is safe and secure.

But what are we helping to develop? Norma is the North of Tyne cabinet member for Housing and Land. We have designed our Brownfield Housing Fund programme to reflect the wide variety of housing needs in the area. It’s not just more homes we need. We need affordable council housing available for social rent. We need affordable properties for first time homeowners. We need new rented sector properties for young professionals to make sure we have somewhere for our young graduates to live. And we’re co-funding major regeneration works to the public spaces to make the area somewhere people want to live, work and socialise.

It’s great to be building for the future whilst protecting our heritage. These industries defined our culture. And when it comes to locally sourced food, we need to protect it. Even if future generations haven’t watched When the Boat Comes In.

Published Originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 5.4.21

My Friend Nigel Todd

I have a packet of Northumberland Wildflower Seeds given to me by Nigel Todd. The mix contains flowers that will thrive in harmony with our local ecosystem. It speaks to his ecological sensitivity and profound sense of place.

High on the wall of Newcastle’s Stowell Street is a stone carving of a sheaf of wheat, a spade and a sickle. “Labor and wait” reads the motto. It’s on the side of the old Co-operative warehouse. “It’s a reminder,” Nigel told me, “that prosperity is about long term sustainability.” The fruits of our labour would take time, and hard graft.

His sudden death this weekend has opened a void in my heart. I can only begin to imagine what his family must be feeling.

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born,” wrote Antonio Gramsci. Nigel’s work in Wingrove and Arthur’s Hill was about building that new world. Here and now. In the mess and madness of the old. And he was both a genius and an expert in what he did.

Where others would rail at injustice, Nigel acted. He had little patience for vainglorious committee meetings, and once remarked quietly, “we’re just actors in a play that has neither audience nor script.”

He was Chair of the Co-operative College. This was never about co-operatives in the abstract. His home was part of a housing cooperative. He was the driving force behind Greening Wingrove , a community cooperative, owned and run by the people who live there.

The Bike Garden and the events in Nuns Moor Park are part of that new world. Nigel had been working with the team at the North of Tyne, on our sustainable funding for communities to tackle climate change and food poverty. Everything from vertical veg growing to generation of clean community energy was in the mix.

Tommy Tankie, his topiary steam train sculpted from privet, brightened up the terraced street right outside his home. Talking about it would raise that characteristic smile of warmth and sparkle of gentle subversion in his eyes.

Nigel served his community as a Newcastle City Councillor since 1980. I asked his advice before I became a councillor. “I’ve always taken the approach,” he told me, “that a councillor should not be a cheerleader for the council out in the community, but a shop-steward for the community inside the council.” I hope the Labour Party honours Nigel’s commitment to democracy by allowing local members to select their candidate for May’s elections.

He held a total belief in shared humanity across race, gender and ethnicity. Greening Wingrove uses the “Rainbow Ward” logo as a symbol of its diversity. He campaigned for international justice, and visited Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and educational trips to Auschwitz.

His daughter Selina wrote that “like most children in the so-called post-war ‘golden age’ of social mobility, Nigel failed his eleven-plus examination and attended a secondary modern school until the age of fifteen.” And owed his education to the Labour movement. “In his late teens he became a clerk for the Workers Educational Association, an adult education organization founded by trade unionists and socialists in 1903. The WEA sent him to Ruskin College, a trade union-funded adult education college in Oxford, where he met my mother.”

A historian and adult educator by profession, he published three books. For him, education was about enrichment. It was history from below – not the kings and queens, but the ordinary heroes on the front line.

In Excited Times is about Tyneside’s struggles against the Blackshirts and British Fascism. Indeed I first met Nigel thirty-odd years ago as part of TWAFA – the anti-fascist movement. At that time there was a spate of violent attacks on anti-racist campaigners from organised fascist groups. I remember teaching Nigel some self-defence techniques. It’s fair to say his talents lay in other forms of struggle.

He was a gifted storyteller. He had that gentle, “gather round and listen” voice, and an air of infectious calm. Nigel never sought glory or recognition. But he was a legend and a giant. With wise counsel and subtle wit he was mentor to so many.

“He was just so calm, all the time. I always found that remarkable and so unusual. He was one of the first people to welcome us into politics and I think nearly every socialist would be able to say the same.”

Nigel spent his life planting seeds, and watching them bloom.

(First published in The Chornicle and The Journal on 29th March 2021)

What Have The Unions Ever Done For Us

When I was a ward councillor for Monument – Newcastle City Centre – our police liaison officers showed exemplary sensitivity and emotional intelligence when dealing with challenging members of the public. We know, though, that any organisation can have bad individuals in it – serving police officer Wayne Couzens has been charged with the murder of Sarah Everard.

That’s the age-old question, asked by the Roman satirist Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – roughly translated as “who will police the police?”

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s response is that she shall police herself. The Crime Bill going through Parliament gives her the power to make new laws without new acts of Parliament, and decide what should constitute illegal protest.

The legislation will make “serious annoyance” illegal. A judge will be able to jail a person for up to 10 years. A police officer will be given powers to take “such conditions as appear necessary” to that officer “to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation.

”Did you notice the word “impact” snuck in there? What the hell is the point of a protest that has no impact? “Down with this sort of thing,” and “Careful now” will be the only actions allowed. The legislation should be renamed the Father Ted Bill.

It took until 2012 for the Hillsborough families to get justice for the 1989 tragedy. For years, senior police officers and the sitting government covered up the facts, lied, and shifted the blame. Just seven miles down the road is Orgreave,a site of another police cover up blamed on the victims, with the collusion of hostile elements of the media. I bet many people reading are still influenced by the early media propaganda – that somehow Liverpool fans were to blame for Hillsborough, or miners for the injuries at Orgreave.

In their 2019 campaign, the Conservatives included a plan to outlaw people withdrawing their labour in protest over their pay or working conditions. It used the example of transport, because it’s a key service. There are around 1.5 million transport workers in the UK’s 32 million strong workforce. But most workers could be categorised essential under such a law. Health workers, education employees, refuse workers, retail workers, delivery staff, postal and telecomms. The right to withdraw your labour – to strike – is a foundation stone of a free society. There’s a name for that, it’s called forced labour.

Trade unions were only decriminalised in 1875. They were tied up with reforms to voting rights. For centuries, working people who didn’t own land could not vote. Because you didn’t own part of the country, ran the argument, you got no say in its future. Today most people don’t get a vote on how their workplace is run – because they don’t own part of it. Despite the fact that it’s their skill, time and energy that make the organisation function. Enlightened employers know that engaging their workers benefits everyone – staff, owners and customers. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, said the anti-trade union laws had lowered workers wages across the economy.

The real trick that’s been played on the British people is this idea that Trade Unions are separate from working people. To paraphrase Monty Python, “what have trade unions ever done for us?”

For a start, unions stopped child labour. Unionised workplaces are safer, with 50% fewer accidents. Every year unions train 10,000 safety reps. Union members earn, on average, 12.5 per cent more than non-members. They have better job security, and stay in their jobs for an average of five years longer than non-members. Unionised workplaces have higher productivity and fewer industrial tribunals.

Apart from that, though, trade unions have only gained us paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave, equal pay legislation, pensions, and workplace anti-discrimination laws. Oh, and the weekend. It was unions that fought for a five day working week.

And, of course, furlough was a result of unions negotiating with the government. We’ve all benefited by keeping the economy afloat.

The good news is that trade union membership is rising – with a net increase of 200,000 over the past three years. If you want to join a union, go to www.tuc.org.uk/joinunion.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.3.21

Investment with Forsight

In 1929 the Roaring Twenties plummeted to earth with the Wall Street Crash. Its global aftermath caused mass unemployment and eventually a collapse of democracy across Europe, the rise of the Nazis, and genocide.

The response to the Wall Street crash in both the US and Britain was to cut public spending. Austerity didn’t work then, and it didn’t work in the 2010’s either. It’s a mistake to think of a country as a person. If one person maintains his income, but spends less, he can reduce his debts. But across a whole country, one person’s spending is another person’s income. Cutting public spending cuts our collective income, along with the foundations of our health and education.

In 1932 the American people voted out Herbert Hoover’s austerity policies and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his New Deal. The US government invested in public works – home building, dam construction, transport infrastructure. They introduced a welfare system to support people. With money in their pockets, people spent more, and commerce recovered.

Public works were only half of the New Deal. The US introduced laws to strengthen trade unions. There was an explicit recognition that empowering workers to stand up for their economic interests serves the common good.

In 1932-3, the US passed the Glass-Steagall Acts – regulation that stopped excessive speculation by banks. The global financial system was broadly stable the rest of the century. In 1999, under pressure from rich lobbyists, the US Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Acts. In 8 short years we saw the 2007 subprime crisis and the global financial crash. If financial speculators can make more money gambling than investing in productive assets, we all suffer.

Post-Covid Britain faces two crises: poverty and the climate emergency.

Even before Covid, life expectancy was falling in parts of the North East. Many families in work are unable to pay the bills. Thousands of our people can’t eat without support from food banks. Under Covid, economic inequality has risen – many are deep in debt, and unemployment is rising. Poverty causes long term scarring to the life chances of our kids.

In November, the UK will host COP26, the global climate summit, to review the targets set in Paris in 2016. Even if all countries stick to their agreed targets, we’ll see a global temperature rise of over 3 degrees C. Higher temperatures mean higher humidity.

When you cover a thermometer bulb in wet cloths, and it still reaches 35 degrees C, it means it’s too hot for humans to sweat and cool down, even in the shade. Fans don’t help – the air is too humid. Without air conditioning, people die within hours.

This will affect around half the world’s population. India, China, the Mediterranean, and large parts of the US and Latin America. That means it will affect us too: our economy is global. And I don’t want my kids inheriting a world where 3 billion people have been made homeless.

It’s time for a Green New Deal. Let’s build a million low-carbon homes. Let’s build a net-zero public transport system, that’s cheap, safe and convenient. Let’s retrofit our buildings to save energy and save money. Let’s create a clean, cheap renewable energy grid. And while we’re on, let’s invest in education and training so people can get these jobs, and in sport, arts and entertainment so we can all enjoy ourselves on our days off.

And in parallel to the Glass-Steagall Acts, we need to outlaw exploitative working conditions and phase out high-carbon technologies. Good employers and responsible firms need to be protected from those who undercut them with poverty wages or polluting business models.

We’ve got a plan for this in the North East. It needs £2.8 billion of public investment. It will create 55,000 good jobs. A person on average salary pays over £15,000 a year in tax, once you include national insurance and VAT. So those 55,000 jobs will earn the government £825 million a year. The plan pays for itself in under four years.

So that’s the cost of doing it. What’s the cost of not doing it? The more we invest with foresight, the less we will regret in hindsight.

Published Originally in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 15.3.21

Make Decisions about our Region, in our Region

As a political insider, not much in politics shocks me. But I was astounded to hear the Chancellor say, the “Budget is not the time to set detailed fiscal rules, with precise targets and dates to achieve them by.” WTF? That’s exactly what a budget’s for.

My first priority is to deliver for the people of the North of Tyne. That requires finding the win-win with all partners, including central government. I take a “hate the sin, love the sinner” attitude – by pointing out better alternatives. Cheap shots and personal attacks help no one.

But could you imagine a corporate finance director proposing a budget and saying, “This budget is not intended to include precise facts or timescales”? If it’s not the Chancellor’s job to be on top of the public finances, then whose is it?

Mr Sunak’s budget has drawn criticism from across the spectrum. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says tax and spending plans don’t add up, and his plans don’t look deliverable. Thatcherite think tank the Centre for Policy Studies says it won’t create long term growth. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (not known to be a hotbed of revolutionaries) says it has a big hole where the creation of green jobs should have been. I say keyworkers need a pay rise, not a tax rise.

Pretty much every second paragraph in that speech mentioned ‘levelling up’. But there was nothing to level up Tyneside, or Wearside, or Northumberland. The people of Blyth Valley must feel doubly let down. It’s the Inverse Care Law of politics – the more a government talks about something, the less it actually does.

Last summer, the government asked me to develop an economic recovery plan. It was a real collaboration between all seven of our local authorities, local businesses, our universities, and combined authorities north and south of the Tyne.

It’s a costed plan to create 55,000 jobs. Skilled, well-paid jobs in high-tech and green industries, with the training programmes so local people can fill these jobs. We submitted it as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review in the Autumn. They cancelled that. They said it would inform the budget, but they’ve ignored it again.

These jobs would be stimulating and well-paid. The extra spending power would boost our wider economy. The payroll taxes alone (PAYE, employee’s and employer’s national insurance) would pay for the plan in just a few years. I have to ask: why doesn’t the Chancellor want to create those 55,000 jobs in the North East?

Instead we’re on the same merry-go-round we’ve been on for the past forty years. Governments announce “initiatives” and “funds” that are available to the whole country, and fail to address the needs of our region.

Local Authorities and Combined Authorities have to bid to get the funds they need to deliver essential services like transport improvements. It costs a fortune and takes ages. If you do win, the money has to be spent in a disjointed hurry without any strategic coherence.

When we were asked to submit the recovery plan last year, it finally looked like the government recognised the importance of the role of Combined Authorities. We’re the only organisations who can join everything up – transport, economic recovery, housing, carbon reduction, and skills. We can focus on what works here, not the one-size-fits-all that comes out of Whitehall and Westminster.

Whenever governments (not just this one) spot a problem, their knee-jerk reaction is to set up another Commission or quango to fix it. It takes months to go through each stage. Define the remit. Recruit the staff. Sign-off the systems, governance and assurance frameworks. As Sir Humphrey said, “Months of fruitful work!”

Mayoral Combined Authorities are already here. Already set up. Already fully functional and delivering thousands of real jobs. But you wouldn’t know that from the Chancellor’s speech.

We can and we will be submitting bids. But this Budget is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks devolution and economic recovery can be separated. Until decisions about our region are made in our region, we’ll always be waiting for the crumbs from the king’s table.

I had low expectations of this Budget, and the Chancellor failed to meet them.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8.3.21

Build Back Fairer

“Build Back Better” has become the mantra. Good as far as it goes, but unless we build back fairer we’re back to the status quo. High levels of economic inequality and deprivation are damaging to health and wellbeing. The core objective must be providing good jobs.

Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You was a superb swipe at zero-hours Britain. The main character, Ricky, is persuaded by his mate to take on what looks like a nice little earner, van driving for a delivery company. Except it turns out it’s not a job, but bogus self-employment. He gets no holiday, no pension, no sick pay, and yet doesn’t have the freedom of how to work, or even let his daughter ride in the cab with him.

No such thing as rest breaks, he has to carry an empty plastic bottle with him for when nature calls. His life rapidly descends in to one of unrelenting stress and financial insecurity which has a toxic impact on his wellbeing and his family life. It’s also set in Newcastle, and worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Self-employment can be great. It’s hard work, and can be risky. But you get to be the boss, and you get to keep the profits. I’m right behind small businesses and entrepreneurialism. But the gig-economy is not self-employment. It’s serfdom. Gig-economy workers don’t get to keep the profits.

If you’re on low pay, you have no choice but to work long hours. Nationally, 56% of people in poverty are in a working family. It was 39% twenty years ago. In the North East, 22% of our workers are paid less than the Real Living Wage (£9.50/hr), the pay rate you need to pay your bills without falling into debt or hunger.

Over the past ten years we’ve seen an explosion in the gig economy. Pre-Covid, 1 in 6 UK workers were in insecure employment. There is a direct correlation between insecure work, workplace bullying and health and safety violations. Of course, the rest of us have to pick up the bill for the social consequences of that.

Poor employment contracts are bad for your health. The Good Work Monitor, from the Institute for Future Work, published evidence that lower paid and lower status jobs have increased illness, mortality, and “diseases of despair” – suicide and substance abuse. Our social care workers are particularly vulnerable. Poverty wages and no sick pay means they’re too poor to stay safe.

There is an alternative. Last week I spoke at an event organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Work. Alongside my Metro Mayor colleague Andy Burnham and Professor Sir Michael Marmot, the public health guru.

I highlighted our work in the North of Tyne on our Good Work Pledge. It underpins all of the 3,200 jobs we’re on target to create. It was great to get the thumbs up for the Good Work Pledge from Sir Michael. We’re meeting with his team to explore what more we can do to tackle the health inequality in our region

.Criticising bad business practices is not anti-business any more than criticising dangerous drivers is anti-driving. Calling for better employment practices is pro-business. Our Good Work Pledge was developed with the North East Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, and the British Confederation of Industry. They hate bad employment – and want to see good employers rewarded. If you’re an employer, and you look after your staff, please get in touch if you want to sign up. There’s a “low-admin” route for small businesses. It’s all on the North of Tyne website.

In the crusade to provide good work, stamping out insecure employment is crucial. A word of thanks therefore to the Uber drivers. Their years-long fight to be classed as workers and not self-employed “partners” was finally ruled on by the supreme court a fortnight ago. The court’s unanimous decision was that Uber drivers were “workers” entitled to basic rights including the minimum wage and statutory holidays.

This landmark ruling is another step towards making the exploitation of gig economy workers like Ricky a thing of the past.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 1.3.21

Reimagine How to Connect

“Shall we meet online or in real life?” This increasingly common question speaks volumes. No matter how good your internet connection or webcam is, it’s still not the same. Maybe The Matrix has raised our expectations.

Workers in the cultural sector have again shown their creativity and resilience. Online shows, workshops, musical performances from bedrooms. Innovative styles like the self-selecting ’front row’ of an online comedy gig. It gives the comedian real interaction with at least some of the audience. There are also advantages in inclusivity for people who find it difficult physically getting to events. They might live out in the sticks, or have limited mobility

.Some forms of entertainment translate better than others. The connection with the crowd isn’t there online. Singing the Blaydon Races or Wise Men Say in front of your living room telly is nothing like adding your voice to thousands of fellow fans. Part of the human condition is enjoying being together. Well, some of the time.

Last week I had a meeting with Minister Caroline Dinenage and Lord Neil Mendoza to discuss cultural recovery and levelling up. The Cultural Levelling Up Fund has given a lifeline to some of our local venues like Alphabetti, Liberdaje, and the Tyne Theatre and Opera House. But there is a long way to go. It was great to hear Lord Mendoza say he’d take up the challenge to show culture can contribute to levelling up. I’ll continue to push.

Before becoming Mayor I was Councillor for Monument ward which covers Newcastle City Centre. I’d often meet with businesses to discuss the future of the City Centre. The trend of working from home and shopping online was already happening. Like King Canute (or is it Cnut – need to be careful with that spelling!), we can’t hold back the tide. The trickle has become a torrent.

Next week I’m meeting Minister Paul Scully about re-opening cities. The government want to discuss how to get people back into offices and shops. We need to be thinking further ahead than that. Shops and office space are going to change. We’ve already seen some big names from the high street disappear. Reimagining the future of Britain’s city centres is now urgent.

In Newcastle we have two universities, a football stadium and a hospital to build a vision around. And people will always want a nexus of pubs, bars and clubs to socialise in. The transport network is focused on city centres, so they’re easy to reach. Cultural venues are well placed there to take advantage of the transport links and plug into the social scene.

How should we reimagine our city centre? A focus on public spaces so people can gather in a pleasant environment has to be part of it. More green spaces that show off the beautiful architecture. Flexible meeting rooms for when ‘working-from-homers’ need to meet in person. Spaces for community groups to convene. My kids love meeting their mates to play games. I’d be interested in hearing your ideas, so do get in touch via the North of Tyne website.

Our Citizen’s Assembly starts next week. We’ve been busy making sure all the participants have the kit and skills they need to join in. If they don’t have a computer, we’re lending them a laptop. We’ve worked hard to make sure they come from a diverse range of backgrounds, ages, geographies and also different views on climate change.

One gentleman has been isolating all throughout the pandemic and was thrilled when we got the Zoom connection up and running. He’d never used Zoom before. “I can see you!” He was blown away that we wanted to hear his opinion and is excited about taking part. Many other participants have said how chuffed they are that we’re asking their opinion, saying they’ve never been asked before.

That is the power of connection. Whether in the physical realm or the virtual. Digital may not be real life, but it can make a real difference. We’ve all experienced upheavals and changing patterns of activity over the past year. We need to identify the good bits we want to keep and embrace them

Published Originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.2.21

Plaggy Bagging

Snow, -6 degrees C, and I’ve been out sledging with my kids. My younger son, now 13, clad only in a T-shirt and cagoule jacket.

“How are you going to keep warm in that? You’ll freeze!” I told him. “I’m a Geordie,” he replied. He was right too. Maybe it’s the energy of youth, running up and sliding down a bank. I even taught him the age-old art of “plaggy bagging” – using a bin liner as an improvised sledge that you steer by shifting your bodyweight.

Geordies are legendary for hardiness. Venturing out in T-shirts or short skirts when there’s ice on the ground. It’s exaggerated, but based on a grain of truth. The stereotype has taken hold.

The rest of the country knows it’s been snowing because it made the news. There must have been a light dusting of snow in Surrey or Kent. Snow up here is less of a story. Anything up here is less of a story.

We face regional imbalances in pretty much everything.

Last week I met with the Research & Development Minister. R&D leads to innovation, the creation of productive industries, and interesting, well-paid jobs. Without it, there’d be no Covid vaccine, for a start.

London, Oxford, and Cambridge account for 46% of the UK’s public and charitable R&D, but just 21% of the population. And I doubt you’ll be surprised that over 70% of capital investment in research infrastructure between 2007 and 2014 were made in London, the East and South East.

In the North of Tyne, in a relatively short time, we’ve been backing some exciting projects with devolved funding. Like our Advancing Circular Economy project, joint with industry. It develops environmentally sustainable replacements for household products – detergents, for example. It creates high-paid, high-tech jobs in the process.

You may have seen the Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake, where he struggles to apply for jobs online. 53% of our people lack the skills or equipment to access online services. Compared that to 35% in the South East. In the North East only 18% of people are highly engaged internet users. In the South East it’s 49%.

So we’ve partnered with Newcastle’s National Innovation Centre for Data to support digital adoption for 800 North East businesses. And bought £650,000 of kit so disadvantaged school kids can access lessons online.

I had a second Ministerial last week – with a Minister from The Department of Culture, Media and Sport. I spend a lot of my time speaking up for our region. In Culture and the Arts, the North East economy benefits £72 per person. London benefits £311 per person. The good news is the Minister agreed to my proposal for my team to work with Whitehall civil servants to address this.

Community arts funding from the Lottery is £50.40 per person in London. In the rest of England, it’s £21.26. We’re making some progress here too. Our Spacehive is matching North of Tyne money with Lottery funds to get community projects off the ground.

We are paving the way – but if government is serious about levelling up, they need to match warm words with hard cash.

Last week saw the sad news that Mary Wilson died. She co-founded The Supremes, and like the rest of Motown, influenced many British musicians. I remember reading a piece on how The Jam wrote Town Called Malice. Bruce Foxton, the bassist, acknowledged that the bass line closely resembles You Can’t Hurry Love by The Supremes. It’s a link few would make, but it hits you as soon as you listen to both tracks.

Town Called Malice describes a left behind town, something the North East understands all too well. The way the grind of poverty affects relationships and life chances.

The Southern establishment imagines Geordies wearing T-shirts in the snow. They see the whole North as bleating about being hard done to. We are, but that argument has cut no ice for forty years. So I always offer a solution – how investment will empower us to generate wealth here.

Like the song says, “I could go on for hours, and I probably will, but I’d sooner put some joy back in this town called Malice

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 15.2.21

Listen To Those You Disagree With

The act of listening matters. Hearing viewpoints different to your own is an essential part of a healthy political climate. It’s the only route to effective democracy.

So who should politicians listen to first? Billionaires? Newspaper owners? Lobbyists? That’s the list that worries people – that those with influence exercise it unhealthily and selfishly. It’s a legitimate worry.

An underplayed danger is politicians listening to people who stroke their egos. It’s human to enjoy being flattered, and made to feel important. It’s self-affirming to meet people who agree with you.

But here’s the real kicker: only meeting people who don’t give them a hard time. Listening to someone is not the same as agreeing with them. It does mean appreciating that there is a different viewpoint, and trying to understand it. Today’s politics is so febrile – the slightest Twitter slip is pounced upon – that politicians are increasingly controlling about their public image. It’s a vicious circle that motivates the media to try to outflank the spin doctors and minders, and seek out the member of the public who will have a pop.

The best antidote is to not base your self-esteem on your public approval. Denis Healey famously said that politicians require a hinterland. A breadth and depth gained from knowledge and pursuits outside of politics. Literary, artistic, scientific, sporting. And family, of course. I have time marked out when I switch off my phone, and spend it with my kids. It’s too easy to become a workaholic in this job.

Listening isn’t just for politicians. We’d all be wiser to weigh evidence before grandstanding. Some people spend their lives on transmit. Social media gives a platform to arm-chair experts, with evidence-free opinions on everything from the biomedical science of vaccination to the mechanics of international trade. In a previous era, we’d hear these people across the pub, five pints the worse for wear.

I meet with organised interest groups all the time: big business, small business, trade unions, transport user groups, human rights campaigners, Citizens UK, local business forums, religious leaders, and so on. Their specialist knowledge is valuable. Discussion allows us to drill down behind the strap-lines and find workable solutions.

Most interesting, though, are when I meet people who have no specific agenda. Last week I met 6th formers online, from schools across North Tyneside. They spoke of the impact lockdown is having on their lives. How they are making their career choices – or deliberately not making choices yet. Their hopes to not have to move away from the North East to have good job prospects. The economic effects on their family when parents lose their jobs. The changes they want to see in the world.

These kinds of insights are invaluable. After all, young people are the experts in understanding young people. A core aim of all our work on skills and job creation is to make sure that our young people can have a prosperous and stable future in the North East and don’t have to head to London to have a career.

The NHS Patient Charter introduced in 2015 is based on the core NHS principal of “No decision about me without me”. This means listening and consulting directly with patients in all decision making about their treatment.

Focus groups and the advice of marketing gurus are no substitute for real engagement with real people. Especially those historically marginalised, such as our Red Wall constituencies. Poverty is an increasing problem in our region. The impact of Covid will be severe.

Poor families are rarely listened to or given a voice. That’s why we are working with the Poverty Truth Network to establish a Poverty Truth Commission for North of Tyne.

Fair pay and secure, unionised jobs are the foundation for dealing with poverty. But the individual causes and consequences of poverty are engulfed in myth and prejudice. Listening to lived experience will help us develop the interventions that will make a practical difference.

Putting listening into practice this way is well worth the effort. It makes democracy work

.Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8.2.21

Retrofitting is a short sighted waste of money

Did you know the 2nd February is Groundhog Day?   

At this very moment houses are being built which will need to be retrofitted.  Retrofitting means installing something later which would have been easier and cheaper to include it when it was built.  

This will cost about £20,000 per house.  Who will pay? Probably the homeowner.  How much would it have cost if it was built into the house? About £5,000.  

So why would any government let something so obviously ridiculous happen? Well, let me tell you a story.

Back in 2006, when people trusted banks and you could go to the cinema, there was a Labour government.  They announced that all new homes would be “zero carbon” within 10 years.  The 10-year phasing allowed industry to adapt.  By 2016, all new homes would generate as much energy on-site as they used.  With a guaranteed market and a 10 year lead-in companies could invest in developing technologies.  Technologies would become cheaper and more efficient.  We’d have a skilled workforce and a bright future of green jobs for young people.  We’d be world leaders in green technology innovation.  

In 2015 the Conservative government scrapped these planswith only 6 months’ notice.  The official reason given in the government report was to “reduce net regulation on housebuilders”.  In other words, lobbying behind closed doors.  Good for the housebuilders’ shareholders.  Bad for the people buying the houses, their heating bills, the environment, and everyone who lives on planet Earth.  

814,000 new homes have been completed in the last three years.  All will need retrofitting.  

Government are talking about green homes once again.  After all, the problem wasn’t going to go away.  It certainly feels like Groundhog Day.  

Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for housing, released a Planning White paper in August 2020.  It said that from 2025, they “expect new homes to produce 75-80% lower CO2 emissions compared to current levels.  These homes will be ‘zero carbon ready’”.  

The obvious question is why ‘zero carbon ready’?  Why not zero carbon? I asked him directly on a zoom call.  He said he’d consider it.  We’ve lost nine years and wasted 814,000 opportunities to have a zero-carbon housing stock.  By 2025 we need to be more that ‘ready’.  

The government has a target of 300,000 new homes a year.  So by 2025 that’s another 1,200,000 homes to retrofit.  

If you’ve bought a new build since 2016, or buy one in the next few years, these decisions are literally costing you money.  About £15,000 in fact.

Existing homes need retrofitting too.  The UK’s housing stock is the oldest in Europe.  We have low levels of construction and demolition.   Around 70-80% of our buildings will still be used in 2050.  Retrofit is looming large.  

At the Combined Authority we’re developing our £10 million Green New Deal Fund to help organisations adapt to green energy.  This is just a drop in the warming ocean though.  Retrofitting everyone’s home will cost £billions.  

In almost all cases it’s cheaper and more energy-effective to retrofit old homes than knock them down and start again.  Our homes vary from Tyneside flats to Georgian townhouses, high rises and homes with gardens.  The technical challenge is complex.  

Retrofitting means insulating walls (internally or externally), fitting air-tight window frames with double or triple glazing, and improving the efficiency of electrical and heating appliances.  It could mean solar panels, and air- or ground-source heat pumps. Businesses tell me what they need most is a consistent pipeline of work.  Then they can invest in equipment, train people up and build capacity.    

The government introduced a £2 billion Green Home Grants scheme.  You’d think it’s a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, it is in chaos.  Applications take ages, vouchers are rejected and companies are not being paid.  Why?  Because instead of giving it to UK public servants with decades of experience, it was outsourced…to a private firm in Georgia, USA.  So don’t try contacting them during UK office hours, they’re in a different time zone.

We need to create jobs and boost our economy, we need to reduce emissions.  But you can’t outsource leadership.  Government must act now.  

Originally Published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 1.1.21


Light at The End of The Tunnel ?

 Do you remember when you were a kid, and you’d ask your Mam or Dad for something, and they’d say, “We’ll see” – which is parent speak for “No chance.” Or they’d say “We’ll see what Santa brings” which is code for “Hopefully you’ll have forgotten by then”.

As a child, next Christmas was always in the far distant future. Last Christmas was just a vague memory. As you get older, your perception of time changes. And since we went into the first lockdown last March, time seems to be behaving very strangely indeed.

Normally, we structure our perception of time around events. Birthday parties and anniversaries. Kids off school. Getting away on holiday. Without these landmarks, we feel in a perpetual no-man’s land. Like we’re stuck in that limbo time between Christmas and New Year, where you have no idea what day it is, but you know it’s fine to eat chocolates for breakfast.

With the days running into each other, and no highlights to look forward to, it’s tempting to watch one of those 24 hour news channels. Even while you’re doing it, you know it’s a mistake – there’s just so much doom and gloom. Since I became a politician I’ve stopped watching rolling news – it’s too superficial. I imagine it’s what it must feel like when a meteorologist is asked “will it rain next weekend?” and is expected to give a “yes or no” answer.

To get your attention, the media keep using the term ‘unprecedented’, particularly about Covid-19. I think we’ve worked out it’s unprecedented, we don’t need to be told. The global media have had a field day with all the unprecedented events caused by the unprecedented President. The holder of the highest office on the planet was – let’s tell the truth here – a pathological liar. Who advocated white supremacy, sexually assaulting women, and injecting bleach into your lungs as a Covid treatment. His administration withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and let Covid run rampant. Not to mention the corruption, inciting violence and the fantasist claim that he’d won a landslide in the election. All unprecedented, but it’s noticeable how quickly people just came to adapt to it.

Unprecedented can describe good news, too. Kamala Harris becoming the United States’ first female Vice President, the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history, and the first African American and South Asian American Vice President. I caught Joe Biden’s inauguration speech. He’s not a young man, and Kamala Harris might be the first woman president of the US. For me, the highlight of that speech was undoubtedly Bernie Saunders’ unprecedented mittens, and all the memes they’ve spawned.

In times like this, it’s easy to lose perspective. Just as Trump’s abuse and lies were not robustly challenged by the US media, we’re seeing a numbing of UK news responses.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of police records were accidentally wiped from the police database. Home Secretary Priti Patel ’s was asked whether any of the data had been permanently lost. I was staggered when she answered to the effect, “Dunno mate.” And the Prime Minister couldn’t tell the House of Commons how many cases are affected by the lost data. In any previous era this would be a government defining story. Now it’s submerged in mix of speculation, guesswork and urban legend that passes for Britain’s public debate. No wonder people doubt the accuracy of information coming from the Government.

One positive unprecedented event was the speed of the vaccine development. It is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to predict what will happen with the virus. And how quickly – or carefully – we can come out of lockdown.

Despite the Government’s bizzare decision to cut the number of vaccines for the North East because we’re too successful at delivering it, the most vulnerable groups are being vaccinated. NHS staff and volunteers are working tirelessly. Take-up rates are positive too: in the North East and Yorkshire, 715,903 people have had their first dose, and 71,508 have had both doses.

It is the tiniest spark of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Let’s focus on that little spark and watch it grow.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 25.1.21

Feed the Children

You’ll have seen photos of the meagre rations meant to feed schoolchildren. You might have read that corporate CEO pay has rocketed to 120 times that of their average worker. You’re probably aware that people are volunteering to help with Covid jabs. What links them all?

Some cheese slices, tin of beans, loaf of bread a little bit of veg and not much else is supposed to provide ten meals. Meant to come to £30 worth of food. Even at retail prices, it’s about £5.22. The real scrooge part was seeing that penne pasta had been removed from its original packaging and doled out in little plastic bags. How tight is that? Even at supermarket prices, it only costs £1 for a kilo of brand-name pasta.

The companies get an administration fee and packaging and shipping fee. The parcels are supposed to contain £15 worth of food per child per week.

Let’s not forget free school meals are taken up by kids of all ages. My eldest son is 14 now. That food parcel wouldn’t last him ten minutes, never mind ten meals. Like most teenage boys, he’d trough the lot in one go.

Chartwells is the corporate profiteer in this case. Owned British catering giant the Compass Group, they won’t be paying supermarket prices for food. Last year they posted a profit of £1.2billion. Their chairman was Paul Walsh, a multi-millionaire Tory party donor and member of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group.

And let’s not fall for the idea that their profit is paying for the free school meals. Corporation tax contributes only 6% of UK tax revenues. Payroll taxes and indirect taxes (VAT, fuel, etc) raise most of our public expenditure. Tax comes out of the pockets of ordinary citizens, and into the pockets of the mega-rich.

On the subject of wealth inequality, “High Pay Day” was January 6th this year. The day when the typical FTSE 100 chief executive has already been paid what the average worker gets for the whole year. After just 34 hours under their belt.

The pay gap between executives and workers is particularly acute in the retail sector. Ocado, the online supermarket, paid chief executive Tim Steiner £57.8 million last year, that’s 2,605 times the £22,500 Ocado’s delivery staff get on average. It’s those staff who are doing the work, generating the profits. Meanwhile, Mr Steiner paid £50,000 to the Conservative Party. How long would it take those delivery drivers to save up £50,000?

It’s easy to be outraged when kids have their food stolen by profiteers. There’s noticeably less outrage that the rich are getting richer while real wages fall and unemployment rises. And hardly anyone is asking why we’re not paying people for giving life-saving vaccines in a pandemic.

It’s great when people volunteer – I encourage it. Less great is the shortage of medical staff caused by government raiding their pensions to pay for the banking crisis the billionaires never paid for. In fact, it’s egregious that many of these volunteers are suffering a pay freeze – a real terms pay cut. Yet £22 billion was thrown at conglomerates with track record of failure to run a failed test & trace system. Funny that it was a Tory MP’s wife who got the gig.

No one is connecting these issues because British public debate is banal. It distracts from the real question: who has power? Perhaps you’re okay with that. Or resigned. It’s hard not to become numb when we see homeless people, hungry kids, small businesses folding, public servants burned out from overwork, our elderly relatives dying from Covid in care homes, and our kids accruing debt before they can even afford a deposit for a home.

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

There’s not some vast international conspiracy, run by a shadowy Keyser Soze. But there is an establishment that maintains a legal, political and economic system based on property rights. It has been shaped for centuries, with mechanisms to ensure wealth flows from ordinary people to rich people. And it is out of control. Britain is run in the interests of a kleptocracy.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle

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72% of Children in Poverty are from Working Families

Democracy is a powerful idea. Everyone gets an equal say, no matter your background or your wealth. It took a lot of fighting for – the landed nobility did not roll over willingly. Many campaigners were hanged, transported or killed in battle. The events in Washington DC this week show we can’t take it for granted.

Insurrectionists in the Capitol last week waved Confederate flags. The Antebellum South was a democracy – in the sense that it held elections. Of course, women couldn’t vote. And slaves were chattels – property. If you were a woman slave, your children were the legal property of your owner the moment they were born.

Even Ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, had slavery. Unlike the race-based slavery of the Americas, an Athenian slave had more legal protection. Striking a slave was illegal, and could be prosecuted. Killing a slave was punished with the death penalty.

In practice, there was little difference between a poor citizen and fortunate slave. Athenian slaves could run businesses, and give a share of the profits to their owners. Compare that with the modern practice of shareholding.

In Athens there was very little slave trading, and slavery was not hereditary. Debt bondage was a common route into slavery. If you were in debt, you were enslaved to your creditor until you could repay him.

The view that working for wages is akin to slavery dates back to the ancient world.

Said the Roman statesman Cicero, “”the very wage workers receive is a pledge of their slavery”. In today’s Britain, we may have the freedom to choose not to work, but the freedom to starve is no freedom at all. And many who do work still use foodbanks. 72% of children in poverty are from working families.

Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass – whose freedom was bought by the people of Newcastle – concluded, “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other”. Two and a half centuries on, and wage slavery is still with us.

No discussion of wage slavery can pass up a quotation from Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s best drinking bud. “The slave is sold once and for all; the proletarian must sell himself daily and hourly. The individual slave, property of one master, is assured an existence,

however miserable it may be, because of the master’s interest. The individual proletarian, property as it were of the entire bourgeois class which buys his labour only when someone has need of it, has no secure existence.”

There’s the root of the problem. The drive, for the past forty years at least, for a “flexible labour market”, that no government of any party has challenged. I’ve never known any campaigner or trade unionist argue against increasing productivity or profitability. What they argue against is being forced into a marginal existence. Zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment are rife.

The North of Tyne, like many progressive organisations, has a Modern Slavery policy. You have to ask: what is wrong with our world that we even need such a policy?

Slavery today, as in Ancient Athens, is based on debt. Interest is a way of transferring wealth from poor people to rich people.

That’s why I stand in solidarity with the owners of small businesses, who are working their socks off, often to repay interest. They have to take life-changing risks, like putting their house up as collateral. Contrast that with our government who have allowed the three million #excludedUK – small business owners and self-employed – to fall through the gap during this pandemic. No wonder the Prime Minister is famous for saying, “f*ck business”. And it wasn’t “feck”.

The Labour Party has a massive opportunity here. The vast majority of businesses in the UK are precarious small businesses. Not just workers forced into self-employment, like in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. But most small businesses are precarious, and many struggle to get paid on time by corporations.

Anyone who has to keep working to avoid penury is a worker. Even workers who are earning a good living have very little choice but to continue. To quote Fight Club, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate, so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t.”

As Noam Chomsky says, “representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere.”

What does democracy mean to a care worker juggling two jobs on minimum wage who never gets to read her daughter a bed-time story? Or the owner of a small business who is about to go bust because a large corporate customer still hasn’t paid their invoice, 120 days after it was due. Or to parents who are financially secure, but worried about their son leaving university with £60,000 of debt just for getting educated? Not so long ago, education was seen as a public good.

Whole swathes of essential services and utilities are governed not by us, as citizens, but by the needs of distant shareholders, often based in tax havens. Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, said, “Abandoning people to the private market in relation to a service that affects every dimension of their basic well-being is incompatible with human rights requirements.”

You got to vote for a government who’ve just decided that all those council keyworkers aren’t allowed a pay rise to match inflation. But you aren’t allowed a vote on whether the CEO of Ocado is worth his £58 million pay packet. The only way you get to vote on that, is to be rich and own enough shares.

The American philosopher of pragmatism, John Dewey, said that until “industrial feudalism” is replaced by “industrial democracy”, politics will be “the shadow cast on society by big business.”

Donald Trump’s climate change denying campaign was funded by fossil fuel companies. Jeremy Corbyn faced relentless assault from the British press, eighty percent of which is owned by a handful of billionaire tax-exiles who don’t live in Britain.

Economic democracy is a simple idea. It means the people who do the work, get paid for the work. And profits get reinvested, not extracted for financial bubbles like share buybacks.

That means more local business. A level playing field for small businesses. More cooperatives and worker owned businesses. And an active role for workers in the management of a company, through the role of trade unions. That means repealing Britain’s anti-democratic trade union laws. It means bringing our public services back into public ownership – democratic ownership, where workers and service users get to shape them. It means ending tax dodging.

But the first thing is to put economic democracy on the agenda. So little of this is ever addressed in public discourse. We argue about the personalities, and judge their media performances. Boris is good because he used three word slogans. Oh hang on, he’s now bad because he keeps U-turning. Meanwhile, the real power of money goes unquestioned.

Expect the guardians of the status quo to object to any debate that seriously threatens their source of power.

As the Brazilian priest Helda Camera said, “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor have no food, they called me a communist.”

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11.1.21

Look after Your Staff and they will Look after You

January, it’s said, is named after the Roman god Janus. He’s depicted having two faces, one looking into the past and the other the future. He’s the overseer of transition and change.

Looking back at January 2020, I doubt even a Roman god could have foreseen the year we actually had.

I’ve been looking back at the column I wrote in the first week of January last year. It had been a busy eight months after being elected. Setting up the new Combined Authority, appointing my team, building relationships and kick-starting the programmes to regenerate and reinvigorate the region’s economy.

We’d just come through a turbulent General Election. Seats in the North that had always been Labour strongholds were lost to the Tories, but I was looking forward to a year where I’d be able to deliver my manifesto pledges.

Then the first lockdown in March happened, and none of us knew what that would mean for the region’s economy. Or the country’s. Or how long it would go on for. Then we had the Tier system, and a second wave of the virus, and then the second lockdown. Now we’ve got a new variant, and probably another national lockdown.

Despite COVID, lockdowns, staff working from home, homeschooling, Zoom, Zoom not working, and “you’re on mute”, we’ve accomplished a huge amount.

When I say ‘we’ this isn’t false modesty, or humblebragging. It’s true that I’m the political face of the Combined Authority, but there’s an engine room of skilled, dedicated people working with me. All of them enthusiastic about championing the region we love.

We’ve demonstrated the success of the Mayoral Combined Authority model. We have programmes in place to deliver 2,732 new jobs, and have safeguarded another 1,782. We’ve successfully handled the devolution of the £23 million Adult Education Budget. And we’re managing the £24m devolved Brownfield Housing Fund, going from announcement to spades in the ground within just six months. Homes and jobs is a solid foundation for recovery.

We’ve been working closely – and effectively – with authorities south of the Tyne. There’s a joint focus on improving transport to the whole of the North East. That followed March’s budget, where the Chancellor announced £4.2 billion for transport funding. We’ll only get our share of that –around £500 million – if the North East’s seven local authorities join in a single Mayoral Combined Authority. The experiences of the pandemic have shown how well the North East can work together. We’ve developed a joint recovery plan that will form the basis of negotiations with Government.

The epidemic did delay our plans for the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change, but face-to-face meetings will be replaced with Zoom. This week, letters will be sent out to randomly selected residents of North Tyneside, Northumberland and Newcastle. They’ll be asked to take part in the Assembly and consider the question ‘What should we do in the region to address climate change and its causes fairly, effectively and quickly?’ It’s asking what kinds of changes and trade-offs they would support to protect our collective future. We’re looking forward to the work that will come out of it.

Our Green New Deal is rolling out, boosting the offshore wind sector and the low carbon economy. We’ve set up a £5 million innovation fund to create a digital ecosystem for public services and small businesses in the region. We’re continuing to work with our Local Authorities to set up more Community Hubs. I was proud to announce that the Combined Authority was an accredited Living Wage Employer with a zero gender pay gap. We’ve launched our Good Work Pledge, encouraging employers large and small, to look after their staff. The pledge promises job security, progression opportunities, and fair wages to all their employees.

At the end of a long and trying year came some good news. A company called BritishVolt is hoping to open its Gigafactory here, manufacturing batteries for electric vehicles and providing 3,000 jobs. In a pleasing twist of fate, “the world’s cleanest and greenest battery facility” will be built on the site of the old Blyth coal-powered power station.

I’m looking forward to seeing just what we can achieve in 2021. Bring it on.

Originally Published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 4.1.21

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Real Wellbeing Requires Abundant Green and Blue Spaces

The places where we live and the stresses we face constantly change, but the importance of our friendships remain. Living in safe, attractive communities is essential for our wellbeing. Connection to others defines our sense of belonging, our place in the world. It’s not surprising that research shows a strong link between a sense of community and emotional wellbeing.

Before Christmas, the North of Tyne hosted a wellbeing policy workshop. What really matters to quality of life? For too long public policy has focused on remote statistics like GDP and growth rate. We’re in the middle of the worst recession ever. How we rebuild will define our futures.

The Carnegie Trust’s head of policy is a pioneer in this field. She described how striving to hit economic indicators misses the point about the real environment that shapes people’s health, wealth and happiness. The Welsh Government’s commissioner for the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act ran us through their approach. How every policy decision is viewed through the lens of what effect will this have in ten, twenty, fifty years time. This has put long-term sustainability front and centre of policy making. Not just carbon footprints, but the visual quality of the environment; the effect of green spaces on mental health. Good old fashioned happiness.

The obsession with GDP, growth, and the FTSE index leaves a huge majority of people falling through the gaps. Everything is done for some greater good, that few of us seem to share in. The claim that trickle-down works. That “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

In the decade before Covid, UK GDP grew from £1.6 trillion to £2.1 trillion. A 34% increase. In the same period, knife crime increased 42%, rough sleeping increased 169% and foodbank use increased 3900%.

The rising tide is great if you own a yacht. But it leaves the rest of us cold and wet. And some drown.

To quote Lillie Franks, Writer of Wrongs on Twitter

Replacing the words “The Economy” with “rich peoples yacht money”

How can we respond to COVID without sacrificing rich peoples yacht money ?

-Saving the environment sounds nice but what about rich peoples yacht money

-Medicare for all would destroy rich peoples yacht money

We’ve put inclusive economy at the heart of our approach. The new jobs we’re creating have to be good jobs. Paid enough to live on, with job security, where mental health is taken seriously. It matches our commitment to community cohesion. Left to the market, there would be nowhere we could meet that doesn’t involve spending money.

Real wellbeing requires abundant green and blue spaces, and safe spaces to interact with our neighbours. Communities need a vibrant centre, a focus for people of all ages to participate in education, economic and cultural life. We’re laying some of the groundwork with our £1.5 million Community Hubs project.

There’s a real wealth of talent and goodwill in our communities. With Crowdfund North of Tyne, we’re giving this a bit of a nudge to encourage people. The range of projects getting community buy-in has been fantastic. Five have been selected for funding from the first funding cycle.

The community beekeeping project will be based at the Meadow Well Connected centre in North Shields. Set up by a local man, it will help people to learn the basics of beekeeping without needing to fork out for all the kit. There’s funding to place ten beehives at the centre. It’ll be run intergenerationally, with kids, parents and grandparents, and include people with disabilities. What a great way to bring people together, while also providing a pollination service to local gardens and allotments. With honey at the end of it!

Sustainability means tackling the climate crisis. But it also means placing people at the centre of policy, ahead of abstract economic indicators. The 2009 book, the Spirit Level, documents the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

For every measure of health or social problems, the more unequal a country is, the worse the problems are. Whether a country is rich or poor overall, it is inequality that increases physical ill health, mental ill health, drug abuse, imprisonment, obesity, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child abuse.

One homeless person sleeping rough diminishes us all. One family unable to feed their children makes all of our lives worse. There was so much to fix even before this pandemic hit.

An end to inequality would benefit us all.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 28.12.20

Have a Safe and Peaceful Christmas

2020 has definitely been a challenge and made us all see life in a new way. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make us realise that simply spending time with our family is the most important thing.

I know many people will find it tough not seeing their families this Christmas. Like many, my family decided not to spend Christmas together this year, even before the latest announcement. It’s a hard decision but the right one for us. Everyone’s situation is different and you have to do what is right for you. There aren’t many bonuses but one has got to be not being able to fall out over Trivial Pursuit.

The fantastic thing about family Christmas traditions is that they develop over time. They morph as families change and new people are added. As kids grow from toddlers to teenagers. They can seem so normal to people brought up with it and only exposed when a new partner or friend observes it for the first time. And then you are outed as the crazy people who open their presents AFTER Christmas lunch!

As the social side of Christmas is somewhat limited this year, I’m sure food will be centre stage for many. It definitely will be for me and my family. However, some people do not have that option. There are some unbelievable facts about the prevalence of low wages. Low wages make families have to choose between heating and eating. The New Economics Foundation found that by next April a third of the UK population will be living on an income with which they can’t afford the basics for a decent standard of living. This inequality is causing food poverty. The richest 10% of households in Great Britain hold 44% of wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%. In the sixth richest national it is just not acceptable.

I’ll be watching the programme tonight following Marcus Rashford’s food poverty campaign. He’s doing a cracking job but it’s a sad indictment on this country that it’s taken a footballer to step in to help address this problem. It’s shameful that 320 Conservative MPs voted to against feeding kids over school holidays. That Jacob Rees Mogg complained about UNICEF feeding hungry British children.

Imagine if the spacemen who came travelling in Chris de Burgh’s song saw the queuing at food banks. I bet he would be baffled at how a prosperous country could let it happen.

This year the North of Tyne Combined Authority chose the West End Food Bank as its charity. The staff have raised an impressive amount of money to donate. They do such a fantastic job of catching and supporting people when they are most in need. A fantastic project that makes me proud to come from the North East.

We’re doing what we can through the North of Tyne Combined Authority by creating good jobs on decent wages. We are supporting people into employment through training and looking at innovative ways to address the underlying causes. I’m not going to stop pushing on this issue until there is zero poverty.

This experience will not leave us and in time may even be a source of pride that we were there and we got through it together.

My youngest son is an aspiring Thespian. His favourite speech is the St Crispin’s day speech from Henry V. That’s the one where Henry V inspires his troops before battle and reminds them how they will feel in the pub afterwards. “Then will he strip his sleeves and show his scars, and say ‘these wounds I had on Crispin’s day’”.

This year was not easy, and next year will be challenging too. The North East has stuck together and that feels right. That’s the kind of North East people want to live in. I’ll keep on fighting for the recovery. We can get through this if we stick together.

Let’s embrace differences, even if it means enduring sprouts for Christmas dinner.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 21.12.20

Mature Relationships Get Things Done

It’s said that the distance between the Government and Opposition benches in the House of Commons is two swords lengths, to stop them stabbing each other. If you watch some of the debates, it’s probably just as well.

Prime Minister’s Question time is meant to be the opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister, and raise issues from their own constituencies. In practice it’s an exercise in point-scoring. The media join in, scoring the PM and the Leader of the Opposition on their performances. The focus is on who ‘won’, rather than finding the truth.

I made these points at a “Leadership in the 21st Century” event a few weeks back. I was asked why we don’t have better politicians.

There are three main reasons.

Firstly – the appearance doesn’t match the reality. Do you remember the headline, “MP handles niche local issue competently”? No. And you never will. 99% of politics doesn’t get reported. It’s not newsworthy. Barring a few egregious exceptions, politicians are pretty good at the bread and butter. And most work hard – from ward councillors through to cabinet ministers.

Secondly – politics in government is more difficult than it looks.

Council leaders, mayors and ministers have to be on top of a vast amount of subject matter.

I can go from a meeting about the Castleford Corridor in Manchester’s rail system because it impacts on services to Newcastle, to the pipeline of brownfield housing sites, and how we’ll get spades in the ground before Xmas. Next, a review of the Kickstarter partnership with DWP officials, then speak on a panel about the future of offshore wind, before chairing a strategy session on economic recovery. Then meet with a minister about international trade. All before lunch time.

You need to understand legal ramifications and budgetary implications. To speed read hundreds of pages of briefings. You have to build working relationships with people in the space of a few minutes. To go on live TV with no advanced warning of what you might be asked.

You have to deliver a vision based on values with only half the resources you need. You’re operating in an environment where the future is unknown but you’re responsible for planning for it. You need the courage to lead and the wisdom to listen. The world and his dog want a slice of your time. You have to display dignity in the face of abuse. You need to be the living embodiment of Kipling’s “If-“

To be all this, and someone who is witty, charismatic and photogenic is unrealistic. People expect Hollywood heroes, and are disappointed when they get humans.

Thirdly – our politics is deliberately adversarial.

It’s set up to be a win-lose game. Too often, people vote for the image, not the substance. It’s amplified by spin doctors. Their job is to help their politicians win the next election.

We saw it with Bernhard Ingham under Thatcher, Alistair Campbell / Malcolm Tucker under Blair, Andy Coulston under Cameron and Dominic Cummings under Johnson.

It is reinforced by the Whip system. MPs are corralled to be “on message”.

News media are businesses. Even the BBC chases ratings. Politics is entertainment. Producers and journalists have too little time. Clicks-per-story can be measured precisely. The pressure to sensationalise is intense. Nuanced debate is lost. You’re expected to inform the public in one sound bite.

As a Mayor I’m lucky. My mandate is direct from you. I don’t have to throw red meat to keep my backbenchers on side. There is no shadow mayor trying to slide tackle me with studs showing every week.

My job requires building alliances to get things done. My cabinet has the leaders and deputies from the three local authorities. I have to align the business organisations, trade unions, voluntary sector and public services. As a Labour Mayor, I work with Conservative ministers to find the win-win.

It’s notable how the mayors who used to be MPs describe this. “I feel like I’m dealing with grown-ups now,” one said. “Westminster was all about taking sides.” He was talking as much about politics within parties as between them.

We need to learn from this. To change politics, we need to change the way politicians have to work.

Originally Published in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 14.12.20

With Power comes Responsibility

Are metro mayors properly scrutinised? That’s a question I was asked at last week’s Parliamentary Select Committee on devolution. Steve Rotherham, my counterpart in Liverpool City Region, says that we are the most scrutinised politicians anywhere. To get something done as Mayor, I have to persuade the 6 council leaders and deputies in my cabinet. Then there are 38 members and substitutes of various scrutiny bodies, and 41 people on our advisory boards. So my answer to the committee was, “Yes. At North of Tyne scrutiny works well.”

That’s how it should be. With power comes responsibility. Whether in elected office or an owner of a large business, you should be transparent and accountable for your decisions. American President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk saying “The buck stops here”. Yet in 2020 Britain, the powerful are showing contempt for this maxim. Too many behave as if the rules are for others and not for them.

Look at what’s happening on our high streets. The impending collapse of Arcadia, the retail empire which includes Topshop and Burton. The families of thousands of retail workers now face anxiety about paying their bills, rent and mortgages this winter. 13,000 jobs could go, and 10,000 of the employees’ pension pots are at risk.

And what’s the Arcadia chairman, knight of the realm Sir Philip Green, doing? He’s lounging on his £100 million super-yacht “Lionheart” in Morocco, enjoying his £1.2 billion fortune.

Tony Blair’s government gave Sir Philip Green his knighthood in 2006. Let’s hope Sir Keir Starmer does more than call on him to “do the right thing”. The shift away from trade union support and towards big money donors is a concern. The loss of votes in Labour heartlands can trace its roots in this kind of cronyism. Labour needs to stand tall in defence of working people and their livelihoods.

There’s a misconception that socialists like me oppose entrepreneurship and wealth generation. The opposite is true. I oppose wealth extraction, asset stripping and tax dodging. I oppose corporations like Starbucks who dodge their taxes. I oppose bandits who pay themselves £billions in dividends while bleeding pension funds dry. The pension contributions of those workers are deferred wages. It’s nothing short of legalised theft.

I support the hard-working entrepreneurs who own and run local coffee shops. I support the 2 million ExcludedUK, the owners of small business who Rishi Sunak has abandoned. Driving instructors, independent shop owners, freelance workers, micro-brewers and everyone else who is part of that rich ecosystem of small businesses. I support them with actions, not just words. Earlier in the year the North of Tyne funded shared workspaces so business who don’t pay business rates could stay afloat. Rishi Sunak needs to step up now, or we’ll see millions of small owner-managed businesses go belly up.

This culture of elite contempt for rules, for the “little people”, and impunity from consequences is embedding itself in government. The Home Secretary’s bullying is ignored. Covid rules don’t apply to special advisors flouting lockdown.

Last month’s National Audit Office report into Covid procurement revealed a shocking “chumocracy”. Companies placed in a “high priority” channel were ten times more likely to be awarded a contract. How did you get into this channel? Expertise? An established supply chain? No. It was knowing a minister. Chumocracy indeed. Some might call it corruption.

Companies like Ayanda Capital Ltd – a currency-trading firm with no relevant expertise –won a £225 million contract to supply face masks for the NHS. When the product arrived, it was duff and unusable. We need a public inquiry into the management of the Covid pandemic.

Business and sleaze have long worked hand in hand but rarely on such a scale and without any apparent risk of consequences. There has been little pushback or scrutiny from parliament, let alone any minister taking responsibility and resigning. But they’re not all the same. This week Tesco voluntarily repaid £585m Covid business rates relief government had given them. You might ask why government gave them this golden windfall in the first place, but hats off to Tesco.

At North of Tyne I’ve worked hard to make us a transparent and accountable organisation. I was able to tell the Parliamentary Committee how we are embedding a culture of accountability. How we co-design our policies with the people affected by them. And on a personal level, I hold Mayor’s Question Time, write a weekly column, and produce a weekly video of what I’ve been doing.

Whether in business or in politics, trust matters. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/excludeduk

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7.12.20

Spending review=Pay Freeze

On Wednesday we had the long-awaited spending review. Since May the Chancellor had told us it would be a comprehensive spending review. There was nothing comprehensive in this. No multi-year strategic vision.

What did we get? A public sector pay freeze. Let’s call that for what it is: a pay cut in real terms. Ministers were keen to post videos of themselves clapping keyworkers back in the summer. But firefighters, teachers, council workers and countless others have been insulted. Despite all the personal risk, inadequate PPE, cancelled leave days and unpaid overtime, they are still paid less today than in 2010. This is more of the austerity that even the International Monetary Fund say is economically damaging.

The “levelling up fund” will release £600 million next year. But it’s a competitive bid process for the whole of the country, not about levelling up the North. No strategic criteria have been set. The Towns Fund has been plagued with cases of pork-barrel politics: ministers signing off money for places that serve their re-election needs. The public value for money is invariably poor.

The third item of note was £billions for the DWP to get people into jobs. Which sounds good, until you think about the basic logic. Rather than spending £billions to help people find jobs, wouldn’t it make more sense to spend money creating jobs? Making people spend 30 hours a week hunting for jobs that don’t exist is dispiriting and demeaning. People will find the jobs if the jobs are there.

We’ve been through this loop time and again in the past ten years of austerity. Serco’s failure on test and trace. Carillion going bust. Damning value-for-money audit reports for corporate outsourcing firms.

They have this ideological obsession that if government does nothing, multi-nationals will create millions of jobs. It won’t, it hasn’t, and it never will unless the government intervenes. It’s far too profitable for big money to speculate on property portfolios and share buybacks. Meanwhile, 3 million small businesses are falling through the gaps of coronavirus support.

We’ve taken a different approach in the North of Tyne. We’ve safeguarded 1,782 jobs, and our projects are in place creating 2,732 new jobs across Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland. This week we’ve announced another 500 new jobs created, bringing a global software developer here. These are good jobs – high paying, high skill, permanent jobs. Not minimum wage jobs in the gig economy. They are low-carbon jobs, exporting software over the internet.

We’re doing this with £20 million a year, and we’ve only been going 18 months. If we had the firepower that central government has, we could end unemployment. Across the country, Mayoral Combined Authorities have hit timescales and budgets time after time.

Imagine what this spending review could have been. The Chancellor could have said, “There you go, Jamie, there you go other Mayors, here’s half a billion, build me 5,000 homes.” We’ve got desperate need for affordable housing, for eco-friendly homes. We could have created jobs, lined up the apprenticeships and training opportunities, worked with supply chains to keep money in local economies. And at the end of it, we’d have the houses – real, tangible financial assets. Ultimately, it costs the taxpayer nothing – it pays for itself.

Over the summer, government wrote to me, and asked me to develop a plan for economic recovery. Everyone in the region pulled together, north and south of the Tyne, Local Authorities, businesses, universities, the lot. It would generate 55,000 high-quality jobs, 26,000 training opportunities, 15,000 new homes and retrofit another 100,000. It included clean, fast public transport, getting everyone where they needed to go reliably. It protected livelihoods, moving thousands of jobs from older, polluting industries into zero-carbon sustainable jobs. Also it boosted the economy so it would pay for itself with increased taxes from firms and the spending power it would have put in your pocket.

That’s why we need serious devolution. The CBI, Trade Unions, Think Tanks, Local Authorities, higher education, and, well, pretty much everyone thinks it’s long overdue. By law, there has to be a budget before next April. For all our sakes, let’s hope the Chancellor gets it right next time.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 30.11.20

Leave No One Behind

The new series of The Crown has started on Netflix, covering the 1980s – the Thatcher Years. Gillian Anderson’s performance is superb, portraying Mrs Thatcher’s views on Life, the Universe and Everything. People should help themselves, women are too emotional to be trusted, and people should stop waiting for the Nanny State (or anyone else) to help them.

Thatcher’s original Cabinet Ministers – the ‘wets’ – try to tone down her ideas, and warn her it will create devastating levels of unemployment. It’s still quite shocking to hear just how uncaring and compassionless she was.

Many of us remember the closures of steel works, shipyards, wagonworks and mines. We now know the deep scarring caused by mass unemployment. The fact that our wealth generating industries have been swapped for temporary contracts and the gig economy. The Crown shows what caused the levelling down of the North that we now need to fix.

And it was all built on a false prospectus. “Greed is good” summed up the Thatcher-Regan consensus. The 1987 film Wall Street articulated the idea that greed was natural, efficient, and just and expression of evolution. The idea that if we’re all greedy, then in the long run, we’ll all be better off.

It’s lazy thinking. It’s based on the false assumption that life, and the economy, is a zero sum game. That if one person wins, someone else must lose. We all know that the opposite is true. That to thrive and survive, we all have to work together.

There’s a great scene in the 2001 Russell Crowe film, a Beautiful Mind. The young John Nash (Crowe) is in a university bar with his mates, trying to work out how to chat up women. They cite Adam Smith: ‘the best result comes from everyone doing what’s best for themselves’. Nash proves that it’s mathematically better to cooperate than compete. The best result comes from everyone doing what’s best for themselves, and what is best for the group. It’s worth a watch on YouTube.

Thatcher’s famously claimed there’s no such thing as society. By this logic, businesses and private enterprises should never invest in infrastructure for the common good. It’s uncompetitive, and would also benefit their rivals.

There’s no reason for one supermarket chain to carry the cost of building a road network, if all of the other supermarkets and shops can use it. Or one car manufacturer to set up schools where anyone can learn to read and count. Or write poetry. Or learn history.

Maybe if all the supermarkets, and car manufacturers, and building firms, and, well, everyone, invested in physical infrastructure (roads, clean water, power grids, sewerage). And also invested in social infrastructure (parks, education, libraries, immunisation programmes), then all the firms would benefit. And so would all of the people working for them.

Of course, some companies would be tempted to freeload. So why not make the contributions compulsory. And call them tax. And set up agencies that can invest in, and train, staff to take a long-term view on these things. And call them publicly-owned assets. And put them under democratic control. And hey presto! A civilised society that thrives, encourages innovation, and looks after its more vulnerable citizens. In fact, as long as you don’t call it socialism, most people agree with socialism.

Perhaps the worst aspect of extreme free-market thinking is its short-termism. If we optimise a firm for maximum profit, we’ll see the best outcome. It makes perfect, intuitive sense. And is invariably disastrous in the long term.

We all know, as private citizens, that it’s much cheaper to get your car serviced regularly, rather than wait for the engine to seize up on the motorway.

So, in fact, do most businesses. It’s myth that most businesspeople are free-market fundamentalists. That’s why the Confederation of British Industry has called for Mayoral Combined Authorities to get long-term, devolved funding streams. Short-term competitive bids for central government funds waste time, money and opportunity.

This is the basis of the next devolution deal I’m asking government for. Long term funding, so we can plan. Based on a principle of a clean economy, where no one is left behind.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 23.11.20

Great North Eastern Railways, We hope

The North East’s rail network has an unusual geography. We’re almost an island – the only routes in or out are the East Coast Mainline, or the track to Carlisle. With all the talk of high speed rail, the biggest problem we face is capacity. There’s no advantage to a train capable of 255mph if it’s stuck behind a Pacer doing 55mph.

Coming from the south, the East Coast Mainline (ECML) has four tracks until you reach Northallerton. Then it’s two tracks all the way to Durham, Newcastle, Berwick and Scotland. That’s one track in each direction.

If you’ve ever been on an intercity train through our region, and wondered why it’s driving so slowly, that’s your reason. If one train runs late, it delays all the other services on the same line. This is why you sometimes get stuck crawling along behind a freight train, or stopped for ages at York waiting for a train to overtake.

The Transpennine Express trains that run to Manchester can’t travel as fast as the Azumas that go to London. Freight trains run even slower, and are limited to outside peak hours. Anyone who’s caught the last train back from London knows it takes 4hrs 20 minutes. If you’re lucky.

The whole line is straining at its capacity. We can squeeze in six trains per hour. Two go to London, two to Manchester / Liverpool, and two to Birmingham and beyond. Because the bottleneck is from Northallerton northwards, HS2 won’t fix this. Even for £106 billion. Nor will HS2a, or HS2b. Or the approximately £40 billion earmarked for Northern Powerhouse Rail. That will mostly be spent digging tunnels under the Pennines, and revamping stations between Hull and Liverpool. Manchester are wanting to spend several £billion on a new underground station. I keep having to remind people, the North doesn’t stop at the M62.

What was in the plan for us? Diddley squat. HS2 would reach York, eventually, possibly in the 2040s. But the shiny new trains would have to use the existing twin track and Victorian infrastructure. Whether Geordie, Mackam, Smoggy or Berwicker, we were supposed to crawl south to York before benefiting from faster trains.

None too chuffed with this, our North East transport team have developed an alternative plan. It’s called the Leamside Line. It diverges from the East Coast Mainline at Ferryhill. It travels through the Durham Coalfield, via Washington and joins back up with the network near Heworth. It was mothballed in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts but the track bed still exists. Reopening it would give us 4 tracks and the extra capacity and reliability we need. It opens the possibility of improving services to Washington and Sunderland. We can integrate it into an expanded Metro network at multiple locations, so you don’t have to go into Newcastle Central to catch a Metro to Sunderland or South Shields. What’s not to like?

In effect, it doubles our capacity. We can run 12 trains per hour – and faster, because we can run slower trains down one line, and faster trains down the other. The Leamside route is still there. It’s a tiny fraction of the price per mile of HS2 or London’s Crossrail. Heaven knows why it was missed off the plans.

I’ve spoken to everyone from the Secretary of State for Transport, three different junior transport ministers, numerous DFT officials, and the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. I’ve done a double act with Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council and chair of the North East Joint Transport Committee. We’ve even organised some calls mob handed, bringing in local business leaders and the region’s universities.

In the next few months, central government will announce its Integrated Rail Plan. Long story short, the Leamside Line is now back in the mix. I never relax until the funding is signed off, but we might finally see some National Rail investment into the North East.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 16.11.2020

A Fair Days Pay For a Fair Days Work

In my first few months in office, I made the North of Tyne an accredited Living Wage employer. We’re a small organisation, mainly highly skilled workers already on more than £9.30 an hour. But it did affect the cleaners, receptionists and security staff who maintain the building. We also have a gender pay gap of zero – the men and the women get the same median pay. It was another manifesto pledge, and we’re rattling through delivering them, despite the extreme disruption caused by Covid. Living Wage Week 2020 starts today (9th Nov). It celebrates the 6,500 UK employers UK who do the right thing pay their workers the Real Living Wage. For 2019/20, the Real Living Wage was £9.30 per hour. Next year’s figure is out soon. The amount is calculated on what people actually need to live on, without falling into debt. It accounts for food, clothes, bills, transport and housing. Compare it to the legal minimum wage of £8.21 for the same period, and you can see it makes a huge difference to the low paid. It was an act of deception when the government renamed the minimum wage the “National Living Wage” – it’s not. Which is why we still need the Living Wage Foundation to look at the reality of living with low pay. The Real Living Wage applies to all workers, even those under 25. Under the minimum wage, they can legally be paid as little as £4.55 an hour. People should be paid for the work they do, not discriminated against because of their age.

Everyone should be paid enough to live decently and provide for their family. No-one should experience the indignity of in-work poverty or low wage exploitation. Yet 21% of all workers across the UK, including 60,000 in the North of Tyne, are still paid less than the £9.30 per hour. It’s a false economy – it causes hardship, and is directly correlated to health problems and educational entertainment. Public services then have to pick up the strain. Low pay affects us all.

There’s an indelible moral case for paying the Real Living Wage. But there’s also a sound economic case. Good employers have realized that paying the Real Living Wage is good for business. In 2017, The Living Wage Foundation surveyed 800 employers who had signed up. An amazing 93% reported their business had benefited from paying higher wages. Increased motivation, lower days off sick, and higher staff retention were all good for productivity. Many of our local employers have realized this and have signed up. There are now 59 accredited employers representing over 33,000 employees across North of Tyne area. And I’d like to give a special mention to Sunderland City Council, who’ve joined us as an accredited Living Wage Employer – no mean feat, given the brutal assault on local government finance.

This week we’re also launching the North of Tyne Good Work Pledge. To qualify, employers have to demonstrate they’re not using exploitative contracts, they’re paying the Real Living Wage, they look after their staff wellbeing, have career development opportunities, and engage with their workers, including recognising trade unions. We’ll be linking this to public sector procurement so that companies wanting to bid for work will need to be good employers.

Decent pay is also good news for the local economy. When billionaires get a 10% income increase, it ends up in tax havens. Give an ordinary worker a 10% pay increase, and they decorate the back bedroom, or go out to a gig at a local venue. Their spending creates jobs for local people. Received wisdom says that internet shopping is killing our high streets. That’s undoubtedly a factor. But too few people have any money left after paying bills and debts. Zero hours contracts are a third higher in the North East than the UK average. Low paid and part-time workers are five times more likely than other workers to be furloughed on reduced pay. I’ve lobbied hard to have a floor on furlough – so no one gets less than minimum wage. People simply can’t get by on 80% of £8.72 an hour.

A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That’s not too much to ask is it?

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 9.11.20

The North will Remember

On September 18th, the North East’s council leaders and I asked government for the powers to impose additional restrictions. We knew that cases were rising. We knew that government’s insistence on keeping universities open, with face-to-face teaching was a mistake. Government did nothing, so we did what we could. And it worked, as well as can be expected. Within a couple of weeks our case rate had stopped climbing. As I write, we’re the only place in England where cases have stabilised.

Government still tried to force us into Tier 3, using press leaks to make it seem inevitable. We argued with them repeatedly, and showed their data did not support it. Government’s own medical officers accepted this. But political advisors from no 10 thought that something must be seen to be done, so kept trying to force us. That’s how government operates these days. Evidence is just a secondary consideration. Our fight wasn’t as public as Manchester’s, but all our region’s leaders – cross party – stood strong.

Now we face national lockdown. We know that the virus spreads faster when the weather is cold, and dark and wet. People are inside more. Windows are closed, ventilation is poor. Winter is coming.

The main reason I opposed Tier 3 is because it would not have worked. I’ve been told by public health officials that it’s not spreading in restaurants and non-essential retail. It’s schools, universities, care homes and workplaces. None of which is affected by Tier 3. None of which is closed by the National Lockdown. We need to target infections in those places, and closure is not the only tool.

We’ve been pressing for months for better test and trace linked in with our local expert teams. You may have heard me on the telly, asking for support while we were in Tier 2, rather than leaving it too late. I’ve been lobbying hard for powers to close noncompliant businesses or public spaces. Finally, the legislation will go through Parliament this week.

One example shows why we need this. A nail bar in the North West had a sign in the window: “Covid is a hoax. No masks allowed in here.” The local public health officials went round to explain how dangerous this was, but were told to eff off. The police went, and the owners took the sign down. Then put it up again after the police left.

This is an insult to all the businesses who are keeping people safe. All the pubs and restaurants who are impeccably following the guidance. All the independent businesses that people have put their money and their effort into, and who have paid their taxes for years. I want to protect these businesses.

Some cases spread because people don’t follow the rules. So please, respect social distancing, don’t mix with people from other households (except for a support bubble), wear your mask in public, and wash your hands. This disease is dangerous. Even if it doesn’t harm you, you could pass it on to someone more vulnerable.

I always try to build good working relationships with people. Political leaders, business owners, trade unionists, religious leaders, charity workers, and, of course, all the staff in my own team. Political posturing achieves little. My politics are strongly socialist, but I know to implement anything that makes a difference means taking people with me. I look for solutions that work.

But this must be said: this government holds Northerners in contempt. As if denying free school meals to kids in poverty wasn’t enough. Now we know for certain that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove think Northerners are second class citizens. When they were trying to force us into Tier 3, along with the rest of the North, all of the people whose jobs would have been shut down would have got 67% of their wages. We were told it was a red line. Non-negotiable. As soon as London and the South East are going into lockdown, furlough is back up to 80%.

This government doesn’t care about the North, or our people. When it comes to the next election, send them a message: The North Remembers.

Originally published in the Journal a Evening Chronicle 2 November 2020

A Million Reasons to Act…

  

Unprecedented times demand unprecedented measures. That’s the gist of a new report on youth employment published last week by the Alliance for Full Employment. Youth Report: A Million Reasons to Act is based on a study by Professor Paul Gregg from Bath University. He warns that as many as one million young people will be unemployed by the start of November. Without urgent action we’ll see a Covid generation as lost as the 1980S YTS generation.

The economic havoc wreaked by the pandemic disproportionately targets the under-25s. We’ve had years of a gig-economy and zero-hours contracts. Too many young people have precarious jobs as bar staff, delivery workers, and other low paid work.

60% of post-March redundancies are 16 to 24 years old. The unemployment rate for young men is already three times the over-25 rate. In the North of Tyne we’ve seen the youth claim count rise from 3,700 to 7,000. That’s a near doubling between March and August. The real number unemployed is worse – many young people are ineligible for benefits.

When the furlough scheme finishes in a week’s time, a million 16-24 year olds will need a job. There’s a scarcity of new vacancies. Half a million more school and college leavers have joined the job market. Prospects are bleak. As in the 1980s, youth unemployment in the North and Midlands could exceed 20%.

Long term unemployment can scar a young person’s future. Decades later we see stunted careers, poverty, mental ill health and poor community engagement. Getting young people earning a living in secure jobs is good for all of us.

Since the onset of the pandemic, my officers have worked tirelessly to create opportunities for our young people. We’ve used our devolved Adult Education Budget to help 37,500 young people enrol for qualifications and training. We’ve funded projects like the Nurture, Nourish and Thrive programme at the Cedarwood Trust in North Shields. Youngsters in the local area can gain qualifications in childcare, and related skills.

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We’re adapting the national £2 billion Kickstart scheme to have a local place-based approach. One that suits the needs of young people in North of Tyne. Kickstarters are for youngsters under 24 on Universal Credit. Under the scheme, employers get £6,500 per person to cover six-months’ wages. Plus £1,500 per person to pay for wrap-around support – training, coaching and the like.

However, only employers who can take 30 or more young people can apply directly. So the North of Tyne Combined Authority will become a “Gateway” organisation for the scheme.

We’re investing an extra £500,000 to help our small businesses join the scheme. We’ll support them to provide high quality placements leading to good jobs in the green economy and digital industries. And we’ll make sure the training is high quality, and the young people are learning valuable skills, not just doing grunt work.

The Alliance for Full Employment, which I’ve signed up to along with the other Labour Metro Mayors, is calling for the PM to live up to his pledge to do “whatever it takes”. The Alliance is calling for a UK wide jobs summit to provide a coordinated response. This dovetails with the TUC’s call for a Job Guarantee Scheme for young people, not just the “opportunity guarantee” the PM announced over the summer.

Work schemes and training are essential short-term measures to halt a long-term catastrophe. But the freedom to look for a job is no freedom at all. There have to be jobs to find. I’ve called on the government to fund our Regional Economic Recovery plan, to create 35,000 jobs in the North of Tyne alone. Unemployed, school-leaver, or graduate, young people need permanent jobs. Careers with prospects, and security. The pride that they’re earning a decent living and paying their way. The sense that their fate is in their hands.

We can prevent a repeat of the 1980s. We have a million reasons to act now to stop a whole generation of young people losing out.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 26.10.20

Standing up for the North

A week is a long time in a pandemic.
Last Friday, (9th Oct), a meeting with Number 10 mysteriously popped into my calendar. Ministers wanted to talk to me and my Local Authority colleagues about the new Tier system. Later that afternoon, as I logged into the video conference, it got cancelled.

Eventually there was a briefing with a civil servant. It would all end in Tiers, we were told.
“But what are the criteria for moving from Tier to another?” I asked. We don’t have that information, was the answer.
“Why have no ministers come on this call?” asked one of my Local Authority leader colleagues. “Erm, none were available.”
“Who makes the decisions?” Unknown.
“What are the restrictions?” Pubs will shut. And possibly restaurants. Or possibly not. And gyms, and soft play. But not universities, despite there being two universities in Newcastle with over 1000 cases each.

After an hour we knew for certain that we might or might not be in Tier 2 or Tier 3, which might or might not mean closing some businesses or others, and someone unspecified would make the decision, but on what basis and with what evidence we didn’t know. World beating.

The government’s publicity machine then announced on national television, radio and in print, that we’d had meaningful engagement.
I spoke to the other Northern Mayors. They’d had the same fiascos.

Why do we get no support while in Tier 2, to prevent us needing to move into Tier 3? Surely, if this is about containing the virus, we should get resources now to keep people safe
By Monday morning, government had located some cabinet ministers and the PM’s senior advisors. It’s such a pity that it takes media pressure.

Cross party, local leaders are as one on this issue. We will not agree to moving into Tier 3 and destroy livelihoods unless we see evidence that it will keep people safer, or we get the financial support to protect our people. No one gets left behind.
The fact is, you should only close a place if it is spreading the virus. Otherwise you just move the problem elsewhere.

Most businesses are taking their responsibilities seriously and doing a cracking job keeping people safe. And a few aren’t. But, the powers to close non-compliant businesses are weak, and subject to lengthy legal challenge.

This Friday (16th Oct) we finally got a briefing with the Deputy Chief Medical officer, a minister and senior No 10 advisor. The tone was different. It was professional, evidence based. Our Local Public Health experts discussed the data. It was concluded, that the existing restrictions are having some effect. We should remain in Tier 2, unless the evidence changes.

I followed up on getting the powers we need, and trying to get more financial support to prevent moving into Tier 3. When you can get a junior minister 1-to-1, the meetings can be productive.

Where does this leave us?


We’re in Tier 2 for now. We still don’t know the criteria that would cause the PM to move us into Tier 3. If we did, we could communicate it, and build public support.
We want people to keep safe – so please, wear your mask, wash your hands, and keep socially distanced. Please follow the law and the guidelines. You’ll be keeping yourself safe, keeping your relatives safe, and setting good example. And you might protect people’s jobs and livelihoods too.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 19.10.20

Zero Carbon Now ?

There shall be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth than over ninety-nine just persons. It’s good to see the Prime Minister contradicting his 2013 statement that “wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.” Or, presumably, an Eton mess.

So I’m delighted that he intends to invest £160m for all UK homes to be powered and heated by offshore wind within ten years. However…

A report by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) points out that at current rates it will take 700 years to hit zero-carbon heating. The PM’s plans are based on current electricity usage. Renewables now account for 40% of the UK’s electricity. But electricity accounts for only 12% of UK energy use. That leaves 95% of UK energy not coming from renewables. Demand for electricity will increase as we shift from gas heating and hot water to electricity. Not to mention the move to electric vehicles. That’s going to cost a wee bit more than £160 million.

UKERC’s report also stresses that relying on consumers to replace their central heating systems won’t cut the mustard either. There’ll need to be a mixture of regulations for new homes and financial incentives. The government’s new Planning White Paper says new houses must be “zero-carbon ready”. I met with Robert Jenrick last week, Secretary of State for Housing, and asked why “zero-carbon ready”? Why not zero-carbon now? Parliamentary legislation should be judged on actions, not aspirations.

On the positive side, he did listen to me on MMC housing. That’s Modern Methods of Construction. Basically, engineered timber that’s fireproof, warm, quick to build and extremely strong. And of course, locks away carbon in its structure. A typical new build house releases 65 tonnes of carbon. A typical MMC house locks away 27 tonnes.

So, what does “investing in offshore wind” mean in practice?

The Tyne has companies building and transporting turbine jackets – the massive criss-cross steel legs that sit in the sea. They’re fixed to the seabed and support the turbines. The further out to sea they are, the windier it gets, which is what you want, but that does present engineering challenges.

It’s extremely difficult to get a crane big enough to haul a horizontal jacket to vertical in the middle of the sea. So jackets have to be transported upright. The problem is the National Grid cables cross the river at Jarrow, 84m above the water level. So yards on the Tyne can’t bid for work on these large new turbines. They simply won’t fit underneath the cables.

If the cables ran under the river instead of over it, we could make our region the world leader in offshore wind manufacture. It’ll cost £100m to run the cables under the Tyne. We have the expertise – from design through fabrication to installation – right here on the Tyne. All £100m of that project could be delivered by companies in our region, creating local jobs

.I’ve spoken to the companies involved, and they are unanimous in their support. If the government releases the funding, we could get cracking right now.

But what would make more of a difference than anything else is for government to enforce the local content regulation. In order to site wind turbines in UK waters, electricity generating companies are supposed to give 60% of the work to UK firms. They don’t. Enforcing this could make more of a difference than anything else. There’s a £40 billion pipeline of work in this sector already.

Eight of the companies on the north bank of the Tyne, upstream of the electricity cables, directly employ over 2000 staff and have an annual turnover of more than £500m. This is small potatoes compared to the number of jobs and money that could be created- and kept – in our region. They’ve all told me they would invest heavily if the UK government enforced the local content regulations and moved the cables underground.

We’ve submitted this plan to the government, as part of the comprehensive spending review.

So come on Boris, complete your Damscene conversion, blow the skin off your chequebook, and invest in the North East.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 12.10.20

Invest To Save

Boilers on prescription might not sound like an obvious link to radical devolution. But it’s a strategy that GPs working with housing provider Gentoo implemented in Sunderland in 2016. And it worked.

The scheme allowed GPs to “prescribe” new, efficient boilers and home insulation to patients suffering respiratory conditions and living in damp, cold homes. It cost the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group £5,000 per home. But the savings and health benefits were remarkable. Residents saved around £125 annually on their fuel bills, removing some financial stress. Their bedrooms were 3 degrees warmer. GP appointments, which cost the NHS £100 each, fell by 60% and emergency hospital admissions – at £2,500 each – dropped by 25%. And, best of all, people were happier.

It’s intuitively obvious that a stitch in time saves nine. In the North East we have some of the best hospitals in the world. Yet we have the lowest life expectancy in England.

Housing, income and transport all determine your health. If your work is insecure and you don’t know how much you’ll earn from week to week, the stress will take a toll on your health. If you can’t get to work or the shops on foot or by public transport, you’ll likely become dependent on your car.

But what’s the link to radical devolution?

Andy Burnham, my counterpart in Manchester, has taken a joined-up approach in tackling homelessness. People who are street homeless typically have very complex needs. His “A Bed Every Night” policy provides people with a safe and stable place to stay, and wrap-around support. The local NHS Trust, the Police and the Probation Services all work together. Yes, this costs money up front – around £11,000 per person. But it results in fewer admissions to A&E, and fewer nights in the police cells. The savings? £24,000 per person.

Manchester can do this, because health and policing are all devolved to their Mayoral Combined Authority. But despite the evidence that pilot schemes like boilers on prescription work, they rarely get implemented at scale.

Our country has seen ever greater fragmentation, outsourcing, and internal markets introduced. Services get contracted out to different firms. They’re only responsible for hitting their immediate targets. There’s no incentive to plan ahead, and no mechanism to recoup the savings if they did. The logic that free market competition will drive down prices doesn’t work with public services. It results in expensive duplication and administrative overheads. We don’t want our public services competing, we want them cooperating.

Public Health England’s latest data shows that three in ten adults are obese. This really matters. Obesity is a risk factor for chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, stroke and osteoarthritis. Around ten per cent of the annual NHS budget is spent on diabetes-related treatment alone. Childhood obesity is rising too. By 2050, it’s estimated that obesity will cost the UK £49.9 billion per year.

There’s a limit to what can be achieved with more leaflets or taxes on sugary drinks. It needs system change.

I’d like to see a public transport system that’s so cheap and reliable that people leave their cars at home. An extra ten minutes walk each way to work uses enough calories to lose half a stone in a year.

When poor employers pay low wages, they’re shunting the costs to us, the tax payer. Their workers’ health suffers along the way. A Good Work Pledge with a Real Living Wage saves us all money in the long run.

I’ve been lobbying government to adopt this Invest To Save approach for the North of Tyne’s next wave of devolution. Westminster is too remote for effective joined up policies. Rather than central government using our money to patch-up avoidable problems, I want to invest upfront and prevent them. It’s far more cost effective than the false economy of austerity.

Our society needs to start counting the true cost of our policies. Allowing regional governments to invest and improve people’s lives today will save money tomorrow. We’ll be healthier, more productive and happier.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 5.10.20

A Green New Deal For All

Unemployment is the worst of the economic scourges. Pundits obsess about debt-to-GDP ratio, interest rates, inflation targets, and trade imbalances. But it’s unemployment that fuels anxiety, crushes mental health and lays waste to communities.

Having citizens unable to earn a living is a blight on prosperity. So Rishi Sunak was right to take action. But millions have lost their jobs, and his decision to cancel the budget means he’s not creating any new ones.

Let’s look at his Job Support Scheme. Suppose your normal salary is £20,800, or £400 a week. You come back part time, and get up to 77% of your pay (a 23% pay cut). So now you get £308, a loss of £92 per week. If you only have to pay 77% of your rent or mortgage, and the supermarkets only charge you for 77% of your food that’s fine. As long as your kids only need 77% of the clothes they grow out of, and your energy supplier gives you a 23% discount.

There are millions that Rishi’s Scheme won’t help. Anyone who worked in a cinema, a theatre or a night club. All those who worked two or three jobs to make ends meet. The millions of freelancers in arts and entertainment. Self-employed musicians and people who worked on turnstiles on a Saturday. When the state says “you must close your business”, it has a moral duty to provide an alternative to bankruptcy.

Unemployment is deep seated in the UK, and disguised by many names. Zero hours contracts. Bogus self-employment. Working Tax Credit is a symptom of an economy that cannot provide enough well-paid work to keep people’s heads above water.

Rishi Sunak’s ideology is showing. Just like giving £10 billion to inexperienced private firms to run a failing test and trace system, he’s relying on the market to create the new economy.

Free market capitalists believe that money is king, and the market will solve every problem. That the birth of the new is worth the pain and a certain mortality rate of jobs. Democratic socialists believe the state is the midwife for its citizens. That no one should be abandoned. That we should devolve decision making and empower people to build their own futures.

The economy has shifted. Millions of people will never again work full-time in offices. Whole sectors cannot operate. Internet shopping is affecting High Streets.

Rishi’s had seven months since the first Covid support was announced in the March budget. You can’t keep treating a broken leg with sticking plasters and pain killers. Sooner or later you have to set the bone so it can heal properly.

This is the perfect time for a Green New Deal.

We have millions who live in fuel poverty. We know that insulating homes saves people hundreds on their fuel bills, and saves the NHS a fortune in ill health. So why aren’t we launching a massive programme of retrofitting homes? It pays for itself over time.

We know our transport system is dysfunctional. Those without cars are unable to easily access work or education. Those with cars are trapped in congestion and air pollution. If Rishi gave us the power to use Land Value Capture, we could fund our own Metro and rail extensions now. They pay for themselves by increasing the value of the land around them. Everyone says they want to end land banking, so let’s do it.

We know our start-up companies need investment, not just debt. Other countries have a Sovereign Wealth Fund to support their people. We need a Regional Wealth Fund to invest in start-ups and local small businesses. We can shape our economy and reward firms who look after their staff and work sustainably.

We know the world needs an energy system that’s not dependent on oil or gas. We can install enough wind turbines in the North Sea to power the whole of Western Europe, and earn money from exports. If Rishi just enforced the existing rules that all wind turbines in British waters must have at least 60% British content, it would create 9000 jobs along the Tyne immediately. Think of all those well paid jobs in engineering. All the young men and women who could get apprenticeships and a secure future.

As a cabinet, the North of Tyne all know that supporting jobs is urgent. But the real task is creating a new, sustainable economy. I’ve asked the government for all the components for a Green New Deal. Our submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review understands the fact that there’s no conflict between sustainable public finances, a clean environment, and a secure future for our people. Warm housing, reliable transport, better health, and above all, a secure job for everyone who needs one.

Published Originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 28.9.20

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Look After Each Other

The first duty of any government is to keep its people safe. In the absence of any leadership from Matt Hancock, Michael Gove or Boris Johnson, the North East’s Covid cases were doubling every week. Our local public health teams identified the transmission hotspots and asked central government to bring in some limited restrictions.

This isn’t a lockdown like it was in March. Pubs and cafes are still open, they just close at 10pm. You can buy things in shops. People can still go to work. If these measures don’t work, central government will impose a stricter lockdown.

Childcare is really expensive, and many families rely on grandparents and other relatives to look after their kids. School pick-ups, in particular are vital. Yet without any consultation, the Conservative government chose to make informal childcare illegal. I’ve written, along with all the local council leaders, insisting that this be reversed.

No wonder people are confused when Dominic Cummings is allowed to drive with his family across the entire country while he’s infected. But it’s now illegal for you to babysit your own family members

What we need is for people to look after themselves and other people. Read the FAQ published online. Wash your hands for 20 seconds. Wear a mask to help others – you don’t know if that person near you has asthma or not. Most importantly, keep 2 metres away from people.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger’. Well not with Covid. Even if you’re young and healthy, Covid can ruin your life. Patients who’ve caught Covid and recovered can still be left with damage to their heart muscles. The Lancet is reporting kidney and joint damage. Numerous studies are showing Covid causes damage to the cells of the brain and central nervous system. I was talking to a doctor, who reported that an increasing number of cases are dragging on and on, with people not recovering for months. Patients talk of being in a “brain fog” and unable to think clearly. Covid hasn’t been around long enough for us to know for certain how much your lifespan will shorten, even if you recover.

But two key components have been missing for too long. First, testing. Unless we can quickly and reliably tell who’s got the disease, we’re acting blindfolded. The omnishambles that has been the national testing and tracing system prompted a local response. Central government have finally got round to agreeing to give us the resources to run our own testing system. The Lighthouse Lab will be run between our hospitals and Local Authorities, and clear the backlog of tests.

And after I and others have been asking for months, government has finally realised that people who are skint will only self-isolate if they get financial support. Low paid workers will now get £500 to make up for their earnings loss when self-isolating. This should have been introduced back in March.

Health and wealth are interlinked. Dealing with Covid is an immediate problem, but we’ve endured poor health in our region for too long. We have the lowest life expectancy of all English regions, especially for women.

Parents are working, but they can’t afford to put food on the table for their kids. Almost three-quarters of the children in the North East are living in families with no or very little savings. They have no financial cushion to help them through.

That’s why all the jobs we’re creating in the North of Tyne are underpinned by our Good Work Pledge. Jobs need to be secure, pay enough to live on, and give people career progression.

I’m so pleased that the North of Tyne Combined Authority has a zero gender pay gap. On that note, hats off to Sunderland City Council who’ve joined us as an accredited Real Living Wage employer. This will make a massive difference to the lives of thousands of keyworkers in our region, and their families.

Your local authorities don’t have anything like the funding or the powers that central government have. But what they do have, they use wisely, to protect you and your loved ones.

Published Originally in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 21.9.20

Track and Trace the Corruption

How would you feel if someone broke the law, took £480 of your money, and spent it secretly?

In under six months, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have spent £10 billion on Test & Trace and £15 billion on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). That’s a staggering sum. It’s £480 per UK adult.

Hanbury Strategy is a PR firm co-founded by one of Dominic Cummings’ mates. They got £900,000 for research into behaviour linked to the pandemic. That’s enough to fund North of Tyne’s entire digital exclusion programme, that got disadvantaged kids the equipment they needed for online schooling through the lockdown.

Tory-linked PR firm, Topham Guerin were awarded £3 million. That would go a long way to keeping our North of Tyne community and voluntary sector going.

They gave a £108 million PPE contract go to a firm with just £18,000 of assets. Another contract for £108 million went to a confectionary wholesaler.

There was no evaluation of competitive tenders. They were just handed the cash. I bet you wish you had mates who would give you the odd million quid contract here and there.

My job puts me in contact with business leaders, CEOs, public officials, financial journalists. They tell me this government is now a by-word for incompetence. Mass deaths in care homes, exam fiascos, PPE masks that don’t work, lockdown rules flouted. Millions of self-employed still excluded from financial support. Food parcels sent to people shielding, full of banana-flavoured Angel Delight.

We’ve now added corruption to incompetence. The test and trace system has been a mess ever since the Conservatives decided to farm it out to private firms with no experience. It’s now led by Dido Harding, famous for the Talk Talk data breech. Who, when asked if 4 million customers’ data was encrypted, replied, ‘The awful truth is that I don’t know.

‘Between the end of May and the end of July, her army of 25,000 contact tracers tracked down a grand total of 51,524 people exposed to Covid. That’s one contact per month per employee. Staff describe having a WhatsApp group called the “Mouse Movers Club”. They remind each other to move their computer mouse every 15 minutes to avoid the system locking them out.

This £10 billion privatised national system contacts only 62% of people exposed to Covid. Compare that with our local public health teams’ success rate of 99%. Public health teams get £300 million, just 3% of the budget given to Dido Harding’s outfit.

How did Dido Harding get this job? A track record of running similar operations? An exhaustive selection against stiff competition? Nope. Harding was handed the job by Tory health secretary Matt Hancock. You judge whether it’s a coincidence that she’s married to the Conservative MP John Penrose. Whose think-tank, 1828, has called for the NHS to be replaced by universal health insurance.

All pretence of fiscal rectitude or democratic accountability has been abandoned. The government is refusing to publish details of the issued contracts. Under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, this refusal to be transparent is illegal. The Good Law Project launched legal action against them. If you’re outraged by the government’s corruption, give the Good Law Project your support.

Ministers used to take responsibility for failure. When caught doing favours in return for donations, they’d resign. The Prime Minister’s strategy must be to keep as many incompetent ministers as possible, so he doesn’t look so bad.

On that subject, this week saw the surprise resignation of Simon Clarke, Minister for Devolution (for personal reasons). As a Labour Mayor in power, I have to build alliances to get things done, and Simon was a strong supporter of devolution. Simon was open, good to work with, and on top of the detail. His departure removes one of the few competent ministers in government.

Now Boris & co have chosen to break international law. They’ve reneged on a treaty signed less than a year ago. Britain is trying to secure trade deals around the world. Tens of thousands of North East jobs depend on exports.

The world used to look to Britain as a benchmark of good governance. Now Johnson’s Britain is increasingly looking like Putin’s Russia: a kleptocracy.

https://www.facebook.com/GoodLawProject.orgGood Law Project

Posted originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 14.9.20

We May All Be Daniel Blake

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an age. An independent documentary crew asked if they could film my first year in office. Last week, I saw the final edit. The contrast between last summer and now was marked. Gone are the busy rooms, handshakes, and meetings. Now everyone I talk to appears in the same place: on my computer screen.

So many people in those clips were doing jobs that depend on proximity. Venue management. Audio-visual technicians. Caterers. Meeters and greeters, PAs and event hosts.

The furlough scheme is winding down in October. Millions are facing the threat of redundancy. Some sectors still need support, notably culture and events. The government needs to revise the furlough scheme and give them direct support. But so many other business models depend on footfall. The people who fit out offices. The sandwich shops whose trade depends on the office block round the corner. With home working set to become a permanent trend, many small business will struggle to survive. Businesses have tried innovative ways to bring money in. But they’re swimming against the tide.

Whether self-employed people can access help seems to depend the luck of the draw. One in seven UK workers are self employed. Delivery drivers, builders, sports commentators, company directors, hairdressers…it cuts across social divides.

The available funding is called the Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). HMRC identified 3.4 million eligible people based on their self-assessment tax return for the last 3 years. Of these, 75% applied to the scheme. This in itself is astonishingly high. It means only 25% of self-employed businesses are viable under Covid. In addition to that 3.4 million, we’ve got self-employed people who need support, but are denied. This includes anyone newly self-employed in the last year, about 200,000 people. Anyone earning more than £50k, even if their income dropped to £0 under Covid, another 225,000 people. Anyone earning less than 50% of their income from self-employment, about 1.2 million people. This non-self-employed income could be a pension, redundancy money, or salary from a job which ended earlier in the year. In total 1.6 million people nationally have been left to fall through the safety net. I and many others have told government. But they’ve done nothing.

In January, 3.8% of 16 to 64 year olds in the North of Tyne claimed benefits. By July that rose to 6.8%, marginally above the national average of 6.5%. On top of that, by July, 29.5% of the workforce in the North of Tyne were on furlough. The national rate was 29.9%.

White collar jobs in particular are facing a crisis. Fewer jobs are available, and the number of applicants has increased threefold. I’ve seen a junior local government post attract applicants from as far as Spain, Bulgaria and the USA. People in middle-management are facing unemployment. They’ve never had any contact with the benefits system. If they or their partner have savings, they may not qualify. Or shares, or an ISA, or even a redundancy payment. They’ll soon understand why people like Ken Loach have been making films about it.

The government’s plan to hire more work coaches is all very well. But unless there are actual jobs to be had, people will be chasing their tails.

What needs to happen? Instead of dishing out contracts to mates, government should invest in the public services gutted by austerity. Then we might get a test and trace system with the skill and capacity it needs.

We’ve got Brexit coming up. We still haven’t hired and trained the extra customs officers we need. Above all, we need a Green New Deal. We should build homes for affordable rent. Retrofit houses to save energy and keep people warm and healthy. Build wind turbines to provide cheap, plentiful electricity. Build a clean transport system. One that’s safe, and cheap, and works for everyone, from 8 to 80. In the North East alone, this would create 38,000 jobs.

In November, the government will announce its Comprehensive Spending Review. The North of Tyne is submitting our plan for economic recovery. Its foundation will be creating good quality jobs in a Green New Deal.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 7.9.20

Stand with Extinction Rebellion, because you might be next

“Extinction Rebellion could be treated as an organised crime group as part of a major crackdown on its activities that may also include new protections for MPs, judges and the press, The Telegraph can disclose.”

Extinction Rebellion’s bamboo blockade

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are calling for Extinction Rebellion to be classified as “serious organised crime”.  Some Tories are demanding they be classed as a terrorist organisation. 

Why?  Because Extinction Rebellion blocked a road to stop some newspapers being delivered.  Apparently, that threatens democracy.  They are claiming that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is essential infrastructure. 

Under the 2015 Serious Crime Act an organised crime group “has at its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities, and consists of three or more people who agree to act together to further that purpose”.

Those found to have participated in the activities of an organised crime group can be imprisoned for up to five years.

There has been no violence.  No one has been hurt.  All Extinction Rebellion did was park some lorries on outside the gates of the print works, and build a bamboo scaffold and chain themselves to it.  They stopped one day’s delivery of some newspapers.  Specifically, Tory supporting newspapers owned by billionaire foreign nationals who do not pay tax in the UK. 

Now, some people might find Extinction Rebellion annoying.  Fair enough, I support your right to be peacefully annoyed at people.  But that doesn’t make them terrorists.  Or a threat to democracy.  Murdoch’s News International already has legal recourse against Extinction Rebellion activists.  Like anyone else who is inconvenienced or has experienced financial loss, they can sue.  There is no need to change the law. 

Serious organised crime is drug smuggling, forcing trafficked women into prostitution, and murdering people.  Given the level of violent crime on our streets on a standard pre-Covid Saturday night, I’d say there is a long list of people to deal with before we label climate activists as Mafiosi. 

Personally, I find right-wing journalists annoying.  Those who pedal racism and hate and division and xenophobia and who denigrate the poor and the oppressed.  I still wouldn’t claim that Murdoch’s News International is “serious organised crime”.  Even after the phone hacking scandal, which was, after all, serious, organised and criminal. 

Extinction Rebellion are a breath of fresh air.  Let’s face it, they’re good at putting the climate crisis on the agenda.  And speaking as someone with a degree in engineering, I was rather impressed with their bamboo scaffold.  I’m all for STEM based ingenuity in our public discourse. 

The truth is, we do not have a free press.  We have a billionaire press, owned by five people who live in tax havens.  We have freedom of speech, that’s different.  

Mind you, Britain has just been placed on a press freedom watch list by the Council of Europe.  An honour we share with such bastions of freedom as Putin’s Russia, and Erdogan’s Turkey.  What triggered a Level 2 “media freedom alert” on Britain?  Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s government has blacklisted investigative journalists.  So let’s fix that, before we target peaceful protesters.  (See the article in the Independent.)

We also have freedom of protest.  As long as it’s ineffective.  That’s what’s at stake here.

Because as soon as a protest hits the mega-rich in their pockets, it’s not allowed.  Claims that delivering the Daily Telegraph is essential infrastructure equivalent to water or electricity supplies is laughable. 

Claiming that democracy is under threat if people miss a day of the Daily Mail is pure Orwellian Newspeak. 

What’s Extinction Rebellion’s beef with these papers?  That they don’t tell the truth about the climate crisis.  They don’t.  It’s not in dispute.  Don’t take my word for it.  James Murdoch has publicly criticised News International for its deceit about climate breakdown.  This is the same James Murdoch who famously sat alongside his father Rupert in front of a Parliamentary inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. 

There’s a simple resolution here.  The papers could just tell the truth.  The UN IPCC has said that if even if we meet the obligations of the Paris Agreement, we’ll see around 3.2 degrees of global heating.  That’s beyond the threshold for unstoppable feedback – it will destroy the world economy, food production, and leave large parts of the planet uninhabitable.  Action has to happen. 

The worrying thing is that if the Tories implement this law, it won’t just be XR who are targeted. 

Remember all those keyworkers we clapped for?  Carers, bus drivers, shop workers, teachers, junior doctors, nurses, senior doctors, fire-fighters, delivery drivers, council workers…   you know, everyone who keeps the country running?  Well such a law could easily be used to criminalise any industrial action.  Do we want to live in a country where anyone who threatens the interests of billionaires will face five years in prison? 

Stand with Extinction Rebellion, because you might be next. 

Auf Weidersehen Locally Produced News ?

Auf Weidersehen, Pet was a landmark of my childhood. First broadcast in the depths of the Thatcher recession, when I was in secondary school. The North East had lost a hundred thousand jobs in manufacturing. And along came this show with Geordie bricklayers like Dennis, Neville and Oz. It was a programme about hard working British tradesmen working abroad in horrible conditions to provide for their families. But perspective is a funny thing. Add in a bit of xenophobia, and the right-wing narrative today would be about immigrants taking the jobs of the locals.

It was also about the accents. It wasn’t the first TV programme to feature Geordie dialect, we’d had The Likely Lads. But growing up, it was the first time I can remember a programme where no one spoke with RP – received pronunciation. We heard Geordie, Brummie and Scouse voices. Even Wayne, the London joiner, had a working class accent instead of BBC English.

Regional programming celebrates the diversity of British culture. Regional News is a component of devolved democracy. The Covid crisis has shown the importance of local government. Where central government has responded with indecision and U-turns, local government has delivered. Where central government has given £ billions in contracts to inept private firms with no experience, professional local government workers have fixed problems.

poSo why then has the BBC decided to cut 450 jobs from regional news and current affairs? Inside Out is scheduled to be axed. Editorial control will be moved from Newcastle to Birmingham. Worse, journalists will be replaced by “content producers”. Investigative journalism is a key antidote to social media speculation and political spin.

The news team will see 8 correspondents cut to 3. They’ll now film their own stories, possibly on their phones. I’ve been interviewed enough times to see the skill needed to get the sound and lighting right, and frame a shot. To able to interview someone and ask probing questions requires concentration. Not something you can do while holding your phone with a selfie stick.

The new ‘local’ programmes will be covering huge areas with fewer staff. Audiences will be less well informed about stories relevant to the North East & Cumbria. We’ll see and hear fewer programmes about our lives on TV & radio

.Local journalism, whether print, online or TV, is an essential component of local democracy. Local communities need information about what is happening in their areas. They need to know about the policies and decisions of their local representatives. They need a trusted vehicle for expressing their views. How else can we level up? Taking back control should not mean centralising. It should mean decentralising, with more local news content.

Soon after becoming Mayor, I started this weekly column in The Journal and The Chronicle. Without strong local papers, there are few opportunities to speak directly to the residents of the North of Tyne – the people who elected me. It has played a big role in raising awareness of the new Combined Authority, the jobs we’ve created, and the difference we’re making to people’s lives.

A month or so ago, Reach plc, which owns the Chronicle, The Journal and the Sunday Sun, announced 550 redundancies. At least 14 jobs will go in the Newcastle team. We’ll see more generic stories copied and pasted from elsewhere, instead of articles about our region. I wrote to the national CEO objecting. I received a very polite reply, saying it’s happening, our shareholders’ interests must be protected. Yet the journalists on The Chronicle and The Journal point out that Reach made £150 million profit last year.

News has always been biased. I’m a Labour elected Mayor in a country where 80% of the press is owned by a handful of non-taxpaying billionaires, who support the Conservative Party. If we value our democracy we must stand up for an independent press with local content. And we need the BBC – which we pay for – to stand up to government interference. Do we want to get to a situation where the only source of news is Facebook, controlled by another billionaire who avoids paying UK tax?

Published

Education for Children not Government

“Politicians are terrified of U-turns. They look indecisive” I wrote two months ago.

The sound of screeching tyres accompanied last week’s handbrake turn. Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson were adamant that Ofqual’s algorithm was “robust”. Until they suddenly declared it was all Ofqual’s fault. I wonder what grade our school leavers, parents and teachers would give this indecisive government.

This fiasco started in March. Ministers gave an explicit instruction that the number one priority was to avoid “grade inflation”. That’s why the algorithm worked the way it did.

The result? Kids from state schools in poor areas were downgraded. Not one pupil from Eton had their results downgraded. Because BAME communities are disproportionately poor, Ofqual’s model hammered black pupils’ results. This is not abstract. If you’re from a poor background, downgraded results can tank your future. These kids don’t have the connections and financial support to find an alternative way onto the career ladder. You don’t see kids from poor areas taking unpaid internships. So much for levelling up.

There is more to this than simple incompetence. The government’s policy-making is based on an exam system designed for the wrong purpose.

Many educators now refer to the “tyranny of testing”. A culture of relentless exams, spurious league tables and artificial competition between schools. Schools pressured to become exam-factories. The typical English child undergoes more than 70 tests in a school career. Way more than the rest of the industrial world.

When I ask employers how do they choose one young person over another, the answers are always the same. A youngster who can make eye contact in an interview. Who comes across as confident. Who demonstrates independent thought.

So why have exams at all? The medieval Chinese civil service introduced them to separate nepotism from competence. The British Empire needed a cohort of educated chaps to administer everywhere from Canada to India. Standardised handwriting and quick mental arithmetic were essential. It even allowed for a degree of social mobility. As long as you knew the LBW rule.

Standardised testing, then, is not a form of education. It is a form of selection. So we can rank young people, and say who is more worthy of advancement. Is it really that far from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where alphas have a different life trajectory from deltas?

Exams do have a benefit when they are diagnostic. They’re fast and efficient ways of telling a teacher what the gaps are in a student’s knowledge. Like any diagnosis, it must be followed up with treatment. Researcher John Hattie found that exams at the start of a course produce much better education than testing students at the end. By then it’s too late to do anything about it. Check out his Ted Talk on YouTube: Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful?

Education should focus on raising ability, not ranking kids and schools against each other. Competitive education misses the point. How many jobs in a workplace are competitive? Sharing your work with your colleagues good practice. What use is a footballer who can’t pass the ball to a teammate?

John Hattie did a massive study of different education polices. The policy that made the most difference to educational outcomes? Supporting teachers to work together collaboratively. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Skilled professionals, working together, is the bedrock of all progress. This is the foundation of the North of Tyne Joint School Improvement strategy.

Our Education Challenge is going through the Department for Education right now. We’re seeking £10 million a year to improve our kids’ education. We want to raise professional standards by supporting teachers and schools, not pitting them against each other. We’ll be able to put resources into supporting families to get kids “school ready”. We’ll look after their mental wellbeing throughout their school years, giving everyone immediate access to counselling.

Teachers want to do more than “teach to the test”. It’s about time education served the needs of our children, not our government.

First published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 24th Aug 2020.

Get on top of the Virus

t was announced last week that we’re officially in a recession. In other news, the Pope is a Catholic.

More than a million and a half people have signed-on in the past few months. Many more don’t claim. I spoke to one lad, perhaps in his late thirties. “I didn’t bother signing on,” he told me, “There’s no point. I’ve got savings.”

He’s done everything right – worked hard, been careful with his money, saved up. He’s a driver, taking what work he can, part-time, on reduced hours. His lifetime’s savings are evaporating.

The idea that we will see a V-shaped recovery is optimistic. That would mean recovering at the same rate as it took to crash. But why is a virus tanking the economy? Our annual winter flu crisis doesn’t.

To stop the virus, we have to change the way we work. Fewer people allowed in a building. Goods handled in a different way. Individual tasks taking longer. Whole employment sectors closed down. Because we don’t know who has the virus, and who doesn’t.

A recovery depends on an effective track and trace system. Until we’re all confident we’re safe, we can’t end physical distancing.

On the 11th February, the SAGE meeting acknowledged that Public Health England did not have the track and trace capacity to cope with a pandemic. The existing system had worked for smaller outbreaks. There is a network of skilled professionals in every local area that do this work all the time. Call me obvious, but I would have funded extra capacity for those teams, already in place, on the ground.

What did the government do? Delayed three months before launching a contract tracing system on 28th May. In the mean time, the UK suffered one of the highest death rates in the world.

On the 12th April, the Health Secretary announced the new NHS app for contact tracing. You could download an app on your phone that would detect other people’s phones using Bluetooth. If you developed symptoms, those you’d been near would be notified. On the 24th April, we were told it would be ready in weeks. On the 28th April it would be ready by the middle of May. On the 4th May the app was piloted on the Isle of Wight. It would go national at the end of May.

Unfortunately, the app could only worked on 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Android phones. Undeterred, on the 18th May Downing Street announced that the NHS contact tracing app would be launched nationwide in the “coming weeks”.

In mid-June the inevitable U-turn came. After two wasted months, Government asked Apple and Google to take over the design of the Track and Trace app. This might be available by Christmas, but no promises. World beating? You decide.

So where are we now? If you test positive, you’re told over the phone to self-isolate. You’re asked who your contacts are. They are then told to isolate for 14 days.

According to ministers, only around 76% who test positive are successfully contacted by the national tracing system. On average, people give 2.5 contacts. This is clearly under-reporting. They might not even know who they were near in a queue or a shop. Of those contacts given, only around 52% are successfully contacted.

We have no data on whether people follow the instructions. Or if those told to isolate develop symptoms.

£10 billion has been allocated via private contracts to run test & trace nationally. It is clearly underperforming. Local public health teams are the experts. Government should fund local authorities to do the job properly.

There is growing evidence that people in the lowest-paid jobs are not cooperating. There are 5 million people working in the gig economy. The vast majority cannot work from home. If asked to self-isolate for 14 days, they can’t earn money to buy food or pay their bills. They might lose their jobs.

Government must give all workers the ability to self-isolate without losing pay.

The only way to recover the economy is to get on top of this virus. Keeping people safe and protecting the economy are two sides of the same coin.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 17.8.20 

Our Final Warning

Phew what a scorcher! Global temperatures are rising. We know that. What most people don’t realise is the urgency.

The United Nations IPCC says that to avoid severe climate breakdown, we must limit global heating to 1.5 degrees.

Mark Lynas details the effects in his new book: Our Final Warning.

We’re already at 1 degree. 2 degrees will see massive reductions in crop yields. It will see flooding and storms of Biblical proportions. The economic damage will dwarf the 2007 crash and the Covid-19 pandemic.

If we pass 3 degrees, we’ll see Southern Asia, the Mediterranean, and much of the US start to turn into a desert. We’ll see billions of people in Africa, Southern Asia, the Middle East and Central America displaced. A collapse in global trade. Worldwide food shortages. The whole world engulfed in a refugee crisis.

The UN published that current climate agreements will result in global temperature increases of 3.2 degrees.

Business as usual is not an option.

The North of Tyne has already committed £24 million to a Green New Deal, creating jobs in offshore wind and low-carbon materials. We’re looking to set up a local carbon offset programme. We’ve allocated £2 million to retrain workers from polluting industries into the green economy. We’re working cross-regionally to develop a net-zero transport system. We’ll be net-zero organisation soon within years, not decades.

What does a Citizens Assembly add?

I saw a comment from someone committed to tackling climate change, who asked, “isn’t this an engineering problem?”

In March, the Chancellor announced £1bn for green transport. In the very next breath, he announced £27bn “for tarmac”. If he understood the climate reality, he’d have put £27bn into public transport.

A trade union tried to lobby me to support opening a new coal mine. I’ve heard MPs say “if we all just do a little bit” – use a bit less energy, eat a bit less meat – we can solve the problem. I’m not sure how “we all just do a little bit” of installing an offshore wind farm.

Life has a nasty habit of throwing up issues that don’t have a neat, self-contained solution. What if you’re a low-wage worker who has to drop the kids off to school on a rainy morning, before driving half an hour to work. Is it realistic to say, “cut down your emissions, buy a push-bike?”

So no, it’s not just an engineering problem. It’s a political problem, a social problem, and an economic problem.

Our original plan for an in-person Citizens Assembly was scuppered by lockdown. We’re now tendering for a company to run the Assembly for us, with an online component. Details are on our website. Closing date is 18th August.

We’ll recruit a random sample of fifty people. Different ages, jobs, educational background, gender, ethnicity, the works. In a normal consultation, people with strong views are always over-represented. That’s why people selected will get paid for their time – so they’re motivated to participate even if they don’t have strong views. Also so those without much money can afford the time to participate.

They spend perhaps thirty hours together. First, getting up to speed on the issues. The climate science, and the local options. Then deliberating on how it would affect their lives. The tradeoffs they would be willing to make. Might I consider changing the way I shop? Would I be up for participating in a community energy scheme? What are the barriers to me walking or cycling more? Is there a hybrid way to travel, perhaps with an e-scooter on the bus? If so, how much better would the bus service need to be?

The questions will be guided by an advisory panel. They’ll be local authority officers, academic experts, and stakeholders.

Once the Assembly is concluded, the North of Tyne cabinet will evaluate the results. The wisdom of crowds will show us what else we could do, beyond our Green New Deal. Here’s another way to look at a Citizens’ Assembly. It’s democracy. Our lives have got to change. Do we just tell people what to do, or involve them in decision making? I prefer talking to people. I usually learn something.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 10.8.20

The benefits of a happy workforce

In my late thirties I signed up for a fitness challenge. A load of my twenty-something martial arts friends joined in. To get maximum points, you had to do twenty pull-ups, one hundred sit-ups in two minutes, and run three miles in 18 minutes. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. It was certainly cheaper than buying a Porsche.

I could bang out the pull ups and sit ups. But I was more of a slow plodder, listen-to-a-podcast enjoy-the-scenery kind of runner. So I started training for speed. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my time down to the target.

So on a late September morning, rain coming down in stair rods, I psyched myself up. Four laps and a bit round Freeman Field. I had a GPS pacing watch (definitely cheaper than a Porsche) and off I set. First lap, hard work, but on course, rain cooling me down. Second lap finished, and I’m struggling. Heart pounding, legs getting heavy, but focused.

Into the third. Keeping the pace up on the long downhill, and turning onto the flat. And my body is saying stop. But resolve kicks in. I’m determined, and I push through the pain. And my heart beats in my ears and my legs give out and I stumble and I crash and slide headlong in the mud. And lie there on my back. In a puddle four inches deep, breathing like a steam engine.

And I was happy. I was happy because I knew I’d hit my limits. It wasn’t effort, or determination that let me down. It was that I’m human. And humans have limits. I’m not built like Haile Gebrselassie, and no amount of training was ever going make me run like him.

I grew up in a working class family in a rough part of Middlesbrough. My Dad was a shiftworker at ICI. It’s fair to say we didn’t have a lot of money, but there was never any doubt that there was enough to eat. I was fortunate enough that when I went to university in my twenties, tuition was free.

I’ve never been raped. Or racially abused. Or been trapped in an abusive relationship. I’ve never had drug or alcohol problems. I’ve never suffered from mental ill health. I’ve never had to struggle to find a job because I’ve been in prison. I’ve never seen my career suffer because I’ve had to take time off for cancer treatment. I’ve never had to choose between paying the bills and getting my kids a Christmas present.

Resilience is all about having a reserve of energy to call on. I can only imagine how exhausting it is to face life’s challenges when you’ve had to run three laps before the race even starts.

We’re entering a tough time. The world economy will slow. Unemployment here will rise. I’m not going to restate my views on the government’s handling of Covid. The truth is, we’ll all find our reserves being tested.

Some people talk of a competitive labour market. Survival of the fittest. A race to the bottom. No.

Because one place you shouldn’t be getting grief from is work. That’s why the North of Tyne has made Good Work our number one priority.

We’ll use public procurement to increase the quality of jobs here. Our Good Work Pledge requires employers to reward people fairly – paying the Real Living Wage. And no exploitative contracts. Good employers will develop a balanced workforce, with diversity. They’ll provide training so people can progress. They’ll work with trade unions. They’ll show social responsibility through positive environmental practices. And they’ll look after their workers’ wellbeing and mental health.

Wise employers know their workforce is their biggest asset. Look after your workers, and they’ll be more productive, more innovative, and more loyal. We will acknowledge good employers who look after their staff. And give other employers a leg up to match that standard.

Determination is a wonderful quality. But some of us are already running to stand still. We cannot go back to the economy we had before this crisis. No more stripping everything down to the lowest cost. We must rebuild for resilience.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20.7.20

A meal deal not for the masses

 A fortnight ago, Boris Johnson compared himself to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR’s New Deal turned round the economic collapse of the Great Depression. He created the first ever US state pensions and unemployment insurance. He promoted collective bargaining, improving wages and working conditions. The Public Works Administration built dams, bridges, schools and hospitals.

Last Wednesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak launched a flagship scheme to give us up to a tenner off a meal out. But only from Monday to Wednesday. Throughout August. Participating restaurants only. Terms and conditions apply.

Less of a New Deal, more of a Meal Deal.

A package of “up to” £30 billion should have given confidence. It hasn’t. In the past few days I’ve spoken to businesses, investment firms, journalists and economists. Underwhelmed doesn’t cover it.

First and foremost, “economic activity” will only recover once people feel safe. We need a working test system.

New Zealand implemented strict lockdowns and a rapid test, trace and isolate system. Since May they’ve been bobbing along at between 0 and 2 new cases per day. Weeks ago, they removed restrictions and returned to normal. Total death count, 22.

In the UK we had herd immunity. Then no herd immunity. The PM’s senior advisor driving across the country while he knew he was infected. VE day street parties with conga lines. The official government decision to suspend the contact tracing system way back in March. Then a half-baked scheme for a national app. Then another U-turn. Then a world-class system in place at the start of June. That isn’t yet operational, despite it now being the middle of July. Total death count, 45,000.

Look after your people, and the economy will look after itself. It’s the first duty of any government.

Now, the OECD is warning that UK unemployment will hit 4 million this year. There was nothing in Wednesday’s announcement for High Streets. Yet last week we’ve seen Boots and John Lewis announce 5000 job losses. Nothing for manufacturing, despite 12,000 job cuts in aviation.

North East councils face a £272 million black hole in their budgets. It’s the same across the country. In May, government said “do what you need to tackle the crisis. We’ll pay for any costs.” Government is now refusing to honour that promise. Unless they do, there’ll be emergency budgets, services cut, and thousands more job losses. Replacing permanent jobs with six-month Kickstart schemes is bad economics.

What should the Chancellor have done?

First, target spending into the productive economy. Wednesday’s announcement showed no awareness of what our regional economies need.

We submitted a plan for £100 million investment in the offshore and renewables industry. The Chancellor could have said, “We’ve left the EU. We’ll require that all offshore wind in UK waters must have 50% British content.”

We have a whole industry along the Tyne and in the North East that can supply it. The industry would scrabble to invest here. It would create thousands of high quality jobs. It would cement the North East as a world-leader in renewable energy. It would pave the way for a Just Transition from fossil fuels into clean energy. It would pay for itself.

Cutting Stamp Duty is a wasteful way of encouraging house building. Seven out of eight house buyers are moving in a chain. Only one in eight moves to a new build.

There are nine Metro Mayors. The Chancellor could have said, “Here’s £500 million each. Build 5000 affordable, eco-homes. You can sell them on, rent them as council houses, either way, it pays for itself.” It would tackle the housing crisis, homelessness, climate change and create skilled jobs.

Newcastle has nearly 60,000 students. Overseas students, especially from the Far East, won’t be coming here until we get Covid-19 under control. The Chancellor could have said, “I’ll fund all university tuition fees for all UK students who start this September or next.”

It would fund our universities by getting them to do what they’re there for. And skill up our workforce with high quality education.

We needed a Green New Deal. Instead, we got a Meal Deal.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 13.7.21

Devolution is about Democracy

I was listening to radio last week, and on came Michael Heseltine, bigging-up Metro Mayors. He name-checked our work in Newcastle.

It ‘s a funny feeling for a Labour politician, getting praised by a Tory grandee. It’s heartening to have your good work recognised. It’s good in electoral terms. An opposition politician saying you’re doing a good job proves your competence. But you have to wonder what your own party members think!

The gist of Lord Heseltine’s interview was that decisions are better made by locally-elected Mayors than in Westminster. He called on us Metro Mayors to come forward with coherent, strategic plans to stimulate and improve our local economies. Music to my ears. It’s what I’m doing already.

I spoke to Hezza last year, when he’d written his report, Empowering English Cities. It’s worth a read, even if you only look at the 20 recommendations. We agreed on everything to do with devolution. I said, “Michael, I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with the Tory Deputy Prime Minister. The man who closed the pits.” He laughed, and said, “When it comes to tidying up a bomb site, it doesn’t matter which dead economist you agree with.”

So what’s devolution all about? For most people, politics isn’t particularly engaging at the best of times. Constitutional reform is unlikely to inspire many chart topping protest songs. But it should. It’s about taking back control. It’s about democracy.

I lead something called a Mayoral Combined Authority. The three local authorities of Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland are constituent members. They keep their independence – I’m not the boss of them. I don’t manage the bins or the libraries or the social services.

There’s a long history of Britain being run based on what works for London and the South East. Now we get to decide what works better for us.

Budgets that were previously controlled in Whitehall now get devolved to the Combined Authority. It’s not an extra layer of government, it’s moving the decision making to the places they affect. And we manage everything we do with just 34 staff.

We get £20 million a year to invest as we decide. It’s not much compared to the £14 billion a month the furlough scheme costs. But already we’ve created hundreds of jobs. We’re investing in developing the offshore wind industry. We’re helping kids without computers get online to do their schoolwork.

We’ve taken control of the adult education budget. That’s £23 million a year we’re using to fund the training opportunities for the people who live here.

We’ve just secured £24 million for brownfield housing. That allows us to build new houses without encroaching on the green belt. We have loads of old heavy-industry sites where the land needs improving. It will allow us to unlock a range of those sites across the North of Tyne. That means more affordable housing.

We’ve got a school improvement strategy. A programme to develop local festivals. We’re working to decarbonise our economy. When it comes to giving out public contracts, we’re prioritising local firms. We’re getting citizens directly involved, via a Citizens Assembly.

Together this adds up to more jobs, and more decisions involving local people.

This is just a start. In the Budget in March, the Government announced we’d get our share of £4.2 billion transport funding if we unite as a region. That means Metro line extensions, and improved bus services. We’re waiting for sign-off for our £10 million a year schools challenge budget. This will get us mental health support in every school. It means better support for our teachers.

Later this year, government will publish a White Paper on Devolution. This forms the basis of upcoming legislation. I’m negotiating to bring more investment and decision making to the North East.

Devolution means these decisions aren’t made by anonymous Whitehall mandarins. Or unelected Special Advisors. They’re made by me, in consultation with other people who live here. Who use the same Metro as you do. Whose families use the same services and live in the same communities. And above all, decisions made by a Mayor who you get to elect.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 6.7.20

“Please sir , I want some more”.

“Please sir, I want some more”.

Oliver Twist sums up the relationship between central government and the North. There’s a dependency on grants from Westminster, often tied in with the electoral cycle. Restrictions come from Whitehall on to how to spend it, with priorities optimised for the Home Counties.

Oliver needed the handouts because the playing field was tilted against him. His poor start gave him no chance of prospering. Eventually, he runs away to seek his fortune – in London.

The North East’s industrial base had grown organically over two centuries. Jobs and hard work gave us the belief that our kids would be better off than we were. Then in a decade we saw the closure of shipyards, steel plants, wagon works and pits. Government decided the profits from the City finance firms could replace manufacturing.

The North East still has a manufacturing base. Nissan is the most productive car plant in Europe. Our problem isn’t anything to do with work ethic. Like poor Oliver, our problem is that we’ve not had the investment we need. We can’t close the gap from local taxation. Our business rates tax base is £300 per person. In London, it’s £940. But there are alternatives to local tax.

A few months ago, our work with Verisure brought a thousand jobs to the North of Tyne. I’ve just signed off on bringing another firm here, with hundreds more jobs. There’s more in the pipeline. We’re doing the best we can with the tools available. But we need better tools. We need Fiscal Devolution – power over how we raise and spend money.

First, Invest To Save. Our taxes already pay for the effects of obesity, mental ill health, poor air quality and crime. All the evidence confirms that better housing, youth services, transport and careers support save a fortune in the long run. But there’s no mechanism to fund them, except “Please sir, I want some more.”

If government allows us to reinvest the savings we make, we can create jobs, improve productivity, and quality of life.

Second, Regional Wealth Investment. There are hundreds of sound business propositions in the North of Tyne that would create jobs and pay taxes. But they stall because there isn’t the investment. One business leader told me last week, “All the investment capital goes to the capital.” Why invest in a start-up company in Tyneside when you can invest in property speculation in London?

Let Combined Authorities step in and fix this. Allow us to get firms off the ground. Every investment creates jobs, raises tax, and ties into our industrial strategy. Real interest rates are negative. Allow us to borrow at the same rate as central government for a regional wealth fund. Recyclable loans and taking equity shares makes it self-funding.

Third, Land Value Uplift. Public investment in Metro extensions and SuperBus routes increase land value. With the power to capture a share of the increase, we could fund the investments now.

None of this means more taxes for citizens – it’s self-funding.

Shy bairns get nowt. I’ve been lobbying hard for more powers. If it wasn’t for the new Zoom world we live in, I wouldn’t have seen my family for the past few weeks. I’d never have been off the train to London. I’ve spoken to ministers, Secretaries of State, the Chancellor and the PM.

Credit where credit’s due. I’m deeply critical of the government on many issues, but on devolution, they’re playing ball. Whenever I can work cross-party to get a better deal for the people of the North East, I do.

The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the world. Of the £143 billion tax raised in the North, ninety five per cent gets transferred to Westminster. Later this year, government will publish the Devolution White Paper. Let’s hope they devolve the tools we need to make our regional economy work for us.

We have to get beyond Oliver Twist.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 29.6.20

Hunger in the UK

Politicians are terrified of U-turns.  They look indecisive.  

 200,000 kids have had to skip meals because their family couldn’t afford enough food during lockdown.  Yet thanks to England footballer Marcus Rashford, 1.3 million kids will now get fed this summer.  When the cupboards are bare, that £15-a-week voucher will stop kids becoming malnourished.   

For the record, I won’t berate the government for doing what is obviously the right thing.  As economist John Maynard Keyes used to say, “When my information changes, I change my mind. What do you do?” 

But what new information came to light?  Only 24 hours earlier, Boris & the No 10 team had publicly rejected the proposal.  They sent out ministers to do the media rounds backing their decision.  

 South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck lined up 50 MPs to sign a cross-party letter pressing the government to take action.  The prospect of Marcus Rashford’s campaign coinciding with a backbench rebellion forced the U-turn.   

This wasn’t a rational re-evaluation of the facts.  It was political and public pressure.   

So how is government deciding its policy?  If it’s responding to social media likes, can we expect a minister for dogs that look like celebrities?   

We have to end this back of a fag packet approach to food insecurity.

  Hunger is the everyday reality for many families in the UK. 

A 2017 report by the Food Foundation showed 11% of kids in the UK live in a “severely food insecure household”.  This is by far the worst situation in Europe.  The UK is put to shame by much poorer countries in Eastern Europe.  Even Greece, with all its economic woes, has only 2% of kids in food insecurity.   

The government continues to see hunger and food security as an “overseas issue.” Not my words, but the damning assessment of the January 2019 House of Commons Environmental Committee.  The government is failing to meet the UN’s International Sustainable Development Goals on hunger. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on household finances.  Research by the Food Foundation shows food insecurity in households with children has doubled since last year.

 Sustain, the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, estimates there are now 8.4 million people in the UK struggling to get enough to eat. Behind this grim statistic, food insecurity means kids going to school malnourished and unable to focus on their lessons. Parents are going without food so their children can eat. In work poverty means half of all food bank aid goes to working households.  The unemployed, older, disabled and BAME people are also particularly at risk. 

We need to treat food poverty as a public health emergency.  It causes under-nutrition and obesity in children.  The cheapest foods are nutrient poor but calorie-rich. This has life-long health consequences. 

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Investing to stop food poverty yields huge savings down the line. Obesity related illness costs the NHS over £16 billion a year.  Wider costs, including time off work, will cost the UK £50 billion a year by 2050.  These are the government’s own figures, from Public Health England.

  There is a way to address this, at least locally.  In Newcastle, 30% of schoolchildren are on free school meals.  We’re already tackling in-work poverty through our Good Work Pledge. When workers are paid decent wages they can afford to feed their families.  No one should need the indignity of charity to put food on the table.  Frankly, government should just adopt our Pledge and make it national policy. 

Later this year the Devolution White Paper will be published.  Current government policy is exclusively focussed on growth.  But that growth is leaving too many people behind.   

Giving the North of Tyne the powers and funding to tackle poverty will boost productivity and improve educational attainment.  It will save Treasury a fortune down the line. Marcus Rashford brought the harsh reality of hunger in the UK to our attention. We must now tackle the root cause.  We must unlock children and families from poverty.


Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 22.6.20

Culture for the Soul

Culture is the sum total of how we express ourselves as humans. Culture is our collective soul.

For some it’s theatre, museums, art galleries, opera. For others, a live music gig, a beer festival or a home game.

I don’t see culture as a “sector”, an opportunity for economic growth. We can live in concrete blocks and eat nutrient paste to sustain our bodies. But we need architecture and cuisine to sustain our souls. Enriching our lives is an end in itself.

In the North East, we’ve got wealth of theatres, exhibition spaces and venues. This month you could have expected to see The Mousetrap at the Theatre Royal. Listened to an amazing range of music styles at the Sage. Attended the Viking exhibition at the Bailiffgate in Alnwick. Delved into the Tynemouth market at the weekend. There would have been football at St James’s and even (whisper it…) at the Stadium of Light. None of this happened. We don’t know when they will reopen, or if they will ever return to the way it was before the virus struck.

We do know that people working in culture are poorly paid. For every Premiership footballer, Hollywood star or best selling author, there are thousands who live hand to mouth.

So, what is going to happen?

Real cultural diversity comes from the interchange of ideas, experiences and influences. We should develop our local culture, rather than thinking that everyone wants generic, cookie-cutter events.

I hope I’m not coming over too Royston Vasey – ‘this is local festival for local people…’. But look at the difference the Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe have made to that city. All the performers who’ve honed their skills and got their break there. Or the Whitby Goth Weekend, which celebrates a sub-culture that connects people, and supports the local economy.

A week-long festival, or even a single day event, can be all year in the planning. The Great North Run employs a full-time team year round. These are meaningful jobs with a great sense of purpose.

Speaking of Royston Vasey, The League of Gentlemen has been dropped by Netflix. There’s been a rush by broadcasters and streaming services to distance themselves from anything that smacks of racism, or cultural appropriation. Quite right too. But blanket bans miss the point. The League of Gentlemen was never meant to be a cosy, family sitcom, like Terry and June, or My Family. It was deliberately intended to be dark – to shock and offend – as well as being clever and funny.

It’s a delicate balance. We have to avoid propagating bigoted views. But there’s still a place for the sort of humour that makes you wince at the same time as laughing. Good art should challenge our perceptions of the world.

Would we ban The Merchant of Venice because of the sixteenth century anti-Semitic sentiments? Would we ban the Old Testament for its homophobia? Should we edit Mein Kampf to make it less offensive? Airbrushing history is to pretend that the world never thought like that. A better alternative is to explain why it’s offensive. We should not dodge these uncomfortable debates around racism, we should win them.

HBO has temporarily taken down Gone With The Wind. For a story set on a cotton plantation, it’s effectively blind to the slavery and racial oppression. Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, was the first African-American to win an Oscar. Yet she was not allowed to sit with her fellow stars at the Oscars ceremony, because of the segregation at the time. HBO said, ” it will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”

Back to Royston Vasey, (local funding for local people…). My Cabinet and I have allocated £8.4m for our culture and events strategy. We’ll need to revisit it post-COVID. With people flying less, domestic tourism will increase. One component is to bring major events, like the Rugby Magic Weekend, to St James’ Park. A key plank is developing home-grown festivals, to showcase local talent, local people, and local small businesses. Rooting in the landscape, history and culture of our region creates a virtuous circle. It creates an ecosystem for our cultural sector. It gives people a chance to develop their careers here, in our region. It keeps money in our local economy. And best of all, with a profusion of great events – food, literary, music, sport, community – the lot – it will make this a better, more fun place to live.

Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 15.6.20

Vandalism by Chequebook

I’m sure health and safety officials would have a lot to say – I doubt anyone completed a risk assessment form.  But the toppling of the Edward Colston statue looked peaceful.  And remarkably well organised.  I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen no reports that anyone got hurt.  No looting, no arson.  No riot.  I have seen reports that the police handled the matter with great tact and sensitivity – well done Avon & Somerset Constabulary.  

Edward Colston oversaw the kidnap and enslavement of around 84,000 people, including 12,000 children.  19,000 died in the crossings from Africa to the Americas.  Their bodies were dumped into the water, unmarked, unrecorded.  For years campaigners have tried to get a plaque on the statue to state this truth.  Richard Eddy, a local Tory councillor objected to the idea of a new plaque, and said he would not condemn anyone who vandalised it.  The protesters who pulled it down are now being criticised for taking non-violent direct action.  

So what’s the criticism based on?  It’s that “they” didn’t play by “our” rules.  The correct, establishment, way to commit vandalism is with lawyers and a cheque book.  And do it properly.  Underfund and privatise the NHS.  Oppose laws that require landlords to maintain houses fit for human habitation.  Slash and burn your way through the economy, so literally millions of people need foodbanks.  Reverse eco legislation for housing.  Strangle our public services with austerity while letting tax dodgers get away scot-free.  Legalise fracking.  Pump megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Do the vandalism properly, and you might get rewarded in the honours list. 

Black lives Matter

 Why is it that when someone supports #BlackLivesMatter, someone replies, “All lives matter!”


If someone told you, “I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer,” you wouldn’t reply, “Well some people get prostate cancer!”


The protests in America are the confluence of three recent killings of black citizens by US Law Enforcement Officers.


On 25th February this year, 25-year-old electrician Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging as usual. Two men in a pickup truck drew guns on him. One shot him in the chest with a shotgun, Mr Arbery tried to grab the gun, and was shot twice more and killed.


Police did not arrest the killers. They relied on the killers’ evidence, and who said they “had a gut feeling” he must have been a burglar. The prosecutor’s office advised it was self-defence because Arbery had refused to lie down on the ground when challenged. One of the killers previously worked as an investigator in the prosecutor’s office. Later video evidence and a witness reports show the killers standing over Mr Arbery’s dying body saying “Fucking n**ger.”

On the 13th of March, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot dead while sleeping in her apartment. Police suspected there were drugs in her house, and without announcing themselves, tried to smash down her door in a dawn raid. Her boyfriend thought it was a home invasion, grabbed a gun, and shot at the door. The police fired 20 shots. Eight bullets hit Ms Taylor, killing her immediately. The police found no drugs. She was an emergency medical technician, a cross between an ambulance driver and a paramedic. She was also African-American. No charges were brought against her killers at the time.


On 25th May, 46-year-old George Floyd bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 note. It’s unknown if he knew it was a forgery. Police arrested & cuffed him, and made him lie face down in the street. Police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Mr Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes. Mr Floyd begged for his life, telling officers “I can’t breathe,” at least sixteen times before he was killed.
Initial police reports claimed he was resisting arrest. Video footage from multiple eye witnesses show Mr Floyd was calm and not resisting.


For each of these three killings there are hundreds of unreported beatings and abuses of power.


This week I saw a Newcastle City Council Facebook post in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. It attracted hundreds of comments.
Many criticised the council’s stance, saying “what about Lee Rigby?”
Lee Rigby was a 25-year-old soldier in the Royal Fusiliers, who supported Help for Heroes. In 2013 he was run down then brutally murdered by two men on his way back to barracks. It was a deliberate and premeditated attack.


Unarmed police were first at the scene, then armed police. When the killers charged at them, police opened fire, wounding them. The killers were charged, prosecuted, and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 45 years.


Lee Rigby’s life mattered. The authorities behaved as if it did, and acted swiftly to uphold the law. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd died because those in authority didn’t believe black lives matter.
It’s about power, intertwined with a long, long history of racism. When the authorities who are supposed to protect you are the same people who are killing you, people are right to be angry. They are right to protest.
In the coverage of the protests, black CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested by police officers live on television, despite asking the police where he should move. Just one block away, the police told white CNN reporter Josh Campbell, “Ok, you’re good.”

So if you hear someone say, “All lives matter,” ask them to think for a moment. Imagine you’re black. You’ve lived with racism all your life. You see racist graffiti every day. The authorities treat you with suspicion. You have to try that bit harder to succeed. You see black people being killed by white police. And then when you post, “Black lives matter,” someone says “All lives matter!” How would you feel?

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8.6.20

The Good, the Bad and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It’s not often that Spaghetti Western titles provide a framework for economic analysis. But this sums up the choices facing the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

We went into this crisis with a quarter of our people getting paid less than they need to live on, a third of our kids in poverty, and our planet facing ecological catastrophe within a generation.

Now here’s the rub. How do we make sure that the recovery is about wellbeing and sustainable green growth that works for everybody?

There’s stark choices to make in deciding how we rebuild.

Let’s start with the Ugly.

A full-on shock doctrine combining a more authoritarian state with uncontrolled corporate capitalism. The government tried making some carers and NHS staff pay twice to use the NHS, just because it’s popular to blame immigrants.

Cowboy economics assumes infinite resources. When one area is used up, move on to another to exploit. When small companies go the wall, corporate raiders hoover-up their assets at cut prices. Outsourcing on steroids. The approach of Trump’s America.

Crippling austerity will be used to “pay for” the emergency response to the pandemic. The Ugly subordinates everything to the “free-market” – which is anything but free. Procurement rules are thrown out so contracts go to close contacts. This approach has led to the highest death rate in Europe. Working people are just cannon-fodder for corporate machines.

Economic growth is encouraged by “supply side economics”. Or more accurately, letting the mega rich avoid taxes. In just one example, Virgin have taken £2 billion in NHS contracts and not paid a penny in corporation tax. They’ve sued the NHS for £2 million when they didn’t get the deal they wanted, and walked away from the East Coast Mainline rather than pay what they owed. Registered in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, the Virgin group takes the wealth created by working people to pay for private islands.

The Ugly is not pro-business, it’s pro-billionaire. Take this approach, and we’ll see a second spike followed by a generation of talent squandered through rocketing youth unemployment, in work poverty, and rising crime.

The Bad.

There’s a conflict amongst the establishment. The Financial Times is calling for a “more sustainable and inclusive form of capitalism.” Many in Treasury recognise the need for “fiscal stimulus”.

The default approach is to kick-start the economy by spending billions on concrete and tarmac. More road widening, roundabout upgrades, and shiny new schools and hospitals. Funded by quantitative easing, government borrowing, and “departmental savings”. We’ve been here before with PFI. Lovely buildings, but “departmental savings” mean we can’t afford to pay the teachers and health professionals we need to work in them.

It assumes that any spending in the economy will reach everyone equally. That wealth “trickles down”.

It doesn’t, and it never has. Wealth trickles up. That’s what interest is – those with money to spare take interest from those too poor to make ends meet. It widens the wealth gap. And it costs us all a fortune in poor health, poor education, and innovative small firms struggling to get the funds they need to grow.

Whitehall is already talking about pay freezes for public sector workers and turning a blind eye to the bankruptcy councils are facing.

The Good.

The Good means putting local economies front and centre. Sometimes called Community Wealth Building, it’s a set of place-based policies that work together to make sure that we all earn more and spend more locally.

It means shortening supply chains so we build here. It means the public sector spending its money with local firms who pay the Real Living Wage and have sustainable operating models. It means funding training for workers to take new jobs in new industries.

It means abandoning the carrot-and-stick approach to unemployment, instead providing tailored help, whether that’s digital skills training or mental health support.

It means new ways of supporting innovation, not with tax breaks, but with public ownership and partnership investment in our start-ups. New approaches to house building that supports local firms and ownership, such as community land trusts. It means banks owned by local communities.

And it works. The Spanish Basque country rejected the free market fundamentalism. Its place-based economics has given an otherwise poor region a per capita income way above the EU average and an acclaimed environmental and wellbeing rating. It’s being rolled out in the UK by the Welsh government, and councils including Preston, North Ayrshire, and Newham. And The North of Tyne.

Post-1945 we faced a choice. Go back to the depression and slums of the 1930s. Or go forward, build the NHS, public housing and welfare state. The Bad and The Ugly won’t level us up. Only The Good will.

(Published in The Chronicle and The Journal on 1st June 20)

Government by Toddler

Getting dressed after the shower, Leon sidles up to me, “Daddy my cwayon has bwoke.” The boys were three and one at the time.

“Oh dear, how’d you do that, son?”

“It bwoke on the wall.”

A dash downstairs found Nelson in full Neolithic cave-art mode. Navy blue Crayloa on magnolia emulsion. Celtic swirls decorating the wall on the stairs.

Crayons confiscated, boys sternly told of the seriousness of their actions. Then a courtroom drama in which Nelson introduces the plot twist, “No! I not naughty, you naughty!”

That was ten years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Toddlers are cute. Nature has programmed us to think so.

Dominic Cummings is not a toddler. Neither are cabinet ministers. They have the power to fine you if you break the lockdown. They can decide to charge you for using the NHS. They also have the codes to Britain’s nuclear arsenal. They are millionaires.

The scandal isn’t that a career psychopath broke the rules (David Cameron’s description of Cummings). The scandal is that the entire cabinet is being wheeled out to defend him. Every other public official caught breaking the law had to resign for potentially spreading a fatal disease.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Leader of the House Jacob Rees Mogg, and Foreign Sec and deputy PM Dominic Raab among them. All following the no 10 script.

In two hours they all used the words “care” and “child” in their tweets. Almost as if a single press officer had written them. (Then dutifully retweeted by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.)

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s was the most toddleresque – accusing people of “trying to score political points” – I not naughty, you naughty!

It’s total bull, of course. Cummings doesn’t think rules apply to him. He thinks everyone else is too stupid to have an opinion. He says so in his blog. Worse still, their story isn’t straight. Eye witnesses and the police have disproven them. Toddler excuses and toddler lies.

The science of psychology has proven that toddlers have no ‘theory of mind’. Simply, they are not capable of realising that we might have different beliefs and opinions from them. We forgive toddlers because we know they will grow up.

With the Cabinet, we all knew they were lying. They knew they were lying. Why did they think they could get away with it? We’ve seen a catalogue of errors and lies about the handling of this crisis. When we look at the catalogue of failures we can see why. The worst death rate in Europe. Bungled PPE deliveries. Testing regimes not in place. Deciding to quarantine air passengers eight weeks after imposing a lockdown. We been misled on PPE. On testing. On statistics. On what the science said. So why stop there? In for a penny, in for a pound. After all, it worked when they deceived the Queen on proroguing Parliament.

They no longer tell you what’s true. They tell you what’s plausible. Most people think propaganda is about spin & exaggeration. It often was. But emboldened by Trump, some realised that a complete fiction was more effective. Sure, some serious people would never believe you again. But they’d never vote for you anyway.

Hannah Arendt, philosopher who escaped from Nazi Germany, wrote, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction no longer exist.”

Far better to make it a slanging match. To destroy truth altogether. When people start thinking everybody lies, they’ll go along with the loudest voice or the funniest clown.

There’s a platitude in politics that we’re all trying to do good, just we have different views of how to get there. It’s not really true – there are many different visions of the world we want to see. Grown-up politicians are comfortable debating it, based on evidence and values.

Not all the Tories are toddlers. I deal with some who, in a private conversation, will admit things are not going as planned. It’s much less adversarial than you might think. Being in government is hard work. I approach these meetings trying to find solutions, and they’re glad of a break from conflict. There’s not many of them left, mind. Most of the dissenting voices were sacked in BJ’s temper tantrum last August.

I’m writing this on Sunday morning. By the time it’s published, Cummings may have been axed. There’s normally no hesitation in throwing an advisor or two under the bus to save a PM or minister’s hide. So either DC has some serious dirt on BJ’s inner circle, or they’re terrified that one admission of failure will lead to a torrent.

Here’s a challenge to any of our North East Conservative politicians. Show us you’re grown-ups. Tell the truth. Call out your cabinet ministers who lied and wriggled to defend Cummings. Ask for a public apology. Show us there’s an alternative to government by toddler.

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 25.5.20

Jamie Driscoll urges government to ensure rough sleepers don’t return to streets after lockdown

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has urged the Government to ensure emergency measures to end rough sleeping continue once the lockdown is over. 

The Government’s £3.2 million “Everyone In” scheme has helped get 4,500 rough sleepers off the streets, often by housing them in hotels.

But it’s unclear how long the policy will last, or what will happen once it’s over.

The Government plans to allow hotels to re-open in early July.

Mr Driscoll has joined forces with Labour leader Keir Starmer and four other mayors to write a joint letter to the Government.

They said: “The Government has rightly committed to protecting vulnerable rough sleepers for the duration of the pandemic.

“However, the dedicated funding to house rough sleepers is set to run out and no clear plans or resources have been put in place by Government for what happens next.

“The Government needs to provide clarity on their ‘Everyone In’ policy, to include those made homeless during the lockdown, and certainty over the future funding arrangements. Without this we could see rough sleepers ending up back on the streets.”

They added: “When this crisis is over, we cannot return to business as usual. Rough sleepers, some of whom are receiving support for the first time, have been brought safely off the streets. We cannot let that progress go to waste.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to ‘build back better’ and avoid a return to business as usual. If the government is serious about its commitment to end rough sleeping, now is the time to act.”

The statement was also signed by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London; Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester; Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool City Region, and Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield City Region.

The Government launched the emergency funding in March, in an effort to get every rough sleeper off the street so they could self-isolate to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

And it temporarily changed the rules so that councils could house people classed as having “no recourse to public funds”.

This generally means their leave to enter or remain in the UK is conditional, or they donot have leave to enter or remain.

Official figures put the number of rough sleepers in the North East at 67 last year. This is based on a count of rough sleepers organised by local authorities, and it’s generally accepted that the true figure is likely to be higher.

The Government has denied reports that the emergency funding is due to come to an end. However, it’s also declined to say whether more money will be made available.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government points out that it had already committed £489 million in 2020 to 2021 to help rough sleepers, a £121 million increase in funding from the previous year.

A spokesperson for the Ministry said: “Councils should be proud of their efforts to get rough sleepers off the street, backed by an unprecedented continued package of government support.

“We have been clear councils must continue to provide safe accommodation for those that need it and provided £3.2m at the start of the pandemic so they could take immediate action and help rough sleepers off the street.

“Our new rough sleeping taskforce – spearheaded by Dame Louise Casey – will work with councils across the country to ensure as many rough sleepers as possible can move into long-term, safe accommodation.”

Billionaires are not inevitable

“Our secret superpower is our ability to cooperate”.

(18-05-20)

Not my words, but from a great new book, Human kind : A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.  You may remember him, he’s the guy who called out the super-rich at Davos last year, telling them to pay their taxes.  And wondering why 1500 private jets had flown in to hear David Attenborough talk about climate change.  Perhaps next year they’ll Zoom.

In Western culture there’s the long-held view that we humans are a selfish and bestial lot.  Always on the brink of a “war of all against all” and that Lord of the Flies got it about right.

Bregman tracked down a real-life Lord Of The Flies.  Six school children lost in a storm and marooned on a rocky Pacific Island for fifteen months.  Rather than a descent into barbarism, they solved all the tasks of survival by cooperation.  It’s a tale of loyalty and friendship.  Even when one boy broke his leg, the others cared for him.

Is a dog-eat-dog world where million use foodbanks, while a handful are billionaires, inevitable?

London, July 1943. ‘Communal spirit’ came to the fore during the blitz, argues Rutger Bregman. Photograph: Royal Photographic Society/SSPL via Getty Images

Some claim that survival of the fittest, and ‘Devil take the hindmost’, improves the fitness of us all.  It doesn’t, and it never has.  It’s a complete misreading of Darwin.   It’s not corporate raiders we’re clapping every Thursday at 8pm. Our survival is intricately dependent upon cooperation.

The Stanford Prison Experiment purports to show that when students were separated into guards and prisoners, the guards became abusive.  Yet in his book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo documents the efforts he took to push the guards to be abusive.

But cruelty does happen.  Sometimes on an industrial scale.  Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil of Nazis involved in the holocaust.  People become distanced and desensitised, and participate in gross crimes because they become cogs in a machine.

One of the biggest enablers of dehumanisation is systems, and slavish adherence to systems.  ‘Computer says no’.  ‘It’s more than my job’s worth’.  ‘I’m just following orders’.

This week is national Mental Health Awareness Week.  Kindness is the theme.  Doing something for others out of a sincere motivation to help.  Social solidarity in other words.  We’re seeing it right now in the hundreds of Mutual Aid groups across the country.  The communal clapping for NHS and other keyworkers.

It’s our nature to help others, that’s why it’s good for our mental health.  Kindness helps reduce stress and low mood, brings a fresh perspective and boosts our self-esteem.  It is an antidote to isolation and helps create a sense of belonging and community.  Just as cruelty creates a vicious circle, kindness creates a virtuous circle.

This crisis has exposed the faulty wiring of a system that extols competition above cooperation.  People are not economic units, driven by the desire to consume.  Living like that causes no end of harm, for the individual, for society, and for the planet.

Campaigning for economic equality doesn’t make you a ‘social justice warrior’ or a ‘bleeding heart liberal’.  The “selfish consumer” model just doesn’t add up for the bottom line either.   It’s not sustainable and it’s incredibly wasteful. Research shows that in all but the simplest tasks, treating people with humanity leads to higher productivity than disciplining them.

Having kindness and collectivism as a key principle for policy makes good, hard sense.  It builds on our natural inclination towards solidarity and cooperation.  More equal societies are always top of the league for happiness and quality of life.

I’ve quoted from Hobbes and Arendt, and referenced Bregman and Zimbardo.   If we’re looking for a story to model human behaviour, let’s not use Lord Of The Flies.   My youngest son was moved by something more recent.   He has a quote on his wall he chose from Paddington 2.

“If you look for the good in people, you’ll find it.”

Everyone who has clapped for our keyworkers now needs to become a campaigner for change.  As part of the recovery from the pandemic, let’s build on the humanity and resilience shown by grass roots movements.  Let’s end the false economy of cuts and austerity once and for all, and realise that looking after each other makes sound economic sense.

Our ability to cooperate and be kind are our superpowers.  Let’s use them to build back better.

Schools should not reopen until there is a guarantee it’s safe

Mayor, Jamie Driscoll speaks to the Newcastle Chronicle

(15-05-20)

North East employers were left “genuinely worried” by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s weekend announcement that staff should go back to work, North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll says.

He criticised Mr Johnson for making the announcement before guidance for firms and staff was available, and for failing to consult regional leaders including mayors.

Speaking to ChronicleLive, Mr Driscoll also said:

  • Schools should not reopen until there is a guarantee it’s safe
  • There’s a “black hole” in funding for the Tyne and Wear Metro
  • Plans for local or regional Covid-19 lockdowns could backfire

Mr Johnson has made a point of speaking to regional mayors about the Government’s response to the Covid-19 coronavirus. On May 1 he held a conference telephone call with what’s called the M9 group of mayors, including Mr Driscoll.

Following the meeting, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “Clearly, as we get this whole country back on its feet, mayors should be at the forefront of local recovery.”

But Mr Driscoll said he had not been consulted about Mr Johnson’s television address on Sunday, when the Prime Minister called on people to return to work.

The Labour mayor said: “My understanding is that even some Cabinet ministers didn’t know.

“We needed guidance – which is only now starting to come out – before he announced these things.

“I know businesses that are genuinely worried and don’t know whether they should open or not, because they don’t know if it’s safe.”

The Government has now published guidance for firms explaining how they should implement social distancing in their workplaces.

Mr Driscoll said: “Business leaders I have been talking to have been openly mocking the approach . You can’t have a situation where you announce there will be major changes and then days later the detailed information comes out.”

Key workers have been allowed to send their children to school throughout the lockdown, but the Government has said it hopes to open classrooms for every child in some year groups after June 1.

Mr Driscoll said: “As for schools coming back, I’m of the opinion that unless we get a guarantee that it’s safe then we shoudn’t be doing it.”

The lockdown had a devastating impact on ticket revenues for the Tyne and Wear Metro.

The Government has provided the Metro with £8.6m in emergency funding to keep trains running, but this is only due to last until mid-June.

As people return to work, the Metro and the region’s bus services will become even more vital. But social distancing – which means passengers have to sit further apart – means income from fares will be severly cut for the forseeable future.

The Government’s plan for ending the lockdown includes identifying outbreaks of Covid-19 at what it calls “community level”, so that local lockdowns can be re-imposed to contain outbreaks.

A document published by the Government states this could include measures “to close schools or workplaces where infection rates have spiked, to reduce risk of further infection locally”.

Mr Driscoll said he doubted whether local lockdowns could work.

“I certainly think we need clarity of messaging. If you are going to have different messaging from one town or city to the next then I don’t think that’s helpful.

“There are people travelling all over the country. There are supply chains. If we open the rail system, what are we going to do? Say you can’t get off at particular stations?”


Related:

To Change Direction We Have To Change The Rules

I’m a black belt in jiu jitsu. The style I practice has one main rule – stop when someone signals they want you to stop. It’s a self-defence style, not a sport. There’s nothing fair about self-defence. You only need it when the odds are against you. You’ll only ever be attacked if the aggressor thinks they can win. They might be stronger, or armed with a knife. You might be outnumbered. There might be tables and chairs in the way. We trained with that in mind. Practitioners developed realistic expectations about what success looked like. They learned to deal with chaos. It’s excellent preparation for politics. 

Some martial arts are competition focused. Competitors are matched on grade, gender and weight. If you innovate, and break the rules, the referee will penalise you. They’re every bit as demanding as jiu jitsu, but more specialised. 

The rules change a competitor’s approach. If punching someone in the face is an illegal move, as it is in some striking arts and most grappling arts, then protecting your face is a waste of energy. This becomes a trained reflex. If groin strikes are illegal, you’ll not learn to protect your groin. If headlocks are illegal, you won’t learn how to get out of a headlock. 

This too is a good analogy for politics. How we measure success determines the policies we pursue. Consider school league tables. Testing kids becomes more highly prized than nurturing their learning. Obviously, teachers are well aware of the problem but are compelled to comply with the rules. 

We have a mental health crisis in our schools. I’ll repeat that last sentence again. We have a mental health crisis in our schools. Just as it’s hard to accept that a martial arts expert might never have learned how to evade a punch in the face, it’s mind boggling that education policy has fostered this crisis. 

The North East is repeatedly at the bottom of inequality league tables. Health, wealth and life expectancy are all lower here. Our ability to raise money is limited. For instance, the business rates in London is £940 per person. In the North East it’s £300. Local taxation is not the answer. Levelling up requires more fundamental change. 

As Mayor of the Combined Authority, I’m on the hook to create jobs and economic growth. I’ve made a cracking start creating jobs. But growth is a one-dimensional measure. Between 2010 and 2018 Britain had a 34% increase in GDP. We also had a 42% increase in knife crime, a 169% increase in homelessness and a 3900% increase in food bank use. A one dimensional focus on growth will not solve our problems. 

We need to tackle many problems directly, and that means investing to save. Prevention is better than cure. But the rules discourage us. 

Why should we invest in cycling, for example? It’s the right thing to do, and I support it. It improves people’s health, reduces congestion on the roads and improves air quality. But unless it leads to economic growth, I get no credit from the Treasury. I have to divert money from education and job creation. 

But healthier people saves the NHS a fortune. It leads to better lives. It mitigates the massive costs of climate change. All the evidence shows that exercise makes us happier. And in the long term it increases productivity. 

We need a system of devolution that allows us to keep the savings. Everybody knows that crime, ill health, congestion – all these things cost us dearly, financially and emotionally. But we operate in silos. 

The Covid crisis will mean a cohort of disadvantaged youngsters will struggle with their education. If we can support them into meaningful work by the age of 19, and get the financial reward from it, we could invest in their training. We’d have the incentive that Treasury funding would repay us, so we’d invest upfront. It works financially, and it’s socially just. 

This is how we can level up. The rules affect the outcome. To change direction, we have to change the rules. 

Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 11.5.2020

So Much Achieved In Just One Year!

It’s been an amazing year and with the support of my fantastic team we’ve achieved so much. Here are the highlights.

One year as Mayor

A year ago on Thursday our people elected me Mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority.  I knew that building a new organisation would be a challenge.  On my first day, cameras & film crews outnumbered the staff.  But I had no idea what a rollercoaster year it would be.  

In my acceptance speech, I spoke about the chaos our economy faced.  I had no inkling of a pandemic.  But July heralded a new Prime Minister, after the Conservatives ditched Theresa May.  In September, the government signalled its intent to accelerate devolution.  With less than half my team in place, we had to move fast to draw up new plans.  In October we faced a Brexit crisis, the possibility of a cliff edge, and all the behind the scenes planning.  December brought the disruption of a snap General Election.  Those outside politics might not realise that we’re prevented from making announcements or spending commitments during an election period.  Then, just as we were ramping up our investment programme, we’ve been hit by a pandemic the like of which has not been seen for a century.  And a shortage of pasta and loo rolls (which I don’t claim to have predicted either!). 

I’m a huge advocate of devolution.  At present, the North of Tyne’s budgets and powers are a fraction of those of other cities.  Despite this, I’m determined that we make people’s lives better, in ways that matter to them.  And despite this extraordinary year, we’ve made a cracking start.   

On my first day of office, as promised, I declared a Climate Emergency.  I said we’d provide world-class environmental education, and we’re rolling out a programme for a UN-accredited climate change teacher in every school in the region.  I said I’d convene a Climate Change Citizens’ Assembly, and that’s ready to go the minute the Coronavirus restrictions are lifted.  We make better policy when we involve our citizens in decision making.  

I said I’d develop a Green Industrial revolution.  We’ve allocated £24 million to create jobs in offshore renewable energy and low carbon innovation.  This must be a Just Transition, where our workers’ security is paramount.  So we’ve established a special £2 million fund for workers to retrain for green jobs.  

We’re investing £10 million in the region’s digital economy.  What does that mean?  Everything from helping smaller firms ‘go digital’ so they can be more productive, to tackling digital exclusion.  For example, providing Chrome books (and tech support!) for people who aren’t online.  As we saw with I, Daniel Blake, not everyone is part of the online revolution.  

I’ve worked to create jobs.  Verisure announced 1000 jobs after I and my North of Tyne team worked to bring them here.  Thousands more jobs are in the pipeline – although with the current situation, we can’t be complacent.  

Prosperity must extend to everybody.  Our programmes are helping the economically disadvantaged get skills, support and counselling.  People who’ve been away from work caring for family members, people struggling to pay their rents in social housing, and people from disadvantaged communities are all being helped.  All these programmes have the same underlying approach – treat people with dignity.  Help them don’t sanction them.  

All those workers we clap on a Thursday night must not be forgotten once this crisis passes.  I said I’d establish an employment charter, and we now have our Good Work Pledge.  Accredited employers pay the Real Living Wage on fair contracts, and Trade Union recognition is embedded.  We practice what we preach, North of Tyne is a Real Living Wage employer with a zero gender pay gap and flexible working.   

I’m proud of the team we’ve built at the North of Tyne.  None of this would have happened without skill, good humour and sheer hard work.  The credit must be shared by the entire staff and Cabinet.  Plus the staff and Cabinet Members from Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland Local Authorities.  

Now we’ve been hit by the Juggernaut of Covid-19 and the economic consequences that will follow.  I’ve put £5 million to support our Local Authorities to help those micro-businesses falling through the gaps of government support.  I’ve been lobbying government to protect our buses and Metro. 

There’s more happening – much more than one column can cover.  Work is underway on the People’s Bank, on the cooperative economy, on sustainable housing, and our Education Challenge.  

So log onto Mayor’s Question time this Thursday, 7th May, to hear more.  It’s free and open to all.  You can register a question in advance, and it’ll be a Facebook Live at 7pm.  Facebook.com/NorthOfTyneMayor.  

We will come out of this.  But we have to make sure the recovery is about more than a return to January 2020.  All of the challenges we faced with poverty, inequality, and of course climate change will all exist, and in most cases, will be compounded.  The road out of this will be long, and many of the problems will need years to fix. The United Nations Disaster Relief organisation uses the strap-line Build Back Better.  We can imagine a different world that is greener, cleaner and kinder.  That’s going to be my focus for Year 2. 

[A shorter version of this article was first published in The Chronicle and The Journal on Mon 4th May 2020]

Statement on International Workers’ Memorial Day 28 April 2020

International Workers Memorial Day

“Remembering the dead, fighting for the living”. 

(First published in The Newcastle Journal and The Newcastle Evening Chronicle 27 April 2020.)

That’s the message from International Workers’ Memorial Day which falls tomorrow.  It’s never been more relevant.

Did you know that every year more people are killed at work than in war?  Most don’t die of ‘tragic accidents’  or mystery ailments.   In Europe alone, work-related accidents and illnesses kill 200,000 people every year.  They die because an employer decided their safety was less important than the bottom line.  

In the North East, we have a history of coal mining and heavy industry.  We’re no strangers to work-related death and diseases.  Thousands of miners in the Northumberland and Durham coalfields lost their lives, or suffered chronic illness.  Not just men, but children too. Next week commemorates the Spinney Disaster at Heaton Colliery. On 3rd May 1815 75 men and boys lost their lives.   

Coal mining, along with much of our heavy industry, has now gone.  Yet workers are still losing their lives or being left with injury and illness because of negligence.  Mental ill health from work-related stress is the modern industrial disease.  TUC research shows that over 11 million working days are lost each year from it.  It affects 400,00 workers.  It can leave lifelong psychological and physical disability. 

With austerity, staff are under-paid and over-worked.  Our public services are so badly underfunded that some workers are doing the jobs of two or three people.  We could see what would happen.  We warned what the cuts would cause.  These risks to workers’ health were entirely foreseeable.  So were the risks of ignoring reports to prepare properly for a pandemic.

Compassion is not a weakness.  Looking only at the “bottom line” is not good economics.  The economy is not separate from society.  The workforce is not separate from society.  We are society. Work should enrich us, not endanger us.  

In the year of coronavirus, this day of commemoration is more essential than ever.  The pandemic affects every worker regardless of job or location.  Millions are losing pay.  Others are out of work.  Many have improvised working from home.  Keyworkers are risking exposure to the virus to keep society going.  Tens of thousands have fallen ill.  And three months since the outbreak, vast numbers of workers still don’t have the PPE they need.  

Covid-19 has now killed over a hundred health and social care workers in the UK.  We’ve seen the moving accounts on TV.  Grieving relatives and colleagues devastated by their loss.  How much of this grieving could have been prevented if we’d only invested to protect frontline staff? 

The failure to provide adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been laid bare over recent weeks.  The TUC has made a call for a judge-led public enquiry in to the “grotesque failure” of the government’s PPE planning.  This is not about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.  It’s about ensuring that workers are not put at risk again. 

We also need to know why the virus is taking such a heavy toll on BAME workers.  Around two thirds of the NHS staff who have died from Covid-19 are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.  As is every one of the 15 doctors who’ve died so far.  Kier Starmer has tasked Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the party’s new race relations advisor, to launch a review in to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities.

Remembrance is an act of solidarity.  So that we renew our efforts to organise collectively.  To prevent more deaths and work-related injury and disease – whatever the cause.  After this crisis has passed, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with these workers.  There must be no service cuts or job losses.  No excuses for more austerity.  

So on Tuesday, I’ll be observing a minute’s silence at 11am   It’s a moment to pay tribute to the ill and the fallen.  A moment of solidarity with those still exposed.  It’s also the time to commit to protecting those who continue to do vital work.  

We remember the dead and we fight for the living. 

Take Time To Be Human

It’s interesting which products are selling fastest. Of particular note are flour and seeds.  Both are products that need time and patience to use.  We’ll ignore crisps, alcohol and toilet roll for now.  Although if the lockdown lasts a lot longer maybe we’ll see a rise in homemade hooch.

Is it because many of us suddenly find ourselves with more time on our hands?  Maybe we always wanted to spend more time gardening or baking, but we didn’t have the opportunity.  Across the population it seems it’s all or nothing.  Either you are an essential worker, throwing yourself in to the massively important tasks that enable us all to get through this.  Or suddenly finding yourself with more time on your hands. 

I think Boris Johnson comes into both categories. If you haven’t seen the astonishing article in The Times, our Prime Minister skipped five consecutive Cobra meetings on the crisis.  He went on holiday instead.  Calls to order protective gear were ignored.  Scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears.  At 5,000 words it’s too long to comment on here, but it’s buzzing around on social media.  Check it out.  The catalogue of failures is mind boggling.

For those who aren’t leading a country of 67 million people, I say make the time count.  And it looks like people are.  Baking with the kids.  Growing veg for the first time.  Or finally having time to practice a musical instrument.  And do it as often as you know you should if you ever want to play something more complex than Smoke on the Water. (My 12 year old son now does a great James Bond theme on his guitar!)

A benefit that time gives us is changing the way we shop.  Being able to walk to your local greengrocer, butcher or general store (where they’ve been able to stay open). You might have watched the recent show on the BBC called Back in Time for the Corner Shop.  It showed how corner shops have changed over the last 100 years.  From being the centre of the community, with the shop keeper weighing out all the produce, to self-service and the impact of the supermarkets.  The last episode showed modern local shops with a happy medium between speed and friendly personal service.

The satisfaction of making something with your own hands is part of the human condition.  This is not a new idea.  Thinkers from Karl Marx to the Dali Lama have spoken of mindfulness and the alienation of labour.  The idea that humans take pleasure in creating and achieving.  As Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

In the Star Trek film Insurrection (bear with me here) the Enterprise crew find themselves on a planet which appears to be lacking technology.  The colony’s leader explains, “We have chosen not to employ [our technology] in our daily lives.  We believe that when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.”  In an otherwise unremarkable film, this stands out as prophetic.  How the world will bounce back from this crisis gives us a choice.  A thug can use a knife to wound.  A surgeon can use a knife to heal.  Likewise, automation can put people out of work and into a precarious future.  Or it can provide the time for us to develop our innate human creativity.  I think we’re approaching a Beveridge moment.  We need a public debate on Universal Basic Income.

We need a balance between humans and technology. Technology is essential for prosperity and sustainability – from broadband to vaccines.  The burden we’re placing on our planet’s resources requires a less materialistic way of life.  Our relationships, physical and mental wellbeing must be valued more than consumption.  Our work-life balance needs recalibrating.   All of us deserve the time to take a walk, use our hands, and make time for the things that make us human.

An old but memorable photograph of me with the boys.

First printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20.4.20

Understanding the Emotion of Betrayal

Ian McNicol. Right behind Jeremy Corbyn.

There are nine layers of Hell in Dante’s Inferno.  The first is for those who were not baptised.  The second for those who committed the sins of lust.  Third, gluttony.  Fourth, avarice.  Fifth, anger.  Sixth, blasphemy.  Seventh, violence.  Eight, deceivers and liars.  The ninth and final circle of Hell is reserved for traitors.  After making his way past Cain, who slew his brother, Abel, after passing Brutus who stabbed his friend and mentor Caesar, Dante describes Judas Iscariot.  Frozen in ice, his head gnawed in the jaws of Satan, the flesh from his back scourged by Satan’s talons for all eternity. 

I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in the supernatural.  But Dante’s work was a stinging satire on the politics of his day.  His identification of treachery as the most viscerally despised of all behaviours speaks to a universal truth.   It’s hard to describe the special kind of anger that betrayal invokes.    

The leaked release of the Labour Anti-Semitism report describes just such a betrayal.  The 851 page report cites a vast amount of primary source material.  It is utterly damning.  Abusive insults.  Claiming the membership is mentally ill.  Hyper factionalism, conspiracy.  Dirty tricks and factional politicking doesn’t cover this.  It’s an absolute and total betrayal of every decent quality and every value the Labour movement stands for. 

The deliberate derailing of disciplinary cases of racism and Anti-Semitism to undermine the Party and its leader.  Senior Labour Party staff actively working to lose the 2017 General Election.   Let that sink in.  The report details the people who were paid to run the Party deliberately sabotaging our election campaign.  They put the Tories into power.  They didn’t just betray the Labour membership.  Every council worker whose job has been cut, every Universal Credit claimant waiting weeks for money, every person struggling to pay their bills in the gig economy.  They betrayed them all.  And blamed it on Jeremy Corbyn and the wider Party membership.

We don’t need an inquiry into why the report was published, or how it found its way into the public.  The case has been made in its quarter of a million words.  The accusations stand in need of answer.  All those who stand accused must be brought up on charges.  They should get a fair hearing, with representation.  But we must know the truth.  Those who are found to have betrayed their comrades, their employer and their movement must face expulsion.  This should not be a kangaroo court.  It must be done by the book.  We can only have unity by ensuring that justice is carried out with full transparency.  The role of an inquiry must be to see where this stops. 

Whatever the result, my job is campaigning for socialism.  I ask anyone who shares my politics to stay in the Party with me and fight the good fight.  I will continue to build the grassroots, I’ll work as an elected representative, and I’ll strive to change the world to a place that reflects the Labour values of compassion, fairness, equality and solidarity. 

Local Service Champions

Just some of our local service champions

Unison, the public sector union, calls them the UK’s “Local Service Champions”. The unsung heroes of the public sector, the thousands of council workers who provide the vital services that keep our communities running.

Local government workers have always been there for us. From cradle to grave, they are the glue that holds our communities together. We often don’t notice what council workers do, but they are there, making our lives better. And never more so than in this public health crisis.

They collect our rubbish and keep the streets and parks clean. They look after us in our homes when we’re vulnerable. They make sure we have a roof over our heads when the very idea of a home seems impossible. They help parents provide a positive environment for their kids. They support vulnerable children, including kids in need of care, by working with families, children’s homes and foster carers. 
They are keeping schools open and feeding the children of keyworkers. They keep social care going, now a huge challenge because of social distancing and self-isolation requirements. 

It’s our council public health teams who are at the forefront of keeping the spread of the virus under control.
Front line staff need back room support. Managers are redesigning services to meet the new demands with a faction of the resources they need. Ten years of austerity has left over-stretched and hollowed-out departments. This is now compounded with the need to keep staff safe, working from home where possible.

And coming up with new measures to help victims of domestic abuse. Economic abuse is a major component of abusive relationships. With incomes cut and lockdown in place, we’ve seen domestic abuse increase worldwide. Sadly, there is no reason to think that this pattern will be avoided here. 

Kim McGuiness, our Police and Crime Commissioner, has set up a fund to help charities & community groups increase their capacity. You can find the link on www.northumbria-pcc.gov.uk.

Thousands are stepping up as volunteers. If you want to help, you can coordinate through your local authority. North Tyneside has the Covid-19 hub. Newcastle has the CItyLife Line. Northumberland has Northumberland Communities Together. If you want to volunteer, go to their websites. Volunteers are offering practical help – shopping for food, calling and listening to people who may be on their own, or providing transport. 

Our three North of Tyne councils are also working flat-out to support businesses hit by the crisis. Many businesses are eligible for grants of between £10k and £25k.
As of 2nd April, Newcastle City Council have paid out over £15 million to help over 1,000 small businesses. In Northumberland, 2,500 businesses have applied to their Covid-19 Business Hub. North Tyneside Council is running similar schemes. See your Local Authority website for details. There’s a full rundown of available help on www.northeastgrowthhub.co.uk.

My team are working in partnership to coordinate the regional economic response. This includes repurposing production – such as making hand sanitiser or ventilator components. We’re part of the new North East COVID-19 Economic Response Group. This is a partnership of the North of Tyne, NECA, the CBI, the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and the trade unions.

It’s heartening to see the respect and gratitude being shown to the NHS staff. My wife is frontline GP. I’m all too aware that the scandalous shortage of personal protective equipment is putting staff at risk. Doctors and nurses are contracting the virus and dying because of this failure. I know for certain that the failure to make tests available has hampered the NHS.

The Thursday “clap for the NHS” and outpourings of solidarity have been very moving. This crisis is bringing out the best in many people. When I’m clapping, I’m doing it for all the keyworkers, in all sectors. They deserve our support. 

They also deserve our support when this crisis is over. I will fight alongside them to ensure our public services are properly funded. Austerity has taken our public sector to breaking point and made us ill-prepared for this emergency. It must be discarded as the disgraced policy it is. 

First published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 6. 4. 20

Jamie Interviews The Labour Leadership Candidates

Last February, Jamie took time out of his schedule to ask the three Labour Leadership all manner of questions, ranging from trust in politics, the democratic revolution, how best to deal with press vilification and…Top Cat. Take a look.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

Lisa Nandy

Keir Starmer

It is time to put wellbeing ahead of growth

What does economic growth mean?

What do the prime ministers of New Zealand, Iceland, and Finland have in common?

In a word, wellbeing. 

I gave a speech last week on inclusive economic growth. 

Over the centuries, kings and ministers have steered their policies towards different goals. 

Pharaoh Ozymandias put his realm to work building monuments to impress his rivals.  Ancient Biblical tribes appeased their gods to secure their prosperity.  Medieval theocracies imposed religious purity, to secure rewards in the next world. 

Early industrial European nations focused on expanding empires.  More land was better – or so their political philosophy said.    

The pre-war Soviet bloc was obsessed by industrial output; it would solve all their problems.  For the past few decades, economic growth has been our  Holy Grail.  All public and corporate policy is subservient to getting people to spend more and more money. 

In every century, those who question the received wisdom are heretics.  But I have to question the wisdom of endless growth on a finite planet. 

What does growth mean to a thirteen-year-old, choosing her GCSE subjects, while worried about the climate crisis destroying civilisation?

How would we explain the necessity of economic growth to the people we see sleeping in shop doorways?  

What does growth mean to a care worker juggling two jobs on minimum wage who never gets to read her daughter a bed-time story? 

Or the owner of a small business who is about to go bust because a large corporate customer still hasn’t paid their invoice, 120 days after it was due. 

Or to parents who are financially secure, but worried about their son being the next victim of knife crime?

I’m growth agnostic.  Growth can achieve a lot – but it must be a means to an end, and not an end in itself.  The economy has grown in the last ten years.  So has homelessness. 

I’m not agnostic about profit.  I want businesses to be profitable.  It’s what you do with that profit that counts.  If it’s reinvested in the productive economy, that’s good.  If firms are using their profits to look after their people, and develop their talents and morale and productivity, that’s great.  If firms are using it to innovate and develop cleaner, more sustainable ways of working, that’s brilliant.  But if it’s disappearing off into a tax haven, then that’s unsustainable.  It’s bad for the workforce, it’s bad for the environment, and it sucks money out of our region.   

That’s why devolution is so important.  It is only by working closely with a place-based approach that we can really influence lived experience.  Our proximity informs our judgement. We have to talk to the people who are affected.  We have to see the places day by day.  Above all, we have to co-design our policies with the people they affect.   That cannot be done from Whitehall. 

We must stop worshipping growth.  We must start making policy by wellbeing.  Does it make people happier?  Safer?  Does it give us security?  Does it make us healthier?  Can the future sustain it?

There’s whole books on this subject – I’d recommend Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.  But in a short newspaper column, a story might be better.  

Two economists, Sue and Joe, are out for a walk in the wilderness. 

“Sue, I’m hungry,” says Joe.  “I’ll give you £50 if you climb that tree and see if any of the fruit is ripe.”

Sue accepts.  None of the fruit is ripe.  A branch snaps and she comes plummeting down, collecting bruises along the way. 

Ten minutes later, they see another tree.  “Your turn, Joe,” says Sue.  “This time I’ll give you £50 if you climb up to see if there’s any ripe fruit.” 

Joe climbs, gets scratched and scraped, but finds no ripe fruit. 

“Well that was a waste of time,” says Joe.  “We both got hurt, we damaged the trees, and we’re still hungry.” 

Sue replies, “At least we grew the economy by £100.” 

This article was first printed in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 13th January 2020

Donut economics? WooHoo!

Twenty-Twenty Vision

Broadband for the Allen Valleys is a model of building a sustainable economy.

Twenty twenty has a ring to it. 

Last year was politically turbulent.  In the North of Tyne, though, we just got on with delivering prosperity for our people. 

I’ve been Mayor for eight months.  Much of 2019 involved setting up a brand new combined authority.  Recruiting staff, building relationships, and getting our first programmes underway. 

Central government set the Combined Authority a target of creating 10,000 jobs over thirty years.  That’s 1,667 jobs during my five year term. 

Our business expansion programme will create 200 jobs in rural Northumberland, 252 across Newcastle and North Tyneside, and  another 70 at Newcastle Helix.  

Our Inward Investment Programme planned to bring another 600 jobs here.  I’ve met directors of companies, talked up our area, and promoted our region.  It’s working so well, we’ve expanded the programme to create 2000 jobs.  Good jobs – permanent, well paid, with career prospects.

The five-year aim was 1,667 jobs.  We’re on target for 2,522 in under a year. 

We’ve set up a Returnships programme, supporting people who’ve been out of employment caring for loved ones.  It boosts their confidence and skills to get back in to employment.  Our Working Homes Programme helps people in social housing who’ve had difficulty getting in to work.  It’s a supportive programme – not a coercive, benefit-sanctions approach. 

Our United Nations Accredited Climate Change Teacher programme is rolling out.  We’ve implemented STEM programmes to promote science through stargazing, with the mobile observatory.  The kids love it!  Our industrial history project with the Woodhorn museum has been a hit.  Our high-speed broadband programme will reach every public building in Northumberland.  We’ve partnered with the Newcastle United Foundation, to rebuild Murray House and do youth work across the whole of our region.  Giving kids a good start in life is a sound investment. 

And it’s important to lead by example.  The Combined Authority has a gender pay gap of zero.  The women get paid as much as the men. 

We’ve more than tripled our budget by leveraging in money from private investment and other sources. 

We’ve built a great team.  I might be the centre-forward, putting the ball in the net, but behind me is a team of hard-working officers, and my cabinet colleagues. 

There are too many good staff to list.  Pat Ritchie, my Interim Chief Exec, deserves a special thank-you, for getting us up and running.  Pat’s moving on to a new role.  North Tyneside’s Paul Hansen is replacing her.  With the support of my two new directors, Henry Kippin and Ruth Redfern, 2020 will see us breaking new ground.

What’s in the pipeline for this year? 

Simple.  Deliver the manifesto you elected me on. 

The Good Work Pledge is a cornerstone of our work.  It rewards good employers.  Those who pay real living wages, promote career progression, and who look after their staff.   Whether large or small, good employers will get an advantage when tendering for public sector work.  This will raise the standard of employment across our region. 

Our Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change will run this year.  You, the public, will get a direct voice in making the tough choices we face to protect our future. 

We’ll be setting up our first Community Hubs.  There’s strength in our communities.  With some funding and a bit of specialist support, we can enable people to take back control over their lives.  Community hubs will be led by local communities.   

On transport, we’ll see trials of the technology needed for joint ticketing.  This is so you can swipe in and swipe out on any public transport, so it will automatically get you the best fare, even across different bus companies.    

From 1st August, we’ll be running Adult Education programmes.  We’re awarding over £6mn of contracts to local providers to support our communities with skills and life opportunities they need.  Education is the route not only to better jobs, but also richer lives. 

And starting this spring, I’ll be holding regular Mayor’s Question Times around the region, so I can talk to more of you in person. 

So that’s my twenty-twenty vision.  Happy New Year! 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 6th January 2020.

Me at North Shields fish quay. We can develop this site sustainably.

The High Street of Christmas Yet to Come

Independent shops are a rare sight these days.

What do you call an old snowman? Water!

Ah, Christmas cracker jokes.  I love Christmas.  I’m not a religious man but Christmas embodies so many traditions core to my beliefs.  Family and friends.  Helping each other out. Communities coming together to sing carols.  Taking time to cook a good meal, and the time to eat it in good company.  I love snow, even more since having kids, but that’s not guaranteed.

I’ve also just had a week off which was very welcome.  Spending time with my wife and kids, listening to Christmas songs and watching films.  This might be controversial, but I reckon the best film version of A Christmas Carol is by the Muppets. Miss Piggy troughing chestnuts is comedy gold.  It also brilliantly conveys the story of Scrooge.  Michael Caine insisted on playing the role like he was with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  It’s perfectly judged and gives the film real weight.  The wilful ignorance and the ‘I’m alright Jack, pull the ladder up’ mentality.  You’ll all know people like this, things haven’t changed that much, sadly.  People hunker down in their homes because there are so few places we can meet without having to buy something.  It’s getting harder and harder for communities to hold together.

My Christmas Past was walking down the high street with my Mam.  We would drop into the butchers, greengrocers, maybe even the sweet shop as a Christmas treat.  I remember the sense of community. Bumping into neighbours and friends who stopped to chat.  The shopkeepers knew us. 

The Christmas Present on our high streets is quite different.  Betting shops, takeaways, and the all too common sight of people sleeping rough.  I don’t remember rough sleepers from my childhood.  Too many shops are chain stores, all high streets are starting to look the same.  Too few independents with local character and individuality.  Where it does exist it’s the exception and regarded with pride.

What’s in store for our Christmas Future?

Imagine this. You’re walking down a high street which is rich with life.  You know exactly where you are because it’s unique.  It reflects the uniqueness of the community and the history of the area.  Of course it does because they helped build it.  The first shop is a repair café.  You can pop in with your vacuum cleaner or broken spade and get it patched up.  It’s such a waste throwing things away when they can be fixed.

The next shop is a greengrocer who specialises in food grown locally, from farmers and surplus from allotments.  When people want local, seasonal fruit and veg this is where they come.

The next shop is a remakery.  I say shop, it’s more like a workshop. It’s full of tools and equipment.  A place where you can learn a range of practical skills that were being forgotten.  You can learn woodwork, needlework, metalwork.  If there is someone to teach it, you can do it here.  It celebrates the ingenuity of people and skills.  The generosity of spirit is infectious and has created a warm and welcoming place for people of all ages to swap stories and make friends.

Payday lenders have been replaced by credit unions and a community bank.  There’s still the odd betting shop and few takeways.  Who doesn’t like a takeaway every now and then?  But they’re part of an interesting array of shops, uniquely local.

This can happen.  A community can come together and decide to create a more vibrant place to socialise and shop.

‘The past we inherit, the future we build.’

John Lennon’s Happy Xmas challenges us, asking, “So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”  Well this year I became Mayor.  I stood because I’m convinced we can create a society better than the one we have now.  Climate change, inequality and job insecurity are all reasons I worry about the future for my kids, and everyone else’s.  Community is the key to addressing this.  So let’s keep the Christmas spirit all year round.

This article was first published in The Chronicle and The Journal on Monday 30th December 2019.

Remakeries foster economic, environmental and social sustainability. It’s about community.

Stop The Poverty

“It’s Christmas time, and there’s no need to be afraid.”  So says the song. 

This Christmas, like every year, millions in our country will be working.  Emergency services, NHS staff, catering and hospitality workers.  Taxi drivers, people staffing petrol stations.  

And for many people who work, and many who can’t get reliable work, the money will run out. Personal debt is an epidemic. Everyone I know has made a donation to a foodbank or toy donations.  It’s both heartening that people care, and heart rending that we need to. 

We’re in the 21st century, in one of the richest countries ever to exist.  Yet people are working for a living and their kids are still in poverty.  There’s something profoundly wrong in the way our country works. 

One of my favourite Xmas songs is Stop the Cavalry by Jona Lewie, whose birth name was, in a Christmas coincidence, John Lewis.  Intended as an anti-war song, it has become a Christmas classic. 

Perhaps it’s near the top of my list because when it was first released I was growing up.  US nuclear cruise missiles were being stationed in the UK at Greenham Common, and fear of nuclear war was palpable. 

But mainly it’s because of the lyrics.  Two lines stick out. 

“I have had to fight almost every night, down throughout these centuries. That is when I say, oh yes yet again, can you stop the cavalry?”

For generations we’ve been led into wars, started by leaders who were not acting in our interest.  They sent our brothers and fathers and sons off to war.  It’s always the common soldiers who pay the price.  The civilians whose deaths are labelled as collateral damage. Generation after generation, down throughout these centuries, we’ve failed to look after soldiers returning from war.

I’m not a pacifist. My family served in the armed forces. I’m a black belt in jiu jitsu, I’ve intervened as a Good Samaritan when I’ve seen women being attacked.  In a time of crisis, force is necessary. But I’m struggling to think of a war that couldn’t have been avoided with stronger diplomacy and economic pressure.  Violence must be the last resort, not the first response.

The other line that touches me even more is, “If I get home, live to tell the tale, I’ll run for all presidencies. If I get elected I’ll stop, I will stop the cavalry.”

It’s the simplicity and innocence of the line.  So improbable and difficult against a political establishment, and yet such an obvious and direct solution.  The idea that bringing about change requires only the political will to make change happen. 

Now I find myself in office as Mayor.  I’m bringing jobs here. I’ve been meeting companies, and so has my team. Our inward investment programme was set up to create 600 new jobs. It’s been so successful that we’re expanding the programme.  We’re now on target to bring 2000 jobs to our region. Good jobs – permanent jobs on decent terms and conditions. 

Work has to be a route out of poverty. In all previous hard times, unemployment was the scourge. Now we have in-work poverty.

Last Tuesday, my cabinet has agreed our Good Work Pledge.  We’ll accredit employers who meet high standards.  Those who pay the Real Living Wage, offer stable hours, and in work progression.   Who meet diversity and equality standards, give mental health support and flexible working.  Who have a trade union recognition agreement. We’ll make it flexible enough so it’s easy for small and micro businesses so sign up.

Accredited firms will get an advantage in winning public sector work. Enlightened employers understand that looking after people is good business sense. When you keep good staff, morale and productivity are higher.

Unlike Jona Lewie, I did get elected.  I don’t have power over foreign policy, and I can’t stop the cavalry. But I’m working my socks off to stop the poverty.

This article was first published in The Chronicle and The Journal on Monday 23rd December 2019. It is based on a previous blog post.

A picture of me looking very statesmanlike. Happy Christmas!

Paul Mason – Where Next After Corbynism: A Reply

Yeah, it’s hard not to look smug when you’ve just beaten the Tories, Lib Dems, Independents and UKIP.

In the final paragraph of Paul Mason’s thesis he name checks me, saying we need to be “learning from Jamie Driscoll’s mayoral campaign on North Tyneside.”  Thanks for the nod, Paul. 

What did we do to warrant this reference? 

In one sense, we didn’t do anything special.  We just did lots of simple things right. 

I’m the Labour Mayor for the North of Tyne.  That’s a city region metro Mayor, the same as Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Steve Rotherham in Liverpool City Region, Dan Jarvis in Sheffield, and Sadiq Khan in London.  London has way more money and powers, though. 

This was the first ever election for North of Tyne Mayor. 

Context:

May 2019’s local elections were a disaster for Labour in the North East. 

Outside of the North of Tyne Labour lost control of Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland, Darlington, and in total, and lost 57 of the 171 seats we defended.  That’s exactly 1 in 3 seats lost. 

The directly elected Mayor for Middlesbrough council, which had been Labour, saw our vote collapse from 16,680 to 6,692 and lose by a landslide to an independent. 

In the North of Tyne, there were locals elections in Newcastle and North Tyneside councils, where we lost 3 of 37 seats, or 8%.  The council elections were run by the local Labour teams with support from the regional office. 

My campaign was run independently from the locals, since it spanned 3 local authority areas, including the vast county of Northumberland, three times the area of Greater London.  But my social media, press, radio and TV would have reached the same people, as would my leaflets, direct mails, and canvassing. 

There were no local elections in Northumberland, but two by-elections, one caused by the sudden death of Bernard Pidcock; friend, Labour legend, and father of Laura Pidcock.  Labour candidates were returned with an increased majority.  Correlation does not prove causation, but they were under the umbrella of my social media and press campaigns. 

We had a 33% turnout.  Pretty good for a Mayoral election.  Compare that with 21% for Tees Valley.  29% for Manchester, 26% Liverpool, 26% Sheffield City Regions. 

What people thought was going to be a close election was a comfortable victory, bucking the regional trend.

What did we do right? 

1.  We had an open primary.  There was an open selection for Labour candidates.  I was persuaded to stand by my comrades very late before the deadline.  In a process from November 2018 to Feb 2019 (far too long) I went up against Nick Forbes, Newcastle Council Leader, Leader of the LGA, and NEC member.  I won comfortably, but it meant there was massive awareness of the election, and of me, before I took on the real opposition.  There was also significant press and broadcast interest in who would win the nomination.  We were campaigning for six months solid. 

Now, I can’t take credit for the process, but it engages members, and builds momentum.  Labour should embrace full open selection in all seats.  Get rid of this half-arsed trigger ballot system.  All it does is encourage people to pack meetings, rather than debate ideas and rehearse their campaigns.  Make all MPs engage their members, not just the enlightened ones – they’ll need them in 2024! 

Building the Team. How we use our mass membership. 

2. I had a massive team.  Even during the internal selection, we regularly had 30 people turn up to phone bank for me.  I’d been a leading grassroots activist.  People knew me, trusted me, and my victory was their victory. 

People power! This is a phone bank during the internal selection campaign.

3.  It was member led.  I declined the offer of the Labour North staff to run the campaign, and asked my team who won the internal selection to run it.  That boosted the confidence and ownership of the members.  The amount of talent and energy that people put into it was huge.  I asked the professional staff to do the specialist legal work: registrations, expenses returns, etc – keeping me out of jail 🙂  And media support. 

4.  We had a simple sign-off process.  Tasks were divvied up, and clear strategies were agreed.  After that, I let the skilled volunteers use their initiative, and I trusted them. I said at the start: if I’ve authorised you to do something, do it.  If you make a mistake, I will own it.  With freedom to act, their energy and creativity shone through.  My job was to be up front, scoring the goals, not tracking back to defence.  

5.  Engage the team.  We had a volunteer whose job it was to liaise with new volunteers.  People were welcomed with conversation, not just given a place and a time and pile of leaflets.  They came to the pub with us.  It’s so simple, but it’s so often missed.  We had a massive WhatApp group.  I and the key organisers would post updates in, so all the members were in the loop and felt part of the team.  We assigned a volunteer to sit down with the less tech savvy and show them how to use WhatsApp. 

6. One person, one job.  Apart from a handful of key organisers, volunteers were asked to do one thing, and do it well. And if they had more time, to do more of it.  Whether social media, leafleting, fundraising, whatever.  Focus raises confidence, productivity, and morale. 

7. Inform the members.  Every week I’d record a 2 minute video explaining a key policy, and email it to the thousands of party members in the North of Tyne.  They heard me explaining my policies in doorstep terms.  Feedback was great – people knew what to say to their mates & their neighbours when questions were asked. 

8.  I looked after my team.  Good candidates do this, but it’s amazing how many campaigns I’ve been part of that don’t.  An army marches on its stomach.  Make sure there’s food and drink.  Take your team out afterwards for a beer.  Always have a celebration party – or a wake.  The Labour staff got personalised gifts. 

We went one further, and asked a mental health professional who was part of the team to keep an eye on people and watch for signs of burnout.  

A Clear Message.

9.  We wrote a bold manifesto. In plain English.  Some policies are seriously ambitious – setting up a Bank owned co-operatively by the people.  Building community housing that’s not subject to right-to-buy.  The manifesto had a clear narrative: keep our money in our region.  The policies were clear, simple and concrete, not vague aspirations. 

10. Our messaging was tight.  Although there are 82 individual promises in the manifesto, we condensed them into 5 key polices, and repeated them over and over.  The number of polices was 5.  We kept repeating them.  We repeated the five policies over and over.  Did I mention….?  Within weeks, the media was repeating my policies.  Better still, the opposition was attacking them.  Sweet. 

A Strong Candidate.

11.  Not me, but my public persona.  We’ve all got complex back stories.  Any candidate worth their salt should have a history of good works.  It’s how you condense these into a short, identifiable persona that counts.  I have run philosophy and economics reading groups, have written literary fiction, run marathons to raise money for Amnesty, and am a black belt in jiu jitsu.  I care deeply about poverty and the environment, and grow fruit in my back garden.  That’s all good stuff.  We didn’t use it.  It’s scattergun.  In the campaign, I left school at 16, worked in engineering, went to university as a mature student, became a project engineer, then later set up my own business.  I’m married, my wife is a GP, and I have two brilliant young sons.  We live in Gosforth.  That’s tight.  People understand it.  They can place me.  It leaves no gaps.  The polices and voice tell them my character. 

12.  I owned my politics.  Early on, the opposition said I was a Corbyn supporter.  I was a Momentum activist.  I was a radical socialist.  I said yes I am.  I’m proud to want an economy that works for the many, not the few.  Who would respect someone who disowns their own team?  They stop chasing you when you stop running. 

13.  We made a high quality video. And pushed it with paid ads.  People are far more likely to vote for you if they’ve seen you. 

14.  I did my homework.  I researched the Mayoral role, the powers, the issues, the lot.  I was up against a millionaire Tory businessman, and an independent who owns a PR company and used to chair the Chamber of Commerce.  Plus a Lib Dem and a Kipper.  At a massive business hustings, with media there,  it should have been a home game for my opponents.  I answered the questions honestly.  I like trade unions because they reduce staff turnover and unionised workplaces are more productive.  Yes, I did think councils should take services back in house, it’s cheaper and service levels are higher.  I could answer any question with informed knowledge.  The Tory couldn’t command the detail, and floundered.  After the debate, business people came up to me and said, “I’ve never voted Labour before, but I’ll vote for you.  You know what you’re talking about.” Some even donated to my campaign.  A section of voters aren’t interested in policy, they’re interested in competence. 

A Strong Voice.

15. We kept it relentlessly positive.  Plenty of people were happy to have a pop at the opposition, we didn’t need to.  Every time a Facebook post called me communist, we replied: which policies don’t you like?   Every time we got a “you’re all on the gravy train” we replied “Jamie claimed £0 in expenses as a councillor.”  It might not have persuaded the trolls, but it did persuade the watchers. 

16.  We responded with class to the personal attacks.  When the opposition got personal and nasty – which they did – or fabricated lies, we responded with “I’m sorry to see you stoop to this level.  I think the people deserve a Mayor who doesn’t engage in playground name calling”  We didn’t get in the gutter, but we did respond.  No one gets a free shot at you.  This earned a *lot* of respect. 

17. We did not preach on social media, we engaged.  We didn’t tell people why they should vote for me. We told them what difference it would make. The threads were full of conversation.  When people made negative, but not abusive, comments, we asked them why they thought a policy wouldn’t work, and discussed it. 

18. Our print was authentic.  It was written in natural English, in short sentences, without buzzwords.  And at no point did I “care about the people” or was “passionate about our region”.  I just told people what I would do if elected.  And our print was really well designed – visually appealing. 

19. Our website was crisp, modern, and easy to use.  It had sign-up forms and donation buttons.  I was lucky enough to have a terrifically skilled volunteer to build it.  But luck is the residue of design.  Build a good team, and you’ll find good people. 

20. We held events.  A massive Green New Deal event when Labour was still coming round to the policy.  It engaged the Greens, Extinction Rebellion, and school climate strikers – who I’d previously supported.  We ran manifesto consultation events – local community groups got involved this way. 

A strong and genuine history of grassroots activism

21. We engaged all communities.  I spoke to people at the Mosques, with my history as an active anti-fascist activist with a strong history of case work.  We engaged businesses with socialist policies about community wealth building and procurement.  We engaged community forums, food banks, arts centres.  We did a video with a signer for the deaf community.  We went right up to Berwick with a large team and knocked whole estates. 

22.  And we did authentic media about it.  Simple, selfie videos in one take about what I was doing, long before Rory the Tory got credit for the idea during the Tory leadership election.  I reckon he nicked the idea from me 🙂

23.  I took any debate.  Environment hustings.  Hustings in rural areas.  I attended at least three different business hustings.  Later, I had my home game.  Citizens UK had a 1500 people event, including hundreds from the local mosque.  My years of activism meant I knew the organisers & many of the audience.  They were asking us to respond to questions on the Real Living Wage,  Hate Crime charters, and the mental health crisis.  Tory boy bottled it by this stage and didn’t turn up.  The press reported his absence. 

What Else?

24.  We crowdfunded.  The Tories massively outspent us, putting nearly £200k in.  Their candidate was born into a family fortune and couldn’t remember how many millions he had.  They ran full page ads in the regional press.  Loads of paid mail.  We were short of dosh.  Before I stood to be Labour candidate, some people thought the Progress candidate was a shoo in.  One Labour Group had £5000 allocated to the Mayoral campaign.  When I won, that suddenly dropped to £500.  So we crowdfunded.  And Unite kindly donated £10k. 

25.  I built alliances.  The Green Party didn’t run against me.  In part because of the £5k deposit.  In part because I know many of them through the climate change movement.  Lots of Extinction Rebellion, and a number of Green Party members campaigned for me. 

26.  We went for number of votes, not marginals.  We campaigned in areas Labour neglects in council elections.  We leafleted low turnout, previously safe Labour wards.  We knocked seats where Labour never wins, but where turnout is high.  And we knocked every door, not just Labour promises.  I turned a lot of Tories in rural Northumberland on the issue of houses being too expensive for their kids to live where they grew up.    

Is this a magic recipe for victory in a 2024 general election? 

No.  Our campaign was far from perfect.  It was rushed, we pulled together a team hurriedly, and there were a lot of people learning as we went, including me.  I’ve sharpened up my media performance enormously. 

I’d only fought one election as a candidate, for the new city centre ward of Monument. (Where we won with an absolute majority over all the other parties, despite it having a  mix of deprived, student, and very affluent neighbourhoods.)  With five years to plan for the next Mayoral election, and the incumbency factor, we will run a far stronger campaign next time. 

I’ve been so busy setting up the Combined Authority I haven’t kept my campaign or social media up to date, and am just getting back to it now the General Election is finished.  Which leads to:

27.  Select candidates early.  We couldn’t, so we were rushed and heavily dependent on the fact that I had a strong following before we began.  That’s a rare advantage, most new candidates have to build their teams from scratch.  Let’s get all Parliamentary candidates openly selected by 2022 ready for 2024. 

What have we done so far? 

I’ve been in office for around seven months.  It’s a brand new authority, and the first months were mostly recruiting staff.  By the time you’ve specified the job, advertised, interviewed, and people work their notice, months have passed.  I didn’t get my chief of staff until August, and my political advisor until September.  My two permanent directors only joined my team at the start of December.  My comms team is still only half full.  My climate change specialist doesn’t start until February 2020. 

Nevertheless, in that time, we have:

  • Set up tailored rural, urban, and innovation programmes to support small business growth creating 522 jobs.
  • Set up an inward investment programme that was originally to bring 600 new jobs.  It’s already been so successful we’ve expanded it to bring in 2000 jobs.  I’ve been directly involved in talking to employers to set up businesses here, and they’re good jobs – permanent, full time, with decent t&cs.  I won’t be supporting any Sports Direct or Amazon warehouses. 
  • Launched a Climate Change teacher programme, partnering with the United Nations programme to get teachers accredited as climate change specialists as part of their continuing professional development. 
  • Become a Real Living Wage employer with a zero gender pay gap. 
  • Implemented programmes with kids to engage them in STEM subjects – including a mobile planetarium from Kielder Observatory that visits schools, and a programme at the Mining Museum to get kids engaged in industrial history. 
  • Set up a Returnships Programme to support people who’ve been out of work caring for loved ones to get the support, confidence and training they need to find their back to work. 
  • A Working Homes programme that works with people in social housing to give them skills, support and confidence to get into paid employment, and find them jobs.  This is totally independent of the DWP and non-coercive. 
  • Funded a sports & youth centre leveraging the brand of Newcastle United, but independent of the club, to engage youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.  With an extensive outreach programme to left behind areas.  This is now signed off, but building work hasn’t started yet. 
  • Leveraged in millions from private firms and other funding sources, tripling our own budget. 
  • A small, but important manifesto promise: rather than have a Jaguar and a driver, I share a North East built Nissan Leaf electric pool car with my staff.    
  • And just this week, my cabinet has agreed our Good Work Pledge – an employment charter.  To get accreditation, an employer must meet a number of criteria, including:  paying the Real Living Wage, offering stable hours, in work progression, meeting diversity and equality standards, giving mental health support and flexible working.  Plus – have a trade union recognition agreement.  I’ll repeat that last one – employers will need a trade union recognition agreement.  This will be a cornerstone of our Community Wealth Building programme.  Using social value clauses, employers wanting public sector contracts will need accreditation to qualify for social value.  I’ve got buy in from the business organisations, LEP members, and major employers. 

The above is what we’ve done, and doesn’t include what we’re going to do.  What’s in the pipeline for the future is even more exciting. 

So Paul Mason is right.  Our Party’s campaigning methods are too often stuck in the 20th century.  There are good local campaigning initiatives, but they need to be supported and funded.  Far too many of our campaigns are centralised command and control.  Empower the members to win for us.  Networks beat hierarchies every time.    

If you want to read more about communication techniques, social psychology and left politics, you can buy my book: Way of the Activist

http://talksocialism.com/

Endorsed by John McDonnell and Ken Loach no less!

Where does this result leave democracy?

Boris Johnson claiming “There is no press here” in front of the press.

My Dad would shout at the players during the football, “Just put the ball in back of the bloody net!”

My brother and I would laugh. “You should write to him and suggest it.”

I’m reminded of this when people say “Labour should have won more seats.”

Post election analysis is often one dimensional. People looking for a single reason to explain the behaviour of 32 million voters. It was the media. It was Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn was too peacenik. Boris was a lovable rogue.

Let’s start with the most basic fact. Boris Johnson is Prime Minister.

He has a heavy responsibility. I hope he’s up to the task of guiding us out of the EU without crashing our economy. So far we’ve only seen the withdrawal bill.  There will be a trading relationship with Europe, and the details have to be worked out. I’ve not yet seen any economic analysis that shows where greater prosperity comes from.

I hope he does well. I mean that. Because if you believe in democracy, as I do, you have to respect a mandate.

I hope he’ll live up to his promises to devolve power and budgets to democratically elected Mayors, who have our own mandates. Taking back control means making decisions in the North East, not in Whitehall.

I hope he’ll do a better job as Prime Minister than he did as Foreign Secretary. If Britain’s striking out on our own, we cannot afford those kinds of gaffes.

I worry about the threats made against the BBC and Channel 4, when they criticised him. We need diversity in our media.  Eighty percent of the British press is owned by a handful of tax-exiles who don’t live in Britain.

I worry about the scale of cuts our councils face. Their finances are already unsustainable. I worry that Johnson will transfer even more of the burden onto council tax payers.  Global corporations like Amazons and Starbucks must pay their share.

14 million people voted Conservative. 18 million voted for other parties. However you slice it, there’s a case for proportional representation.

Fewer people voted for Johnson in 2019 than for John Major in April 1992, despite the increase in population. In September 1992, Sterling crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday. Labour took a 20 point poll lead. John Smith was on track for a 1997 landslide before his tragic death. Tony Blair took over and won with a 12.5% margin. Tory support only recovered after the 2008 financial crash.

Labour took a massive lead in 1992, long before the shift to New Labour

There’s much talk about who’ll be the next Labour leader.

All politicians get attacked by the media, most of it is unjustified. According to the press, Ed Miliband couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich. Gordon Brown was miserable. Tony Blair was labelled a liar even before the Iraq war. With Jeremy Corbyn, the vilification stuck. A long history of campaigning for peace and against oppression gave the tabloid press their targets. Labour’s nuanced stance on Brexit reinforced the negative image.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership Labour polled more votes, with a higher share of the electorate, than under Ed Miliband in 2015, Gordon Brown in 2010, or Tony Blair in 2005. I don’t ascribe that to Jeremy personally. All my conversations with voters convince me it’s our policies that are popular. Every poll confirms it.

I want to see a government prioritise wellbeing for everybody, weighted towards those most in need.  I want to see a government support small businesses and see they get paid on time.  I want a government that will tackle racism and bigotry.  That reverses the crippling poverty ruining the life chances of kids born to poor parents.  That ends the epidemic of poor mental health.  That sees low pay and homelessness a thing of the past.  That unleashes the talents and creativity of millions of our fellow citizens. That recognises an economy based on financial speculation is not good enough. We need one based on a green industrial transformation.

I’ll support a leadership candidate who offers that hope.

I don’t believe that’s what we’ve got with Boris Johnson. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.

In the meantime, I’ll be delivering my manifesto as Mayor.

This article was first published in the Journal and the Chronicle on Monday 16th December 2019

Jeremy Corbyn. A man of integrity, warmth and good humour. Don’t believe the billionaire press.

Lessons from the 2019 General Election

Most of the analysis I’m reading about the election defeat is not analysis, but schadenfreude.  I sometimes write polemics, and sometimes calls to arms, but today, let’s start with some facts, shall we?

Here’s the last five elections.  Total votes cast for Labour, and the percentage of the electorate at the time that voted Labour.  Figures are often given as percentage of votes cast, but that’s less informative.  The challenge for Labour is threefold:

  1. get your base to turn out,
  2. win votes from other parties, and
  3. persuade causal voters to vote.

Expressing the data as the percentage of the total electorate captures all three. 

The electorate has increased by less than the population over this time. For example, EU citizens are not eligible to vote. I think if you pay tax here, you should be allowed to vote here.

Some will argue that it’s seats that matter.  That’s true, of course.  But to get seats you need votes.  If you get them and still lose seats, that’s down to the electoral system.  In 2019, in particular, the decision of Farage’s Brexit Party to split the vote by standing only in Labour seats was beyond the control of any Labour leader. 

A detail not shown in that table is that the SNP vote pretty much tripled from 2015 onwards, after the 2014 Indy Ref.  I’m not close enough to Scottish politics to offer a detailed opinion, but clearly Scottish Independence is compounding Labour’s problems in Scotland. 

All we can reasonably expect is that a good manifesto, good messaging, and a good leader will get us enough votes nationally, and local campaigns can maximise on that strategy. 

Some historical context.  in 2005, Tony Blair had just come out of the Iraq war.  Since that was a war of his choosing, he’s responsible for the electoral consequences. I’ll not go on a rant about him needing to face a war-crimes tribunal.  He faced the utterly hopeless Michael Howard, with something-of-the-night about him.    

In 2010, Gordon Brown had navigated the global financial crash.  Any fair minded person would concede that was an external event, giving him at least a hill to climb, if not a mountain.  He faced the slick, hug-a-hoody David Cameron and I-agree-with-Nick Clegg. 

Between 2010 and 2015, Ed Miliband had faced Cameron after the Con-Dem coalition.  The Lib Dem vote collapsed from 6.8 to 2.4 million, not least after their tuition fee betrayal.  But UKIP rose from 0.9 to 3.9 million votes, predominantly in Labour heartlands. 

In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn faced Theresa May in a post referendum landscape. Most of his Parliamentary Party had turned against him in 2016, but the party membership had nearly trebled. 

In 2019 Jeremy Corbyn faced Boris Johnson.  Brexit had become a national farce, dominating politics and the news for three years.  Disaffected Labour right wingers had consistently publicly attacked him for four years, and some defected, asking people to vote Tory. 

So they all had their challenges, but Blair’s were self-inflicted. 

What’s the relevance to the 2019 result? 

There are three narratives competing to become the accepted truth of 2019.

1) Labour lost because Jeremy Corbyn is personally unpopular. 

2) Labour lost because it was too left wing.

3) Labour lost because of its Brexit position.

Leaving Scotland aside, 1 (JC’s popularity) is partially true.  2 (too left wing) is false.  3 (Brexit) is evidentially true. 

What few have mentioned, though, is

4) Labour’s campaigning methods are inadequate to 2019.

Let’s take each in turn. 

1) Labour lost because Jeremy Corbyn is personally unpopular. 

The hard evidence from the votes cast shows that whatever people felt about JC, he did pull in more votes than recent leaders. That’s evidentially true, whether in absolute numbers, or as a proportion of the electorate. 

Maybe more electors voted Labour because of him, maybe despite him.  We’ll never know, because ballot papers don’t record this information.

Anecdotally, there’s strong evidence that Jeremy was personally unpopular. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it’s subject to confirmation bias.  You notice what you expected to see, and tend to ignore what doesn’t fit your expectations. 

When knocking a Labour voters, the most frequent comment is a brief “Yep, I’m voting labour.” We tend not to mentally extrapolate this to, “And that implicitly means that I am happy with Jeremy Corbyn as leader and supportive of him being prime minister.” But that is what’s implied.

It’s certainly true that many people report voters saying they don’t like JC.  But that was exactly the same with Blair (liar, warmonger, control freak), Brown (dour, miserable), Miliband (Marxist, intellectual, couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich).  I knew a teacher who burned an effigy of Gordon Brown.  I never got to the bottom of that particular irrational hatred. 

Why is it that Labour leaders are unpopular?  Both Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband are warm, authentic personal communicators.  But only 0.01% of the electorate will ever meet them.  With 80% of the press owned by far-right tax exile billionaires, and Britain’s ineffective press regulation, there’s so much mud, a lot of it sticks. 

In JC’s case, the unprofessional and undisciplined behaviour of large parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party created a long running press saga.  There were front bench resignations and people refusing to serve in the shadow cabinet from day one.  Jess Phillips threatening to knife him in the front. The bungled coup attempt of July 2016. There was outright sabotage for four years, with MPs elected on Labour tickets who would rather see a Tory victory than a socialist win power.

What effect does this have on the electorate?  Voters expect opposing parties to throw mud.  But when they see your own side bad mouthing the leader, it sticks.  So those Labour MPs who could not accept the democratic result of the leadership elections must take a slice of the blame.  It is unreasonable to say “people don’t like Jeremy” if you’ve been piling in for the past four years. 

Classy.

This is not a new phenomenon.  The same occurred against Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, but nothing like to the same extent.  We should have our policy debates at conference, and then MPs should support the party they stood for. 

There’s also an element of exaggeration of the voters on the doorstep.  On polling day someone said to me, “I’ve been a lifelong Labour voter, but not with that leader.”  I checked the marked register, which showed that he had not voted at all in the last 8 elections.  Some voters do lie to us. 

Related to a leader’s popularity, is their performance in debates.  There is never any hard evidence, it’s largely a judgement call.  But it’s fair to say that in debates with Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn made some very solid points, and also missed some opportunities.

My feeling is that Jeremy was broadly on a par with Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband for ability.  I can’t recall a Tony Blair debate.  But it’s fair to say that Blair was one of the better political performers of recent decades. A large part of his early popularity was his ability, rather than his politics. This would explain why his popularity waned so quickly after he was elected.

And there’s no correlation between a politician’s politics and their debating skills. John McDonnell would have ripped Sajid Javid to bits.

I know a lot of people at home think politicians should have said X or challenged Y, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.  It’s not easy performing under that much pressure.   

2) Labour lost because it was too left wing.

There is not even any anecdotal evidence for this.  People support the policies.  Everyone I speak to says voters were won over by polices, some said they didn’t like the leader, but liked the manifesto.   And above all, the Tories have aped our approach and now pretend to be anti-austerity. 

This is a classic case of “They’ll stop chasing you when you stop running.”

In summer 2015, wave after wave of commentator, Labour grandee and Guardian columnist claimed that an anti-austerity, pro-public investment manifesto would be disaster.  They.  Were.  Wrong. 

You have to wonder, if Ed had stuck to his guns and we’d gone with a stronger manifesto in 2015, would we have won?   We’ll never know for sure. 

Some claim the 1997 victory was the result of a shift to the right. It wasn’t. In September 1992, Sterling crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday. Labour took a 20 point poll lead. John Smith was on track for a 1997 landslide before his tragic death. Tony Blair took over and won with a 12.5% margin. New Labour lost votes ever after.

The 1997 Blair government implemented possibly the best Labour policy in my lifetime: the National Minimum Wage. At the time, it was genuinely radical. We got pilloried in the press: it would cause unemployment, businesses would collapse, inflation would rocket. But it was popular. People like radical policies, as long as they’re clear.

One lesson we can learn, is whoever replaces Jeremy, we must not revert to triangulation.  Even now, our attacks on the Tories are blunted by them saying, “Labour did loads of PFI” or “Labour introduced tuition fees”. 

3) Labour lost because of its Brexit position.

Labour found itself between a rock and a hard place.  With around 90% of the membership being pro-European, backing Brexit was always going to be require us to campaign for something we thought was a bad policy.  Many people in Leave areas warned that we would lose votes if we were pro-second referendum.  That is undeniably true.  You’ve only to look at the North East results and see the Labour votes shift to the Brexit Party in as close a correlation as you ever get in politics. 

The counter argument is that if we had voted for Theresa May’s deal, we would have lost Remain voters.  We can never know for sure, but it certainly sounds plausible. 

I doubt there exists a Brexit position that would have been electorally favourable.  However, there could have been a Brexit approach that would have been more favourable.  The party leadership adopted a don’t-interrupt-your-enemy-when-he’s-making-a-mistake approach while Theresa May was politically dying. 

This may have worked, but for the fact that too many MPs showed no discipline whatsoever.  It’s one thing to break a whip on a matter of political principle; I have no problem with principled politicians – I am one.  But to run to the press every five minutes and have a go at your own Party is self-destructive.  Chuka Umunna exemplifies this. In his brief 2015 leadership bid he called for immigration controls and respecting the anti-European feeling of voters. Then he did a Boris and decided his career would be better served by flipping his European position, and had already done the damage long before he left to found the Tiggers, and lost as a Lib Dem. 

An alternative might have been to propose a clear deal of our own, rather than just a set of principles.  We could have then engaged on the arguments for single market membership, or Norway+, or whatever. We’d have looked decisive.  But Remainers would still have seen us as Leavers, and die-in-a-ditch Brexiters would have cried Brexit-in-name-only.  And the chances of the PLP holding that line were zero. 

After 2015, Liz Kendall and Chuka Umunna both suggested we swing in a soft anti-immigration direction. This would be a mistake now. Most of last week’s Labour voters were pro-Remain, and are overwhelmingly progressive. We must not abandon BAME communities, in the hope of placating Europhobes.

The Brexit conclusion?  This was always difficult.  We have to take this one on the chin, and move on. 

4) Labour’s campaigning methods are inadequate to 2019.

This, more than anything else, is what needs addressing. 

We failed to get the cut-through we needed. I suspect this is a universal opinion. We had some very strong policies that were very popular. But the manifesto, at 115 pages long, was not able to compete with “Get Brexit Done”. Our messaging was better in 2017, with simpler policies. Let’s forget

Let’s not be carried away by strap-lines, either. They matter less than being able to simply explain your policies.

Thatcher had “The Challenge of Our Times” in 1983 and “The Next Moves Forward” in 1987. How crap are they? Vote for strong, fair, equal, change, together forward, Britain, stable change, future. All rubbish. Say what you’re going to do, then say it again.

80% of the press is owned by far-right tax exile billionaires, and the broadcast media allow them to set the agenda.  The Guardian was consistently undermining Corbyn, and pro-Lib Dem recently.   Even the Mirror weighed in against JC in the leadership elections. 

Door knocking can be effective, but it is a time consuming, skilled task.  A personal conversation with an enthused activist is the second most effective way to win someone’s vote.  (The first is talking personally to the candidate). 

Much of our campaigning focuses on getting out the vote.  But we need to persuade people to vote for us in the first place.  If we want to talk to 52,000 electors in a constituency, just once per Parliament, that’s 200 conversations a week, every week, for five years.  Not doors knocked, not voter ID, but authentic, two-way conversations.  That requires finding people in, who are willing to talk. 

So let’s do door knocking, but recognise it as primarily a GOTV activity, not a hearts-and-minds tool. 

We need a heart-and-minds approach about values and principles between elections, and not just a transactional this-is-what-we’ll-do-for-you blitz at election time.  We should see this in the same way that an artist builds up a following.  Comedian, musician, writer – they all create an ongoing dialogue with their audiences, who get to know them.  Select candidates early, and support them with tools and training.  It would be money well spent. 

This dovetails with community organising and building a presence on social media, including blogs and videos for each constituency. 

We need to find a way for the majority of our half-a-million members to contribute easily.  We need software that is easy for beginners to use, that allows production of personal, almost blog style leaflets introducing candidates.  Too often our leaflets try too hard – a few bullet points that come across a bit too sales like. 

Between elections, let local parties fund and get out simple but authentic leaflets to every home.  This needs simpler ways to track what’s been put out, and where.  Many of our current tools have a steep learning curve that cuts out most members.  We’ve started to make strides on this as a party, but we have a way to go. 

Running like a red thread though all of this has to be genuine dialogue.  Not “you should vote for us because…” but “what sort of world would you like to live in?”  and “what can we do here?”  Definitely not a continuous pop at the Tories or Lib Dems on the local council, but something that appeals to the positive parts of the imagination.

Yes, we will replace Jeremy with a new leader, that’s going to happen.  But like Ed Miliband before him, and Gordon Brown before him, she will be vilified by the press using any hook they can.  

Every Labour leader will be vilified if they act against the interests of billionaires.

What we must retain is the mass membership, increasingly diverse campaigning methods, and the baby steps we’ve taken towards democratising the party. 

Boris Johnson and the Tories are unable to deliver the land of Brexit milk and honey.  His honeymoon will be short.  We must keep our strong polices on climate change, which will grow as an issue over the next five years.

We need to be on the ground, to stop far right populism growing.  The opportunity for a socialist government is still there.  The evidence shows it. To win, we must learn from what’s happened and build, rather than a knee-jerk reversion to centralised centrism. 

How Do Labour’s votes compare to recent elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has a higher average vote count than Blair, Brown or Miliband.

Here’s an updated one with vote share as a percentage of the electorate.

Percentage of the electorate is more useful than percentage of votes cast. The challenge for Labour is to win over voters who’ve voted for other parties, to get out our base, and to inspire non-voters to turn out.

There but for the grace of god go I

We must do better than this.

Your task is to design a society.  Its tax systems, justice, education, health, and so on.  But there’s a twist.  You don’t know in advance what part you will play in that society.  Philosophers call this a Veil of Ignorance.  You don’t know your gender, race, age, height.  Whether you’ll have a disability. 

You might be born to loving parents who take you to the park and help you with your homework.  Or into a family with a Dad in prison.  You might be happily married, or a woman trapped in a violent relationship.  Maybe you’ve been a victim of knife crime, and live with the trauma. 

You don’t know your abilities.  You might have a talent for art.  You might be academically gifted.  You might, like 50% of people, be below average at exams.  You might live in a deprived area, where drug pushers target your kids. 

Be honest: would you be confident playing that lottery in modern Britain?

The IPPR report, State of the North, was published last week.  “The north of England – like the rest of the country – is currently beset by deep and severe divisions,”  it says. 

In the North East alone, 330,000 workers earn less than they need to live on.  89,000 of our people were given emergency food parcels last year.  That includes 33,000 children.  167,000 women born in the 1950’s have had their pension rights pilfered.  17,000 kids are taught in oversized classes.  37,000 kids in working families are in poverty.  201,000 people waited more than four hours in A&E.  Violent crime has risen by 27%.  Knife crime by 92%.  Since 2010, the North East lost 2,021 police officers. 

But they’re statistics.  Just this week I saw a man in a green sleeping bag on a bench in Jesmond.  He was there the week before.  Would you swap your life with his?

I spoke to a woman in early 60’s who’d had her pension age pushed back by the government.  She had to go back to work as an apprentice on a building site, climbing scaffolding for minimum wage just to pay her rent.  Her joints ache every day.  I know of parents torn between using payday lenders or their kids being bullied because they won’t get a genuine NUFC strip for Christmas.    

Later this week, you get to choose who designs that society. 

 You could choose Boris Johnson, who said, “The modern British male is useless.  If he is blue collar, he is likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless, and perhaps claiming to suffer from low self-esteem brought on by unemployment.  If he is white collar, he is likely to be little better.” 

His plan for supporting single mams?  “If having a baby out of wedlock meant sure-fire destitution on a Victorian scale, young girls might indeed think twice about having a baby.”

Does that sound like the architect of a secure future?  Or his plan to boost prostitution and crime?  It’s a throwback to Ebenezer Scrooge who said, “Are there no prisons? And the workhouses, are they still in operation?” 

Or you could vote to make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister.  A man who told me, “We need to stop this idea that society is all about competition.  It’s simply unsustainable to have a system where only the most talented do well and everyone else struggles.  Everyone has something to offer.” 

So let’s design society where top 5% pay a bit more tax.  If you’re on £80,000 or more, it’s in your enlightened self interest to pay for Sure Start, for a working probation service, for better schools.  For more kids grow up to be scientists and doctors. 

Next time you see a victim of drug abuse, face sallow from the cycle of shoplifting and prostitution, think there but for the grace of God, go I.  She was once a new born baby with her whole life ahead of her.  Collectively we have failed her.  It’s time to face up to the future, and build a society that works for everybody.  Vote Labour this Christmas.    

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 9th December 2019

Do we simply turn our heads, and look the other way?

The banks get it. The kids get it. Do you get it?

Loads of Climate Strikers in Newcastle. That’s the 20th Sept pic.

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs” starts Rudyard Kipling’s poem If-. “Then perhaps it’s because you don’t understand the situation…” continues the joke.

On Monday, I met with Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England. We touched on many things, including making our economy sustainable.  

He agrees with his boss, Mark Carney, that the climate crisis will destroy our economy unless we face up to it. Why would two sober-minded establishment pillars make this claim?

Mark Carney speaks of a “global financial collapse”.  £20tn (that’s trillion!) wiped off asset prices when the world realises we can no longer burn our oil reserves. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Literally. When the Greenland ice sheet melts, it will add 7m to sea levels. Bye-bye Netherlands, Bangladesh, Manhattan, and parts of London.  The financial impacts will hit long before the sea encroaches. Our financial system is interconnected like a game of global Jenga. And as ever, ordinary people will pay.  Insurance will be declined.  Homes will become worthless.  Pensions will default. 

On Tuesday, I met with Nick Baveystock, chief exec of the Institute of Civil Engineers.  He’s a sober-minded career soldier who ran the Royal Engineers’ training centre. We agreed about the shortage of British engineers. We’re working on getting kids into STEM subjects. Especially kids in less affluent schools. We need hands-on projects to engage kids. Working wind turbines, irrigated urban gardens. Learn from doing, and gain the sense of achievement of building something real. The teachers I speak to would love this – they’re sick of testing kids for the sake of it.

On Wednesday, Nature published an article. It is the most prestigious scientific publication in the world.  Do yourself a favour and Google “Nature Climate Tipping Points”.  If nothing else, you’ll be able to impress your friends.

The problem, says the article, is that climate change is non-linear. Once part of the Earth’s system gets thrown out of kilter, it affects everything else.

Ice melting in Greenland slows down the ocean currents. This affects West African monsoons, dries-out the Amazon, and accelerates Antarctic ice melting.  If that happens, it shortens our window to prevent runaway climate change from 10 years to 8 years. The authors cite thirty such interacting tipping points.

But it won’t be the weather that will collapse civilisation. It will be migration. Even if we hit the Paris agreements, average global temperatures will rise by over 3 degrees.  Every degree of rise lowers global food production between 5 to 10%. 1.817 billion people will be hungry.  Wheat production in India will drop by 70%. Pakistan will become a desert. Bangladesh waterlogged. 

We’ve seen Syrians so desperate they’ll risk drowning in overcrowded dinghies.  Syria had a pre-war population of 21m. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have 1.7 billion people. And two nuclear armed states.

On Thursday I met with Nigel Powell of EduCCate Global. They’re delivering the United Nations’ climate teacher accreditation in North of Tyne.  We’re working out how to extend it to kids and community groups.  If you’re a teacher, and want to sign up for the free course, get in touch via our website.

Thursday night saw the Channel 4 climate debate.  Johnson and Farage didn’t care enough to show up. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen them in the same place together. They were empty chaired, replaced by melting blocks of ice.  Satire at its sharpest. 

On Friday, I walked into town with my kids and spoke at the school climate strike. Many hundreds crowded outside the Civic Centre. Fifteen to eighteen year olds spoke with impressive eloquence on the need for economic system change.  The language was less technical than the Bank of England’s, but the message was the same. Without massive public investment in clean energy and public transport, we’ll crash. It’s their futures, and they know it.

For the avoidance of doubt, I support the school strikers, and I support Extinction Rebellion. If you don’t, my guess is that you haven’t understood the situation.

In Game of Thrones, Winter was coming. I’m afraid for us, it’s climate change. 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 2nd December 2019

Yep.

Did you ever have control to take back?

Capitalism is about money being in control. We need an alternative.

What would taking back control mean to you?

Maybe you’ve piled on a few pounds over recent years, and want to take back control over your health. Perhaps it’s wrestling back some work-life balance, returning to that hobby you did when you were younger. If that’s the only part of your life out of control, you’re not doing too badly.

I see too many people trying to take back control of their finances. One in three working families are a single paycheque away from not paying their rent or mortgage.

Social isolation is at record levels. For millions, taking back control of their mental health is a distant dream. Those trapped in abusive relationships. Victims of persistent racial abuse. For them, even hope itself can be hard to imagine.

Any clinical psychologist will tell you that feeling powerless is toxic for your mental health. The sense of not having control over what is happening to you.

If & when we leave the EU, there’s going to be a lot of people wondering why they still feel out of control. Because, if we’re talking politics, “take back control” is an illusion. How can you take back something that was never yours?

Billionaires can take back control. S*n owner Rupert Murdoch and Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere are champing at the bit. They back Johnson & Farage’s low-wage low-regulation agenda with their low-fact newspapers. Should foreign domiciled tax avoiders have that much control?

In fact, since when have people of ordinary means ever had control over our economy?  In or out of the EU, could you fund a dubious think-tank to deny climate change? When bankers rigged the rates and crashed our economy, they got bailed out, and kept their bonuses. But if you lose your job, or your small business fails, who will bail you out, and maintain your standard of living? Could you take advantage of the “freedom” to buy the NHS?  The Johnson-Farage agenda is about ordinary people losing control.

The question that doesn’t get asked in the TV debates is: who is the economy for?

I wrote last week about the Glendale Trust in Wooler. They own flats, shops, a community hub and a youth hostel.  Their commercial operations pay for themselves, and keep their community vibrant.  It keeps money recirculating in the local economy.  It gives young families a chance to live near where they grew up. It tackles one of our greatest social problems at its root – people not feeling part of a community.

The People’s Powerhouse met in Sunderland this week. It’s a growing coalition of groups who think Northern communities should be at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.  Too much of our future is decided in London.  

Council leader Graham Miller and I were both there. We share a vision of community wealth building.  We need a focus on developing small, local enterprises, owned and run by local people.  I’m working with organisations like Power To Change and the National Lottery to roll out a series of pilot projects. A democratic economy is a more resilient economy.

There’s strength in our communities. People want them to thrive. The missing ingredient is often a bit of specialist support.  An accountant or lawyer to help with the set-up, a worker to get things up and running.

Take Second Bite as an example. It’s a catering academy based at the Cedarwood Trust in the Meadow Well estate. It’s also a social enterprise.  People trying to turn their lives around from substance misuse struggle to get back into paid work.  Second Bite gives them training and work experience, and crucially, self esteem by feeding people in food poverty. It enables them to start to take control over their own lives, often for the first time. Hedge funds would never invest in this, but local communities do. And it makes a difference.

Building a rich network of community hubs so everyone gets a foot on the ladder. That’s what taking back control really looks like.

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 25th November 2019

Can’t say I’m surprised.

The town with lessons to share about devolution

I would have paid good money to watch John debate Sajid Javid. Shame Saj bottled it.

On Tuesday I was due to meet Chancellor Sajid Javid in Parliament, to discuss devolving budgets to Metro Mayors.  I was due to meet John McDonnell and his team immediately afterwards – it would have made an interesting comparison, since we won’t get to see Mr Javid debate Mr McDonnell.  Saj has refused; perhaps because John McDonnell would have shown that Labour governments borrow less and repay more than Conservative ones.  Google it, if you don’t believe me:  Taxresearch.org.uk has a detailed analysis. 

The whole point of devolution is to give control to local people.  More spending is needed, it’s true.  Schools have had to lay off teachers, other teachers are on zero-hours with supply agencies.  A quick look at schoolcuts.org.uk paints a stark picture of a country failing to invest in education.  The NHS has almost 100,000 vacancies, it’s only surviving because of the million hours of unpaid overtime every week.  Everyone now recognises Boris’s bus slogan of “£350 million a week for the NHS” was a lie.  

More money is vital, but it’s local decision making that’s transformative.  Who understands an industry or service better than the people who work in it?  Who understands the needs of a community better than the people who live there? 

Take Wooler, for example.  High Streets across the country are struggling with empty shops and shrinking footfall.  Northern towns doubly so.  Wooler has bucked the trend by developing a community hub – a key plank of my election manifesto is to develop these across the region. 

The Glendale Gateway Trust has been growing since way back in 1996 – and it’s long-term local control that’s the beating heart of its success. 

The Trust took an old 19th century workhouse, standing derelict, transformed it, and in 2001 opened at as the Cheviot Centre.  It’s buzzing – a branch library, Tourist Information centre, meal clubs and soon to host a branch of the Newcastle building Society.  There’s distance learning courses via video conferencing – a climate friendly way to support adult education.  There’s timber-framed ‘pods’ out the back that look like upturned Viking ships, cheap space for local businesses to get started without having to risk long leases.  The sum total of all this activity pays the bills and keeps the hub self-financing.  More impressively, it sparks community engagement,  “The kind of cross pollination of ideas that the Cheviot centre offers is essential,” the Trust’s chief executive, Tom Johnston, told me.  

It’s sparked other initiatives.  They took on the local Youth Hostel to save it from closure.  It is now leased to Karl and Cindy, who’ve made it a thriving venture that brings people to the town.  It supports everything from trail running events to guided wildlife lectures. 

The Trust developed an old Co-op site into eighteen affordable homes and is now a registered social provider.  Too many rural communities are dying – holiday homes raises property prices, making it impossible for locals youngsters to raise a family where they grew up. 

The old Barclays Bank is being developed into a restaurant, with more flats upstairs, to give year round footfall on the High Street.   It took an interest free loan of a quarter of million to get the Trust up and running, but for twenty three years now, they’ve quietly been creating jobs, boosting community cohesion, keeping the High Street vibrant, and supporting local businesses. 

I asked Tom and the trustees how they’ve managed to keep the Trust running so well for over twenty years.  “We have a term limit,” he said.  “You can be a trustee for a maximum of nine years – that means we’re always training new people up, and the old hands are always around for advice.”  

It’s a microcosm of democratic public ownership – let the people who live and work there make the decisions, and reinvest all the profits for the future. 

I often ask politicians and civil servants: if it’s such obvious common sense to devolve budgets, why is everything controlled from Whitehall?  The answer is: Ministers like to cut ribbons. 

This article first appeared in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 18th November 2019

These are the startup business pods at the Cheviot Centre. Cool, huh?

The right to fulfilling work

ESOL students in Newcastle. Diversity is a strength.

This week is Living Wage Week.  23% of working people in our region don’t earn enough to live on without getting into debt.  The figure is set by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: £9 per hour.  Crucially, it applies to everyone – the national minimum wage is only £7.70 if you’re under 25, and £4.35 if you’re under 18.  After all, shops don’t sell you food or clothes cheaper if you’re under 25.  I’m proud to say that the North of Tyne Combined Authority is a Living Wage Employer. 

We’re developing our Good Work Pledge – a set of pledges that accredit a firm as a model employer.  Paying the Real Living Wage, access to mental health support, opportunities for in work progression, trade union recognition, and flexible working.  What’s heartening is the support I’m getting from businesses and employers’ organisations like the Chamber of Commerce, CBI and Federation of Small Businesses.  These professionals understand that the best way for a firm to succeed – whether public or private – is to look after their people. 

I want to make any company tendering for public sector contracts sign up to the Good Work Pledge.  We have to delay the launch, though, because of the General Election.  If Labour get in, what’s in our local pledge will become mandatory in national law. 

Me making a pledge to be a Living Wage employer, just before my election. Now delivered.

On the subject of work, I was invited to speak to adult learners at Newcastle College last week.  The lecture theatre was packed. 

What matters most in your ideal job, I asked.  High rate of pay?  Nope – just two hands went up.  Short commute to work – a few hands went up.  Good food in the canteen?  A few laughs, but not important to them.  The ability to use your talents creatively?  A flurry of hands went into the air.  Being valued and respected by your employer?  Yep – now we were cooking, not just all the raised hands, but the body language and murmur of agreement. 

It was a diverse audience – from health and social care learners, people doing foundation courses for degrees, and a large cohort of ESOL learners – English for Speakers of Other Languages.  There was a real wealth of talent amongst the ESOL learners – teachers, engineers, film directors, pharmacists. 

I shared my story: I left school at 16, returned to education in my 20’s, eventually completing my engineering degree followed by a career in engineering and software.  Becoming Mayor was an unexpected detour – I’m not sure what GCSEs are needed for that career path!

What struck me about the ESOL learners was their empathy.  They wanted to care for the homeless, promote sport for people with disabilities, work with people with dementia.  For them, work is an opportunity to contribute – not a transaction of self-interest. 

Judging by the number of people wanting selfies, the students enjoyed my talk.  Especially the Sudanese learner who said his ambition was to be the next Mayor. 

A surgeon’s assistant, a refugee from the Syrian army, shared his story with me.  Rather than kill his fellow citizens in the civil war, he’d deserted.  It took him five months to get here, through five countries, and if he returns a military firing squad will shoot him.  He’s bright, highly skilled, and compassionate.  Yet between arriving in the UK and getting his confirmed refugee status took 15 months.  During this time he was forbidden from working and paying tax, or attending an English Language course in college.  It’s crazy – the Home Office that brought us the Hostile Environment makes it illegal for asylum seekers to learn English in college!  People are forced into the black-economy, undercutting wages & suffering exploitation.  Action Foundation, a fantastic Newcastle-based charity, plugs the gap, training over 600 people through their courses.  But it’s shameful that we actively stop immigrants from learning English, leaving them struggling to use buses, do their shopping or take kids to the GP. 

At its best, work is fulfilling and builds a better society.  That should be our aim. 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 11th November 2019

That’s everyone posing for a pic. Not us having a sing along.

I’ve got two new kids. Apparently.

Good advice. They’re tax dodgers too.

“Do you have another two kids you haven’t told me about?” laughed my wife.

“Eh?”

She explained, “It says on Wikipedia we have four children.”

A more interesting question might be why she was looking me up on Wikipedia while I was sitting next to her in the living room. 

The article was neutral – it doesn’t harm my reputation whether we have two kids or four.  In addition to giving me an extra two kids, Wikipedia also got my year and place of birth wrong, my number of siblings, and a number of career details.  In its defence, it is a volunteer run project. 

Truth is the first casualty of war, it’s said, and that’s what elections are.

Last week, the Chronicle ran a headline claiming the North of Tyne staff budget had a £78,000 overspend.  It hasn’t, it’s £113,000 under, but a rebuttal only appears in a quote six paragraphs down, and judging by the comments and social media responses, very few people read that far into an article.  A headline can travel half way around the world while the body text is putting on its shoes. 

There’s a cheap shot from a political opponent claiming we’ve achieved nothing, despite the evidence that we’ve set up programmes creating 1,152 jobs. 

It says Andy Burnham is the highest paid Metro Mayor on £110,000.  He’s not, it’s Sadiq Khan on £152,734.  (Not the £143,911 Wikipedia says.)  That’s not biased, but it is untrue. 

Perhaps truth is not the objective: should our media be there to foster debate instead?  Give politicians equal space to say whatever they like, where truth is optional, and let the people judge?  It’s a valid question.  But is that not what opinion columns are for?

Evidence based debate over public policy is a rare beast.  Even articles based on academic reports rarely include the links to the underlying evidence.   Think about the Brexit reporting over the past three years.  It’s all “Brexit is an opportunity!” or “Brexit will crash the economy!”   Likewise NHS cuts, tax rates or police numbers. 

Mind you, the fact that Chancellor Sajid Javid refused to commission an economic impact analysis on his government’s Hard Brexit plan could be to blame.  A government that is afraid to let its people judge the evidence in public debate is a government that is afraid of its people. 

But where was the outcry?  Why weren’t business newspapers and broadsheets alike clamouring for the evidence?   Is the economic impact assessment of Brexit not vital for national decision making?   

Where else shall we find our facts? Social media?  250 Facebook employees have signed a letter this week, outraged at the company’s policy to exempt paid political ads from fact checking.   Given how easy it to spin a story, the very least we can expect is that direct lies are banned.  But no, cash is king.  In the scramble for clicks, advertising revenue depends upon impact. 

I can understand why a politician or celebrity might lie about their drug use, or bizarre initiation rites involving pigs heads and private parts.  Maybe these are personal matters that justify privacy.  Most people would rather deny a hard truth than face it. 

But our current Prime Minister has serious form.  

For me, one incident sums up Mr Johnson.  In May this year he tweeted “I’ve just voted Conservative in the local elections.”  Someone quickly pointed out there were no local elections where he lived, and he deleted the tweet.  Busted.  But why lie over something so trivial?  Unless you don’t value the truth as something precious in its own right. 

Democracy is hard work.  It requires citizens willing to sift the true from the false, the profound from the trivial, the substance from the headline.  I am a firm believer in the people.  If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.  The great point is to bring them the real facts. 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday November the 4th 2019

Jamie & Family on NHS march
Jamie & Family on NHS march

Sorry We Missed You

Ken Loach. Total legend.

Ken Loach has a gift of cutting through the statistics and hitting you in the heart.  This Wednesday he invited me along to the Newcastle premiere of his latest film, Sorry We Missed You.

Without giving any spoilers, Abby works as a carer, Ricky as a “self employed” delivery driver under unremitting pressure to hit targets, or face fines.  Kids Seb and Lisa-Jane are caught in the middle, their parents too busy or too knackered to give them the attention and nurture they need.  The tragedy of parents working till they drop, hoping to save enough money to buy their own home and escape the poverty trap of sky-high rents.    It rings true. 

I worked with Ken on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, showing  Spirit of 45, his film about the 1945 Labour government that literally rebuilt Britain from the rubble, created the NHS, built millions of homes, introduced the welfare state and provided a safety net, so no-one would ever have to go back to the crippling poverty of the 1930’s. 

Yet in the era of smartphones and Netflix, Britain has 1.6 million people using foodbanks, 14 million people in poverty, 250,000 children in temporary accommodation.  Numbers too high to comprehend – so high they make us numb.  Ken tells the human stories.  Daniel Blake, a hard working joiner who’s suffered a heart attack, forced back to work by a welfare system intent on punishing people instead of helping them.  “They’re using hunger as a weapon,” Ken told me,  “to force people into insecure work, where they have no power, against the threat of starvation.” 

The stories are true.  United Nations Rapporteur Philip Alston describes a “social calamity” with “people who depend on food banks and charities for their next meal, who are sleeping on friends’ couches because they are homeless and don’t have a safe place for their children to sleep, who have sold sex for money or shelter, children who are growing up in poverty unsure of their future.”  By this measure, austerity Britain is a failed state. 

Once the anger of injustice cools, we’re left asking:  what has gone wrong?  Amidst all the technology and innovation, in our city, in 2019, kids in school uniform poverty are going to school in slippers, a true case I heard just this weekend. 

One in four of the North of Tyne workforce earn less than the Real Living Wage – the amount you need to live on without sinking into debt.  We’re trying to change that, with the North of Tyne Good Work pledge – where companies sign up to pay decent wages, have fair employment practices, allow trade union recognition, in work progression, flexible working and mental health support for staff.  I want to make it so that anyone getting public sector contracts has to provide Good Work.  This creates an environment in which real small businesses can thrive. 

On Thursday, Ken was on Question Time in South Shields.  The usual arguments were rehearsed again.  We voted Leave (just).  We were lied to about what Brexit means.  All true, but what matters is the effect on people’s lives. 

Ken cut through again – “We have precarious working now, in the EU, and we’ll have it again even worse if Johnson’s the Prime Minister.” 

That’s what’s been lost in the Leave-Remain argument.  The millions of people who’ve been left behind are being left behind again. 

We need radical change, but Brexit is not the place to look. 

When a billion pound property portfolio of London office blocks rises in value, the economic figures look good.  But what good are rising property values to people working in the gig economy?  Trickle down is a myth – wealth trickles up through interest payments and rent.  How about we measure wellbeing instead of GDP?   Let’s change our objectives. 

Are our kids happy?  Do we have good mental health?  Are we living sustainably?  Have we ended homelessness?  And do our people have enough to eat without having to sell sex? 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 28th October 2019

Talking to scriptwriter Paul Laverty. Such a warm and intelligent guy.
Promoted by Richard Williams on behalf of Jamie Driscoll both at Labour North, Kings Manor, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6PA.