Cllr Richard Wearmouth is the Deputy Chairman of the North East Conservatives and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration on Northumberland Council.
Next month, voters in North of Tyne face a clear-cut choice. Do they opt for a Conservative mayor with a track record of partnership for the good of the region? Or do they elect an unknown Corbyn activist with no relevant experience whatever?
‘North of Tyne’ is England’s latest devolution deal, offering greater control on jobs, schools, homes, and the wider economy. It covers over 800,000 people across Newcastle, North Tyneside, and Northumberland. Crucially, the mayor’s job brings control of a £600 million budget for economic development, as well as a high-profile ambassadorial role for one of the economic jewels in the northern English crown.
Conservative candidate, Charlie Hoult, is a businessman who built up a marketing business in London to 400 staff before he returned to Newcastle to run the family firm: a business park he has helped transform into a hub for 150 creative businesses. He also founded tech network, Dynamo, to grow the wider North East economy, representing the region’s 42,000 IT workers. Dynamo started NE Futures UTC, a new £13 million state secondary school in Newcastle for 600 students, and the £30m National Innovation Centre for Data – emerging from discussions Hoult led with then-chancellor, George Osborne.
He is a well-connected pragmatist who can work with government and businesses to deliver the beacon projects we need in core sectors like advanced manufacturing, medical science, digital and finance. Hoult is campaigning under the banner of ‘Projects not Politics’, referring to £100m of projects he has already initiated. He was led to this mantra by Ben Houchen, the Mayor of neighbouring Tees Valley, who told him that 75 per cent of his role is project delivery and must operate above politics.
This election may look a battle of red on blue, but Houchen, in an all-Labour council area, has proved it is possible for a Conservative to win, particularly with second choices at stake in the supplementary voting system in place. Labour’s North of Tyne candidate is Jamie Driscoll, whose job is Newcastle’s Momentum chief organiser. He has just 10 months as a city councillor. In February, he defeated Newcastle City Council’s centrist leader Nick Forbes, to secure the Labour candidacy.
Driscoll’s campaign leaflets present him as a man of experience and a friend of business. His online election biog says he was a “project manager and company director in the electronics and IT sector”. A quick bit of research shows that Driscoll was indeed director and company secretary of a firm, Floppidog.com, listed more than 15 years ago and it is unclear if it ever even traded. More recently, Driscoll was the sole director of Pits and Politics Festivals Ltd, formed specifically for a two-day hard-left ‘festival’ in 2018.
What we do know about Driscoll’s most recent past is that has spent the last few years homeschooling his children. This may be laudable, but it will offer scant assurance to voters of North of Tyne that he has the front-line business experience needed to be Mayor.
The question voters will want to ask is: what has Driscoll actually done in his career that qualifies him to control a £600m economic development budget? When it comes to ideas, Driscoll has been more expansive. His self-published little red book, The Way of the Activist, offers insight into his world view. It includes absurd claims that “money is literally created at the stroke of a keyboard. We can never run out”, or that “nine times out of ten, owners contribute absolutely no work to the production process”.
Hard-working company founders in this region find this view of their contribution completely insulting. I fear international investors, reading this, will take fright and look elsewhere, cutting off a vital source of regional growth.
Driscoll condemns “big corporations that don’t pay their taxes” and features tech giant Amazon in his campaign video as the bad guys. Yet The Way of The Activist is printed, you guessed it, by none other than Amazon. This is one of a series of Driscoll ironies, which have left him regarded as something of a charlatan, even inside his own party. Like many left-wingers, he seems happy to compromise his own ideological position to maintain his lifestyle. He lectures in Facebook videos about climate change, for instance, while driving a gas-guzzling 4:4 Land Rover Defender to conferences. As for Driscoll’s stance on Brexit, don’t ask. ITV’s Joe Pike did – and the YouTube of his car-crash interview went viral on political blogs nationwide, for all the wrong reasons.
Perhaps more worrying for moderate Labour voters is that Driscoll has had a public endorsement from Chris Williamson, the Derby North MP suspended by Labour for tolerating bullying anti-semitism. Just last weekend, the man deemed too obnoxious even for Corbyn to defend, tweeted that “if elected @MayorJd4 will be a great socialist metro mayor” – and Driscoll proudly shared the endorsement from his friend and comrade.
I can’t be alone in worrying about uncosted and untested policy plans from the hard-left Labour man. Fantasy and unwanted proposals include a new ‘people’s bank’ and a ‘green energy company’. These smack of totalitarian grandstanding. Both would take the new mayor into high-risk sectors that could absorb the entire mayoral budget without targeting core priorities: jobs, skills and rural growth. Surely the new Mayor should leave speculative investment to the private sector and, instead, use public money to pump-prime projects and leverage partner investment.
Untested policies from a novice Labour candidate are raising ever-louder concerns North of Tyne. Alongside uncompromising hard-line Momentum politics, voters have good cause for concern about their future. We don’t want our region to become a test bed for the radical left, and nor do our region’s voters.
We must keep pressing the positives for our region. We are winners, are already winning – the region just ranked at number one for digital business growth, above even London. As Charlie Hoult has said, let’s build up from where we are – not risk a return to the slow lane.