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?
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 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.