Work Hard

What it’s like to…campaign to become the first female metro mayor.

Interview with Jessie Jacobs

Written by High Life North
Published 06.03.2021

By Mim Skinner

I knew it was going to be tough. You read the articles, Jess Phillips taking on the trolls, Nicky Morgan getting rape threats,  people getting their windows smashed.

I was in the middle of my first political campaign when Jo Cox died and we were devastated but the sad thing is that not one person in my team was shocked at how her death had come about because of the vitriol and the hatred, and anger towards politicians had reached a pinnacle. But when you’re inside that, it becomes the everyday accepted norm.

You’re hated and people are angry. People think you’re in it for yourself. I remember going to this DIY store where I got on well with the guys and they used to give my charity free wood for community projects. As soon as they knew I’d entered politics they went from being friendly to asking what I was going to get out of it. The idea that politicians go into it to genuinely make a change is so far from people’s minds.

We become not human anymore. For me, I’ve already seen that in terms of people going as far as they can seeking to destroy my reputation, like its a tool to win political points rather than seeing me as a person.

 

I’d never planned to transition into politics. I’ve never even planned to work in the charity sector. I was working my way up in IT sales and finishing a business management MA so I could go on to investment banking. Then I met a 15-year-old girl, and everything else after that moment was not important.

She came into the soup kitchen I volunteered at. She looked about 12 so we initially thought we’d have to ask her to leave. It was a space for adults and we got a lot of drug users drugs so it wasn’t a safe space for a child.

Then she started telling us her story, that she was a heroin addict, that she was working on the streets, selling sex. It was heart-wrenching but it actually didn’t hit me until a few days later when I was at a youth club and seeing these other 15-year-old girls living completely opposite lives, being picked up by a parent at the end of the night, studying for GCSEs. This very middle-class area in Stockton was less than a mile away from where I met that girl and I just thought ‘how on earth do these two groups of girls exist in the same town?’

I founded a charity called A Way Out when I was 24 to provide places of support for these women. I used to have to take the chairman of our board with me to meetings to be taken seriously. People would look at me and think automatically, you couldn’t lead a charity.

 

Whilst I was running A Way Out, there were these moments of anger at what was happening in the political realm, policies around addiction and domestic violence, spending directed towards the wrong things, whilst other areas where under-resourced.

Initially, I just kept my head down and didn’t say anything, but then eventually, I thought, no. I need to speak up because no one is saying what needs to be said. There was this disconnect between people making policy decisions and what communities really wanted. It was the elephant in the room.

I started challenging these decisions, and that lead to me getting asked to contribute to discussions on a policy level. The first time I visited parliament for a round table discussion on the charity sector I ended up having this massive rant at some very senior government leaders about how the North had been political neglected.

A woman came up to be at the end and said ‘You’re coming back to this place, as prime minister.’ Until that moment, even being a member of parliament, being a politician, hadn’t entered my mind, but the fact that someone could listen to me, and say that, it got me thinking. Why are these people making decision on behalf of the North when they have no idea?

I want to be the voice for our region. I don’t want to be just banging a drum, I wanted to be writing policies.

I remember the minister for children saying to me ‘I don’t know why women don’t just leave when they’re in domestic violence situations.’ He was the minister who was making decisions on behalf of children in the UK, and he just didn’t have a clue.

Those people were not going to bring about positive change for the people that I represented. I thought ‘Come on jessie, it’s time to throw your hat in the ring.’

 

When I first launched my campaign, the current mayor said I had no real-world experience. By this point, I’d founded my own charity, been named Sunday Times social entrepreneur of the year, founded a newspaper, and headed up a consortium of mental health organisations across the region. I’d helped contribute to National policies around drugs, addiction and recovery and I’d sat at a regional level on boards around post-Brexit preparedness for the North East economy.

 But it was very easy to pigeon hole someone like me. To say you don’t have the experience to do this’. What he meant was – you don’t have the pair of balls to do this, you don’t have the grey hairs, you don’t have the trousers on. They were looking at me and making assumptions about who I am. Because politicians have never looked like me, a young, female, working-class, mixed-race Teesside local- so people don’t expect them to look like me either.

 

I want to think in 10 years time, those gaping inequalities between the 15-year-old girl selling her body, and the one that’s going to get 10 GCSEs and go off to University will be narrowed. I want to change the trajectory for people like her who lacked hope.

The government is always talking about the North levelling up, well we need to level up town by town. There are people who are always going to succeed in Teesside and others who because of their postcode probably won’t even get a GCSE. That has to change. We have amazing people, the place has amazing potential. We have a beautiful coastline, a thriving tech sector, but we’ve got a reputation we need to fight for. We can be at the forefront of the Green Industrial revolution because we’ve got that background, and those skills already. But we’ve had a negative perception for too long. Sometimes we see ourselves that way too.

For me, winning would be a symbol of what’s possible for an ordinary Teesside lass.

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