It is a trope of electoral studies that all results reflect a blend of short-term and long-term factors as well as the effects of the electoral system. The re-election of Andy Street as Mayor of the West Midlands confirms this combination and echoes last week’s national patterns in a distinctive way.
Street’s slim majority of 2017 was presumed for much of his term to be under threat. Turbulence in the Conservative Party and economic decline in the region – symbolised by the closure of Birmingham’s branch of John Lewis, of his leadership of which Street had made great play – did not seem to offer a promising backdrop to his campaign. Labour candidate and former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, meanwhile, had attracted the support of the Liberal Democrats’ intended candidate for Mayor.
The immediate circumstances of the election, however, proved propitious: the vaccine bounce which helped governments across the UK (including the SNP and Welsh Labour) brought some voters back and the Prime Minister’s current high stock was exploited to the full by Street when Johnson visited the region. Labour nationally was constrained by lockdown from showing a clear alternative to the government. Liam Byrne was universally popular neither amongst the public, some of whom remembered his note to his Liberal Democrat successor as Chief Secretary (‘I’m afraid there is no money’); nor in the Labour Party itself, where many thought Salma Yaqoob would have cut a more radical profile as candidate.
The distribution of the vote showed a longer-term problem for Labour, however: whilst the party remains in first place in Birmingham, Sandwell and Coventry, its hold on the most heavily pro-Brexit areas in the Black Country has been broken again by the Conservatives. Dudley Council was lost, and the Conservatives made gains in the formerly unfriendly territory of Sandwell and Wolverhampton. The ripple effect of the referendum may have been extended by lockdown, but its persistence throws the prospects of a Labour recovery into doubt.
Labour’s other problem was organisational. Reports of the party’s difficulties in marshalling its canvassers in lockdown conditions only added to a repeat of the strategic errors of 2017. The Supplementary Vote system used in Mayoral elections requires successful candidates to reach out to the supporters of those eliminated after the first round of counting. A less partisan appeal is therefore called for. Whilst Andy Street abandoned Conservative blue for a gentler green in his campaign, Liam Byrne stressed his party associations in the full livery of the Labour Party.
The result was that in the second round Byrne collected only two-thirds of the number of votes cast for the Greens (whose voters might be assumed to prefer Labour to the Conservatives) whilst Street picked up the equivalent of the entire vote for Reform UK (the latest iteration of the Brexit Party) and more besides, presumably coming from the 21,000 votes cast for the Liberal Democrats. The route of second preferences is of course a matter of speculation, and even all of the Green and Lib Dem vote would probably not have been enough to save Byrne; but a strategy reaching beyond the Labour core was a necessary if not sufficient condition of success for the party.
As in past contests, the West Midlands region has been a microcosm of England. Labour’s strength now lies in the cosmopolitan, young, city districts; its erstwhile base amongst older voters in post-industrial areas either left for the Conservatives or stayed at home. Labour supporters might console themselves that public opinion is especially volatile at present.
Like the giant balloon of the Prime Minister at Hartlepool, the Conservatives were at their fullest possible size last week. The inflated figure will surely lose some air over the next three years – but Labour needs to find a way of puncturing it to win.