North East mayor: Time for talk is over after an election day years in the making

Kim McGuinness has been named as North East's first ever mayor.
Kim McGuinness has been named as North East's first ever mayor. -Credit:Newcastle Chronicle

This day has been a long time coming for the North East.

A multi-billion pound devolution to create the new North East mayor has been more than a decade in the making – and arguments about how to reshape the region’s political landscape to take money and powers away from Westminster go back far longer than that. But the deal is done and we now have a mayor representing a population of two million people spread across the vast and diverse patch of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and Durham.

That person is Labour’s Kim McGuinness, who ultimately eased to a comfortable win in the historic ballot. While her victory had been widely expected, the campaign took an intriguing turn when a poll last weekend put the 38-year-old in a statistical dead heat with independent challenger Jamie Driscoll.

Mr Driscoll, the North of Tyne mayor who quit Labour last year, had confidently predicted that he was on course to inflict an embarrassing defeat on his former party – having built up a significant campaign warchest thanks to a huge influx of online donations. But there was to be no surprise on election day. From the moment that counting began at Sunderland’s Silksworth sports centre on Friday morning, the word was that Ms McGuinness was in a strong position.

While Mr Driscoll ran her close in Newcastle, she won in every one of the seven council areas she will now represent and finished with a majority of more than 58,000 votes. Attention now turns to the reality of the job, which she officially starts next Tuesday.

The former Newcastle councillor has made big promises for the North East – including major public transport upgrades, taking control over the region’s buses from private operators, and ending the scourge of child poverty. The region’s leaders have been eager to talk up the importance of this devolution deal and the transformational impact they believe it will have.

But communities will expect to see results quickly and a turnout of just over 30% for the mayoral election suggests there is much work to do to convince the region of the mayor’s value.

Independent Jamie Driscoll finished as runner-up in the North East mayor election
Independent Jamie Driscoll finished as runner-up in the North East mayor election -Credit:Newcastle Chronicle

Sir Keir Starmer was quick to praise Ms McGuinness after her win and promised that his party would not let the North East down. Yet how the new mayor will work with her party’s national leadership, and potentially a new Labour government later this year, will be fascinating.

Following the drama surrounding Mr Driscoll’s exclusion last summer, Ms McGuinness has very much been seen as handpicked for the mayor’s job and has faced questions about whether she will be able to stand up to the party – something which he has always insisted she will do.

How much will Labour nationally help her with a vow to bring the North East out of the shadows of places like Manchester, where mayor Andy Burnham has famously had a rather strained relationship with Sir Keir, and deliver on her calls for more even powers and funding to be devolved away from London?

There is also the question of what Mr Driscoll does next – as he now finds himself out of a job, with his existing North of Tyne mayor’s post being abolished to make way for the larger mayoralty. While he may not have quite produced the “political earthquake” he hoped for, a 28% vote share is far greater than many onlookers would have thought him capable of – with a substantial number of people clearly keen for a break from the traditional parties.

And he was quite clear after Friday’s result that he is not about to quietly disappear, casting himself already as a vocal left-wing critic of a future Starmer administration. He might well fancy a run at a Parliamentary seat in a general election, depending on when one is called, and has already begun talking about another North East mayoral campaign in four years’ time.

But, for the time being, the focus is firmly on the new mayor and what they can do. The time for talk is over – now it is up to the North East mayor to deliver.