In detail: Andy Street’s success shows how quickly British politics have changed
Four years ago, Andy Street was elected Mayor of the West Midlands by a majority of just a few thousand out of a turnout of more than half a million. At that time Theresa May was Prime Minister and popular in the polls, the Brexit negotiations had not yet started and there was no Covid-19. To describe the political background for his mayor’s office as turbulent would be an understatement. If the next election, due to be held on Thursday, had taken place during the lowest point in the Brexit talks or pandemic response, Street would surely have been blown away by dissatisfaction with the Tories’ performance in government at the national level. Now, however, polls are putting him in front of the Labor candidates, and Street and his campaign team believe they all have to play. Tory strategists say the result could only be hundreds or thousands of votes. “In the end, it will depend on who can vote,” says one executive. Nevertheless, the campaign exudes calm self-confidence. “There are still days,” says Street, “and I’m still smiling.” In times of political polarization, Street is an unusual candidate, almost a throwback to a gentler time. As the former executive director of John Lewis, he prides himself on his status as a businessman in politics. “Mayors in particular are really good for hands-on business people who can bring leadership to their local communities,” he says. And Street’s Pitch – as an apolitical candidate who can 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. Local focus Street’s campaign is very personal. His pamphlets 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 and focuses exclusively on local challenges such as jobs, transport infrastructure and housing. But while he was ready to criticize the Tories in the national government and publicly disagree with the Prime Minister, Street does not run against his party, nor does he define himself by discussing his differences with other Tories. His campaign messages – always very local, constructive and planning – show a surprising sophistication and subtlety. Street knows Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit political strategy has attracted new Conservative voters in former Labor strongholds such as 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 neighborhoods of Solihull and Sutton Coldfield. If this sounds like Boris Johnson has a cake / eat-and-cake approach to life, albeit with a brummie twang, then it really is. As Mayor of London, Johnson had to form a support coalition that went beyond the conservative core vote to win two terms. In the West Midlands – a traditional Labor heartland – Street has to do the same. And since voter second preferences count according to the rules of the supplementary voting system, targeting the Liberal Democrats and even the Green voters may prove crucial. “It’s important to remember that the standard result in the West Midlands is a Labor victory,” said Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative grandee, Sutton Coldfield MP and street fanatic. “We’re the insurgents, and that’s why Andy is such a good candidate. He’s a Tory-Plus-Plus-Plus: Our usual voters like and trust him, but he speaks to so many others. But even with Andy, it will be so.” . ” Get close and we still might not get over the line. “Level-up Champion The West Midlands has been full of activity and progress throughout the street mayor’s office. Transportation investments have increased sevenfold since he took office, with new rail lines and stations, bus routes and a tram. House construction has grown rapidly in both speed and volume. Nearly 100,000 new jobs were created prior to the pandemic outbreak, in large part due to a sharp surge in private sector overseas investment. “Andy gave real importance to the level-up agenda in the West Midlands,” says Eddie Hughes, the MP from Walsall North, a previously safe Labor seat. “People can see we’re getting a new train station and A&E department, thanks in part to him.” That year, Coventry was voted the country’s cultural city, Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games next year and High Speed 2 will also be West Midla Connect nds with London and the cities of the north, greatly reducing travel times. The Department of Housing, Community and Local Government is building a second headquarters in Wolverhampton, and ministers chose the West Midlands as the country’s first 5G test bed. The sense of progress has, of course, been disrupted by the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people have been on leave in the metropolitan area and many businesses, particularly those in retail and hospitality, have closed. Most will recover, but economists agree that the lockdown accelerated the changes that were already on the way. Main streets are under pressure, retail outlets are being restructured, and city center economies will fundamentally change thanks to an increase in homeworking. ‘He knows what business needs’ on the doorstep with little evidence that Street is being punished for this difficult news or government missteps during the pandemic. Advertisers report a “vaccine jump” for the Tories and recognition for government programs to keep businesses alive and pay workers during their forced inactivity. Target voters – many of whom didn’t even know about mayor’s office last time – spontaneously tell activists to keep Street going. The interior of the Prime Minister’s Downing Street apartment doesn’t show off at all. There is a recognition among small business owners that Street, the candidate with a commercial background, is best placed to lead the region to recovery. “He knows what the business needs,” says Adrian Harvey, who owns hotels and bars across Birmingham. “He’s already done some great things to connect the region with better transport links. We need him to get out of last year’s troubles.” Carl Richardson, whose family business has a £ 100 million corporate fund for the region, said: “There is no doubt the pandemic has halted the economic renaissance in the West Midlands.” [but] This dynamic has been built on solid foundations … the best of times are still a long way ahead of us. “Street is planning more of what made his first term a success: more transportation investments, more corporate investments and more government operations from London to the region. It promises a mega-electric battery factory in Coventry – creating 4,000 new jobs – and the West Midlands “National Leader in Construction, Engineering, Life Sciences, Technology, 5G and Other Growing Industries” The mayor’s office takes responsibility for energy infrastructure, skills and education, and law and order. The Tories believe they are one Having an outside chance of wresting the election of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner from Labor, and if they do, combining the two roles: with a deputy mayor for policing like in London, Labor will find it harder to resist In time, Street wants the veran Responsibility for a large budget for mayor would allow him to allocate funds when he deems it necessary, rather than always bringing his begging bowl to Whitehall. Job candidate under pressure But first he has to win an election. His Labor opponent Liam Byrne has been on several “trips” in the course of his career. As a former Blairite minister, he had a close relationship with John McDonnell during the Jeremy Corbyn years and is now a supporter of Keir Starmer. Byrne enjoys the recognition of names on the doorstep, but sadly he is remembered as “the man who left the note”: he left one as Gordon Brown’s outgoing Treasury Secretary who passed the debt crisis on to coalition ministers infamous letter, joking: “I’m afraid there is no money.” Worse are the positions that Byrne has taken in attempting to use the culture war to his advantage. Local teachers say he “looked the other way” when extremists claimed the infamous Trojan Horse conspiracy, in which hard-line Islamists sought to take over several schools in Birmingham, was itself a government conspiracy to attack Muslims. Others say Byrne “disappeared” when Muslim parents protested outside of schools after teaching students about homosexuality and trying to challenge homophobia. And while he was the immigration minister who passed the law requiring ministers to demand the deportation of serious foreign criminals, he advocated blocking such deportations to Jamaica earlier this year. Tory supporters would like to point out that Byrne is “just another career politician” who doesn’t have a big idea of improving the region, and some wish Street got tougher with his opponent. But all over the street the temptation to put the shoe on has resisted and his campaign remains positive, delivering thousands of leaflets, communicating through supporters on community social media pages and knocking on doors. A local Labor activist said: “It will be extremely tight. We are less confident than we are, but we will have a much better operation to get the vote that day. We can still win it.” While Byrne is focused on getting the core Labor vote in Birmingham – a task made difficult by the lack of local same-day elections – the Tories are also focusing on their stronger areas, in Solihull, Sutton Coldfield and the newer seats over and around the black country. “The election will be won or lost in Sutton, Solihull and these new seats,” said Alex Yip, a Tory councilor and street fighter. Whatever the outcome, experts, commentators and strategists will rush to claim “what it means” for Labor and the Tories, for Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson, for the durability of the post-Brexit coalition of conservative voters and for the result of the next election. And West Midlands mayoral elections are actually going to tell us about each of those things. The fact that the Tories even have the chance to win a second consecutive term here shows how quickly the major realignment in British politics has come about. And it shows that even in times of political polarization there is still room for practical and apolitical local leaders like John Lewis’s husband.