Newcastle can be the capital of a new, radical British politics | Aditya Chakrabortty

In a meeting room inside a leisure centre in the middle of one of the most beaten-up parts of Britain, a slight, bald man in stubble and jeans is talking revolution. “This is our chance,” he tells the 20 or so people sitting at their foldaway tables. “The rest of the country will be watching us – this lefty mayor with his plans for actually giving power to people. There’ll be a lot of people who want this to fail, but we can make it work. This is our opportunity.”

Ah, that rare thing: a political speech served straight, with no side of hyperbole. One of the most interesting developments in politics so far this year is set to happen not in Westminster, but 300 miles up the A1. On 2 May, voters from Newcastle right up to Berwick can elect their first ever North of Tyne metro mayor, just as they do in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester; and the overwhelming favourite is this man, Labour’s Jamie Driscoll. That puts him days away from becoming the most powerful Corbynista anywhere in government – and one of the most scrutinised politicians in the UK.

A Conservative minister has already identified him as “a great danger”, which in this Labour stronghold must be as good an endorsement as the ones harvested from Noam Chomsky and John McDonnell. After spending a day with Driscoll last weekend, I came away convinced that if you want to see just what the British left might do, and the length of leash it will be on, this articulate scruff is one to watch.

He makes a surprise guest. The shoo-in for the role was the Newcastle council leader, Nick Forbes, who would have been business as usual: a big-beast politician, stronger on experience than imagination, getting a fiefdom and making differences invisible to the naked eye. Except this time the natural order was upended.

True to Corbynite form, Driscoll didn’t fancy running himself but hoped to cajole another lefty to tussle Forbes for the Labour candidacy. Only after getting knocked back by the ninth on his list did he accept the post-2015 wisdom – that if you want a political insurgency done right, you’d best do it yourself. So he stood – and beat Forbes by miles.

Metro mayors normally come to the job thoroughly stewed in power, whether at Westminster or in business. Not Driscoll, who’s been a backbench councillor in Newcastle for less than a year. He left school at 16 and worked as both a nurse and a bouncer, before going to university as a mature student. Along the way, he earned a black belt in jiu-jitsu, took exams in wine and home-schooled his two boys. He owns precisely one suit, only bought after deciding to stand for mayor, and he spent part of our weekend together scouting for the office he’ll need for the start of May. A manicured and media-trained, dead-eyed wheeler-dealer he is not.

Such inexperience can bring trouble, as in February when ITV asked him about Brexit and his minute-long reply turned into an almighty car crash. But he has been lucky in his opponents, including a Ukip candidate who once “humorously” suggested reducing the number of children in care through euthanasia. And if part of what’s wrong with our politics is the narrowness of our political class, we need serious-minded outsiders such as Driscoll to elbow past that velvet rope.

Compare Driscoll’s soon-to-be-published manifesto with the one sent by Forbes to local Labour members last autumn. The old hand promised mayoral staff would get the minimum wage, as is only lawful; the new broom vows to bring in the real living wage and to judge suppliers on their pay, openness to trade unions and gender wage gap. Forbes claimed he’d “demand reform of the business rates system”, while Driscoll would help launch a co-operative people’s bank to direct regional savings to regional businesses. Then there’s building council housing, the kind of guerrilla localism made famous by the city of Preston. The difference is night and day, or 2009-era Labour versus 2019 politics.

“We’ll become a case study in rejecting the way the economy has been run for the past 40 years,” Driscoll says. “People will see that the neoliberal emperor has no clothes. Economics is deliberately obscure and intimidating, but why can’t we have a bank? Why can’t we build council houses? We’ll start it, then they’ll do it in Norwich and Southampton and …”

Yet the tools at his disposal are risible. The domain of which he’ll be mayor, the North of Tyne, remains solely the fantasy of political cartographers. “I ask people round here, ‘Do you know the North of Tyne?’” says a local resident and professor of urban planning, John Tomaney. “They say: ‘Is that a pub?’”

As Anna Round at the IPPR North thinktank observes, Driscoll will control much less than other metro mayors, while the office budget of £20m a year will not even start to compensate for the cuts tearing through the north-east; not when Newcastle council’s budget alone is set to have shrunk by £280m over this decade. The country looks set for a downturn, and Brexit, if and when and however it happens, will hit the north-east harder than anywhere else.

An engineer, Driscoll is confident that any problem can be broken down into its component parts and solved. Yet what can’t be easily fixed is the chasm between politicians, however new and imaginative, and an electorate that no longer cares. Take Driscoll’s canvassing in the Northumberland coastal town of Newbiggin. On an estate of small houses with outdoor benches and garden statuettes, the constant refrain is, “I don’t follow politics.” When he gamely talks policy, the reply comes, “I’m not getting into that.” The contrast between the polite conviction on one side of the door and the bafflement on the other makes modern political activism resemble the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This swathe of the electoral map runs blood-red Labour, yet as one canvasser, Jamie, observes: “Policy doesn’t matter here. They’ve forgotten what government can do.” Next door is Ashington, with its leisure centre in the shadow of the old coal mine and backing on to a giant shiny Asda. From jobs to shifts; from wages to zero-hours contracts. This was the land of the Pitmen Painters; now it’s the usual landscape of deindustrialisation. We’re here for a meeting on Driscoll’s manifesto but Labour activists know their informed views on housing policy and planning don’t touch the economic decay and social disintegration outside this room. Ashington, one tells me, is “scary”, as he reels off recent gory crime stories.

Punished by Thatcher, patronised by New Labour, this region has not been “left behind” by economics but cut adrift by the political class. That has left a toxic legacy and in his new job, Driscoll simply won’t have enough powers to put things right. But over the longer run, bridging the divide between the representatives and the under-represented will be the big job for him and his generation of Labour politicians. The good news is: he knows it.

Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist


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