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.

The Blame Game

England’s footballers leading against racism

Leadership is difficult to quantify.  It should be a defining characteristic in our politicians, a blend of gravitas, consistent values, integrity, and the courage to stand firm when others flinch.  We’ve seen real leadership this week, but it’s come from footballers.  Last Monday’s Euro Qualifier saw 26 year-old Tyrone Mings stand strong against monkey chants and Nazi-salutes, with his team mates in full solidarity, followed by dignified press interviews.  This weekend saw Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town walk off the pitch after racist abuse, with Cameroonian goalkeeper Valery Pajetat being spat at.    

The irony is that last week was Hate Crime Awareness week.  In the past five years, hate crimes have more than doubled, with a big spike after the Brexit referendum.  The 122% rise may in part be the result of better recording, but everyone I speak to reports a genuine increase across the board: racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, disability abuse and misogyny. 

Hate Crime is a complex sociological issue, but I’ll draw out two strands: stereotyping, and blame. 

We all rely on prejudice to navigate daily life – literally pre-judging people, based on their age or clothing.  We pre-judge which stranger is likely to give us reliable directions or advice, based on their face and expression.  The line between snap judgements and lasting stereotyping is where the problem begins.  How can we know about our unconscious biases if they’re unconscious? 

This week’s incidents of racist football crowds will reinforce the perception that football fans are inherently racist.  But it was the England fans in Bulgaria who chanted back, “Who put the ball in the racists’ net?  Raheem F***ing Sterling!”  Wit and solidarity from the terraces, a moment of hope, not hate.    

The assumption that bigotry is most prevalent amongst the “white working class” is itself a stereotype.  Negative attitudes to immigrants are higher amongst households with incomes of £25,000 to £50,000 than amongst lower income households.  Bigotry, and unconscious bias, is prevalent right up the income ladder.  It’s not the “white working class” who are paying black male graduates 17% less than white graduates, or £3.90 an hour.  It’s not people on council estates paying women 9.6% less than men.  And the editors of those tabloids so keen to push xenophobia are not short of a few quid, neither are their billionaire owners. 

Then there’s blame. 

Blame first requires labelling others as deserving mockery or contempt.  Attitudes change over time.  Last year, Netflix’s algorithm put the Two Ronnies into my recommended list.  Some of the sketches have clever wordplay, Four Candles being a classic, but I’d forgotten how many are based around causal racism and routine sexual harassment.  But as we entered the millennium, it seemed that racism, homophobia and sexism were in retreat. 

Then came Farage & co, channelling the spirit of Enoch Powell.  It wasn’t financial speculation that meant your kids couldn’t afford a house, it was foreigners. 

We saw Theresa May’s “Hostile Environment,” used to direct attention from the loss of frontline police from 124,000 in 2010 to 104,000 in 2018. 

The 2016 referendum was fought on blame.  I heard people screaming “traitor” at campaigners on street stalls.  The current frenzy is “get Brexit done”. 

A question has disappeared from public debate: why?  What is the problem that a hard Brexit will fix? 

1.6 million people have needed foodbanks in the last year.  210,000 homeless children in the UK.  Is the European Parliament to blame for that?  Or the fact that 1 in 4 northerners earn less than the Real Living Wage?  If it is, let’s hear the evidence.    

The imminence of Brexit worries many; trade barriers and the loss of jobs.  There are also faults with the EU, not least the way agency workers are exploited.  

Our politics needs to drop the frenzy of blame, and return to debating policy.  Temper tantrums and threats to “die in a ditch” are not the leadership we need. 

Otherwise, who will we blame once we’ve left the EU? 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 21st October 2019.

This is what leadership looks like. Nice handwriting too.

The Queen’s Speech

The Queen on being told Boris Johnson has arrived

Today is the Queen’s Speech.  Perhaps Boris Johnson will actually win his first Commons vote as Prime Minister.  For a man who is so opposed to socialism, he spends a lot of time getting publicly owned. 

I don’t know why we still pretend that the speech belongs to the Queen.  I’ve never met her; I’m told she’s very polite, a quality I prize highly in people.  But the pretence that it’s Her Majesty’s Government is increasingly tenuous after the recent proroguing of Parliament for party political advantage, and the subsequent High Court confirmation that it was illegal.  And how can we possibly take the programme of legislation in the speech seriously?  The PM can promise whatever he likes, given that he intends to dissolve Parliament for an election within weeks. 

What’s in it?  I can guess – lots of noise about a clean break with the EU.  Which is impossible.  Even crashing out with No Deal we’ll still have to negotiate a future trade deal, just from a weaker position.  And lose 10% of all the jobs in the North East in the meantime. 

And there’ll be a lot of greenwash.  Claims about how they’re serious about reducing emissions by 2050.  Twenty years too late, but hey-ho. 

Unfortunately for him, this week saw the publication of every MP’s climate vote score.  Mr Johnson scored exactly 0% on his voting record over the past ten years, supporting fracking, opposing the solar and wind industry, and taking whopping donations from oil companies and climate-change-denying think tanks.  In 2013 he wrote that “wind turbines would not pull the skin off a rice pudding.”

All the parties are on election footing.  Last Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn was in Newcastle rallying the troops, his eighth event in five days.  I had a long meeting with him, to discuss how as Mayor I can deliver Labour’s national priorities.  How the North East can lead the way on green transport, on renewables, on building affordable housing, on rebalancing our economy to prioritise long-term sustainability over short-term profit seeking.  More than two-thirds of Labour’s national investment will be delivered by devolved government.  There’ll be 10,300 jobs in offshore wind alone, with profits reinvested in our coastal communities.  And long term, this investment all pays for itself. 

The contrast between the two men is remarkable – and I’ve spoken to both of them recently.   Jeremy’s depth of knowledge of the housing industry, and understanding of how to close the skills gap and create jobs to meet Labour’s housing target of a million new homes.  The facts he has at his fingertips on the capacity of rail lines, the details of high street banking, and despite being a Londoner, his knowledge North East communities.  To be fair, Boris Johnson’s jokes are better than Jeremy’s, but by that logic, we should appoint a comedian as Prime Minister.  Ah… 

Our region was built on coal and steel.  The phrase “coals to Newcastle” was used as far back as 1538.  We started the industrial revolution; at one point more coal was shipped from the mouth of the Tyne than was mined in the rest of the world put together.  Stephenson’s Rocket was built on Forth Bank in Newcastle.    We were in our innocence about climate change, and the fact that global sea level rises will submerge half of Tyneside, and threaten our food security. 

There’s an alternative.  We’ve always been innovators.  Hydro-electricity was invented in Northumberland.  The electric light bulb was invented in Gateshead. 

To all the cynics and misanthropes who say we should do nothing because climate change is a global problem, I say we should be the home of ambition.  We have the chance to reboot our economy.  To create thousands upon thousands of well paid jobs.  If we decarbonise by 2030, we’ll show the rest of the world it can be done.  Let’s lead the world with a Green Industrial Revolution.

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 14th October 2019

The very worst that could happen…

World Mental Health Day

“Health, wealth and happiness!” is the toast we’ve all heard.  Mental health defines two of these, and impacts on the third.  In May, Tyne and Wear Citizens held a Mayoral hustings at the Tyne Theatre, 1000 people attended.  The host asked everyone to stand up; a thousand people got to their feet.  She then said, “Sit down if you don’t know anyone who has suffered with a mental health issue.”   There were still close to a thousand people on their feet. 

Today is World Mental Health Day.  The focus this year is suicide prevention.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 – 29 year-olds worldwide.  Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women.  Statistics can’t do justice to the human stories that comprise these numbers.  Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, friends, colleagues and loved ones. 

On Monday I visited the Recovery College Collective, on Market Street in Newcastle.  ReCoCo, as it’s known, is a peer-led mental health charity.  Kate (I’ve changed her name) told me about her mental health journey; her self-harming, her suicide attempts.   “I’m only alive because of ReCoCo.”  She couldn’t bring herself to fill in forms, she felt judged everywhere she went.  She spoke – eloquently – about attending a peer-led group, facilitated by those who had suffered from poor mental health and had recovered.  She speaks of “a light-bulb moment” when she recognised her situation was similar, and perhaps she too could recover.  She last self-harmed three years ago, she sees the future as she never has before, and is now facilitating peer-led recovery herself.  All by meeting other people, in a structured, safe environment, supported by professionals. 

ReCoCo is a nomad charity.  Like many others, they find temporary homes in unused office blocks, waiting for redevelopment.  The City Council waives their business rates, if the landlord lowers the rents.  But this is no way to run our public services.  Groups like Psychologists Against Austerity have proven the damage caused by cuts.  Waiting lists are long, services are patchy, and people with years-long, complex problems compounded by alcohol dependency and drug use might be prescribed a mere six sessions of therapy. 

Nine out of ten NHS mental health trusts reported a marked increase in mental health problems when Universal Credit was imposed on the most vulnerable in our society.  I asked the people using ReCoCo whether their mental health problems were in part caused by the stresses of poverty.  The answer was an overwhelming, and at times cathartic, yes.  Insecure work, problems with insecure housing and sofa-surfing.  The cost of bus tickets, and people having to choose between heating and eating.  A 2017 report from the TUC found the unemployment rate of people with mental health conditions was a shocking 75%! 

My team is in the final wave of consultations with businesses on our Good Work Pledge.  23% of people in the North of Tyne earn less that the Real Living Wage of £9 an hour, which is the minimum people need to live on to avoid building up debts.  Employers will be encouraged to sign up to providing the Real Living Wage, and other pledges that make work rewarding and motivational, such as in-work training, gender equality, and access to trade union support.  It’s a fact that unionised workplaces are more productive, have better staff relations, lower sickness rates and lower staff turnover. 

The good news is I’ve had nothing but support from the major employers and business organisations like the CBI, Chamber of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses.  They know the best way to prosperity is to look after your staff. 

Babies aren’t born feeling suicidal.  Somewhere along the way, psychological pressures occur which make kids, adolescents and adults mentally unwell. 

At that hustings in May, Tyne & Wear Citizens asked me to commit to providing mental health support in every school by the end of my five year term.  At any given moment, 1 in 8 schoolkids has a mental health disorder.  How Britain has found itself with a mental health crisis amongst children beggars belief.  North of Tyne’s devolution means we’re uniquely able to develop an Education Challenge, including mental health professionals in every school.  We’ll be pitching government to fund mental health support for kids – and staff – and crucially, we’re working to remove the stresses that cause ill health. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  I’m delighted Labour has announced it will reform Ofsted once in government.  The “exam factory” culture is neither the best way to improve educational outcomes nor to improve school standards.  If we’re to start treating people as human beings rather than economic units, it has to start in childhood. 

This article first appeared in The Journal and Newcastle Evening Chronicle on 10th October 2019

It’s all about the power

A meeting of the Metro Mayors and Chief Execs. Me in a suit.

Last Monday I was in Manchester when the Tory Party conference was in town.  I haven’t crossed the floor, it was a meeting of the M9.  It sounds like something from a Bond film.  Whenever we meet I think of SPECTRE – me and the other 8 Metro Mayors sitting round a huge table, working out the best way to get central government to give powers and funding back to England’s regions.   Sadiq Khan stroking a white cat.  Well, maybe not that bit. 

A fortnight ago the Prime Minister announced the North of Tyne would get additional devolved powers.  We’ve been chasing up civil servants to find out how and when, and it’s fair to say the PM’s team is making up policy on the hoof.  Government at the moment is more Austin Powers than James Bond.  We were offered a sketchy deal about as clear as the government’s plan for solving the Northern Ireland border.  But our civil servants have been diligent, and the political unity from the mayors is impressive.  Neither Labour nor Tory Mayor was happy with the initial offer, and collectively as the M9 we have approached the government with a request for a clear devolution framework: a process that would see significant powers and budgets devolved to the North of Tyne, which we could draw-down when we are ready to manage them.  That’s the power of having directly-elected leaders with a clear focus on their own regions.  If we’re to get beyond divisive politics as a country, devolution has to play its part.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have it.  We should too. 

On a positive note, the lobbying to get democratic control of the Shared Prosperity Fund seems to be paying off.  Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for local government, confirmed that I would get direct control of the money that will replace EU funding when – or if – Brexit happens.  Whether Leaver or Remainer, we can all agree that direct control of our funding is better for our area.  Regional control would enable us to really power up the North. 

What could I do with these powers?  Sort our public transport for one thing.  Over the last thirty years, since bus deregulation under the Thatcher government, bus patronage has dropped in the North East by half.  In the same time period, London’s bus use has doubled.  Why?  Because Transport for London was never deregulated.  With the power to regulate the bus system we can get joined up ticketing, like London has.  Just rock-up, swipe on with your debit card, and use the Metro or the bus, and it automatically charges you the best fare.  You don’t even need a ticket, which speeds up journey times.

I’d like to go further – to integrate all transport into a single app, so you can hire an electric bike at Metro stations, and upgrade the bus fleet to take your folding bike on with you.  If you want to go away for the weekend, you could hire a car from a car club and pick it up where you live.  There’s too much focus and spending on road improvement – the best solution to our air quality and climate crisis is to think about moving people around instead of cars. 

Imagine if public transport and electric bike infrastructure was so good that it was quicker than driving.  Imagine if you could save the cost of your car insurance, fuel, servicing and road tax.  Not to mention the depreciation on your car.  I’m working to bring these powers here, and the noises coming out of government are positive.  The good news is, it doesn’t require primary legislation – an Act of Parliament – we can have the powers transferred by ministerial order.  Whether these ministers will be around long enough to deliver is a different matter.  Mind you, if we get a Labour government, we’ll get all the investment we need in public transport.    

This article was first published in The Journal and The Newcastle Evening Chronicle on Monday 7th October 2019.

The real meeting, before the cameras arrived.

Labour Conference Blog

Labour Conference in Brighton

Like most high-profile occupations, politics looks different from the inside. 

The TV news shows Labour Party conference as sound-bites from a packed conference hall.  But for every high-profile policy announcement, 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. 

Conference is always bustling, but the expectation of a general election added an extra spark.  Chance encounters in the lift, handshakes in the lobby, catching people in the breakfast room.  Late night conversations and early breakfast meetings. 

Labour has long had a commitment to devolving powers and funding to English regions, and so with a General Election imminent, my team had set up a series of meetings with shadow ministers, advisors and other Mayors to discuss details. 

The previous Friday, in Rotherham, Boris Johnson had offered me and the other Metro Mayors additional devolved powers. Readers will be wholly unsurprised to learn that my opinion of our Prime Minister is not high.  As a matter of personal philosophy I’m always polite; insults say more about the insulter than the insulted.  So I’ll simply say that questions remain unanswered about how Mr Johnson intends to deliver on his promises.  But an offer is an offer, and it’s my job to secure the best deal I can for the people North of the Tyne. 

It’s not just politicians at party conferences – I discussed economic growth with business leaders, devolution with the transport industry, green energy with the offshore sector, community development with co-op specialists, and I spoke at half-a-dozen think-tank events. 

An emerging theme is the regeneration of Northern towns.  Everyone recognises the problems of regional wealth inequality.  Not so easily explained is the wealth difference between the affluent market towns, and the former industrial towns. 

It’s as much about assets as jobs.  Money flows into the wealthier towns, not because they have photogenic castles and walls, but because they are attractive places to live for people with significant private assets. 

There’s been generations of landowners, people who are privately wealthy from shares, and people with large pensions.  Combined, that keeps enough money flowing into a town to make its economy buoyant and keep house prices high.  There’s a virtuous circle that supports the boutique stores, the independent cafes, and creates enough appeal for a professional services like estate agents, lawyers and vets to locate in these towns. 

Contrast that with former industrial towns, where the population never held many assets.  Industries were closed without any just transition, whole towns experienced brutal economic shock.  These industries were wealth creators, but the assets and profits they created were never owned by the workers who did the mining or the welding or who staffed the production lines.  All too often, they have nothing left but the chronic diseases from a lifetime of hard graft.  The solution has to include developing small businesses and community owned assets. 

On Tuesday morning, news came through that the court of appeal had confirmed that Boris Johnson had hit a new low: the proroguing of Parliament was indeed illegal, and Parliament was recalled.  Two hundred MPs and assorted staff hurriedly recast diaries, rescheduled meetings, and re-booked trains. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was brought forward a day.  Commentators across the board regarded it as his best and most confident – and why wouldn’t it be?  He’s in striking distance of Number 10. 

The next morning, the hotel breakfast room was like the Marie Celeste; the MPs and spads had disappeared.

This Monday I’m in Manchester, for a meeting of the M9, the enigmatic name given to the meeting of me and the other 8 Metro Mayors.  We’d agreed to have it in Manchester at the same time as Tory conference, so we could collar some government ministers.  But with MPs summoned back to Parliament, it might just be us.    

This article was first published in The Journal on Monday 30th September 2019.

I’m rubbish at remembering to take pics of myself

A People’s Bank Explained

Banks are essential to a modern economy.   Banks keep money flowing.  Cash machines, direct debits, card payments, and other transactional functions.  Then there’s savings, mortgages and loans – if you had to save up and pay cash, no one would ever be able to afford a house, and businesses would struggle to expand.  The economy would grind to a halt overnight. 

Banking went badly wrong in the 1980s, leading to the banking crash of 2007-8.  It dragged down the world economy, and paved the way for the Conservative and Lib Dem governments to use it as an excuse for austerity.  Austerity has devastated the prosperity of ordinary working people, we’ve seen the rise of foodbank Britain, an exponential rise in in-work poverty, slashed public services, all while the mega rich have made out like bandits. 

Banks got greedy, and engaged in speculative banking, instead of sticking to bread and butter retail banking – such as current accounts, mortgages and business banking.  Some of the people who ran the banks engaged in unethical and frequently illegal activities, and were encouraged to take risks by the promise of million pound bonuses.  In Britain, we, the citizens, had to bail out the banks to the tune of £500 billion to stop the financial system from collapsing.  (Compare that to £39 billion a year to fund all the UK’s schools). 

Across the world, one kind of institution kept trading throughout the international banking crisis, largely unaffected.   These were the regional mutually owned banks.  The customers owned the banks, and the banks focused entirely on day to day banking (called retail banking), and did not engage in risky speculation.  Sadly, these types of bank are common in other advanced economies, but not here.  Germany has 1024 regional cooperative banks, and a much stronger small business sector as a result.

There are billions of pounds sitting in current accounts in our region, earning no interest, that are being transferred out of our region to be used anywhere in the banking system.  The People’s Bank will recycle these funds into our region and nowhere else. 

This is what I want to facilitate here, in the North East.  It will give our regional economy a major boost.

How Do We Set Up A Bank?

Using the Mayor’s “functional power of competence” I will establish an independent cooperative to begin the process of establishing a bank owned by its customers – the people and the small & medium businesses of our region, based here and recycling the savings of our region into loans for our region.

A huge amount of work has been done, reviewed and paid for by others, that is available for a North East People’s Bank to licence.  I’ve worked with a team of specialists and banking experts who are setting this model up across the UK, looking to licence a bank in each region.  They’ve hired top accountancy firms like KPMG to advise and check the data, and commissioned and piloted the technology to make this bank work.  Already, four regional banks in the UK are well advanced on this route (Wales, North West, South West, and Greater London), and have raised £millions to get their regional banks established.  This lowers the risk for us. 

My first step on this route after being elected would be to commission a due diligence report.  An independent accountancy firm would look at all the numbers on the business model, and verify that everything stacks up.  If it doesn’t, then no further public money will be committed to the project.  This costs about £40,000 – so that’s the maximum initial risk: a tiny amount for huge potential benefit.  If the plan passes due diligence, the mutual society will be established, and initial staff hired to guide through the start-up process.  The Mayoral authority would commit to fund this stage of the operation, costing approximately £300k.   This will take us through the stages of application and detailed business planning. 

Once the first regulatory hurdles are cleared, an additional £2mn funding is required.  By this stage, the model is proven, and the PRA and FCA want to see the bank capable of operations before granting the full licence.  So initial staff are recruited, IT systems installed and premises acquired.  At this stage, the risks are reduced, and investment partners will be invited from ethical investment funds.  This implementation phase will take about a year, and if successful a banking license will be granted.  At this point, the bank is operational, and the final tranche of capital is required in order to begin full operations.  This is where most of the capital is required, another £18mn is needed, taking the total capital investment to £20mn.  By this stage the risk is much lowered because the bank already has its licence, and all its systems have been proven by the regulators.  Finding ethical capital investors will not be difficult – indeed, it will offer a better return than many public sector reserve investments.   

The whole process will take two and a half to three years from commissioning the due diligence to being fully operational.  Over the next five to six years the bank would grow to maturity, opening more branches and attracting more members and customers.  After nine years, the bank would be highly profitable, serving tens of thousands of customers, and making around £20mn a year in profit, which the customers can vote to allocate – some to local good causes, some to support lending to start-ups and community enterprises, and some as a dividend to members. 

It’s worth stressing again: the Mayor’s authority would not own this bank.  It will, however, gain an annual return of 7.5% on any money invested in the bank once it is mature.  So if the Mayor’s authority put in £2mn over three years, it would gain a return of £150k per year ever after – excellent value for the taxpayer. 

Some Frequently Asked Questions

What will it offer?

A full range of banking services: current accounts, mortgages, cards, and crucially, business banking for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).  It will have full online systems, by app and by browser, and will have physical branches.  Relationship banking will be at the heart of it.  You’ll get to speak to the bank staff, and there will be mutual trust built up.  There will be no, “computer says no”.   All customers will become members of the bank, getting one vote per person, and deciding on things like the directors’ pay. 

Why does the bank need £20mn? Is that enough? 

The £20mn is what’s called Tier 1 capital. It’s the money needed to make sure a bank has enough reserves to withstand a financial shock, such as if an unexpected number of borrowers all default at the same time.  The Bank of England sets the amount, according to what is known as the Basel III accord – new rules put in place after the financial crash to stop banks going belly up in future. The regulators require a new bank to have 5mn Euros, but the model we’re looking at wants to be extra safe, and so will operate with £20mn.   The bank will then have a license to accept deposit from local savers, protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, and carefully lend this to local borrowers. So it will be able to lend out much more than £20mn, making interest on all of it.  The bank will be able to lend over £400mn, and as it matures, its retained earnings will allow it to grow further.  It’s a bit technical for this blog, but if you’re interested, look up Basel III Risk Weighted Assets. 

What’s a Banking Licence?

To be a bank, a business has to undertake an extensive application process.  This takes anything up to two and a half years.  It is overseen by the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).  Once granted, a bank has unique powers – it has a Bank of England reserve account.  It can accept deposits for savers, it gains interest on its reserves, and can borrow at base rate from the Bank of England.

Until recently, it was very hard to establish a new bank, and all but impossible to establish a new mutual bank.  In August 2014 a change in the law made it possible for Cooperative banks to raise capital without giving away voting rights, so it’s now possible to raise the capital much more easily.  

What’s the difference between this and a credit union or a building society? 

Credit unions are excellent institutions, offering savings and loans to local communities, and providing a real alternative to payday lenders.  They are typically very small in scale, and often have a limited range of capabilities, such as not having direct debit facilities.  They are extremely unlikely to offer mortgages or business banking, limiting their size.  

Building societies are, in one sense, very large credit unions, although they almost never serve local communities in the same way. 

Building Societies are there to primarily provide mortgages for residential property. Few offer current accounts or are focused on the needs of Small and Medium sized businesses.

They are owned by their members, although participation in decision making is almost non-existent, and there are sometimes issues with “fat cat” pay – for example, one CEO was getting £2.25mn a year!  Because they don’t have shareholders, they can sometimes offer good deals on mortgages and savings compared to PLC banks.  They don’t have full banking capabilities, though, such as a Bank of England reserve account, and don’t offer business banking. 

Is the Mayor allowed to do this?

Absolutely.  The Mayoral Authority has what is known as “Functional Power of Competence”, which means it can do anything an individual can do, even if it’s not been done by a local authority before.  That’s why we need a Mayor who understands the law, and has the visions for what is possible, and how we can make the best use of public money to bring prosperity to our region.  In debates, my opponents have dismissed the idea, making a series of factually incorrect objections: they haven’t done their homework. 

In 2017 Redwood Bank opened, a highly successful specialist bank that lends to SMEs.  It gained 33% of its funding from Warrington Borough Council.  The Welsh government, and at least six other local authorities are already well advanced down the route to opening regional banks on and identical model to the one I propose.  They have raised £millions between them.    

Who will run the bank? 

Not me!  To be the chief executive or chair of a bank you have to be personally approved by the regulators.  I might be highly knowledgeable as a layperson, but this is a job for a professional with years of experience at a senior level.  It’s a case of hiring the right person, who is looking to build a bank based on solid principles of mutual trust and responsible banking.  A great many people in the banking profession subscribe to these values. 

Will you look after the staff?

The bank will be a model employer.  Everyone will be paid at least the Real Living Wage, and there will be a maximum pay ratio of 10:1, meaning the highest paid gets no more than ten times the lowest paid.  Employment contracts will adhere to the best standards, the bank will be a champion of diversity, and there will be zero gender pay gap. 

Once it’s fully mature, we’d expect the bank to employ around 100 people. 

Why is it good for the local economy?

In short, it keeps money here.  When people borrow from banks, money leaks out of our region in two ways.  First, the bank is usually headquartered far away, so most of the jobs it supports are not here.  Secondly, a large amount of their profits are paid to the shareholders as dividends.  Often, these shareholders are in turn holding companies.  Even at today’s historically low rates, you’ll end up paying 60p in interest for every £1 you borrow.  For a typical homeowner, that’s 12% of your entire take home pay leaving our region.  Keeping that money here creates spending power here, creating more jobs and more prosperity. 

Local businesses will get interest on their current accounts, and more access to the finance they need.  There’s about £1.4bn in business lending to SMEs in the NE postcode area alone.  The interest on this lending goes to banks based outside our region, with shareholders needs placed above the customers’.  We do have some building societies here, but they can’t have business banking, because they do not have the same legal form as a bank. 

The bank will also support local community causes once it’s mature and in profit, and of course, create high quality jobs here.

Is banking profitable? 

Retail banking is astonishingly profitable.  A bank can access money cheaply, and lend it out at a higher rate – the difference between the two is called the interest margin. 

Have a look at the table to see how much the main banks make in profit – typically £1bn profit for every £3bn income!

Smaller banks are even more profitable – they’ve largely been unaffected by the banking scandals like PPI insurance, and so don’t have to pay out compensations for historical misdeeds. 

Germany has 1024 successful banks that run on this model. 

Wasn’t the Northern Rock like this? 

No.  The Northern Rock formed in 1965, after the merger between the Northern Counties Permanent Building Society, founded in 1850, and the Rock Building Society, founded in 1865.  After 147 years of successful trading, through recessions and world wars, it demutualised and became a bank and a PLC in 1997.  Within 10 years it went belly up, and had to be bailed out by us, the tax payer. 

How can we protect it? 

A wave of building societies were “demutualised” in the 1990s.  In effect, they were sold from under their members’ noses in return for £500+.  The law was later changed, and no more have been demutualised.  We’ll be writing stronger legal safeguards into the bank’s constitution, known as an “asset lock”. 

What about Atom Bank?

Some people have made mention of Atom Bank, based in Durham. This is a totally different financial model. Atom Bank is a digital only bank, available through an app and offered only savings accounts and mortgages.  It has no branches and no business banking. They decided to set up all their own IT systems, instead of licensing technology from other institutions.  In order to expand quickly, they offered very high rates to savers, and very low rates to mortgage borrowers – a loss leader. They grew their loan portfolio from £0.1bn to £1.1bn in a single year! In other words, they made a deliberate decision to lose money in order to expand very rapidly. In order to raise capital to bolster their reserves, they sold a controlling stake to the Spanish Bank BBVA. I wish them luck – if we can have a successful business located here in the North East, great!  But it’s not a model we will be following.

Newcastle can be the capital of a new, radical British politics

Ah, that rare thing: a political speech served straight, with no side of hyperbole. One of the most interesting developments in politics so far this year is set to happen not in Westminster, but 300 miles up the A1. On 2 May, voters from Newcastle right up to Berwick can elect their first ever North of Tyne metro mayor

Last week, Aditya Chakrabortty spent the day with me on the campaign trail.  He is one of the few London based journalists who takes the time to see what’s happening on the ground outside of London.  His “Alternatives” series is highly recommended.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/series/the-alternatives

“We’ll become a case study in rejecting the way the economy has been run for the past 40 years,” Driscoll says. “People will see that the neoliberal emperor has no clothes. Economics is deliberately obscure and intimidating, but why can’t we have a bank? Why can’t we build council houses? We’ll start it, then they’ll do it in Norwich and Southampton and …”

Jamie’s Campaign In The Guardian

Read about Aditya’s thoughts on Jamie’s campaign as he joined him on the trail last week.

Read the article

“And if part of what’s wrong with our politics is the narrowness of our political class, we need serious-minded outsiders such as Driscoll to elbow past that velvet rope.”

Talking to Aditya was interesting – he knows his stuff. In the spirit of fairness, it was his sub-editor who put in Newcastle; Aditya gets that the North of Tyne includes Northumberland and North Tyneside.

One thing that he highlights is some of the challenges we face at convincing disillusioned traditional Labour voters that this is an election worth supporting, but my policies stand up to scrutiny and can transform the North of Tyne in a way we’ve never seen before.

You can be part of that. We can all be part of creating prosperity that cares about people, the work they do and the environment we live in.

I only have one problem with the article – it’s a beard. A proper beard. 

The Bridge Tax & Public Transport

There are few sights more iconic than the bridges over the Tyne.  They’re famous, and represent the ingenuity and industrial skill we’re known for.  We should not be charging people to use them. 

We have an air pollution problem, and it needs fixing. The government’s answer? To force local councils to put an extra charge on buses and taxis, but people who can afford new cars can drive for free.  Like most Tory policies, this will hit the poorest, hardest. 

I am totally opposed to charging ordinary working people £12:50 a day for the Clean Air Zone. That’s £3000 a year to get to work!

The Tory government has known about this since 2011 when they were taken to court for breaking clean air standards. Instead of dealing with the problem, they fought against it in the courts for years. When they finally lost, they passed the buck to local councils.  They even say in their ministerial edict, that political or economic objections shall not be taken into consideration.  In other words, even though the people don’t want it, and local councils oppose it, the government will force it upon us. 

Although we can rarely see it, poor air quality is responsible for around 40,000 early deaths a year, including hundreds in Tyneside.  There is no safe level of air pollution, and the effects build up over time.  We do have to address this. 

The answer is public transport. The Tories give London £4,155 per person for public transport funding. In the North East, we get just £855 per person.

I’ll be working with our local councils to get proper funding to extend the Metro up to Blyth and Ashington, to extend the Metro to the west of Newcastle, and improve our rail services on the East Coast mainline.  I know our Labour councils are keen to work with me on this. 

I’ll also introduce a joint ticketing system – where you can just tap in and tap out with your debit card, and it will calculate the best fare for your journey, whether you use buses, rail or Metro in your trip.  It’ll speed up journeys – a bit – and save you money if you change buses or trains. 

Along with a local app to track the buses and plan your route, this will boost public transport use.  Where it’s been introduced in other cities, there’s been up to 40% increase in public transport use, taking cars off the road.  It makes getting to work, college or a night out easier, and provides economic as well as environmental sustainability. 

Kia Kaha. Truth and love will win.

I was horrified to hear about the murders in Christchurch. I’ve been fighting racism and the far-right all my life, through education, community outreach and direct action.

My thoughts go out to the injured and the families of those killed. My thoughts go out to those terrified going to Friday prayers for fear of similar attacks.

This attack was not an aberration, we must not dismiss this as the work of a “lone wolf”. There are forces in our society and our media who seek to divide us. Powerful people who drive down living standards and exploit workers, and then try to blame it on people of a different colour or religion.

Here in Britain we have a press who demonise Muslims. The former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Muslim women look like bank robbers. Theresa May created a hostile environment for immigrants of colour.

Once we start to devalue people, once we start to legitimise the opinion that some of our citizens have less right to walk our streets or take part in our public life, we fan the small sparks of bitterness into the murderous inferno of hatred that was Christchurch.

I stand with Muslims, I stand with Christians, with atheists, and Buddhists and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and people of all creeds.

We all have different faiths. But we share a common faith in humanity. I’ve been asked many times who inspired me politically. It’s Martin Luther King:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Kia Kaha – stay strong!

John McDonnell is backing me – so is Noam Chomsky

Could there be any better endorsement of my socialist economic policies than John McDonnell, Laura Pidcock and Clive Lewis – all Labour economics front benchers?

A Green New Deal

As Mayor I will:

  • Declare a Climate Emergency
  • Build eco-friendly social housing and plant trees
  • Create a community owned green energy company
  • Tackle food waste and food poverty
  • Provide world class environmental education

“There’s no challenge that we face more critical than addressing the dire threat of global warming.  NASA has just reported that of the 19 warmest years on record, 18 were since 2001, and the threats – which are extraordinary – are escalating.  It’s therefore most encouraging to learn that Jamie Driscoll  is planning to work to implement a Green New Deal, if elected.”  Noam Chomsky

Policy:  A Green New Deal: Global Means Local!

“Climate Change is the single biggest threat to life, security and prosperity on Earth,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report this autumn warned that humanity has just 11 years left to take emergency action in order to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown.

Climate change hits the poorest in society and we are already seeing its impact across the globe. The UK will be hit hard if action is not taken now: forecasts predict a trebling of deaths caused by extreme heat by the year 2050, with more frequent and severe disruptive flooding events, and an increasingly perilous food supply. As flood-prone homes become uninsurable and impossible to sell, as food prices rise, and as air quality worsens, those least able to fend for themselves will suffer the worst. Strong environmental policy is a matter of justice. And it must be a priority.  

This is a global threat – and requires local action. We cannot leave it to others.  That’s why I’m making a commitment to act on the scale and at the pace required. I will push the boundaries of the Mayor’s role to influence others to take bold action, to tackle climate change, improve our environment, and build a sustainable economy that works for the many, not the few.

A Green New Deal combines economic sustainability with environmental sustainability.  Giving the North of Tyne area a more democratic, locally owned economy will increase employment and wages, and reduce the environmental stress we place on our planet.  

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) outline the positive steps that can be taken to integrate urgent climate change action with reducing poverty and improving quality of life. Here is the framework for the actions I propose.

As Mayor I will:

Declare a Climate Emergency

  • Upon taking office I will declare a Climate Emergency.  
  • Parliament has agreed to a 40% cut in CO2 emissions by 2030 (based on 1990 levels) This is not sufficient to limit the worst effects of climate change on our communities.  
  • Pursue a net-zero carbon policy by 2030. This will involve working with the local councils and partners across the region.
  • A Climate Change Liaison Group will be established immediately and will involve Councillors, residents, young citizens and experts from our Universities and other relevant parties. Funds will be allocated to provide skilled staff to support the work of the Climate Change Liaison Group.
  • The Group will review the current Climate Change Strategy and help local Councils and other partners develop a new carbon budget taking into account both production and consumption of emissions by 2020.
  • Convene a Citizens’ Assembly in 2019 to identify how the region’s activities might be made net-zero carbon by 2030.  
  • Support divestment from fossil fuels across the public sector within 3 years, including pension fund divestment.  

Provide World Class Environmental Education

  • Education is the key to enabling many other UN Sustainable Development Goals. Quality education unlocks human potential, empowering people to escape the cycle of poverty.
  • In its first year, the Mayor’s Authority will develop a team of specialists to engage school kids in the science and the behavioural changes needed for climate action, including how to grow food and tackle food waste.  
  • Fund adult education to make the North of Tyne the leader in the skills needed to implement the 1 Million Climate Jobs Agenda.  Tackling climate change goes hand-in-hand with providing high-quality green jobs.
  • Support the capabilities of our Universities and Industries to gain additional research funding into environmental technology as part of our social transformation.

Tackle Food Waste: Social and Economic Benefits

  • The UK currently wastes 10 million tonnes of food each year and this is expected to rise by a further 1.1 million by 2025.
  • Reduce food waste in line with the UN goal of halving the amount of food waste by 2030.
  • Work with supermarkets to reduce food waste. This can be achieved through better inventory management, and distributing unsold food to foodbanks, food co-operatives, and pay-as-you-feel community cafes.  
  • Reduce food miles. Public sector catering, such as school and works’ canteens will be linked with local food producers, tailoring menus to source local ingredients. Private sector caterers will be encouraged to do the same.
  • Promote local food growth and urban gardening.
  • Lobby businesses & promote Sustainability Awards for those that reduce plastic usage.

Deliver Renewable Energy: Creating Sustainable Communities

  • Set up a Community Owned Power Company that supplies green energy.
  • Run the Mayoral authority on 100% sustainable electricity.
  • Work with local communities to ensure they benefit from cooperatively owned renewable generation, maximising the number of possible sites for energy-generating installations.  
  • Support innovations in the peer-to-peer market to provide a cooperative alternative to energy companies exploitation of householders who have solar panels – enabling them to sell electricity to local suppliers.
  • Promote climate technology and innovation in the area of biofuels, microgeneration, and energy efficiency technologies.  Working with universities, start-ups, and innovation funding agencies, make the North of Tyne a world leader in green energy.

Create Sustainable Land Use: Agriculture, Housing and Greenspace

  • Build cooperatively-owned fair-rent community housing that locks carbon away in its construction, has the highest standards of energy efficiency, and includes viable micro-generation.  This will help combat both homelessness and fuel poverty. 
  • Establish Community Land Trusts where people can buy their own homes, built using carbon-sequestration to lock carbon away.  Environmentally-aware planning creates communities with local services, reducing car journeys. 
  • Fundamental reform is required to ensure land becomes a more effective carbon store, whilst early action is needed to maximise the benefits from changing how land is used. The UK report on land use recommends significant change in land use is necessary to create a sustainable society.
  • Accelerate tree planting, involving schools, voluntary organisations, and community and religious groups. This may be encouraged by the use of grants and funding support.
  • Identify areas of land that are unsuitable for other uses, specifically within urban environments. These can be rewilded by planting trees and improving biodiversity.
  • Alternative uses of land can be economic for farmers and land managers, but Government must provide help for this. I will work with the Government to define a new land strategy.

These are the Green New Deal headlines.  There is much more to do such as improving cycling facilities and public transport, and making full use of environmental sustainability clauses in public sector supply contracts.

By taking a lead on these policies, and providing the initial money to get them started, we can enable further funding to be available. We can make a start locally to combat the climate crisis we face.  

A red-green agenda can make sure that tackling climate change creates wealth and high quality employment within our communities, by encouraging local production and consumption – making and using things locally. Only by matching environmental sustainability with the democratisation of our local economies can we mitigate a climate disaster.


Municipal Socialism – We Can Start Now

Right now, there’s a Labour internal selection going on across Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland.  I’m on the shortlist as the possible Labour candidate for North of Tyne Mayor. 

I’m a grassroots activist.  I worked on both of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns. 

This is one of the Metro-Mayor deals.  It’s not about running the bin collections or managing social services.  It’s a new role: economic development. 

It doesn’t have much money – £20mn a year doesn’t even dent the cuts to public services.  This was a Tory deal, after all. 

But it does have something important.  The Tories designed these Metro Mayor deals with a swashbuckling businessman in mind, cutting through red tape and crushing local planning objections.   When I read the devolution document, it occurred to me that its authors never thought a socialist like me would get hold of this position.  So I’m standing on a radical socialist platform against Labour establishment candidates.   

Under the Localism Act of 2011, the Mayor has the power to do anything an individual can do.  We can establish a People’s Bank.  We can build community housing cooperatives.  We can create a green energy company.  And they can all be collectively owned. 

We have to leave behind the New Labour ideology of taming capitalism.  Capitalism is a rigged system that is long past its sell-by date.  It squanders human talent and wrecks our environment. 

A People’s bank would be cooperatively owned, one-member-one-vote.  It cannot be privatised.  It will offer a full range of services – current accounts, savings accounts, mortgages and business banking for local firms.  It’ll take us a couple of years to complete the regulatory process.  This changes the rigged system – the banks are one of the biggest extractors of wealth from our economy.  By keeping the profits reinvested locally, we can support local & worker owned businesses. 

Community housing cooperatives are social housing.  Built to a high standard, with eco-friendly construction methods, they’re great places to live.  Crucially, they are not owned by the state.  They are owned collectively by the people who live there.  So they are exempt from right-to-buy legislation.  We can have fair-rent, socially-owned housing now.  The profits can fund local community projects and maintain green spaces. 

In Nottingham the local authority already owns Robin Hood energy.  In the North of Tyne, we can establish an energy provider owned by its workers and customers.  The Tories have slashed green energy subsidies, so we’ll have to grow it slowly.  But we’ll have wind and solar power, and can supplement it with micro-hydro electric power from the region’s mountains. 

This works because we’re already spending money on these things.  Instead local wealth being siphoned off into the tax-havens of billionaires, we keep it in our communities.  This means higher wages and more jobs.  More worker-owned businesses.  This means more spending power, which supports more jobs.  And so the cycle continues.   

Add into this the Community Wealth Building strategy that’s made Preston the most improved city in the UK, and we can start something special. 

I’ve already got the support of the majority of local Labour Parties and the majority of unions.  Socialist MPs like John McDonnell, Laura Pidcock and Clive Lewis are backing me.  I want your help to become the first socialist Mayor of the North of Tyne.  Please share my social media posts, donate to my campaign, and if you know any Labour members in the area, tell them to vote for me in the selection ballot.  The Labour selection ends on the 18th of February.  All the information is on www.JD4Mayor.com. 

The public election is in May.  In less than four months we could have an arm of the state putting socialist policies into practice. 

If I’m elected Mayor, I won’t be able to end arms sales.  Or renationalise the railways.  Or scrap tuition fees. 

What I will do is plant the seeds for the economy to come. 

A majority of CLPs are backing JD4Mayor

The first phase of the campaign is over.  All of the CLPs (Constituency Labour Parties) have voted now, and a majority of CLPs have backed me.  The support has been overwhelming.  Even the CLPs who didn’t back me, the vote was close, and tied in some cases. 

At the time of writing, I also have the official backing of Unite the Union, the Fire Brigades Union, and the RMT union.  I’m also pleased to have the full support of Momentum and Red Labour, and what that means in terms of grassroots support.   

The shortlisting interviews are on Tuesday, with the panel of NEC members, Regional Board members, and a Shadow Front Bench representative.  Personally, I can see no reason why all three remaining candidates shouldn’t be shortlisted.  We’re all clearly intelligent, competent and experienced.  So fingers crossed.

The next phase is the one-member-one-vote (OMOV) ballot.  From Monday 21st Jan, all Labour members in the North of Tyne area will get a postal vote.  We’ll be trying to reach everyone in that time.  So if you want me to win, you can help.  Sign up to the campaign!  Like any good project, we need people with all kinds of skills.  Mostly, we need enthusiasm!  Please join us.   

Why Our Economy is Broken

Why Our Economy is Broken.

When I grew up in the 1970s, photocopiers were so advanced that my school didn’t have one. When I started work in 1986 the company I worked for didn’t have a computer, we had people whose only job was to type up things the rest of us had written with a pen and carbon paper.

Technology is massively more efficient now. We can communicate instantly, we can copy & paste documents.  We have checkouts where customers scan their own food and stock control and ordering is automated.  Machines do half our work for us. So why aren’t we better off?

In the 1970’s, young families could afford a house on one skilled wage. We had almost no debt. As a country we could afford to fund park keepers and careers services and youth and community workers. Nobody went to a food bank, because nobody needed to.

So why, since we’re so much more productive than forty years ago, can we afford so much less? The answer is neoliberalism. Our entire economy and political system has been restructured to serve private financial companies.

Through the 1950’s and 60’s banking was seen as a dull but worthy occupation. Financial companies earned a return of around 5%, compared with industry which earned around 15%. Since the rise of neoliberalism those rates of return have reversed. Financial speculation pays much better than producing real wealth.

It started with the Thatcher-Regan shift, continued under Tony Blair’s New Labour and the Clinton era Democrats.  New Labour channelled taxes into better public services, but Peter Mandelson was “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich.”  Only when  Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership did any major party challenge this. 

The basic objective of capitalism is to accumulate capital – money – for the sake of it. Anything useful – like goods and services – are a side effect. 

Throughout the industrial era, capitalists accumulated capital by making things. Economists from Adam Smith in 1776, Karl Marx in the 1800’s and John Maynard Keynes in the 1920’s and 30’s knew this.  The industrial model of capitalism was to get rich by employing people. A wealthy entrepreneur would start with a big chunk of cash, and pay people to mine coal or build cars.  He’d keep the profits of the workers’ labour for himself and the wealthy shareholders.

Despite the exploitation and brutal working conditions, there was a love-hate relationship between the workers and the owners. To become rich, the owners needed to employ lots of increasingly skilled workers. The introduction of free state education served the interests of the poor and the rich alike.

The 1945 Labour government shifted power in favour of working people. Major industries were nationalised: rail, coal, the docks. Even the NHS was a boon to industrial capitalism: healthier workers boosted productivity. Throughout the post-war period there was a direct link between rising productivity and rising wages. We saw record rises in prosperity.

That form of capitalism was fatally wounded in the 1970s, and replaced by neoliberal capitalism. An ideology got hold of the political elite: make money by manipulating the financial system. Laws and financial regulations were changed. The basic idea of capitalism is unchanged: it’s still about accumulating capital. But the mode of doing it changed. Asset stripping became a legitimate business model.  There was an explosion in derivates and complex financial instruments.

Above all, we’ve seen an economic take over by the rent-seekers. Rent-seeking capitalism is where we are charged for using something owned by someone else. In most cases the owners don’t do any useful work. They charge us because they’re rich enough to own it, and we have no choice.

Housing rent is the easiest to see: someone with enough money buys a house, then rents it to someone who can’t afford to buy one, keeping a tidy profit. Rent seeking is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

It’s everywhere now. Take a water company. We built it, with public funds, and the Tories sold it. Then the owners charge us for clean water, make huge profits and paying little or no tax.

It’s the same with NHS services.  We pay for it with our income tax, National Insurance and VAT, and holding companies bid for contracts, employ NHS trained workers, and cream off profits. Healthy workers were useful to industrial capitalists. Neoliberal capitalists would prefer people with chronic conditions, so they can sell us expensive drugs year after year, and profit from the intellectual property.

The biggest rent-seeking activity is banking. If you’re in a strong enough financial position to buy a house, chances are you’ll need a mortgage. Even at today’s record low interest rates, for every £1 you borrow, you’ll pay back £1.60. You might own your home, but the bank is still charging you rent on the money to buy it.

The most basic contradiction of capitalism is that the money has to come from somewhere. In the industrial age, rising wages meant people could afford to buy things.

Since the 1970’s wages have frozen, in real terms. Now the extra money for profits has come by getting us all into debt. All those rising house prices in the 1990’s and 2000’s were just a way to secure the ever rising debt, so the mega-rich had a source of funds for their profits. It crashed in 2007.

The response? Quantitative Easing. Create loads of funds at the stroke of a keyboard to prop up the financial system. In the UK alone we’ve created £435 billion of cash. 93% of it, according to the Bank of England, has gone straight to boosting the profits of the financial sector. Personal debt has again risen higher than before the 2007 crash.

We desperately need to get rid of austerity, and fund public services properly. But that’s not enough. We’ve had austerity since the 2010 coalition government. But since Thatcher onwards we saw a relentless rise in rent seeking.  

Even through the New Labour years the gap grew between the richest and the poorest, and personal debt increased.  Poverty was addressed by government spending on things like tax credits. Essentially, we were subsidising low wages so corporations could make a profit from underpaid workers. As soon as the Tories brought in Universal Credit and the abhorrent sanctions regime, people had to go to foodbanks, even if they were working. What we need to do is pay proper wages in the first place. 

Centrists just can’t see this. They cannot see that structural inequality is the direct result of a system where you become richer by starting rich. They think that a compromise can be reached between global capital and social justice. Their belief is that if we can just manage the state a bit better, if we can just tweak the existing institutions, we can go back to a fully funded NHS and Sure Start. It’s a pipe dream.  John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn know this. They know we have to radically restructure our economy to work in the interests of the many and not the few.

It’s also the reason why Jeremy is being attacked by all the defenders of the status quo: they know the Corbyn Project is about an irreversible shift in power and wealth.

This shift can’t be done from Parliament alone.  It will take a network of local community wealth builders, a rise in worker owned firms, and an increase in new models of home ownership. Above all it will require us to have banks owned by the people. Labour has a headline policy of a National Investment Bank. To complete the shift away from neoliberal capitalism, we also need regional cooperative banks.

A lot of people have asked me why I want to stand as Mayor.  It’s certainly not because I have ambitions to be a career politician.   It’s because neoliberalism will eat up our communities, our children’s futures, and burn our planet unless we stop it.

If I’m elected I’ll set up a People’s Bank.  I’ll use Community Wealth Building to increases wages across the whole local economy.  I’ll set up worker owned firms, including a green energy supplier.  And I’ll create new models of housing that cannot be privatised. 

If you want to join the campaign, and build a socialist future, register here: https://www.jd4mayor.com/contact/

Questions for Jamie

People have asked questions via our Facebook page, so here’s a video of me answering them. Everything from rural regeneration to clean air zone charging gets covered. And there’s even a disappearing dog walker!

We’ll do this regularly throughout the campaign, and it’s something I’ll continue to do if selected and elected. It’s important that our politicians are accessible and answerable to people.

It’s Christmas Time

“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, to name just some. 

And for many people who work, and many who can’t get reliable work, the money will run out.  I think everyone I know has made a donation to a foodbank and toy donations.  It’s both heartening that people care, and heart rending that we need to. 

It’s simply unbelievable that in the 21st century, in one of the richest countries ever to exist, people are working for a living and their kids are still in poverty.  There’s something seriously structurally 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.  Originally written 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 I think it’s mainly 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, and the civilians whose deaths are labelled as collateral damage.    

I’m not a pacifist, but I’m struggling hard to think of a war that couldn’t have been avoided if we took diplomacy and economic pressure more seriously.    

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.  At once so improbable and difficult against apolitical establishment, and yet so obvious and direct as a solution.  The idea that the ability to bring about change requires only the political will to make change happen. 

Now I find myself running for Mayor.  Even if I win, I won’t have power over foreign policy.  But if I get elected, I’ll work night and day to stop the poverty. 

Why Do We Have A Housing Crisis?

Private rents are so high that people have in any given year to work from January 1st until 31st May to earn enough to pay the year’s rent. That’s nearly half a year’s hard graft going on rent.

Since the 1970’s, median wages have pretty much remained at the same level – once you account for inflation. But property prices have rocketed. This chart shows the difference between wages and house prices.

Throughout the 1970s, Britain’s built 240,000 homes a year, while the population rose by 40,000 a year.

Since 2000, we’ve only built 140,000 homes a year, despite a population rise of 400,000 a year.

Yet house building is more profitable than ever. Take a look at the accounts of building firms, and you’ll see a 20% profit margin is not unusual.

Two strategic housing polices have caused this crisis.  Finally, under Jeremy Corbyn, we have a manifesto committed to reversing them.

First is the destruction of social housing. Right to buy was introduced by Margaret Thatcher.  It deliberately penalises councils who build council housing.  Only three years after building them, councils can be forced to sell them at least 30% below market price, without any compensation from central government.   The law prevented councils from using the proceeds of sales to build new houses.     

The loss of social housing skews the market. With over a million families on waiting lists, and only 290,000 homes available last year,the private rented sector can continue to push rents ever higher.  Housing benefit goes straight into thelandlord’s pockets, so where’s the incentive to keep rents affordable?  Market forces have failed: the freedom to be homeless is no freedom at all.

The second policy causing the crisis is the deliberate financialisation of our economy. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, banks and finance houses made about 5% a year profits, while manufacturing made about 15%returns. From Thatcher onwards, those figures swapped place.

Manufacturing builds real things, and provides large numbers of well paid jobs.  Banking makes money from debt. Before the crash, centrist politicians really believed that the housing boom was a genuine economic miracle. The miracle was a mirage, but the centrists still cling to failed economic models. 

Median house prices may have rocketed, but median wealth hasn’t.  All those houses were bought with debt.  Some working people were lucky to be born at the right time.  They bought when they could afford it, and have made a tidy return.  Although much of that equity is lost with social care costs later in life.

In a generation no working class people will own property.We’re heading back to the Victorian era, albeit an era with iPhones instead of monocles, but where work is precarious and millions depend on charity to avoid starvation. 

In 1981 2 million people lived in private rented housing.  Now it’s over 5 million and rising fast.  We pay over £50 billion a year in rent.  All those buy-to-let mortgages are enriching the shareholders of banks.  It’s a massive transfer of wealth from the working people to rich asset owners.  Private renting is rarely a choice, for most tenants, it’s either that or be homeless.   

We need a Labour government to change the law on council housing. 

Yet there are things councils – and Mayors – can do, even with the powers we have now.  But only if politicians seriously believe in democratising wealth. Wringing hands about Tory funding formulas won’t cut the mustard.

We can rebuild social housing.  Not enough to turn the tide, but enough to create islands of decent, affordable housing for hundreds and thousands of people.  That’s my mission. 

Housing cooperatives are exempt from right-to-buy legislation.  They are owned by the people, not the state. The new Mayor has powers to set up development corporations.A Mayor who believes in centrism and neoliberal economics could partner with developers, which is mostly what happens now. Developers build the houses for sale, with a few ‘affordable’ ones thrown in.  But affordable means costing80% of the other homes in the development.  Even 80% of unaffordable is still unaffordable.

A Mayor like me, who believes in democratic ownership, can partner with cooperatives.  We can help them secure low cost capital to buy the land and build the homes. We can provide training and support through adult education on community enterprises,so the tenants learn to self-manage their cooperatives.  Instead of paying rent to private landlords,the profits from these community housing coops can fund local services.  We can create financially self-sufficient services like gardens and parks, and youth & community work.

We can mix Community Housing Coops with Community Land Trusts.  This is where the land is owned communally by the residents.  People can buy the homes on the land at a lower price than normal.  In return, when they come to sell, they share the profits back into the Trust.  The legal format creates an asset lock.  This means the whole enterprise can never be privatised – it’s always owned communally by the people who live there.

Even people who can afford a mortgage are working to pay the bank. For every £1 you borrow on a mortgage, you pay back £1.60, even at today’s historically low interest rates. That 60p buys you nothing – and funds bankers’ bonuses and ends up in tax havens like the Cayman Islands.

We can tackle this financial drain by creating our own banks. Banks whose legal form requires them to use their profits for the benefit of the community, instead of distant shareholders.  These are already happening in Britain; in fact mutuals used to be the standard way of getting a mortgage. It will take a couple of years to go through the regulatory process. Then all those £millions paid in interest can be reinvested in local communities: cooperative nurseries,building repair companies, whatever the community chooses. This makes us independent of central government funding.

Neoliberal thinking got us into this mess. Only a change in thinking can get us out of it. These policies work – they’re already happening across our country, in a small way, with solid results. The task is to accelerate them and scale them up. That takes a Mayor who believes in socialism and always has. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell this summer, he spoke of an irreversible shift in wealth and power. He said that for real socialists, not centrists, the whole point of getting power is to give it away to the people. That’s what I’m going to do if you elect me as Mayor.

Weathercocks and Signposts

Normally what happens to politicians is the closer they get to the levers of power, the more attention they get from the establishment. 

Sitting in board meetings, appointments with corporate lobbyists, calls from government officials take up a bigger and bigger part of their calendar.  All of these people who court them are well informed, and very plausible.  They use terms like “inclusive growth” and “economic vision”.  But these are slippery terms that hide the truth: power and wealth still concentrated with the wealthy, and still guarded by the establishment. 

Some politicians develop their own convictions.  Others who stepped up from a general belief in social good find themselves absorbing establishment ideas by osmosis.  It’s a slow, subtle shift.  They lose touch with their roots, and start to regard party members asking questions as trouble causers.  They never really saw the world in terms of class analysis: who has the power and wealth, and how to they use it.  They never really understood the difference between socialism and capitalism.  

And so their political compass drifts towards centrism.  They turn into “adjective politicians”.  Every speech is loaded with words like”compassionate” “stronger” “inclusive””visionary”.  But once you pass their media coaching, you realise they intend to change nothing.   They have become glossy state-sponsored managers. 

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell bypassed this route.  They had fully formed ideas about real democratic involvement and democratising the economy.  They got just as much attention from the establishment, but it wasn’t cosy wooing, it was outright hostility.  Media lies, orchestrated attacks from the careerists on their own side, and even state funded social media slurs.  The same will happen to me if I’m elected Mayor. 

Don’t worry –  like Jeremy and John, I come from a place of profound understanding that society needs radical change in ownership and power, and not just a coat of compassion-coloured gloss paint.   If I’m elected, I will put my manifesto into practice. 

Promoted by Richard Williams on behalf of Jamie Driscoll both at Labour North, Kings Manor, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 6PA.