Taking a look at the new West Midlands Mayor

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“How will we judge success? Soft measures will include the quality of the relationships of trust that he establishes across the region, as well as an increased recognition of him and the Mayoral role and understanding of the added value he brings to solving complex, long-standing social and technical problems.”  

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After many months of campaigning and much speculation we now know Andy Street will be the West Midlands Mayor for the next three years.

Two of our experts gave their reaction to the result and discussed the road ahead for the new mayor: 

Professor Catherine Staite, Director for Public Sector Reform, Institute of Local Government Studies:

The introduction of a directly elected, executive ‘metro’ Mayor, working with the West Midlands Combined Authority made up of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton Councils, will lead to a radical change to the landscape of  local government in the West Midlands and reshape the relationships between local and central government.

Leadership challenges and opportunities lie in three broad areas: the development of strong and trusting relationships between the Mayor, the Combined Authority and key public sector and business stakeholders; the vital importance of collaborative leadership skills; and the need to manage the, often conflicting, expectations of all the key players on the field, including central government.

The powers of the Mayors are made up of those delegated by central government and those passed on by the West Midlands Combined Authority. Notwithstanding central government’s commitment to strengthening accountable, local leadership through the introduction of Metro Mayors, they have not yet delegated many major powers. The convening power of the Mayor will be much more significant than his initial formal powers. The ability of the Mayor to bring people together, including residents, councils, other statutory services, with the voluntary and community sectors and to harness and mobilise collective energy and resources to tackle complex social and economic challenges, will be crucial to his success.  The experience of earlier generations of elected Mayors suggest that the higher the level of public interest in the role, measured by voter turnout and the effectiveness of the mayor as a convenor, the more the likely Andy Street is to garner new powers over time.

Three years isn’t a long time for the new Mayor to make an impact, yet the progress made in these three years will determine the value the public place on the role and the extent to which central government are willing to devolve more powers.  So how will Andy Street focus his effort to achieve the maximum impact in the shortest time?

If Andy Street is going to be able to say he’s achieved his manifesto ambitions in 2020, including, reducing congestion by improving public transport and connectivity, build more homes and eradicate youth unemployment, he’ll need to move quickly.

These are major ambitions which will only be achieved if the Mayor can bring both his formal and informal authority to bear, through influencing and persuading a wide range of public and private  sector stakeholders to support his efforts and mobilise their resources in support of his agenda.

How will we judge success? Soft measures will include the quality of the relationships of trust that he establishes across the region, as well as an increased recognition of him and the Mayoral role and understanding of the added value he brings to solving complex, long-standing social and technical problems. 

Progress will also be measured by the speed with which major infrastructure projects are delivered and increased opportunities for people who are currently socially and economically disadvantaged.  The hardest test of all is the extent to which the public perceives that their lives have been changed and improved, and recognises the impact of the role of Mayor on that improvement.

Dr Matt Cole, Teaching Fellow, Department of History, specialising in British Party and Electoral politics:

The West Midlands became the focus of national attention on the evening of Friday 5th May as our Mayoral election threw into the sharpest relief the triumph of the government and the despair of their various opponents, as Conservative Andy Street beat Labour’s Sion Simon in a knife-edge result. The result reflects the region’s traditional role as the barometer of Britain’s political mood and has lessons for the winner and the losers which should make them pay the region close attention; but it also reminds us of why the West Midlands is so distinctive.

In normal circumstances, an election in the seven council areas included in the Mayoral ballot would be Labour’s to lose. The party had a nine-point lead over the Conservatives in this area at the 2015 election; in last year’s local elections, Labour had nearly twenty per cent more of the vote than the Conservatives. Last week, however, Sion Simon was beaten by the tantalising margin of less than 4,000 votes out of half a million after the transfer of the minor parties’ voters’ second preferences. Andy Street hailed this as signalling “the rebirth of a new era of urban Conservative agenda.” The true explanation, inevitably, is a little more complex.

Firstly Labour is weaker than at any point in recent electoral memory. Given its performance across the country – losing councils in the North East and South Wales – the party in the West Midlands did no worse than might be expected. Nonetheless, the message is clear, that Labour failed to mobilise and inspire its own base in areas like Walsall, partly because, as Sion Simon immediately acknowledged, its national leadership has “lost touch.”

Secondly Labour’s isolation from wider opposition opinion was brutally reflected in the party’s failure to capture second preference votes. Simon was only 1.1 per cent behind Street after the counting of first preferences and 18 per cent of the vote remained to be harvested from other opposition party candidates under the Supplementary Vote system. Barely half of those second preferences were used, and only just over half of those were cast for Simon. A handful more of the tens of thousands of Liberal Democrat or Green voters’ second preferences would have bridged the gap for Labour.  Sion Simon’s initially low-profile and highly partisan campaign did not secure these.In contrast Andy Street had run a campaign costing over a million pounds and rarely acknowledging either his party name or using its colours: his experience with John Lewis had a higher profile than his association with the Conservatives. Street’s strategy captured a larger share of the second preference votes than his Conservative counterpart in the West of England Mayoral contest was able to get – and it sealed his victory.

Lastly, we should remember the distinctive history of the West Midlands and of Birmingham in particular, where Conservative politics have persisted as in no other provincial city or conurbation. Birmingham City Council was the last city authority to be run by Conservatives until their defeat in 2013, and this reflected a history in which Labour did not emerge as victors until after the Second World War, and Chamberlain dynasty’s legacy remained. Across the West Midlands, Conservatism and Euroscepticism have remained stronger than in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle. Andy Street drew on history as well as on the political reputations of today.

Mayor Street rules an evenly-divided region on little more than a tenth of the electorate, most of whom actively voted against an elected mayoralty only a few years ago. This work will call for at least as many powers of persuasion as winning the election.

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