According to today’s Sun, the Conservatives are in with a chance of winning two breakthrough results in today’s elections for the new ‘metro mayors’.
Andy Street, the party’s candidate for the West Midlands, has been running a high profile campaign and been tipped as a possible win for some time – but apparently Ben Houchen in Tees Valley is also in with a shot, according to local campaigners on the ground.
With Labour likely to be out of power at Westminster for some time, much has been made of how these new mayoralties will give the party the opportunity to exercise power and stay relevant whilst it rebuilds as a Westminster force. Yet they’re not the only party who could stand to gain from the new political dynamic that devolution to ‘city regions’ could open up.
Indeed if the Tories manage to use these institutions to rebuild urban Conservatism, they may even reap the greater benefit in the long term.
Such a rebuilding would be long overdue. The days when every city had at least one reliably Tory seat are long gone, and whilst the party seems to be heading for great results in Scotland and Wales it’s telling that the great northern cities still look, for the most part, like they’re not on the party’s battleground.
Mayoral contests could help to focus minds on urban policy and wooing urban electorates, and the mayoralties could provide neat areas for more autonomous local parties in the Scottish mould – part of the national party at Westminster, but with leeway over devolved policy-making and strategy. If Theresa May can help put Street and Houchen over the top, they’ll have the opportunity to pioneer a model of Conservative government that could help make the party more competitive in Manchester and Leeds.
If May really is leading the party to a result which will break through in parts of the country where it has long struggled then it’s vitally important that we have people putting in the work to lock some of those gains in for the long-term.
The fate of New Labour, whose devotees have been marking the 20th anniversary of its 1997 earthquake this week, highlights how a high tide for a party can change little on its own. Labour’s retreat to its heartlands since 2005 has revealed that it has no more of them (indeed, without Scotland, it has less) than before Tony Blair swept it to office.
A 1983-style Tory landslide could provide just as transient, bathing the map a flattering blue without shifting the underlying political geography. But the mayors provide a great chance to try and build new areas that will still be Conservative – or at least competitive – when that tide goes out.