Support 110 years of independent journalism.

What does Labour’s South Yorkshire metro mayor stand for?

Oliver Coppard is up for re-election on 2 May, but he doesn't readily betray a big, defining political project.

By Jonny Ball

They used to call it the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. Now it’s called South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA). The first was the tabloids’ favourite moniker during the Eighties, when the region was dominated by politicians from Labour’s left flank.

As Margaret Thatcher opened up the British economy, leading traditional manufacturing industries to wither due to her imposition of a hard, uncompromising version of monetarism, Sheffield and its environs fought a rearguard action with a “municipal socialist” orientation that was a hallmark of the era. On May Day, the red flag used to fly above Steel City – so named for its core industrial contribution – and the council twinned itself with Ukrainian Donetsk, then part of the USSR, and now occupied by a belligerent Russia (both towns sit on the Don rivers).

Today, local governance in South Yorkshire is more anodyne. Oliver Coppard is the SYMCA’s metro mayor. The organisation brings together the local authorities of Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster, judged to be one single “functional economic area” in the current devolution-scene parlance. The idea is that the integrated nature of the economy and population across the region necessitates cross-council oversight over transport, skills and other policy areas that affect a broader geography than the four constituent authorities alone. Many people will live in Rotherham and work in Sheffield, so it makes sense to co-operate across the old council boundaries on public transit, for example.

The government is keen to capitalise on the economic benefits of city-regional agglomeration with new political structures that recognise larger spatial clusters of economic activity – or so the thinking goes. That’s why, since 2017, we’ve seen the rise of the executive metro mayor, in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the West Midlands and Tees Valley, to name just a few. Around half of the English electorate is governed by metro mayors like Coppard, who is up for re-election on 2 May. Old traditions die hard, and barring a miracle, Labour will continue to win comfortably in South Yorkshire for some years to come. Coppard won 71 per cent of second round votes against his Conservative opponent in 2022.

Arriving in his modern, open plan, glass-fronted offices in the centre of Sheffield, you can sooner imagine a business lunch on a casual Friday than a hoisting of the red flag on May Day. Throughout our conversation, Coppard is flanked by three eager young staffers – two from an external PR agency.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

“I was delivering Labour leaflets when I was six,” he says. “My dad at the time was a trade union Labour guy working for Barnsley council.”

As so often in the party, for Coppard, 42, Labour is a family affair. But he’s no firebrand. He briefly worked in a City of London job for a multi-billion real estate firm – “I hated it,” he tells me. As a young politics student, he did internships in the US Congress, and later volunteered for the Obama campaign.

To get a better sense of his politics and motivations, I ask who he voted for in the last couple of Labour leadership elections. He hesitates slightly, perhaps wary of alienating some crucial section of the party. “I voted for Yvette Cooper in 2015” (Corbyn’s victory year), “then I voted for Lisa Nandy in 2019” (the year of Keir Starmer). Coppard is smart and affable, but he doesn’t readily betray a defining agenda or political project. He has worked in Labour MPs’ offices and stood unsuccessfully for council – “a paper candidate”, he says – before rising steadily through the party machine.

“I agree with different parts of Labour at different times,” he says. “There’s a bunch of things I agree with Open Labour on and there’s some things that I agree with Progressive Britain on.” He’s referring to two internal Labour groupings representing the soft left and the Blairites, respectively. For those who don’t know, Open Labour may be more sympathetic to some of the harder left’s policy programme and “social movement” ethos, but are more pluralistic and more hostile to some of the radical left’s Euroscepticism, as well as their perceived dogmatism and alignment with non-mainstream foreign policy tendencies. Progressive Britain, on the other hand, represents the right of the party – totally comfortable with open markets and big business, liberal philosophically and Atlanticist in its world outlook. Labour’s propensity for factionalism can seem bizarre to the uninitiated.

But Coppard is less an ideologue and more resolutely part of that tribe of professional, technocratic, middle-class progressives who seem to dominate elected positions of centre-left power in Britain. How does that vague, Fabian-style politics translate into practical policy reality for South Yorkshire?

Part of the role of executive mayors lies in acting as ambassadors for their locales. Coppard is keen to talk up the region’s assets. “We’re in the middle of an investment zone right now,” he says, excitedly gesturing towards the windows on either side of the office.

“You’ve got the Sheffield spine, part of the University of Sheffield. Then it goes over to Rotherham over there,” he gestures again. “We’ve just signed a partnership with Google on digital health tech research projects… We’ve also got the advanced manufacturing research centre. There’s a whole area based around Kelham Island – Time Out named it one of the top 100 coolest neighbourhoods in the world.” He pauses his sales pitch to joke that Kelham Island’s coolness “is about to decline steeply” once he completes an upcoming move to the area.

The mayor wants to talk up the opportunities of the UK’s first investment zone. “We’re creating a corridor for growth from here into Rotherham. We have opportunity sites in Barnsley and Doncaster, too… It’s all linked around advanced manufacturing, health and well-being, power and propulsion, and sustainable aviation. Those are our key strength areas that we haven’t made enough of over the years.” This all works by local bodies like the SYMCA agreeing to provide infrastructure, funding, and skills plans to “de-risk” opportunities for potential investors.

There’s crossover here with the securonomics agenda laid out bythe shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, in her Mais lecture in March. The older economic orthodoxies are dying; politicians no longer advocate for letting markets and the private sector allocate resources in any way they see fit. The so-called post-neoliberal vogue has made its way to regional governance: more active state involvement in shaping local industrial strategies, a focus on rebuilding domestic manufacturing and supply chains, and partnerships with the private sector to deliver politically defined goals such as boosting higher-waged regional employment or net zero.

Along with this economic agenda, the Labour is keen to tout its commitment to devolution. But South Yorkshire’s local politicians know that decentralising power out of Westminster is easier said than done.

When negotiations were taking place for their original regional devolution deal, Barnsley and Doncaster councils rejected the proposals and said they’d prefer a “One Yorkshire” model covering the whole historic county. David Cameron, prime minister at the time, was aghast at some of the in-fighting. “We just thought people in Yorkshire hated everyone else,” he said. “We didn’t realise they hated each other so much.”

Even if Labour successfully unleashes a new era of localism, the missing link in the project will be funding. The party is quick to promise extra powers but has been more hesitant to promise any extra money for a sector that’s in the throes of financial crisis.

“Outside of Liverpool, Barnsley is the council that has been worst affected by austerity in terms of its financial firepower,” Coppard tells me. “It’s lost around 50 per cent of its spending power.” Despite this, he’s coy about calling for any kind of rescue package or improved settlement for the councils under his jurisdiction. “I don’t think anybody in the Labour Party is saying, just ignore the financial realities with which we’re faced,” he says. Labour can’t engage in Liz Truss-style spending splurges, he hastily adds. “It’s not just the number, it’s how you spend the money, how you work in partnership, how you unlock other investment and other finances as well… It’s like a business, right? You bring in a better manager, you bring in a better management team, you deliver better results. Ultimately, you have a better set of people in government.”

Inadvertently, Coppard may have just summed up Labour’s current national offer most aptly: don’t expect them to offer any expensive policy initiatives, systemic changes or bold radicalism – instead, the party is simply portraying itself as a better, more efficient, more competent group of managers, more able administrators than the bumbling Tories.

Coppard’s “no money left” claim isn’t the only time in our interview that he stands resolutely behind the party line. When I ask for his thoughts on the controversial exclusion of his fellow northern mayor, Jamie Driscoll, from the Labour party’s shortlist for the North East Mayoral Combined Authority, he tells me it was “right that Labour took that approach”.

This is a different response to the regional mayors of Liverpool’s and Manchester’s combined authorities, who both questioned the decision not to allow their former Labour colleague to re-stand, which has resulted in Driscoll seeking election as an independent. But Coppard stays firmly within the bounds of national party decrees on policy and party management. He may have ambitions beyond South Yorkshire. I ask if he’d consider standing for parliament. “It’s just not something I think about,” he responds. “Who knows what the future holds?”

The walk to the SYMCA offices takes you past the Park Hill estate – a series of Grade II listed Brutalist buildings, conceived as high-concept living quarters for social tenants, with communal gardens, views across Sheffield and “streets in the sky”. This was a revolutionary concept adopted by socially conscious and leftwing architects in the 1960s. Not long after the estate was completed, it became derelict. It didn’t help that the period coincided with the decline of the city’s steel industry and an era of mass unemployment.

Today, Park Hill has been regenerated courtesy of a trendy design outfit and via a public-private partnership. It’s no longer dominated by council housing – instead, it’s “mixed-use”. There’s student housing, and some flats have been bought by young professionals and members of the laptop classes. There’s even a vegan café. Perhaps the estate has undergone a transformation that’s congruent with the one in the local political scene. South Yorkshire’s town hall socialism is gone, along with the old-fashioned industries, politics, economies and trade unions that sustained it. The new economy is here. Partnership is the buzzword. The professionals are now in charge.

This article appears in our latest policy report supplement on economic growth and regional development, available with the May 2 issue of the New Statesman. Read the full report here.

[Read more: The North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll on revitalising to north-east]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : , ,