Four years ago, with a majority of only a few thousand out of a turnout of more than half a million, Andy Street was elected Mayor of the West Midlands. Back then, Theresa May was Prime Minister and riding high in the polls, the Brexit negotiations had not yet begun, and there was no such thing as Covid-19.
To describe the political backdrop to his mayoralty as tumultuous would be an understatement. If the next election, due to take place on Thursday, had been held during the lowest points of the Brexit talks or the pandemic response, Street would surely have been blown away thanks to dissatisfaction with the performance of the Tories in government nationally.
Now, however, opinion polls put him ahead of the Labour candidate, and Street and his campaign team believe they have all to play for. Tory strategists say the result could come down to just hundreds or thousands of votes. “In the end it’s going to be down to who can get their vote out,” says a senior staffer. Nonetheless, the campaign exudes a quiet confidence. “There are days to go,” says Street, “and I’m still smiling”.
In this age of political polarisation, Street is an unusual candidate, almost a throwback to a gentler time. A former managing director of John Lewis, he is proud of his status as a businessman in politics. “The mayoralties in particular really lend themselves to practical people from business who can bring leadership to their local communities,” he says. And Street’s pitch – as the apolitical candidate able to rise above party identity, the technocrat who ignores the culture wars and just wants to get things done – is plausible because it reflects who he is.
Street’s campaign is starkly personal. His leaflets barely mention his Conservative affiliation, and they are branded green instead of Tory blue. In his manifesto and on the doorstep, he wastes no time on national political issues, focusing exclusively on local challenges, like jobs, transport infrastructure and housing.
But while he has been prepared to criticise the Tories in national government and disagree publicly with the Prime Minister, Street is not running against his party, nor defining himself by talking up his differences with other Tories. His campaign messages – always highly local, constructive and providing a plan – reveal a surprising sophistication and subtlety.
Street knows that Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit political strategy has won new Conservative voters in former Labour strongholds like Dudley, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. He wants to secure that support, while using his personal reputation for apolitical practicality to appeal to traditional Tories and more liberal voters in the prosperous environs of Solihull and Sutton Coldfield.
If this sounds like Boris Johnson’s have cake/eat cake approach to life, albeit with a Brummie twang, that is indeed what it is. As Mayor of London, Johnson had to create a coalition of support that stretched beyond the Conservative core vote to win two terms in office. In the West Midlands – a traditional Labour heartland – Street must do the same. And with voters’ second preferences counting under the rules of the supplementary vote system, appealing to Liberal Democrat and even Green voters could prove decisive.
“It’s important to remember the default result in the West Midlands is a Labour win,” says Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative grandee, MP for Sutton Coldfield, and keen Street supporter. “We are the insurgents, and that is why Andy is such a good candidate. He is a Tory plus plus plus: our usual voters like and trust him, but he’s appealing to so many others. But even with Andy, it is going to be close and we still might not get over the line.”
The West Midlands has been a hive of activity and progress throughout the Street mayoralty. Transport investment has been increased seven-fold since he took office, with new train lines and stations, bus routes and a tram service. House building has grown rapidly in speed and scale. Before the pandemic struck, almost 100,000 new jobs had been created, thanks in large part to a sharp increase in private sector inward investment.
“Andy has given real meaning to the levelling up agenda across the West Midlands,” says Eddie Hughes, the MP for Walsall North, a previously safe Labour seat. “People can see we’re getting a new train station and a new A&E department thanks in part to him.”
This year Coventry has been chosen as the country’s City of Culture, next year Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games, and beyond that High Speed 2 will connect the West Midlands to London and the cities of the north with sharply reduced travel times. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is creating a second headquarters in Wolverhampton, and ministers chose the West Midlands to become the first 5G test bed in the country.
The sense of progress has, of course, been disrupted by the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people have been furloughed across the conurbation, and many businesses, especially those in the retail and hospitality industries, have been shuttered. Most will bounce back, but economists agree that lockdown has sped up changes that were on their way already. High streets are under pressure, retail is restructuring, and the economics of city centres – thanks to an increase in home working – will change profoundly.
‘He knows what business needs’
On the doorstep, there is little evidence that Street will be punished for this difficult news, or for government missteps during the pandemic. Canvassers report a “vaccines bounce” for the Tories, and an appreciation for government schemes to keep businesses afloat and workers paid during their enforced inactivity. Target voters – many of whom did not even know about the mayoralty last time round – spontaneously tell activists they want Street to carry on with the job. The interior design of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street flat does not come up at all.
Among small business owners, there is recognition that Street, the candidate with a commercial background, is best placed to lead the region to recovery. “He knows what business needs,” says Adrian Harvey, who owns hotels and bars across Birmingham. “He has already done some great things in joining up the region through better transport links. We need him in place to help to get us out of the troubles of the last year.”
Carl Richardson, whose family business has launched a £100 million enterprise fund for the region, says: “there is no doubt that the pandemic has halted the economic renaissance across the West Midlands, [but] that momentum was built on solid foundations … the best times still very much lie ahead.”
Street’s plan is for more of what made his first term a success: more transport investment, more business investment, and more government operations transferred from London to the region. He promises an electric battery gigafactory in Coventry – creating 4,000 new jobs – and to make the West Midlands “the national leader in construction, engineering, life sciences, technology, 5G and other growing industries”.
Street hopes a second term might see the mayoralty assume responsibility for energy infrastructure, skills and training, and law and order. The Tories believe they have an outside chance of snatching the West Midlands police and crime commissioner election from Labour, and if they do, the case for combining the two roles, with a deputy mayor for policing like in London, will be harder for Labour to resist.
In time, Street wants responsibility for a comprehensive budget for the mayoralty, which would allow him to allocate funds as he deems necessary, rather than always taking his begging bowl to Whitehall.
Labour candidate under pressure
But first, he has an election to win. His Labour opponent, Liam Byrne, has over the course of his career been on several “journeys”. A former Blairite minister, he formed a close relationship with John McDonnell during the Jeremy Corbyn years, and now backs Keir Starmer. Byrne does enjoy name recognition on the doorstep, but unfortunately for him he is remembered as “the man who left the note”: as Gordon Brown’s outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury, handing the debt crisis on to Coalition ministers, he left a notorious letter, joking: “I’m afraid that there is no money.”
Worse are the positions Byrne has taken in his attempt to use the culture war to his advantage. Local teachers say he “looked the other way” when extremists claimed the notorious Trojan Horse plot – in which Islamist hardliners sought to take over several Birmingham schools – was itself a government conspiracy to attack Muslims. Others say Byrne “went missing” when Muslim parents protested outside schools after they taught pupils about homosexuality and sought to challenge homophobia. And despite being the Immigration Minister who passed the law requiring ministers to seek the deportation of serious foreign criminals, earlier this year he campaigned to block such deportations to Jamaica.
Tory supporters like to point out that Byrne is “just another career politician” with no big idea to improve the region, and some wish Street would get tougher with his opponent. But throughout Street has resisted the temptation to put the boot in, and his campaign is staying positive, delivering thousands of leaflets, communicating through supporters on community social media pages, and knocking on doors. A local Labour campaigner says: “it will be extremely tight. We are less confident than we were but we’ll have a much better operation to get the vote out on the day. We can still win it.”
While Byrne is focusing on getting out the core Labour vote in Birmingham – a job made more difficult by the lack of local council elections on the same day – the Tories are concentrating on their stronger areas too, in Solihull, Sutton Coldfield, and the newer seats across and around the Black Country. “The election will be won or lost in Sutton, Solihull and those new seats,” says Alex Yip, a Tory councillor and Street campaigner.
Whatever the outcome, pundits, commentators and strategists will rush to assert “what it means”, for Labour and the Tories, for Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson, for the durability of the post-Brexit coalition of Conservative voters, and for the outcome of the next election. And the West Midlands mayoral election will indeed tell us something about each of these things. But the fact that the Tories are even in with a chance of winning a second successive term here shows how rapidly the great realignment in British politics has occurred. And it shows there is still, even in this age of political polarisation, room for practical and apolitical local leaders like the man from John Lewis.