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.”

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.