One is the Jeremy Corbyn-supporting former nightclub bouncer who retired as a jiu-jitsu sensei to enter politics at the age of 48. The other is Michael Gove.
Together they have formed an unlikely bond, aimed at transforming the north-east of England through a “historic” devolution deal which they hope will in turn secure their own political legacies.
Jamie Driscoll, the North of Tyne mayor, may be the most influential modern Labour figure you have never heard of. He was elected in May 2019, a year after “reluctantly” entering politics as a councillor for Newcastle city centre. The self-proclaimed “lefty policy geek” now heads up a combined authority that includes Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland. But his fiefdom may be about to get much bigger.
Last week, Driscoll and Gove hailed a potentially “transformational” devolution deal that will transfer £48m a year of new money – plus powers over transport, education, skills, housing and regeneration – to a region of 2 million people four times the size of Greater London. If it passes a local consultation, as expected, the region will have its first mayor in May 2024. Driscoll, described recently as “the last Corbynista in power”, is the lead contender for the £100,000-a-year role.
It is the sixth devolution deal signed in the last year but is arguably the most politically significant. The new authority, which stretches from Berwick to Gateshead, will include four constituencies that voted Conservative for the first time in nearly 100 years, if ever, in 2019: Blyth Valley, Sedgefield, North West Durham and Bishop Auckland. It spans 13 other seats where Labour’s five-figure majorities were more than halved at the last general election, when voters ditched the party over Brexit and Corbyn.
Driscoll, 52, has steered the devolution deal through three changes of prime minister and four levelling up secretaries, and outlasted four of the seven council leaders in place when he took office less than four years ago. But in Gove he has found an unlikely political ally.
Driscoll said he “gets on well” with the levelling up secretary: “Our political differences are well documented [but] he turns up, he answers my calls, he answers my texts. Anyone who can lay those moves on a dancefloor deserves a hearing.”
The 6ft 1in mayor, who chaired the Newcastle branch of Momentum and was Corbyn’s bodyguard on one pre-leadership trip to the north-east, says he has a closer relationship with cabinet members than many local Tory politicians. What’s the secret? “You start with a bit of a joke and banter,” he says.
“If you go in either shouting at people for being a load of Tory bastards or for not giving you enough money – well, they’re human.” Chuckling, he adds: “They may be Tories, but we should remember that they are human and have human rights too.”
Negotiations over a devolution deal started in 2015 under David Cameron’s government – five prime ministers ago – but fell apart several times, sometimes acrimoniously, before finally coming together in recent weeks.
It has cast Driscoll, a political novice, in the role of dealmaker, peacemaker and occasional referee. Many thought a north-east combined authority would never happen, in part because it is a complex patchwork of seven very different councils – but also because local rivalries run deep.
One Labour leader approached for this article repeatedly stressed that their area was “not being taken over or annexed by the North of Tyne” and admitted they were “jittery” about a mayor overseeing their political fiefdom. “On a personal level I like Jamie,” the leader said. “I just wish he would reserve his comments to the position he’s elected to, not the position he’s not elected to.”
Others are more complimentary. Glen Sanderson, the Conservative leader of Northumberland council, described Driscoll as “an excellent honest broker” who deserved credit for his role.
Driscoll says he grew up in a “rough” part of Middlesbrough and was “radicalised” by the decline of heavy industry under Margaret Thatcher.
He left school at 16, trained as an engineer then received a grant to study engineering at Northumbria University, aged 22, working as a nightclub bouncer to pay his way. He now lives with his wife, Caroline, a GP, and their two teenage sons in an affluent suburb of Newcastle.
Driscoll joined the Labour party in 1985 but it was not until 2015 that he became fully involved, campaigning for Ed Miliband in the general election before championing Corbyn’s leadership bid. He set up the Newcastle branch of Momentum, trained activists and helped organise the group’s national conference.
When the role of North of Tyne mayor came up in late 2018, Driscoll says he had to be convinced to put himself forward. He had only been a councillor for six months. He won the support of trade unions and Momentum and was selected as Labour’s candidate, beating the favourite (his then boss), Newcastle city council leader Nick Forbes.
Now he faces another selection battle, although this time he is the frontrunner. Kim McGuinness, the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, has also been tipped to run ahead of a planned election in May 2024, in which Labour would be clear favourites.
For now, Driscoll is doing “cartwheels down the street” at what he calls England’s “best-funded devolution deal”. But he wants ministers to go further – to full fiscal devolution, which would allow councils to raise, retain and spend money locally. For that, he may have to wait rather longer for Gove to return his texts.