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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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.