Is the decision to block Jamie Driscoll in the North East ‘out of control’ Labour factionalism?

The so-called “last Corbynista in power” may soon be in power no longer. This revelation comes following news that North Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has been barred from Labour’s longlist for the newly-formed position of mayor in the North East.

As North Tyne Mayor, Driscoll has touted his support for a wealth tax and the common ownership of utilities, both of which are Corbyn-era policies long-dropped under Keir Starmer’s leadership. While he has previously dubbed his “the last Corbynista in power” moniker “inaccurate”, Driscoll describes himself as a “socialist since my teens” who has “proved socialist policies work” on a regional level.

The move to block his candidacy in the North East has hence prompted allegations of a factional stitch-up by the Labour party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), which boasts a pro-Starmer majority.

The NEC’s decision appears to have been taken in light of an interview he conducted with Ken Loach, a left-wing filmmaker who was expelled from the party in 2021. This was confirmed by Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow business secretary, in an interview with Times Radio on Sunday.

Reynolds said: “Where a person has shared a platform with someone who themselves has been expelled from the Labour party because of their position on antisemitism, for opposing the necessary and essential action the Labour party has taken under Keir Starmer to correct the shocking position we were in on antisemitism”.

But this official explanation has not stopped Driscoll’s fate from being interpreted as a factional crackdown from Labour’s pro-Starmer elements. 

“To refuse to allow a serving mayor on to even a selection long list demonstrates that factionalism in the party is completely out of control. There can be no other motive”, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said. 

Another ex-Corbyn shadow cabinet minister, Richard Burgon, added: “As elected Labour Mayor Jamie Driscoll has an outstanding record of delivery in office”.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram jointly condemned the NEC’s treatment of Driscoll in a letter to the party’s ruling body. The pair said: “Whilst we appreciate the NEC’s important role in upholding standards within the Party, and rooting out any form of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination, it also has a responsibility to ensure decisions are democratic, transparent and fair. To exclude a sitting Mayor from a selection process with no right of appeal appears to us to be none of those things”.

For Keir Starmer, the decision to block Jamie Driscoll’s candidacy will serve to underline his zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism. Sharing a platform with someone expelled from the party over the issue is now considered adequate cause to block said candidate from progressing to the longlist stage of a selection process.

Another angle is that interventions from Andy Burnham, the outspoken Manchester Mayor and former Labour leadership candidate, are becoming more frequent and potentially more problematic for Sir Keir. 

Burnham is a vociferous proponent of introducing proportional representation for Westminster elections, a position the Labour leadership has distanced itself from. In fact, just last week Burnham called for change to the voting system at Westminster at an event attended by such key Labour figures as former prime minister Gordon Brown, first minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin.

Speaking at a “Making Britain Work For Scotland” rally in Edinburgh, Burnham called for MPs to be elected by proportional representation as part of Labour’s plans for a “radical rewiring of Britain”.

But undoubtedly the key takeaway from the decision to block Jamie Driscoll in the North East is its supremely factional fallout.

And despite this, it is not an episode the Labour leader will interpret as directly damaging. 

You rarely hear the Labour leader saying something overtly factional, but in so many senses, the riling up of his party’s left and soft left factions is fundamental to his political approach. Indeed, it has been a consistent tactic under Sir Keir’s leadership to provoke his party’s left wing, refuse to backdown and subsequently hold up the hostile reaction as evidence of the Labour left’s isolation.

“What I said about the party changing, I meant it”, Sir Keir told reporters at a press conference in March, as he welcomed the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s decision to take his party out of special measures. It served as a platform for announcing that Jeremy Corbyn, with whom he served in the shadow cabinet from 2016 to 2020, would not be standing as a Labour candidate at the next election.  

It was a moment of high symbolism as the Labour leader, anticipating Conservative attacks, crafted a critical breach with the past.

Today, with a general election nearing, Conservative attacks on Sir Keir as being reliant on his party’s left-wing — especially in a hung parliament or small majority scenario post-2024 — will intensify. Such attacks could even emerge as a vicious cycle for Sir Keir, wherein the exploitation of fears that the Labour left could exercise strong influence after an election, in turn, makes a hung parliament more likely.

In this way, throughout the selection process for wannabe Labour MPs, allies of the Labour leader have been working for some time to undermine such criticism. 

As things stand, the Labour Party has 196 MPs, of whom 14 have announced they are standing down in 2024 or are facing deselection. If Keir Starmer is returned with a majority at the next election, it means huge swathes of his parliamentary party will be relative political novices. The tussle over MP selections is hence intimately linked to the wider struggle over the ideological direction of the Labour party. Starmer allies know a fresh intake of moderate MPs will help determine the ideological texture of the Labour party post-2024 and, crucially, dilute the influence of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group (SCG). 

So Starmer allies calculate that the lack of Labour left candidates for parliament will reduce the Conservatives’ ammunition, as the party seeks to admonish Sir Keir as weak in and around his party. 

At the mayoral level, too, the Labour NEC’s decision on Jamie Driscoll — and its political fallout — shows everything is going to plan for Sir Keir. “I make no apologies for saying we want the highest quality candidates”, the Labour leader told reporters today, doubling down on Driscoll’s defenestration. 

It is the latest evidence of the left’s isolation under Starmer. The Conservative party will find it difficult to exploit Labour’s factional politics when the bloc marked out for vilification is essentially silenced.