Could the West Midlands elect Britain’s first female metro mayor?

This is not a woman, this is the Library of Birmingham. Image: Getty.

There are now eight English metropolitan areas with combined authorities and metro mayors, covering a combined population of 20m. Not one of them has ever elected a woman.

If you take all directly-elected mayors into account, then there are three women out of 24. By way of comparison, there are two Andys, Daves, and Peters apiece.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are unhappy about this – and women in the West Midlands Labour party think they’ve spotted an opportunity.

The party should be holding its selection race next summer. But, given that this is possibly the closest race in the country with the biggest electorate outside of London, and given that it’s a region where a popular sitting Tory mayor could be defeated, there is an argument that the party should select its candidate as soon as possible, in order to give them more time to build up a profile. (This is what the Tories have done in London.)

For the West Midlands to have a hope of becoming the first to elect a female metro mayor, though, Labour would have to include at least one woman on the shortlist. This didn’t happen in in 2016, when Siôn Simon was selected against little to no internal opposition.

Cllr Nicky Brennan was first elected to Birmingham City Council this year, and Cllr Liz Clements the year before. Since then they, along with other women in the West Midlands Labour Party, have been speaking out on this issue. I asked them why they feel that none of the metro mayors and so few directly elected mayors are women.

“It’s pretty grim being a women in politics sometimes,” Brennan says. “Just take the word ambitious. For a man this is a good thing, it's positive, it's what we expect. But for a woman it’s negative; she's going to trample all over everyone; she's a careerist; how dare she get ideas above her station?”

As a result, “The top jobs are seen as ‘men's work’ and it makes women feel like they can't apply because society makes them feel that they aren't good enough. Some of the most able and experienced women I know still doubt themselves and this is something we must try to change.”


In the Labour party, Clements says, “we still have a way to go to overturn the political culture which privileges straight white men.” On BAME representation among elected mayors, Labour is doing better, she notes, citing London’s Sadiq Khan and Bristol mayor Marvin Rees. “This should be our incentive to improve the representation of women among elected mayors.”

Preet Kaur Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, points out that 45 per cent of Labour MPs are now female. “This is a brilliant achievement and one that other parties could, and should, learn from.” But it took all-women shortlists to get there. “It is unacceptable for 51 per cent of the population to not be accurately represented in parliament.”

But all-women shortlists are currently illegal for mayoral races, as the 2010 Equalities Act specifies AWS are only available for Parliamentary, devolved, and local government races. So what can the Labour Party do to address the gender imbalance?

Gill points to the Labour Women’s Network. “It’s an extremely empowering internal organisation, which I am very proud to be a part of. It does a great job in supporting and identifying talent in women, but this needs to expand nationally.”

“The 2010 Equalities Act needs to be changed,” Clements says, as this would allow for mayoral races to be included in its remit. “While the Women’s PLP lead the charge on this, we should select our Metro Mayor candidate in the West Midlands via an all-women shortlist and wait to see what happens.”

For now, this would be illegal, but the reprimands are unclear and doing so would ensure the topic is talked about more widely.

Brennan, meanwhile, talks about the underrepresentation of working class women specifically. “It’s also good for women to have role models too. I look at Angela Rayner and think, ‘she was a teenage mum too, if she can do it so can I’.”

Mayoral elections are unlike parliamentary or council ones: if you can’t stand for mayor in one region, it’s very unlikely there’s another nearby you could try instead. So should we be worried that all-women shortlists block more qualified male candidates from becoming mayor somewhere?

“No,” Clements says emphatically. “I worry that for decades patriarchal political culture has blocked women from progressing to leadership positions.”

Mayoral politics doesn’t have to be dominated by men, Gill argues. “If we look at the United States it’s a very different picture. There are women mayors leading governments in many urban areas. European capitals like Rome, Madrid, Paris, Warsaw, and Stockholm also have women mayors. Clearly the UK is lagging behind despite having no shortage of talent.”

So – would any of these specific women consider a run? “I'm just getting to grips with being a newly elected councillor,” Brennan says, “so I would rule myself out.” Gill didn’t comment.

Clements, however, says, “There are more senior women who have more experience than me; I am encouraging them to run and will campaign for them.

“But should no other woman put herself forward I would do so because I don’t want to see a repeat of last time.”

Part of the issue for Labour in the West Midlands last time was that very few candidates, male or female, put themselves forward. Only two men passed the shortlisting interview, with the winner, Siôn Simon, going on to lose what was considered a Labour safe seat. So are there enough interested local women to fill a shortlist?

“Yes,” Clements says, “absolutely, there are lots of talented women across our region who are ready to step up and who will inspire grassroots activists to come out and campaign to take back the elected mayoralty.”

“Of course there are,’ Brennan says. “I think we as party members need to be having conversations with women we think would be great and supporting them to stand.”

Gill adds, “Whether you’re in business or politics, you will know someone who could do the role.”

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.