Although Britain’s Second City, Brummies have become accustomed to the gaze of the nation regularly looking beyond the region. However, in this year’s local elections the national political focus should be fixed on the West Midlands. The outcome of this election will indicate the extent to which Labour’s ‘red wall’ has been irreparably dismantled by the Conservatives, or whether – with some political elbow grease – the region can once again be a Labour stronghold.
In Liam Byrne, Labour have chosen a candidate who has significant experience operating within the corridors of Westminster. Although not a household name in the wider West Midlands, many may be aware of his rise to political notoriety through two mis-judged memos that were picked up by national press. The first, a memo on ‘Working for Liam Byrne’ that provided detail instructions on when and where to give him a cappuccino, and the second ‘I’m afraid there is no money’ note, left to his successor at the Treasury in 2010.
However, he has fought back to reclaim his own political brand and goes into this election with these gaffes only blemishes on what has been an impressive political career. His significant experience as a Birmingham MP will also work in his favour as he calls on his local networks and connections to bolster his credentials and campaign.
Since taking the position 2017, the Conservative’s Andy Street has built his own personal brand within the West Midlands. The former Managing Director of John Lewis, he has crafted his political image around his personal business experience, regularly confining his Tory colours to the footnotes of his campaign materials.
This strategy has been successful and there is a universal consensus among Conservatives, both in the region and in Westminster, that Street has had a successful first term in office. He has overseen significant infrastructure projects and been at the helm of an authority that can take credit for the 97,000 new jobs (prior to the pandemic) it has helped create since its establishment.
However, Street remains a Conservative in what has traditionally been a water-tight Labour area. To win again, he will rely on higher voter turn-out in prosperous areas such as Solihull, Sutton Coldfield, and parts of the Black Country if he is to retain the mayorship. Street has all but given up appealing to Birmingham voters which, if they were to vote Conservative, would be a truly catastrophic collapse of the Labour Party.
In the national mind, there remains a limited understanding of what Metro Mayors do and their role in our political life. However, the repercussions of this race could alter the national political priorities and confidence of both parties.
For Labour, losing this race will be a painful setback to their efforts to rebuild their political fortunes in what was once a reliable heartland. Starmer and his team are keen to demonstrate that, since the party has come under new leadership, the political outlook of the party has been enhanced. Winning this election will be used as a vindication of Starmer’s ability to galvanise the Labour vote, particularly in areas that will be vital to clawing back seats in the next general election.
For the Conservatives, losing Andy Street will cause many to think that the political fortunes of the Conservative’s in the West Midlands are not as permanent as once hoped. As Conservative strategy has focused on the North in search of new votes, many may reflect on a lack of focus on what they already had.
Yet, a second win in an election that was thought unwinnable in 2017 will indicate a solidification of the political unrest caused in 2019. In this scenario, the Conservative’s focus on pursuing their levelling-up agenda may become emboldened, looking to cement their newfound electoral stronghold and even look to expand into neighbouring Labour constituencies.
As in 2017, this election remains too close to pick out a likely winner, but either way, Labour and the Conservatives will have much to celebrate, or despair from the result on May 6th.