Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Diversity defines modern Britain. I have often written about Urban Conservatism and the new brand of politics we are pioneering in the West Midlands. This new approach is about inclusivity and opportunity for a young and diverse population, and I have tried to be a Mayor who represents everyone – all places, faiths, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and (dis)abilities.
But if the message of Urban Conservatism is to resonate, we have to ensure that inclusivity not only means reaching out to the communities that make up modern Britain, but that they are represented in all walks of life and at all levels.
It is a sad and all-too-obvious fact that most of the decision makers I meet in my role as Mayor are people who look like me. I could not and still can’t fully understand why the demographics of this incredibly diverse region are not reflected in its leadership. Like elsewhere, the region is made up of 50 per cent women and 20 per cent people with disabilities (or with a long-term illness).
But it’s the ethnic diversity which makes it special. We say this is a place where you can see the whole world in seven boroughs. Birmingham’s population is 58 per cent white, with 27 per cent of our residents being of Asian descent and nine per cent Black. In neighbouring Coventry, two thirds identify as White British, a statistic that is broadly reflected across the rest of the conurbation. Birmingham is soon going to be a ‘majority-minority’ city – but this is not obvious when you look at the make-up of decision-makers in the City region.
So in September last year I launched the Leadership Commission, made up of independent commissioners and chaired by Anita Bhalla, which aimed to understand why the wider leadership of our region is not more representative of the people it serves. Its report, compiled by researchers at the University of Birmingham and other seats of learning across the region, reinforced our understanding of many longstanding issues and made clear recommendations for action.
It found that women are better represented in leadership roles in the public sector than in the private sector, where they are significantly under-represented, and that people from black and ethnic minority groups are under-represented in senior leadership positions both in education and the private sector. The evidence also highlighted how disabled employees are under-represented in professional roles in the public sector, but not the private sector in the West Midlands.
Responding to the recommendations to deal with the clear imbalances that have been highlighted we now have a clear implementation plan which starts with the business community.
Many businesses recognise the need to connect with communities on a broad level, not only because there is a business case for inclusivity, but because it is the right thing to do. Slowly but surely, I sense that the dials are changing, and the “Inclusive Leaders’ Forum” has come together. It is committed to improving the diversity of leadership in their organisations through better recruitment, retention and promotion. Members include local councils, the NHS, big employers like PwC, KPMG, universities and major retailers like Selfridges along with SMEs and microbusinesses. In January we will be launching an ambitious drive to recruit a thousand more organisations in the West Midlands to the forum.
The Government is also playing its part in promoting inclusivity. Work to better understand the Gender Pay Gap – with 10,000 of the UK’s larger companies providing details of their employees’ pay – is a major step forward in enabling senior decision makers to do things differently. I have no doubt the Race Pay Gap will highlight the same kinds of inequalities in our workplaces, and be equally impactful in driving action.
Similarly the Government is committed to greater diversity in Public Appointments. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of welcoming the Minister for Implementation, Oliver Dowden, to Birmingham, for the first roadshow aimed at encouraging a more diverse pool of applicants for public roles. We will now work with the Cabinet Office on those practical skills needed for the application and interview process, and providing guidance for public appointees. It is only by providing transparency in our processes that we will see people who are less likely to take part in civic activities take that first step and engage. Crucially, we also have to drum up confidence about taking that step into public roles.
A key asset in addressing all these issues in the West Midlands is the strength of faith organisations and faith-related activity in the region. Therefore one of my first commitments after becoming Mayor was to convene a group of faith leaders and ask them to design the Mayor and Faith Conference. The conference took place in November last year, and brought together 400 different faith organisations at the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham. It was a day of optimism and exploring how faith groups could work together on homelessness, leadership, hate crime and economic growth. The conclusion was obvious – the faith communities are a powerful part of our collective leadership. We have since created an Action Plan, and are working through all the good ideas that came out of the conference.
As Mayor of this diverse region, I am committed to visiting places of worship and understanding more about the rich fabric of faith which is so important to the residents of the West Midlands. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, which is most important pilgrimage site of Sikhism. This visit allowed me to build on all I have learnt from the gurdwaras into which I have been welcomed across the region. Iftars are already in the diary for next Ramadan, and this festive season I have been meeting the Jewish community for Hannukah and visiting various churches in their preparations for Christmas. Diwali is also a big deal for my office, with Birmingham’s Victoria Square annually being transformed into an Indian celebration of the festival of light.
The lesson of all this involvement is clear – that each faith deserves to be respected in its own right. Each gives morality and purpose to its own community. But each faith also teaches respect and tolerance for every other community. It is through understanding such common values that our society as a whole can thrive – and in a sense the West Midlands is the exemplar of that.
Urban Conservatism’s message of hope, opportunity and progress resonates with all communities – and we now need to show that we are serious about truly representing the people in them. Although there is so much still to do, we are starting to change the way our Party is viewed in traditional Labour areas. Labour do not and should not have a monopoly on votes from certain communities.
In the West Midlands, we are ensuring that inclusion is more than a ‘buzzword’ – it’s an approach that is turning our diversity into a strength.