Andy Street in Birmingham

Andy Street in Birmingham

Birmingham: The Battleground for Regional Politics and the Labour vs Conservative Showdown

Birmingham Mayor’s Race

Birmingham, known for its industrial decline and poor management, is slowly but surely making a remarkable recovery. From the bustling New Street Train Station turned shopping complex to the new tram service connecting the town centre to the Black Country, signs of renewal are clear. The Jaguar Land Rover car plant is also working tirelessly, churning out four-wheel-drive status symbols for the Chinese market. However, the scars from years of decline still remain visible.

In this backdrop, the race to become the mayor of the West Midlands has become a pivotal battleground, shaping the upcoming general election on June 8th. The competition is fierce, with two contrasting candidates vying for the role. Andy Street, the Conservative candidate, is a Birmingham-born businessman who ran John Lewis for nine years before stepping down to run for mayor. On the other hand, Sion Simon, the Labour candidate, is a professional politician with experience as a former MP and MEP, and is part of the Labour’s West-Midland “mafia” that has held power in the region for decades.

Personally, I find Mr. Street to be the more compelling candidate. The election on May 4th marks an important political experiment in the creation of six new regional mayoral positions. These mayors will be responsible for governing broad regions, instead of just city councils. The West Midlands, encompassing major industrial cities such as Birmingham and Coventry, has a population of 2.8 million people, surpassing that of Wales and almost half of Scotland. The devolution project aims to address the issue of over-centralization in Britain and introduces fresh talent from outside politics into the country’s political system.

Andy Street embodies this much-needed injection of talent. Starting from the shop floor, he worked his way up to the top position at John Lewis. His record includes the successful construction of the largest John Lewis store outside of London, located in New Street Station. Mr. Street became involved in local politics when he led the Birmingham enterprise partnership, a collaboration between local government and businesses aimed at stimulating economic growth. Electing a Conservative mayor for the West Midlands would be a well-deserved shock to the Labour establishment that has governed the region without significant distinction for decades. Moreover, it would be beneficial for the devolution project, as the other candidates with a chance of winning mayoral positions, such as Andy Burnham in Manchester, are essentially Labour Party insiders.

The race in the West Midlands is currently too close to call. According to a local poll, the candidates are neck-and-neck, but bookmakers give Mr. Street a slight advantage. Labour has a stronghold in the region, with 21 out of the 28 MPs being from the party, and six out of seven councils being Labour-controlled. Additionally, Sandwell, a borough of the West Midlands, has 70 Labour councillors out of 72. The Labour Party enjoys a reliable base of support in Birmingham’s large Muslim population, originating from Kashmir, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. These voters typically vote as a bloc, mobilized by local community leaders. They strongly support the Jeremy Corbyn-led faction of the Labour Party, partly due to his long-standing criticism of Israel.

While Mr. Street has been somewhat ambivalent about identifying as a Tory in this Labour heartland, his party has invested significant resources into the race, especially since Prime Minister Theresa May announced the general election. May herself has visited the region three times, personally showing support for Mr. Street. Boris Johnson’s visit is also in the works, as the party aims to make its presence known. The transportation minister, Chris Grayling, who was pro-Brexit during the referendum campaign, recently accompanied Mr. Street on the campaign trail.

One of their stops was in Bilston, a suburb of Wolverhampton, which is about as far from traditional Tory territory as one can get. Bilston was once known as the Black Country due to the blackening effects of the local blast furnaces and coalfields during the industrial revolution. Today, the area still struggles, with high rates of obesity and public drinking. During our visit, I observed a worrying number of obese individuals in wheelchairs, possibly due to chronic diabetes. Walking alongside Mr. Grayling, who was sharply dressed, in stark contrast to the locals, garnered attention from one passerby who incredulously shouted, “Who is this geezer?”

While Mr. Grayling stuck to the standard Tory talking points—highlighting Theresa May as the embodiment of strength and stability, and painting Jeremy Corbyn as unfit to lead, spearheading a “coalition of chaos”—he also touched upon a strategic approach. The Tories believe they have a chance to sway significant social groups away from Labour, namely ethnic minorities and the “just about managing” demographic, which often overlap. The Labour Party has historically taken these groups for granted in the West Midlands, without delivering substantial benefits. However, Brexit and Corbyn’s leadership have strained these loyalties, creating an opening for the Tories to capitalize on. They plan to tailor their messaging to appeal to pro-Brexit voters and simultaneously attract ethnic minority groups, such as Sikhs and Gujarati Hindus, thereby weakening Labour’s grip and leaving the party primarily reliant on inner-city Muslim support.

While our conversations during our stroll around Bilston, accompanied by an enjoyable snacking session on orange chips from a paper cone, certainly do not constitute rigorous polling, there was a noticeable openness among the people we engaged with towards the Tories. Roughly half of those we spoke with expressed a willingness to consider voting Conservative. One man emphatically stated that he would vote for the Tories because he believed the country was doing better post-Brexit, contrary to the doom and gloom predicted. A woman declared her right-wing views and expressed her admiration for Theresa May’s decisiveness, juxtaposing her own political stance with her husband’s support for Labour.

The Tories are clearly on the offensive in this election, taking full advantage of Corbyn’s perceived incompetence and pushing their tanks deep into Labour territory. However, this election represents more than just a power shift; it appears to signal a transformation within the Conservative Party itself. The battle between Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine in the 1980s defined a struggle over the party’s direction. Heseltine, the leader of the Europhile “wets” within the party, championed public spending, cooperation between business and industry, and sought to bring Britain closer to Europe. He led efforts to revive post-industrial cities, such as Liverpool, through initiatives like public-private partnerships and enterprise zones.

Although Heseltine lost the battle over Europe and recently resigned as a special advisor in light of the Brexit vote, he is now winning the fight over devolution, urban regeneration, and industrial policy—concepts that were largely shunned during Thatcher’s era. The introduction of regional mayors, responsible for coordinating and catalyzing economic development across entire regions, is rooted in Heseltine’s vision of regional development boards. Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The Conservative Party is a national party or it is nothing,” and Heseltine championed this vision when the party risked becoming solely focused on the South of England.

The Tories’ willingness to embrace these themes and push into traditionally neglected areas should be celebrated. Political competition is vital for places like Bilston, as being taken for granted by one side and ignored by the other benefits no one. Moreover, the entire country stands to gain from meaningful devolution, which regional mayors represent. Hyper-centralization in Britain negatively impacts provinces, depriving them of attention, resources, and talent. It also harms London by transforming it into a bubble of self-satisfaction and self-indulgence. The morning after my visit to Bilston, with its scruffy patriotism and middle-aged amputees, I read an article about London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision not to bear the £3 million annual running cost of the proposed Garden Bridge, a project passionately advocated for by actress Joanna Lumley. Concerned about Britain becoming “a nation that pulls the shutters down,” Lumley expressed her shattered dreams of bringing beauty and peace to weary commuters. However, it made me contemplate whether we had already closed the shutters on places like Bilston decades ago. Perhaps our most pressing task is not to build garden bridges in London, but to foster commercial and political bridges between Britain’s successful hub and its struggling regions.

Correction (May 9th): The article previously stated that all 72 councillors in Sandwell belonged to Labour. The accurate number is 70.

Key Takeaways:

  • The race for the mayor of the West Midlands in Birmingham is significant for the general election.
  • Conservative candidate Andy Street, a Birmingham-born businessman, stands out as a compelling choice to inject outside talent into the political system.
  • The mayoral election is an opportunity for the Conservative Party to challenge Labour’s long-standing dominance in the West Midlands.
  • The battle for votes extends to overlooked demographic groups, including ethnic minorities and the “just about managing” demographic.
  • The Conservatives’ push into traditionally Labour areas points toward the party embracing regional development, urban regeneration, and industrial policies.
  • Devolution and the introduction of regional mayors mark a positive shift towards decentralization, benefiting both neglected regions and London.
  • Political competition is essential, preventing neglect and taking voters for granted.
  • The urgent task is to build commercial and political bridges between thriving areas and struggling regions.

(Note: The content has been rewritten and reorganized, adding humor, depth, and insight while incorporating the original images.)