A look at St Chad’s North East Mayoral hustings

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On the 4th March St Chad’s College provided the venue for the first hustings for the upcoming North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA) election on the 2nd May. The gentle hum of the college bar provided a suitable backdrop for what proved to be a lively debate between the candidates, with a variety of opinions on how best to run the new local government. 

The NEMCA is a landmark new deal in the growing trend of devolution, bringing together all the local governments from County Durham to Northumberland. The Reform UK candidate, Paul Donaghy, did not make it to this hustings citing a car malfunction, perhaps highlighting the failure of public transport in this region which proved to be a central issue to the debate.

The gentle hum of the college bar provided a suitable backdrop for what proved to be a lively debate between the candidates

Jamie Driscoll, an independent candidate and the incumbent mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority, opened the hustings due to alphabetical order. Throughout the discussion, he stressed his record of delivering jobs, negotiating the new devolution deal, and his work delivering the new Northumberland Line connecting Ashington and Newcastle.  Mr Driscoll focussed in on his manifesto pledges, namely a total transport network, a green new deal, and full employment for the North East, and positioned himself as the natural home for those dissatisfied by conventional politics.

Andrew Gray, an archivist at Durham University’s very own Bill Bryson library and a candidate for the Green Party, argued that the North East of England has been in decline since Thatcher’s government. To reverse course, Mr Gray would invest in communities in order to build resilience and reduce the distance that people would have to travel to access services. 

The NEMCA is a landmark new deal in the growing trend of devolution

Doctor Aidan King, the Liberal Democrat’s candidate sought to out-manoeuvre the radical plans for change through reducing expectations in the role of NEMCA Mayor, stressing the limited funding that any Mayor would have when viewed in a wider system of local-authority budget cuts and underfunding. To gain funding, Mr King would build the largest onshore wind farm in the UK.

Kim McGuinness, the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner and Labour’s candidate for the position after a controversial selection process, argued in favour of local decision-making and stated that the candidate needs to be someone who will “shout for the North East”. In terms of policy, Ms McGuinness focussed on the need to improve the environmental friendliness and safety of buses, increasing social mobility, and argued that her mayorship will “transform how we think about job creation.” She argued that devolution hasn’t reached its full potential, and that ambitious regional pride is crucial to her policy goals. 

The Conservative Party candidate Guy Renner-Thompson stressed his agricultural roots, sense of duty and current role in charge of Inspiring Young People for Northumbria County Council. He praised the Conservative Government’s role in delivering the devolution deal, and argued that it will help to make the North East the home of the future. On the environment, he argued the need for a holistic approach, ensuring buses go to schools, colleges and hospitals, however stated that it cannot come at the cost of the “car-driving majority”.  He focused on the need to improve education in the North East, something that he has played a part in through his role in Northumbria County Council, and to ensure that those educated in the North East don’t have to move elsewhere for jobs. 

The most revealing question of the night was “what keeps you awake at night?” The candidates differed on how they answered the question, with Jamie Driscoll stating that he sleeps well, arguing that one shouldn’t take all the world’s burden on their shoulders. He then clarified that he is nonetheless deeply worried about the crisis of democracy, that large numbers of people trust neither political party and the rise of misinformation across social media. 

Kim McGuinness answered strongly on the horrors of child poverty, asserting that in the 21st Century absolute poverty shouldn’t exist in Britain and that she would address this through free childcare grants and skill training for women who are outside of the labour market. 

All candidates agreed that there was a need for wide scale change within the North East

Mr Renner-Thompson declared that politics is largely about the difference that he can make to individual lives, whereas Mr Gray said that the crises affecting society were numerous and terrifying, focusing on the Climate crisis. Aiden King said that economic concerns kept him up at night, with the lowest aggregate growth in British History. In real life, however, the Lib Dems’ candidate likely has trouble sleeping due to his four-year-old child.  

Overall, it was an extremely well attended and positive evening, which Mr Gray noted demonstrated the civic engagement that still exists in Britain today. All candidates agreed that there was a need for widescale change within the North East, and also showed concern over the 18 hustings that they will be attending before the election in May. They will all return to Durham University for another hustings on the 24th April.

Image: Patrick Brennan via Wikimedia Commons

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