A Post-Driscoll Community Politics

Paul Cotterill
10 min readJun 7, 2023

The non-longlisting

Current metro mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority Jamie Driscoll has been told that he won’t be longlisted for the new larger mayoralty covering the whole North East of England. The real and supposed reasons need not detain us here, as they are well known by those interested in the case, and sides are picked.

People on the left of Labour are not happy, but have no real idea what to do. Phil Burton-Cartiledge has a useful assessment of options, but they are basically limited to protest by key unions, which is unlikely to happen and won’t work anyway, or to Driscoll running as an independent, but there is no indication at all of that happening, and becoming an independent comes with the obvious drawbacks that joining a political party was meant to mitigate in the first place.

An alternative left strategy

But there is another, broader and more ambitious route that could be taken, which ties in with the broad ‘community wealth building’ agenda promoted by Driscoll since he became mayor in 2019, could act as a model for a new type of community politics in Greater Manchester, on Merseyside and then beyond and, crucially, does not seek to deny the strengths of party politics when they are undertaken with integrity by party leaders.

Here’, in summary form, is what such an alternative strategy might look like:

a) Driscoll, as pioneer of the new community politics, accepts the sentence handed down by the Labour right, but also announces he will not stand as an independent for this state-allocated position.

b) Instead, he announces that he will use his remaining time, staffing resource and convening power as mayor to:

i) seek to make as irreversible as possible some of the more ‘community wealth’ oriented projects through long-term contracting with relevant social enterprises and third sector bodies [1]; as both a statement of intent and a publicity gateway to:

ii) the development a broader political vision of an alternative “community or people’s mayoralty”, for which Driscoll himself is open about standing for election

A people’s (or community) mayoralty

So what, without seeking to pre-judge what people in the North East come up with as part of a civic dialogue process, might such an alternative mayoralty, look like as a social and economic institution, in terms of popular legitimacy and workable socio-economic model.

Well, in terms first of its popular legitimacy, a useful starting point for people promoting the whole idea within and around the Labour left (in order to gain initial interest and media coverage) is in the idea of a return associative tradition of the pre-war English pluralists GDBH Cole and Harold Laski [3].

A key tenet of this English pluralism is the idea that the state-as-large-association has no ex ante primacy over any other association of people, and the normative development of a society in which the function of the state is open to question and agreement from other associative forms (especially but not only labour organizations) emerges from this first principle. Resurrect this principle for 21st century North East England, and you potentially have the beginnings of a left populist movement which has the power to bring a state-centric Labour party to its senses.

But of course that ideological undepinning won’t of itself make Labour sweat. What we also need is a socio-economic model and plan of action which competes with whatever a Labour state mayor might want to promote (think de-Trussed investment zones and private equity sweeteners).

The first thing the putative ‘alternative mayoralty’ has on its side, in terms of developing a financial and convening power that competes for legitimacy with the state-sanctioned mayoralty for the North East, is that the current Combined Authority doesn’t actually have a great deal of money of its own. (For example, the new ‘devolution deal’ for the North East is £4.2 billion of investment over 30 years, while the revenue budget for Newcastle City Conucil alone is £0.91bn for this year (pdf)).

The Combined Authority’s principal role, then, is to act as partnership broker, by bringing together local authority finance, private sector investment and selected government largesse into strategically useful projects which cross administrative and sectoral boundaires, and to provide some pump-prime funding. Jamie Driscoll has done this from a leftist perspective, but the convening power is much the same across the patch (though Greater Manchester also convenes NHS resource).

So to develop an institution that compares well for both intelligence and pump-priming resources with a Combined Authority under state sanction, and therefore competes for legitimacy is a challenge, but it is possible.

And it becomes even more possible when we consider that what Combined Authorities and councils don’t generally do, but which is open to an organization lead by Jamie Driscoll, the people’s mayor.

There are variations on the broad theme, but in my mind’s eye the best route forward for Driscoll and fellow lefties in the North East, observed closely by others around England, is to use his remaining time and state power to establish a large scale Community Benefit Society (CBS), under the regulation of the Financial Conduct Authority [4].

The CBS is the only legal form that allows an organization to raise finance via so-called “community shares”, though the more technical name is non-transfereable shares, which helps differentiate them from transferable (saleable) company shares.

The non-transferable share, bringing a reasonable level of interest [5] but which can not be sold to others (but can be given back to the CBS for the purchase fee) can lie at the heart of a new socio-economic ‘vision’ set out by Driscoll and co., enhancing alternative mayoralty legitimacy, because it has three key features.

First, the ‘vision’, if marketed as “community wealth building with knobs on” — this is why I’m not in marketing but you know what I mean — and fronted by someone with convening power and media clout, like Driscoll, has the capacity to draw in investment from wealthier households, then from investing companies, and then pension funds etc, at a scale much higher than the official Combined Authority will get from the more traditional sources, as long as it is backed by an investable business plan focused on and beyond the kind of local wealth and sustainability projects Driscoll is currently delivering or planning.

Second, the vision can be much more of a direct challenge to traditional capitalist regeneration/levelling up than is, say, the laudable but limited Preston model of community wealth building [6] , both because it is directly re-distributive through the shares model (which might be seen as a voluntary tax initially) and because it confronts (for popularity and ultimately for finance [7]) with the mainstream economy based on company share value and associated dealing.

Albeit in relatively abstract terms, this vision of an economy where share value, and the ruthless decisions around employment and land (lack of) use taken to defend and increase that value in a way which damages local wealth and well-being, is well set out by Martin O’Neill and Stuart White in their 2019 paper James Meade, Public Ownership, and the Idea of a Citizens’ Trust; it is to this now largely ignored economist of the mid/late 20th centiry that the emerging Driscoll ‘vision’ might now usefully turn both for intellectual credibility and for ideas about how, beyond what I’ve set out above as starting point, such an anti-capitalist institution might be built [8].

Third, while a Dricoll-Cole-Meade socio-economic vision of the type set out above may not appeal to all, the legitimacy that can be drawn from its initiation may lead to other, new associative ideals and ideas.

I won’t try here to summarize my forthcoming essay monster on how an associative, neo-Rawlsian approach to what we now call ‘policing’ might be initiated in the short term via legal mechanisms, but creating an new Community Benefit Society as a half-empty, but sea worthy instutional vessel into which such ideas might be transported and dropped may be worth more in the long run than any amount of community shares raisng.

A post-Driscoll community politics

Jamie Driscoll has been cast aside by Labour. Maybe he’s some kind of crazed antisemite, or maybe hes just for private investor friendly enough. Take your pick.

If he goes independent, he might win. I don’t know. But if he does, it will be a blip for Starmerite Labour, and soon be forgotten. Burnham and Rotheram won’t cause too much fuss.

But there’s another way — a way that could send shivers down Starmer’s spine. Become a ‘people’s mayor’ — I’m not fussed about the nomenclature but that will do as a holding name — who really threatens the capitalist shares economy at sub-regional or regional level, and what was deep threat to the Labour left might become great opportunity, and all of the Labour right’s own making. Then, and probably only then, will Burnham, Rotheram and others start to wonder where their bread is buttered — within or beyond the state.

And of course, while it’d be nice to have Jamie Driscoll on side, because of his current convening power and media clout, it’s not dependent on him if he’s not up for it. It’d be nice to call it a DrisColeian politics, but we’d get over it, and find someone else.


[1] This might usefully be portrayed as a mirror image of Tories selling off assets irreversibly (short of mass re-nationalization) into the capitalist shares economy (on which see later in the piece).

[2] We could even call it a DrisColeian politics.

[3] There’s not space her for a fuller history of English pluralism (it’s the PhD that never get done, I suspect) but a key point in terms is that these pre-war ideas about an associative society, in which the state is but one equal partner amongst many, were largely displaced in the repertoire of the New Left emerging in the 1960s and 1970s by a continental politics more rooted in Marxism and increasingly centered on the recently translated Gramsci.

This new left politics had a focus on actions associated with the “long march through the institutions” but which increasingly became dominated by the desire to take over at local government and build a muncicipal socialism, influenced to be sure by social movements but with not in fundamental association with it. The downgrading of English pluralism from action model to historical oddity was also, of course, aided by the untimely death of Paul Hirst, who had done so much to keep it alive at least as intellectual project, and for a decade or so the efforts of people like Andrea Westall to keep the flame alive have felt a bit too little, too late

[4] I won’t gointo detail here, but the current requirements of the Financial Conduct Authority mean that the structure would need to be more complicated than a single Community Benefit Society (CBS)because each such society must have a specified business purpose. It may be necessary to set up several CBSs which operate as legally different entities but are serviced by a Community Interest Company, but all this is possible with the convening and financial power that Driscoll and co. could bring to it. (I am happy to advise on details.)

[5] What is a “reasonable” rate of interest, defined by the Financial Conduct Authority is a rate high enough only to attract investment, is a little bit tricky to determine in a time of very high inflation, but let us assume for now that the latter will drop in the fairly near future.

[6] Again, there’s no space here to get into a full assessment of the successes and shortcomings of the Preston model. Suffice for me to assert for now, that while the Preston model, focused on localization of municipal supply chains and promotion of cooperative businesses, does create some discrete economic benefits and does send positive signals about potential for a different economic democracy, it does not in its current form have an impact on the way the overall economy of Preston is structured. East Preston business park is what it is, and its relative success in employment creation is down more to it being next to the M6 than to council supply chains.

By contrast, a ‘Driscolian Model’, rooted in a Meadean approach to ‘shares’ ownership, has the potential to raise enough investment finance to offer a real and immediate challenge to the cut and thrust capitalist shares economy, where broader community wealth is secondary in importance to transactional share value, and is sacrificed when suits shareholders. Think town centre blight and land value, for example.

[7] Heh, this is meant to be a broad piece that enthuses activists to get involved in discussion and detail of the possible, but even here I should be realistic about the potential for a sub-regional/regionalMeadean non-transactional shares financed green economy programme to overthrow capitalism.

The most obvious obstacle to that is that while non-transactional shares are by their nature locally focused, company shares are bought and sold on the national and international market, and that is where most investors e.g. pension funds will continue to go to meet their fiduciary duties in the shorter term. It will only be when other regions join in that there may start to be a noticeable national shift in investment decisions, and the most that can he hoped for initially is that local economies e.g. high streets start to shift the way they are economically structured, in the way I set out here back in the day, and on which I am working locally (without the clout Driscoll enjoys).

There is a reason Mondragon is Basque-based that goes beyond the social particularities of the Basque region within Spain.

[8] ‘Where Meade meets Cole’ would, I think, make for a good academic/practitioner seminar on the melding of the pre-war English pluralist tradition and the post-war liberal socialism initially picked up and then wantonly discarded in the 1980s via theSDP fiasco, because there are features in each which can up to a sum greater than the value of those features. Apply for more details.



Paul Cotterill

Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.