The great mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain, one of the most famous Victorian reformers, presided over slum clearance, the introduction of clean water and public works that included swimming pools, libraries and schools. He is commemorated in the city with a fountain and a clock tower – though, surprisingly, no statue.
Those achievements belong to a very different age. The candidates in the election on 4 May for a new “metro” mayor for the West Midlands are under no illusions that they will ever be honoured in the same way as Chamberlain. Even if their ambitions matched his, the powers being granted by Theresa May’s government in this experiment in English devolution would make it near impossible to emulate him. But that will not stop the Conservative candidate, Andy Street, from trying.
Interviewed in a car between Birmingham and a campaign stop at a Sikh temple in West Bromwich last week, Street drew parallels between the Victorian precedent and the new mayor, acknowledging Chamberlain as a role model and expressing admiration for his philosophy and drive.
“Yes, if we won this election in an area that has been a Labour heartland for 30 years, I think it would be seen as a very dramatic point for the Conservative party,” Street said.
He recalled Margaret Thatcher, after a third general election victory in 1987, saying that while she was satisfied with the result, the Conservatives had to get back into urban areas. “If one was honest, with the exception of London, the party has found that difficult over the last 30 years,” he said.
Evidence of just how important this election is to the Conservatives and Street can be seen in the estimated £1m or more spent in campaigning over the past six months, a lot of money for a race that has barely registered nationally. The budget dwarfs spending by other candidates.
The outcome in a region that has the highest concentration of marginal seats in England will be a pointer to the next general election. The West Midlands mayor, elected initially until 2020 and after that in contests held every four years, will preside over a combined authority that might for simplicity have been called Greater Birmingham, though that would not have pleased surrounding conurbations. He or she will represent not just Birmingham but Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall and Sandwell.
Other mayoral elections being held on 4 May are Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley (which includes Middlesbrough, Darlington and Hartlepool), Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and West of England (which includes Bristol and Bath). An election in Sheffield will be held next year.
Liverpool, Manchester and the Tees Valley are almost certain to go Labour. Until a few years ago, the West Midlands might have been bracketed alongside them. Not now.
According to one of the leading poll analysts in the UK, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, Labour emerged from the 2015 general election in the West Midlands constituencies with a nine-point lead over the Conservatives. But that appears to have been eroded by recent polls putting the Conservatives on 42% against Labour on 27%.
Curtice said: “If Labour wins the West Midlands, it will help hide poor results elsewhere. It would give them a degree of cover. If they were to lose, they would attempt to claim Liverpool, Manchester and the Tees Valley as great achievements. And we would say, ‘Come off it’.”
His verdict on the West Midlands: “It is too close to call. We do not know who is going to win.”
The new mayors are England’s tentative response to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, imposed on a population that for the most part did not ask for them. It might yet turn out to be a case of too little too late. The metro mayors have their origins in Thatcher’s dismantling of the Greater London Authority in 1986 along with six huge Labour-controlled metropolitan councils that included the West Midlands.
The decision by David Cameron and May to introduce metro mayors beyond London is a tacit admission that Thatcher made a mistake in destroying regional authorities.
The West Midlands, reflecting English apathy towards devolution and regarding the mayor as just another layer of bureaucracy, voted against the idea in a referendum in 2012, with Birmingham 58% against and Coventry 64%. In spite of that, the government is in effect imposing one anyway, using a small budget as an incentive.
The mayor’s responsibilities include transport, regeneration and economic growth, though with just £36m a year to spend on them. Some of the candidates argue that a strong personality can make the post dynamic.
Among them is Street, who was earning £800,000 a year at John Lewis when he stood down in October to fight the election. At the time he did not know how much the mayor would earn: it has since been set at £79,000. He offers that up as evidence of his commitment to the job: a £721,000 drop in salary.
One of his main pitches for the mayor’s job is that he is from a business background rather than being a career politician. Chamberlain, a Liberal who became a Conservative, had a simple message, Street said: that the skills he learned in business were relevant to public office. “He strongly believed that a vibrant economy was the best way of improving the prosperity of every resident, and also got the idea of the role of the public sector in support.”
It was a little-known fact, he said, that Chamberlain was in office for only three years. “He had incredible energy and delivery and set about achieving a lot very quickly. I do think there is an opportunity for whoever is successful in this election because the conditions are right for that same emphasis on delivery.”
Rivals claim Street is fighting a campaign based on personality, what they refer to as “Project Andy”, and say that his campaign literature minimises the fact he is the Conservative. One said this was a strategic mistake, given May and the Conservatives are high in the polls at present, and that the £1m had been wasted, only succeeding in raising his name recognition from zero to about 8%. That financial advantage has gone now. From 27 March, an election spending cap of £120,000 applies to all the candidates.
Labour is battling to stay competitive, with Labour activists on phone banks reporting Jeremy Corbyn as a negative. “We are not miracle workers,” one said.
Given that Labour is braced to lose swaths of seats in council elections across the country on the same day as the mayoral vote, it is almost inevitable that Jeremy Corbyn will face renewed calls to stand down as Labour leader. Loss of the West Midlands mayoral election would magnify that pressure.
Ironically, Corbyn’s hopes for holding the West Midlands rest on Siôn Simon, a Labour member of the European parliament, who is portrayed as part of a rightwing cabal out to get him. The general secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, one of Corbyn’s biggest supporters, blocked a recommendation of the union at regional level to give £10,000 to Simon’s campaign. Simon insists he has been at pains to be “completely neutral” with regard to Corbyn and McCluskey.
In spite of Labour’s internecine disputes, the party holds an advantage over Street: it has lots of councillors who can mobilise volunteers to canvass, organise events and run phone banks. The party is also pioneering new techniques, such as targeting specific voters through Facebook.
As well as its own private polling, Labour bases its analysis, unlike Curtice, on last year’s local elections. Across the councils that make up the West Midlands, the party won 47.2% of the votes to the Conservatives’ 28.5%. Corbyn was leader at the time.
The outcome could depend on turnout. Simon predicted: “It will be more than 10%, and I think less than 30%. Probably around 20%.” The party best able to get its core vote out would benefit from a low turnout and, based on recent past experience, that would be Labour.
If no candidate wins 50% of the votes cast, the two candidates with the most votes go through to the next round, and the second preferences of those voting for the other candidates are added the mix.
Simon, who has said he will stand down immediately as an MEP if he wins, has a potent election message, another sign of English nationalism awaking. While the Labour mayoral candidate in Manchester, Andy Burnham, is fighting on a northern Labour ticket, Simon has opted for an English one, arguing that it is time to bring to an end the Treasury’s Barnett formula, which gives a higher share of spending to Scotland.
“It has been taboo for English politicians to challenge the Barnett formula, but I am doing that now. Public spending in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – as well as in London – is at least £10,000 per head, whereas in the rest of England it is much lower. In the West Midlands, it is only £8,750,” Simon said.
“This is not some arcane financial malarkey. If you go to Scotland, they have better schools and hospitals, and in London better parks – all being funded by the English taxpayer, and cumulatively so for 40 years. [At the same time] four out of the five constituencies in the entire UK with the highest rates of unemployment are in the city of Birmingham.”
A debate in Birmingham City University last week attended by Simon, Street and the four other candidates attracted an audience of about 100, a respectable enough figure for a political meeting mid-week. They are scheduled to receive national visibility before 4 May when, according to the candidates, the BBC is planning to televise a debate.
Liberal Democrat hopes of a party revival on the back of its strong Remain position will be tested in the West Midlands, which voted 60% Leave in last year’s EU referendum. The Lib Dem candidate, Beverley Nielsen – who works at Birmingham City University, which has set up a Centre for Brexit Studies – rejected the narrative that the West Midlands is a two-horse race. She said: “There are many people out there who feel that Labour has not delivered, has not provided a strong opposition to the government, did not stand up for EU access to the single market, for example, and just basically caved in to a hard Brexit.”
The West Midlands has strong pockets of Ukip supporters, especially in the Black Country, but the party’s candidate, Pete Durnell, whose background is in computing, is hampered by Ukip’s many setbacks at national level and its search for a new identity after the EU referendum.
The Green candidate and social worker, James Burn, said in his manifesto launch he would not make “any wild promises” but he did pledge that he would take only the average salary for the West Midlands, £28,000, using the rest of help small businesses in less well-off areas.
In a recent candidates’ debate, it fell to the Communist party candidate, Graham Stevenson, a former senior official with the Transport and General Workers’ Union, to deliver one of the punchiest lines, describing the mayoral post as “crap devolution” and bemoaning the lack of powers.
Street and Simon would not agree. Commemorating important figures with such things as statues, fountains and clock towers is unfashionable these days. But if the idea of metro mayors were to take off, there might one day be – improbable as it might seem at present – a Burnham Street in Manchester or a Simon Road or Street Square in Birmingham.