‘‘Why have you resigned from Labour to run as an independent?” I’ve been asked by a dozen different journalists in the past 24 hours. Truth is, there are probably a dozen different reasons. The overwhelming support I’ve had since Labour HQ summarily blocked me from standing for the North East mayoralty is part of it. On Saturday night I went to a local beer festival. People I’d never met kept saying: “It’s terrible what they’ve done to you. I hope you run as an independent.” Labour members and Tory councillors, union leaders and business people have all said: “Run, and I’ll vote for you.”
There’s the fact that I spent years negotiating the best funded devolution deal in England – and worked cross-party to do it – so we can invest in our public transport system. Then there’s the sense of justice. It’s not just that I disagree with the underhand moves to deny local Labour members their freedom to choose – or not to choose – their own candidate. And it’s not just my distaste at the dishonesty and barrage of broken promises from the Labour leadership. The refrain we hear again and again is “We have to be electable.” No one disagrees. But is that actually what’s happening? If the point is to be electable, why say you’re not interested in change and hope? Why accept big money from private healthcare, and then say Labour would fund profit-making private hospitals? It won’t bring waiting lists down.
And where are the votes to be gained in visiting Google, and just days later rowing back from a £3bn tax on tech giants? Everyone hates tech billionaires. And the tech billionaires even hate each other. Something like fighting child poverty is a motherhood-and-apple-pie policy. Everyone supports it. I know this – I’m running a child poverty prevention programme in the North of Tyne right now. It makes long-term economic sense to not have kids growing up with stunted life chances. So where are the votes in the Dickensian cruelty of punishing families with three or more children? And investment to tackle the impending climate catastrophe is not a “nice to have”. It’s not optional. It’s not wasted money either. Our electrical infrastructure is in dire need of upgrade – after decades of privatisation our industry is suffering from an inadequate grid. I don’t buy that this is all about economic competence. I know about economic competence in politics. I’ve worked with businesses large and small to deliver more than 5,000 well-paid, permanent jobs. My combined authority has increased skills training courses from 22,000 a year to 33,000 a year on the same budget – a 50% increase in value for taxpayer money. I’ve written a paper for the RSA on how fiscal devolution can generate wealth in the north-east without raising taxes – and I’ve not charged residents a penny more in council tax. The Tories have done Labour’s work for them. Keir Starmer is right when he says Britai is broken. Food banks. Spiking mortgage rates. Crumbling public services. Business investment flatlined. Life expectancy falling. People with chest pains waiting an hour for an ambulance. And Tory integrity shot to pieces, from Chris Pincher to Partygate to tractor porn. Of course they should be replaced. But when it comes to a response, there’s a total incoherence across politics. And that’s what prompted me to stand. Millions of people feel no one speaks for them. Everywhere I go, people tell me they want politicians to work together to get results. They want people to make realistic promises and stick to them. They want the unvarnished truth.
I’ve been asked, “Can you win?” Yes. Tribal loyalties have broken down in the north-east. People want someone who’ll put region above party. And I’m the only person who’s done the job – experience counts. It’ll be tough going, against national parties with slick press offices. But when we launched a crowdfunder for the campaign yesterday, I said if we could raise £25,000 by the end of August, I would run. We’ve raised £75,000 in small donations in just one day. People believe in this campaign. The last time something like this happened was in 2000, when Labour changed the rules to stop Ken Livingstone. He ran as an independent and outpolled Labour by three to one. And the north-east has already elected independent mayors in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. People are ready for a real fix for our broken politics, our broken economy, our broken ideas. Why did I run? I think the clincher was at the family dinner table last week. “Should I run?” I asked. My 15-year-old son answered: “You’re still going to campaign and fight for a better world. Why not fight for something where you’ll have the power to do something about it?” He’s right. The task is monumental. But I’ve never been timid about getting stuck in. As we say in the north-east, shy bairns get nowt.