A commentary on the exotic choices for voters for North of Tyne mayor
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Who is a voter to support faced with a candidate who cannot explain his stance on Brexit, one who wants to spend public money on a premier league football club, another who has supported euthanasia for children, an anti-politics business figure and an earnest teacher who splits hairs about geography?
Some places have regional elected mayors, and in an innovation the north east is about to get half of one.
A deal for the whole region was on the table back in 2016, but in a crunch vote only Newcastle City Council, Northumberland Council and North Tyneside MBC backed it. This deal fell by the wayside but the three councils went onto do a subsequent deal with government as North of Tyne Combined Authority.
The region’s southern half remains outside, so Gateshead MBC – a few minutes’ walk from the middle of Newcastle - is not involved but parts of Northumberland so remote they host the rare red squirrel are.
The Centre for Cities think tank has urged the new mayor to “ensure that economic policy is made with the geography of people’s day-to-day lives in mind”, and has helpfully included a map showing that 35% of the inhabitants of Gateshead cross the Tyne to work, as do 18% of those from South Tyneside MBC, neither of which are in the combined authority.
On 2 May voters will decide between: John Appleby (Lib Dem), Jamie Driscoll (Lab), Charlie Hoult (Con), Hugh Jackson (UKIP) or John McCabe (Ind).
Whoever wins will preside over £600m of central government funding, with devolved powers over the economy, education, skills and transport.
Cllr Driscoll defeated Newcastle leader Nick Forbes for the Labour nomination and his website makes much of his local credentials and devotion to Jeremy Corbyn.
Website visitors must first get past a vast picture of Cllr Driscoll captioned for no apparent reason: “The electric light was invented on Tyneside.”
Attempts by this plain-spoken, red-blooded socialist to explain his stance on Brexit in a television interview have though become noted for leaving this as elusive as any Northumbrian red squirrel.
Mr Hoult beat former North Tyneside elected mayor Linda Arkley to the Conservative nomination.
He may regret having told a local newspaper that he wanted to buy Newcastle United Football Club – thought to have a £300m-400m price tag – before admitting his idea might conceivably be “implausible”.
Even more implausible, to put it mildly, was the idea advanced by UKIP’s Hugh Jackson in 2008 – when he was a Tory councillor at North Tyneside – that euthanasia might be employed to reduce the costs of looked after children.
Mr Jackson has since described his comments as “misplaced humour” Few voters shared the joke - he came fourth with 87 votes when he contested a North Tyneside ward last year.
Lib Dem John Appleby has by contrast shunned controversy calling for “better devolution, better environment, better education”.
He has complained the new authority should be called ‘North of Tyne Plus’, “as Hexham, Prudhoe and Allendale are actually south of the river”. How many voters care is a matter for conjecture.
Independent John McCabe is a former president of the North East Chamber of Commerce and runs on some familiar anti-politics messages about: “We need a mayor who is free of party politics. We need a mayor who answers to the people, not to a London-based party machine. And we need a mayor who neither craves the personal glory of success nor ducks their responsibility in the tougher times.”
As other independent mayors have found, the lack of party support can leave them as isolated as the average red squirrel.
Mark Smulian, contributor