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16 April 2021

Why everyone – especially Labour – should be watching the West Midlands mayoral election

The contest between Andy Street and Liam Byrne is a defining test of whether Labour can begin to regain lost ground.

By Jonn Elledge

In Mother Tongue, his 1990 book on the history of the English language, Bill Bryson claimed that the French have an expression, “être de Birmingham”, which translates roughly as “to be bored to death”. Attempts to find a second source for this claim have, alas, mostly uncovered internet forums of French people denying the existence of any such phrase, and wondering where Bryson got it from. But whether it was a real phrase that’s since fallen from usage, or an obscure literary joke, it’s clear that somebody, somewhere, doesn’t think much of England’s second city.

Well, I say “second city”. For much of the 20th century that claim would have seemed uncontroversial, but over the last few years there have been signs that Birmingham’s status has slipped. Maybe it’s because the Midlands – which, thanks to the car industry, were as prosperous as London until as late as the early 1980s – have since fallen behind the capital in wages and local GDP. Maybe it’s because Manchester has done a better job of asserting its dominance over the towns and cities around it than Brum. 

Perhaps it’s the lack of a top-flight football team, or proximity to London. But for whatever reason, over the last few years, polls have consistently found people are less likely to see Birmingham as England’s second city, and more likely to give the title to Manchester. For a city of Birmingham’s size and importance, or with that many glories to offer (honestly, the canals alone), it just doesn’t get that much attention.

That the general public or fictional French people might underrate the importance of Birmingham is one thing, that our political class should do so is quite another. 

You wouldn’t necessarily realise it from the discourse, but there’s a significant, and close, election under way in Birmingham at the moment. The city is the centre of the West Midlands Combined Authority, which also includes the smaller cities of Wolverhampton and Coventry, and the suburban boroughs of Solihull and the Black Country. All told, the West Midlands has a population of nearly three million – not far off that of Wales, and larger than any urban region in the UK except London. 

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[see also: A shock poll from Hartlepool is less revelatory than it seems]

Its mayoral election should be a nail-biter. In 2017, the Tory candidate Andy Street beat Labour’s Siôn Simon by 50.4 per cent to 49.6 per cent, and the election came down to just 4,000 votes. This time round, Street is facing a challenge from the former New Labour Treasury minister Liam Byrne. With Labour victories in London and Manchester about as certain as anything gets in politics, the West Midlands should make for a genuinely close competition, and the biggest opportunity for an upset.

If anyone actually is biting their nails, though, they’re hiding it well. What little attention the London media reserves for things that happen outside the M25 has been largely focused on the Hartlepool by-election, which will be held on the same day as the mayoral elections, 6 May. Perhaps it’s that journalists are more interested in MPs than mayors, even though the latter actually have more power. Probably, it’s in part because a by-election is easier to spin into a story about an opposition in trouble.

Or maybe it’s because the main candidates in the Midlands are just not the sort to inspire excitement. As West Midlands mayor, Street – the former boss of John Lewis – has steered away from the sort of culture war nonsense that defines the modern Conservative Party, in favour of a competent but un-thrilling managerialism which doesn’t make for good copy. Byrne is known mainly for a pair of memos from his time as a minister. One was the 11-page “Working With Liam Byrne” memo to his staff in 2008 (cappuccino on his arrival in the office, soup between 12.30 and 1pm, that sort of thing, but for 11 pages). The other was the infamous “I’m afraid there is no money” note to his successor as chief secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, which was quite obviously intended as a joke but which nonetheless haunted the Labour Party for years. 

Whatever the reason, few outside the Midlands seem to be paying any attention to the election under way there. They should. For one thing, there are signs that all is not well in Byrne’s campaign (typo-riddled leaflets suggesting a severe lack of manpower, disgruntled staffers leaking like sieves). 

More importantly, though, the West Midlands is a crucial electoral battleground for Labour. In 2001, the party won 25 of the constituencies in the old metropolitan county, compared to just four for the Tories. In 2019, the two parties won 14 apiece. Labour’s position in the Midlands has crumbled, and this was happening long before the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Why this should be – why the West Midlands isn’t behaving like other metropolitan areas today, and why those seats were slipping away long before 2016 – feels like an important question for a party that still hopes to win a general election one day. For all the talk of the crumbling Red Wall in the north, the Midlands contains a higher density of once red seats turning blue. If people weren’t so busy cracking jokes about how boring Birmingham is, perhaps someone would have bothered to find out why.

[see also: Seven explanations for Shaun Bailey’s comically bad London mayoral campaign]