On the face of it, you might expect North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll to be despondent about his political future. Elected in May 2019 with 34 percent of first preference votes, the left-wing regional leader was blocked from Labour’s shortlist for the broader position of North East Mayor by Keir Starmer and his allies. Despite an outcry, the decision stood, and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness was nominated, leaving Driscoll on the sidelines.
Yet instead of quietly retiring from politics, Driscoll took the stunning decision to mount an independent bid for mayor, joining a rich history of left-leaning ex-Labour independents. In just two days, Driscoll raised £100,000 from 5,000 small donors, defying critics on the Labour right. History suggests the backlash to Starmer could well power Driscoll to a historic win over Labour.
Before continuing, some context needs to be established. Driscoll is seeking to be Mayor of the North East Combined Authority, which will govern a region of 1.9 million people. This will incorporate Driscoll’s current North of Tyne region (population of 829,000), meaning he is the de facto incumbent Mayor for 42 percent of this new North East region. Upon seeking the nomination, he was blocked by the Labour National Executive. No reason was given.
At first glance, an independent bid for North East Mayor might seem a very long shot. The two major parties received a combined 80 percent of votes in the region in 2019; both of the region’s Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are Labour, and Labour is the largest party on six of the seven local councils. Yet Driscoll has already shown he can outperform his old party.
In May 2019, Driscoll won the first preference vote in North of Tyne by a margin of 9 points; in the same region, Labour won the local elections by less than 6 points and the general election later that year by a similar margin, meaning Driscoll overperformed relative to Labour.
What’s more, the broader North East region is not an ultra-safe Labour region. The party prevailed here by a relatively narrow margin in December 2019 (Lab +7), meaning Labour loyalties are more fluid than they would be in a safe Mayoral region like Liverpool (Lab +45). This is not a region where the party can rely on a rock-solid base of unwavering Labour voters to turn out en masse for Starmer’s candidate in May 2024.
Of course, this might seem like pure speculation: after all, we have no polls to evaluate Driscoll’s popularity. But what we do have are a plethora of examples of when ex-Labour independents have run against their old party, from mayors to councillors—and many of them have succeeded.
When Driscoll announced his run, many immediately drew comparisons to Ken Livingstone’s independent bid for London Mayor back in 2000. Livingstone, a Labour MP, had been the last leader of the regional Greater London Council until Thatcher abolished it. When he sought the Labour nomination for London Mayor in 1999, he won a clear majority of members’ and trade unionists’ votes—but because of Labour’s electoral college system, a few dozen elected officials were able to block him by voting against his candidacy.
Quitting Labour, Livingstone ran as an independent candidate and won a decisive victory, beating both major parties and reducing Labour to third place.
Ten years later, yet another ex-Labour independent bested Labour in a mayoral race. In 2010, Lutfur Rahman sought the Labour nomination for Tower Hamlets Mayor and won, defeating his nearest competitor, John Biggs, by double digits (51 percent to 30 percent). Yet he was removed as a candidate by the National Executive.
Undeterred, Rahman ditched his party, ran as an independent, and won by a landslide with an absolute majority of the vote, reducing Labour to just 25 percent of the vote in a borough where they had won 41 percent just five months previously.
It’s not just mayoral candidates who have defied the Labour leadership to win. One year before Livingstone’s independent bid for London Mayor, Dennis Canavan (MP for Falkirk West) sought the Labour nomination for the Scottish Parliament seat of the same name. But he found himself blocked by the UK leadership, despite 97 percent of local members wanting him.
He decided to run independently and prevailed with an absolute majority of votes, reducing Labour to just 18 percent in a seat where the party had won 59 percent in the 1997 election.
Four years later, history repeated itself: John Marek AM, a member of the Welsh Assembly (now the Senedd/Welsh Parliament), was deselected but ran as an independent and won. Two years later, Welsh Labour suffered another defeat, losing the UK Parliament seat of Blaenau Gwent to ex-Labour Welsh Assembly member Peter Law, a vocal critic of New Labour who ran as an independent.
Of course, it’s not always a success story. Many MPs have run as left-wing independents and failed, such as Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Sydney Bidwell in 1992. But local government contests suggest that the political context of 2023 is more favourable to the Left.
In May 2023 alone, nine former Labour councillors were elected as independents or Greens after quitting or being expelled from their old party. This included Alan Gibbons (expelled for voting against austerity), Cal Corkery (expelled for liking a left-wing Facebook page) and Tony Randerson (who quit in opposition to Starmer).
What, then, can we learn from all of this? The major conclusion to draw is simple: a mayor who can raise £100,000 to run as an independent in just two days is obviously a serious contender, especially in a region where voters have shown a willingness to switch sides. But more importantly, Driscoll’s candidacy is just the latest in a long line of Labour rebels who overcame attempts to deselect or expel them by running independently and winning.
All in all, Jamie Driscoll’s campaign for mayor may be bold and unusual, but the circumstances are ripe for a shock result, just as they were in 2000 with Ken Livingstone, Lutfur Rahman in 2010, Dennis Canavan in 1999 and many more. Driscoll has a steep hill to climb, but ultimately he has nothing to lose—and he and the Left have everything to gain.