While there were many triumphs for the Conservatives in the local elections in 2017, there was one victory that stood out as being of particular significance. Andy Street was elected Mayor of the West Midlands. The context was a projected national vote share that showed the Conservatives 11 points ahead. Street’s victory was narrow. In the first round, Street won 216,280 votes – just ahead of the Labour candidate who was on 210,259. So it went to a second round. Street won by an even tighter margin. He finished with 238,625. His Labour opponent ended up with 234,862.
To paraphrase Dr Johnson, it was not a surprise that the Conservative candidate to be the Mayor of the West Midlands had a small majority. One was surprised that he had a majority at all. The West Midlands Combined Authority consists of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton. The only place on that list that Conservatives would normally expect to win was Solihull.
Street’s background must have helped. Street was a businessman which offered reassurance that he had the credentials to keep track of a large budget, manage a big team, and deliver bold and challenging projects. His message played down ideological divisions and put the focus on this technocratic aspect. Nor was Street terribly vulnerable to anti-business messages or being denounced as a “fat cat”. The business concerned was the John Lewis Partnership – a type of workers’ coop that shares out its profits among its employees. True, Street, as its Managing Director, was paid £800,000 a year. That is rather a lot. But then he is hardly being greedy to swap it for a £79,000 a year Mayoral salary. What about just demonising him as lacking compassion due to being a Conservative? Street’s long-standing support for the Birmingham Young Volunteer Adventure Camps – a charity that provides adventure holidays to disadvantaged local children – meant that fair-minded people would find this a difficult charge to accept.
Now he has a record to fight on. He has regularly chronicled his progress as a columnist on this site.
Nationally his profile has been relatively low – which I suppose is another way of saying he has avoided being beset by scandal. One difficulty for all candidates is persuading the electors of the region to vote for anyone. Conservatives tend to be especially suspicious of what they suspect of being a Blairite gimmick.
It is always hard to make the case that an extra layer of Government represents good value for money. But if there are functions of the state being carried out anyway, should there not be local democratic accountability? Transport is the Mayor’s main role. Suppose someone in official circles is going to make a decision about a tram line here, or a new road there, of changing the bus routes somewhere else. Is it not better to know who to blame? To be able to throw them out of office if they make a mess of it? I doubt there is much nostalgia for the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive.
If the public sector is going to provide Further Education colleges and assorted training schemes then who should be in charge? It could be managed at local authority level, or nationally (which it largely is at present via a Quango with a budget of £59 billion called the Education and Skills Funding Agency.) But perhaps a regional level might make sense? If so, probably best not some amorphous unaccountable board. Since 2019 responsibility for adult education budget in the West Midlands – some £128 million in the financial year just ending – has been with Street.
Critics may counter that Metro Mayors will have an almost irresistible itch to empire build. That bus stops and evening classes are not enough. So they wish to adopt an “industrial strategy” in the bossy corporatist spirit of Lord Heseltine and Lord George-Brown. Then would seek the budget and powers to subsidise and direct the private sector to conform with their schemes. A valid concern. But we are not having a referendum on ditching the Mayoralty – not this year, at any rate.
Whatever his Heseltinian urges might be, it should be noted that Street has shown restraint when it comes to the Council Tax precept. He has kept it at zero and pledges to continue to do so. If only others would do so. Never knowingly undersold. It should also be noted that a positive contribution can be made even when his power is limited. For instance, on housing and planning, he has worked to identify and release ugly derelict sites to provide new homes.
The Mayor does not have responsibility for policing. Though that might change. At present, there is a separate Police and Crime Commissioner for the West Midlands. It covers the same local authority areas. By the way, to bring home just how remarkable Street’s victory was in 2017, consider the PCC result just a year earlier. The Labour candidate got almost twice as many votes as the Conservative.
Will Street win again? The latest national opinon poll I spotted has an eight point Conservative lead. That’s only slightly below the 11 point national lead for the Conservatives that the psephologists extrapolated from last time. Though as Street won by less than one per cent, even such a modest swing would be enough to defeat him. Yet beneath the headline total there is great variation. I noted yesterday how worse things are going in London relative to the overall situation. That means that other places must be going relatively better – the West Midlands is one such area. Another factor that may help Street is that Birmingham City Council has no elections taking place. That is rather stronger Labour territory than the region as a whole. That factor may mean Labour find it harder to get their supporters to the polls.
You might feel some of these fiddly points about the minutia of gaining an extra percentage vote share here, or losing one there, rather esoteric. But then it looks as though it will be another close contest. My hunch is that Street will survive.