Ben Houchen and Andy Street are been swept along by the same tide: that of the working class, in the very broadest sense of the term, who either voted for Brexit or believed, if they didn’t, that the referendum verdict of 2016 should be honoured. And who no longer see in Labour a reflection of themselves.
Both are focused on delivery: in Houchen’s case, as we wrote yesterday, of a freeport; of taking Durham Tees Valley airport into public ownership (which he has done); of “green jobs” – in carbon capture and hydrogen power, about which he has written on this site.
Street writes for us more often, since he has a fortnightly column, and a glimpse back at his last one finds the following platform for re-election: “record numbers of new jobs, record house building, increased transport spending sevenfold and created the fastest growing economy anywhere outside of London”.
He also cited “the roll-out of 1500 bikes across every borough”, work starting tomorrow “on Perry Barr railway station, with five more stations to follow quickly”, “major fare cuts and expanded fare capping planned for June 21”, “the West Midlands Homelessness Taskforce which led the work in reducing rough sleeping in the region by 67 per cent”…
…”a thousand people to mentor young people, in a scheme which has helped over 10,000 young people in the last four years”, “more than £250 million funding for the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill Metro extension which is now under construction” and “securing the green light for HS2”.
It is a less concentrated programme than Houchen’s but anything it lacks in simplification is made up for in energy, in having his fingers on all the stops, and creating an ethos of buzz and business. On paper, Houchen has the harder task: after all, Birmingham has been Conservative-controlled in living memory, which Teesside hasn’t.
In practice, it’s the other way round. The waters propelling both men flow especially strongly in the North-East, where Brexit has popular support: all Teesside areas voted for it by more than 60 per cent. By contrast, Birmingham, the core of the West Midlands mayoral area, backed the Leave project with only just over 50 per cent of the vote.
Furthermore, the West Midlands has the second-highest Asian-origin and black populations of any region outside London. And the median age in Birmingham in 2019 was 33 – not far behind Oxford, which at 29 was top of England’s local authority youth league table that year. Thirteen universities are listed in the West Midlands.
Ethnic minorities, young people, students: three groups of people that are relatively unlikely to vote Conservative. That Birmingham wasn’t voting in other elections this year – unlike, say, Bristol – was to Street’s advantage. But he undoubtedly had a steeper electoral hill to climb than Houchen.
That Street was no enthusiast for Brexit – though he opposed a second referendum – hasn’t been a problem for him, given the looming presence of Birmingham in his area. Where he clearly scores very highly with local voters is as the most prominent Conservative businessman-politician in Britain, having been Managing Director of John Lewis.
Business people tend to cut it in politics if they are fundamentally politicians first and businessman second (think Michael Heseltine), and not the other way round (rather a long list, but Archie Norman tends to get cited). Though the difference may matter less in a single person post such as a mayoralty than in a multi-person collective like a government.
At any rate, our columnist tends to show a preference for practice over theory, and a reflex hesitation about ideology: we don’t see an evening with the Conservative Philosophy Group, revived by Roger Scruton in the years before his death, as being top of Street’s list for a visit (assuming that he has evenings to spare).
Street is proof that your boat can be swept along by the same tide as others, but how you steer it, and whether you stay afloat, is very much a matter of individual style – that politics is an art, not a science. He won by smaller margin that Houchen, taking 49 per cent in the first round and so going to a second, rather than the latter’s smashing 73 per cent.
But that comes with the turf, as we’ve seen – and his final total of 54 per cent was four points higher than in 2017, when he made it by a whisker. That he was fewer than 20,000 votes behind Liam Byrne, Labour’s candidate, in Birmingham itself is no mean achievement, and one he and his team will be proud of.