Who will be the first mayor of the West Midlands?

The obligatory picture of Birmingham's bullring shopping centre. Image: Getty.

The first thing to say about the West Midlands: don’t call it Greater Birmingham. It’s perhaps best, indeed, that we don’t even call it a city.

The area – first defined as a metropolitan county in 1974, abolished in 1986, and resurrected last year as the sexily named West Midlands Combined Authority – includes three cities (Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry), plus four other boroughs (Sandwell, Walsall, Dudley, Solihull).

There’s not really a good name for what it is. It’s not really a conurbation because there’s a rather large gap between Coventry and the rest. Some involved in West Midlands politics prefer the term “region”, but to confuse matters there is a much broader West Midlands Region, which includes five of the surrounding counties.

Whatever it is, though, it’s about to get a metro mayor, so who’s it going to be?

The odds

Before we look at the candidates, let’s get one thing straight: this should be a walkover for Labour. The party holds 21 of the region’s parliamentary seats, compared to just seven for the Tories. It also has healthy majorities on the three city councils and Sandwell, and pluralities on Dudley and Walsall. (It’s admittedly nowhere in Solihull, where it’s Tories as far as the eye can see.)

The obligatory map: the seven boroughs, and their predecessor councils. Image: Wikipedia.

What’s more, in the last West Midlands-wide election to take place on the supplementary vote system – last year’s vote for the police and crime commissioner – the second round run-off saw Labour’s David Jamieson beat Tory Lee Jones, 63 per cent to 37. So, Labour has got this, right?

Well, possibly not actually. Bookies Ladbrokes currently have the Conservative Andy Street as the 4/9 favourite, with Labour’s Sion Simon at 15/8. And, to be cynical about this, of the three big city regions about to elect metro mayors, this is the only one the Conservatives can actually win.

The governing party is thus likely to throw everything at the West Midlands so they can say they’re even beating Labour in the cities: it was no coincidence that Street was given a prime speaking spot at the party’s conference in Birmingham last October.

In the blue corner

Andy Street is best known for his association with John Lewis. After graduating from Oxford (PPE, obviously), he joined the department store’s graduate training scheme in 1985, and worked his way up the ranks before becoming managing director in 2007. All this means that he can point to impressive business experience, but because it’s cuddly, cooperative, sentimental Christmas ad-producing John Lewis, it’s going to be hard to paint him as a heartless capitalist.

Street in 2010. Image: Getty.

Street’s pitch is likely to be a technocratic one: “I’m the best man for the job,” basically. His campaign is pointing to the amount of investment he’s brought to the region, through his role as chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. There’s talk of performance related pay, and a focus on getting youth unemployment down, too.

What the Street campaign seems to lack at the moment is a single, big policy that the new mayor could push through in his first hundred days: the sort of signature achievement that will a bored electorate see why it’s worth having a mayor in the first place. That said, the election is still over two months off and the manifesto hasn’t been published yet, so this may materialise later.


In the red corner

Sion Simon hasn’t published his manifesto yet either, but already has at least one policy that could play that role: his pledge to nationalise the M6 toll road, which he’s described as “a six lane motorway with hardly any cars on it”. At the moment, he argues, cross-country freight traffic is clogging up the West Midlands’ roads because the toll is too expensive. Nationalise the road and scrap the toll, and all those lorries should go round the conurbation rather than through it, thus relieving the region’s roads.

This isn’t a completely potty idea – the road is up for sale – but the Tory-controlled Department for Transport doesn’t seem keen. That said, even if the bid for nationalisation fails, this will be a neat way of showing that the new mayor is fighting for the West Midlands interests against a distant Whitehall elite.

All of which fits nicely with the Simon campaign’s oddly familiar slogan, “Taking back control of the West Midlands”. It’s also talking a lot about Englishness, and including the England flag on its campaign materials. How all this will play in a diverse region, where much of Labour’s vote comes from the BME community, remains to be seen.

 

Sion Simon's 2006 look was surprisingly similar to the author's 2006 look. 

Simon is another Oxford PPE grad (of course he is), with a fairly diverse CV: advisor to Tony Blair, associate editor of the Spectator, two years working for Guinness. He was MP for Birmingham Erdington from 2001 to 2010, before standing down to run the campaign for Birmingham to have an elected mayor. That didn’t come off, though, so in 2014 he was elected a member of the European Parliament.

It’s an impressive CV – but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks that Simon is a Labour big beast like Andy Burnham in Manchester, or that he has the popularity of Steve Rotheram in Liverpool. (The party’s obvious candidate in the West Midlands, I fear, was Tom Watson, who’s busy being deputy leader.) Sion Simon could very well win this thing – but the fact he’s seen as the underdog says something about both him and the state of his party.

The others

The Liberal Democrat candidate is Beverley Nielsen, the only woman in the race. (This is happening in Manchester, too: what gives, guys?). She’s spent much of her career in business, including a stint as director of the CBI West Midlands, and today is executive director of the Institute of Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) at Birmingham City University.

Unsurprisingly, Nielsen’s priorities are mostly in the realm of economic development: she wants better transport to help people reach jobs, better links between employers and education, and some kind of local investment bank to encourage growth. She’s not likely to win, but the supplementary vote system means that, should she come in the top two, it is at least possible.

Three other candidates have declared so far. UKIP’s Pete Durnell is opposed to HS2, not to mention the entire office of mayor, but has magnanimously decided to stand anyway. Green James Burn is promising a new industrial revolution, through investment in low carbon industries. 

Then there’s the communist Graham Stevenson. Not sure what his policies are, but I hope one of them is greater investment in web design skills because look at this:

The election will be held on 4 May. I can’t wait.

If you’re involved in any of these campaigns, or any others that I may have missed, please do drop me a line.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.