Buried beneath the news of a Labour Party split and blue on blue attacks which is preoccupying Westminster, is the news that the Labour Party in North Tyneside has selected their candidate for the upcoming Metro Mayoral election.
The new combined authority which comprises Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland councils will elect its first ever Mayor on May 2nd.
In a shock result, Labour’s highest profile local government figure and Leader of Newcastle City Council, Nick Forbes, was comfortably beaten by backbench Newcastle Councillor Jamie Driscoll. The left wing pressure group Momentum have heavily supported Driscoll against Forbes, who is seen as a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn. Despite Momentum’s support, Forbes was excepted to win the selection and mount a strong campaign for the new post in May.
The result has sent shockwaves through Labour local government with many moderate Labour Leaders and Councillors concluding, “if Forbes isn’t safe, who is?”
That is because Forbes is one of the most influential figures in local government. As the Leader of the Labour LGA Group he sits on Labour’s National Executive Committee. Last year he was embroiled in a fierce battle with the Corbyn Leadership over the party’s democracy review which would have seen a change to the election of Labour Group Leaders. Under Corbyn’s proposals local constituency party members would vote on the election of Leaders of Labour Groups on local authorities. Forbes fought it and got a 12-month delay to the plan’s implementation. This was designed to buy him enough time to legally challenge Corbyn’s proposals and see them kicked out for good.
As Leader of Newcastle City Council since 2011, Forbes has used the position to become a powerful voice in the debates around the Northern Powerhouse, Core Cities, Transport for the North and Foreign Direct Investment in the North East, often eclipsing the more established Mayors from Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands. As the Leader of the LGA Labour Group he is incredibly influential in shaping Shadow front bench policy around local government, housing and planning and he is known for being an effective communicator.
Momentum’s victory in the North Tyneside selection further cements their grip on North East politics and proves they will stop at nothing and no one to ensure their candidates beat anyone who is not a fully paid up member of Corbyn’s direction of travel. The truth now is that in the North East, the epicentre of Labour politics, the highest ranking local government politician is set to be a Momentum emissary.
Ironically when she became Prime Minister, Theresa May is reported to have been reluctant to sign any more orders creating combined authorities with directly elected Mayors. Her fear was that it would lead to a national platform for powerful Labour figures in North to attack the Tories in Whitehall.
In fact, with the result in North Tyneside and fierce selections set to begin in Tees Valley, Greater Manchester and Liverpool this summer, it looks as though Metro Mayoralties could be the base for Momentum to win and to yield significant power.
How Labour’s local government family responds to the uncomfortable reality that local government selections will be more to do with allegiance to the Leader than to their regions or their records, is yet to be seen.