Election reflections – and thanks too!

by | May 10, 2019 | Election

As the dust settles on last week’s North of Tyne Mayoral election, it’s time to reflect. It’s also a moment to say thank you to the many many people who, unprompted, gave their time to join my campaign for a modern, forward-looking, positive vision for this fantastic place that we call home.

These included men and women, young and old, lifelong locals and folk originally from afar – all equally proud of the region’s potential.

Above all, I want to thank the 60,089 people across our region for having the faith to give me their votes at the election. Even if it ultimately did not give us the result we wanted, runner-up at the finish line was no mean feat!

I joined the election race because I firmly believe the new North of Tyne Mayor offers a new and real opportunity for our region to make a powerful case to the outside world across business and community, as well as through Westminster.

I stood because I believe my breadth of experience could help our region to bigger and better things. My track record, working with partners to initiate £100m in civic projects, could contribute to delivering more. It’s this kind of experience our Mayor needs, as they bid for new investment and the new jobs people want so badly. Hence my election theme: Projects Not Politics.

I also stood because I love the North East. I was born here and have the region running through my veins. I run a fourth-generation business that in turn provides space for 1000 people in small businesses. I’ve helped many new ventures grow, supporting jobs and local investment along the way.

I wanted to help the region tell a positive story about the success we’re seeing here. About the growth of international brands like Greggs, Fentimans and Barbour. About the UK’s fastest-growing digital economy. About our brilliant inventions and our academic success. About the unmatched beauty of our country and coastline.

Celebrating success is also about our sporting ambition. That’s one reason why I talked a lot during my campaign about Newcastle United. Buying the club is beyond the reach of the Mayor alone, but getting the club to raise its game and give more back to the community should not be too much to ask.

A winning team is a winning region and adds to economic success too.

Who knows what else our region can achieve if we have a positive vision and outlook? That’s what the Mayor can do if it’s done right. We need an ambassador who can tell our story and make a brilliant case.

I am very concerned that the election of a hard-left Corbyn Mayor in Jamie Driscoll will mean a missed opportunity for us to celebrate our success. His victory speech last Friday was heavy on negatives and socialist rhetoric like ‘rejecting chaos’.

This is a narrative I don’t share, because I see so much great work in the region that we must applaud rather than paint a divisive world picture.

Under the gaze of international media, Driscoll’s speech was a huge missed opportunity. Where was the inclusive vision? Where was the good news? Where was the call for partnership? Inward investors watching on will hardly have been inspired to come to our region.

It’s not just the negatives and parochial thinking that concern me about Corbyn’s man. Nor is it the complete lack of experience that will leave him floundering and out of his depth.

My concern is the actual proposals he puts forward, which promise little for the people of our region. Take his plan for a community bank. All experience shows that new banks are big drains on cash and will suck in more taxpayer funds, with little public benefit whatever. This is especially true in Germany, which Driscoll cites as an example to follow.

The sensible folk running the new North of Tyne Combined Authority know this all too well. That’s why its cabinet has already moved effectively to block Driscoll’s pie-in-the-sky plans, by agreeing a framework for practical spending that will bring in new jobs.

The Mayor will chair the new authority – but has no veto on decisions made. He will have to work with a cross-party cabinet made up of moderate Labour and Conservative leaders. I’m interested to see how an uncompromising hard-left Mayor can possibly take the consensual partnership approach required for the job.

It will be essential to see the Mayor’s funds not as prime investment but as leverage to encourage partners from national government initiatives and outside corporate investors.

Some have asked me why I didn’t stand as an independent candidate, especially at a time when the Conservative party (indeed established politics generally) is viewed in such low esteem.

Blue has never been an easy colour to sell in a region steeped in Labour history. But there is structure and support that comes from party – both locally and across the Conservative network.

I have also seen closely the positive change of a progressive Conservative administration that has taken over from an entrenched Labour group in Northumberland County Council. There transformation of the finances and prospects for the county are amazing and undersold: the authority has the largest building programme of any in the UK for leisure centres and schools. It is also reducing planned debt from £1.2bn to £750m, knocking £20m per year of potential interest repayments.

My own perspective is naturally Conservative. Coming from a business background, I know why people want to set up in business and how enterprise success creates new jobs. People want the opportunity to control their own prosperity, not depend on the state.

I back a vision that supports public investment, and think the austerity agenda has hit too many too hard in our region. We must have the right safety nets in place, and offer good government-backed options like more affordable homes and flexible public transport. I support a co-ordinated approach to transport that adds more options on Metro, train and cycle and so helps tackle climate change.

Work can start immediately on building a coordinated approach to DWP benefits in North of Tyne, if the new Mayor can avoid the distractions of tinkering on the national agenda topics not in their gift to control.

The Brexit impasse at Westminster, without doubt, went down badly on doorsteps, hitting both main parties – though the North of Tyne results show that Labour was hit twice as hard as Conservative. Like it or not, most voters North of Tyne share the view that we must deliver an exit from Europe’s bureaucracy, respecting the result of the referendum.

Importantly, this North of Tyne devolution can help us to ‘take back control’ of our own local decisions. It is the disconnect from Westminster that led so many here to vote leave in 2016.

Standing for public office is no easy call. Anyone who does lays themselves open to scrutiny, and that is only right. In the social media age, however, you can also be subject to the most vile abuse possible, as well as endless tirades from obsessive keyboard warriors. I’m far from the only one to get this toxic bile!

I am thick skinned and can cope, so was content to leave my Facebook page quite open to comments pro and con. It became the home of feisty debate during the campaign, unlike social sites moderated by opponents. I have no regrets about hosting open debate and thank those who joined the discussion in a positive spirit.

I’m also grateful to fellow candidates who engaged with some of the debates we’ve had on policy.

I am disappointed by the quality of the media coverage of the election, with little by way of critical analysis of the proposals on offer, or the candidates’ suitability for the job.

Press stories all too often just re-presented the words of the candidates. With one or two honourable exceptions, our local journalists and their publishers need to up their game. I know I’m not alone in thinking this. I will continue to develop my idea for a regional media hub, which resonates with many.

The structure and opportunity for debate during the campaign was stiflingly limited. The hustings events on offer in particular were formulaic and unengaging, with a one-by-one answer format leaving no room for interaction between candidates or audience. The exception to this was a lively Friends of the Earth meeting in Alnwick – conducted with good humour and quite open discussion.

Room to improve – and an opportunity for the future maybe?

I’m grateful and offer thanks to the many people who backed me in what has been my first political campaign, with both wisdom and feet on the ground. I had a brilliant home team of volunteers, including platoons of door knockers and leaflet droppers. I’m also grateful to Sir John Hall, who was a constant mentor throughout the campaign.

I was backed above all by my wonderful family. My wife Kate and sons Bede and Hector hit the pavements to support me as much as anyone else.

My father, Freddy, was so responsible for giving me a foundation in community spirit and public service. He was modest of his record and aghast at the ‘sell’ of politics, preferring to deliver discreetly rather than blow trumpets.

He was confined to the Freeman Hospital for the duration of the campaign, was discharged to cast his vote on Election Day and, home at last, died three days after the result. He was surrounded by all his family and boundless love.

Though he never sought recognition for his works, our family will ever be proud of his contribution to public life. He took comfort that I hadn’t won, leaving me time to keep an eye on my mum, Peta, who had been his strength for 60 years!

Thank you for your incredible support during this campaign everyone. 60,089 votes is a strong body of support – and is the clearest validation of all that the effort to stand was worth it.

It’s important to consider how we give a continued voice to the aspirations of voters who understood our positive vision for growing the region.

Here’s to a positive vision for a our Great North. I ain’t going nowhere because there ain’t nowhere better. It’s up to all of us to make the future bright!