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  1. Politics
1 May 2017

Labour should be the favourite in the battle for England’s new mayors – but it can’t take victory for granted

An early test.

By Andrew Carter

With just over five weeks to go before the general election, even the most ardent Jeremy Corbyn supporter would accept that Labour has a huge battle on its hands to win on 8 June.

But while all eyes are on the general election, before that Labour faces another big test at the polls: the first metro mayor elections taking place in six city regions across England this Thursday.

On paper, the metro mayor elections should offer Labour a welcome boost as the general election campaigning steps up in the coming weeks. The Tories are expected to win in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough and West of England (which includes the Tory-led counties of Bath & North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire as well as Bristol). But the other four places electing their first metro mayors are all traditional Labour strongholds – Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and West Midlands.

However, despite the party’s standing in these places, Labour cannot afford to take victory for granted – especially with Theresa May this week ramping up her general election campaigning in the North and Midlands in a bid to win over traditional Labour voters.

Take the West Midlands, for example, the spiritual home of the Labour right. The party led by 10 points in the last general election; but recent polling suggests that Conservative mayoral candidate Andy Street is neck-in-neck with Labour’s Sion Simon in the race to become mayor.

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And while the Tory national leadership is throwing everything at getting Andy Street over the line – see, for example, Theresa May’s shout out for Street in last week’s PMQs – there is no such rapprochement between Simon and the Labour leadership, with the former keen to distance himself from Corbyn at every opportunity, believing him to be more of a liability than a likely vote-winner.

Meanwhile, Labour activists in the Tees Valley are concerned that the area’s strong anti-Brexit vote and widespread political disillusionment – coupled with the Conservative candidate Ben Houchen running a strong campaign focused on saving Tees Valley airport – is undermining the campaign of Labour’s candidate Sue Jeffrey. Even in Liverpool – that bastion of anti-Tory enmity – all is not well for the Labour campaign, with activists having fallen out with candidate Steve Rotheram over his campaign messaging and tactics. 

There should be no uncertainty within the Labour party over what is at stake in the mayoral contests. Securing power in these places is critical to help spur on the party’s general election campaign and shore up support in its traditional strongholds.  It will also present the party with an opportunity to wield genuine political power in the coming years, and to make a real difference to the lives of millions of people across the country, regardless of the result on 9 June.

Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to take on Westminster elites and to transform the UK’s “rigged” political system. The new mayoralties offer a unique opportunity for the party to make this pledge a reality, by changing the political landscape of the country and moving away from conventional SW1 politics.

In the coming days, the Labour leadership should make the mayoral elections the top priority, notwithstanding the demands of the general election campaign. Taking power in some of England’s biggest city regions will not only offer a vital opportunity for Labour to affect real political change – it could also be vital for the party’s continued political relevance in many of its traditional communities.

Andrew Carter is chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities.