Paul Mason – Where Next After Corbynism: A Reply
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.
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.
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.
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.
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