Introducing the West Midlands mayoral candidates
Four major parties have now named their candidates for the race to become the first mayor of the West Midlands region, which encompasses Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull and the Black Country and is populated by 3 million people.
The Mayor will be handed an annual £1.1 billion annual budget and will be granted special powers to drive economic activity across the region, focusing on interlinking business. They will also have powers regarding transport and housing.
The elected mayor will, in theory, be working alongside local councils and won’t be interfering with their work or detracting from their powers. However the move, which was formulated by former chancellor George Osborne, will see local authorities working more closely with each other as this new level of governance will span across areas previously politically unconnected at a regional level.
Birmingham, along with nine other English cities, voted against having an elected mayor in a 2012 referendum. However the city now finds itself as one of a number of newly created ‘metropolitan areas’ as a result of the central government devolution drive.
Despite Birmingham, the region’s biggest city by far, typically being a Labour stronghold the contest appears to be wide open as other areas in the region (particularly the Black Country and places outside of cities and towns) generally attract many more Conservative votes, as well as a higher turnout. Warwickshire County Council is also bidding to join the newly created metropolitan area and should they be successful in time for the forthcoming election, a major Tory stronghold will be incorporated into the vote.
Conservatives – Andy Street
The Conservatives have announced the former John Lewis Partnership boss Andy Street as their candidate. The Birmingham-born former businessman has stepped down from his role with the company in order to pursue a career in local politics.
Street presided over a hugely successful period for the John Lewis Partnership which saw profits sharply rise as the company championed a progressive relationship with its workforce. Employees are also stakeholders, meaning that the workforce to a large extent owns the company, and they can also elect the Managing Director and have an annual opportunity to oust their boss. Furthermore, a large share of the company’s profits are distributed evenly across the workforce in accordance with the number of hours worked in the form of an annual Christmas bonus.
His entry into politics marks his first break with the John Lewis Partnership since he joined as a graduate, immediately after leaving university over three decades ago. At the recent Tory party conference Street argued that his experience working for such a pioneering company makes him a strong candidate.
Whilst Street’s candidacy for the metro mayor may mark his first entry into the world of professional politics, he has been vocal on local issues before. Long before his bid was launched, Street gave emphatic public backing to the idea of the controversial ‘Greater Birmingham’ re-branding of the West Midlands region. He has argued that such a move would bring greater connectivity to the area’s local economy and help businesses based in the region’s lesser known towns market themselves abroad.
The nature of Street’s selection as the Tory candidate has drawn criticism. Labour has claimed that Mr Street was the sole candidate on the ballot paper put before Conservative party members. Labour’s former West Bromwich MP Lord Snape has been highly critical of what he calls the “North Korean style” election process and has branded the manner of Street’s selection as “an affront to modern democracy”. However, the Conservatives insist that Street was selected “in accordance with party rules at a meeting of party members”.
Labour – Sion Simon
Labour’s candidate is the Doncaster-born, Birmingham-bred former Erdington MP Sion Simon. Like Andy Street, Simon has had a successful career outside politics; he was a Senior Executive for a FTSE 100 listed company, as well as being a columnist for national newspapers and Associate Editor at The Spectator. However unlike Street, Simon comes with considerable political experience, having served as an MP, a junior minister and an MEP.
Simon’s political career has been somewhat colourful. He is rumoured as being a part of the ill-fated “curry house coup”, where a group of local MPs (including Simon’s close friend and political ally, Labour deputy leader Tom Watson) are reported to have plotted to oust Tony Blair whilst he was Prime Minister. The meeting resulted in an open letter being submitted to Blair, explaining how the group had lost confidence in his electoral capabilities.
Whilst two of Simon’s co-conspirators (MPs Khalid Mahmood and David Wright) were subsequently sacked from their jobs as parliamentary aides, both Simon and Watson could be seen to have been rewarded by Gordon Brown with junior ministerial positions.
However his political career was somewhat derailed following a gamble took in the run-up to Birmingham’s 2012 mayoral referendum. Simon stood aside from his safe seat, handing it over to then senior Labour politician Jack Dromey, as he stepped up his campaign to become Birmingham’s first elected mayor. However subsequent to Birmingham voting decisively against creating the new position, Simon has been serving as an MEP.
Perhaps the role of West Midlands Mayor is perhaps better suited to Simon, who has also spoken passionately about the benefits of ‘Greater Birmingham’ and bemoaned the region’s identity crisis, pointing out what he sees as a reluctance of Birmingham’s satellite conurbations to come under the umbrella of the region’s largest city.
Simon attracted controversy with a spoof video made in 2006 in which he attempted to satirise David Cameron’s projected public image. However he was later forced to apologise for some of the crass content.
Liberal Democrats – Beverley Nielsen
Compared to the high profile candidates of the two major parties, Beverley Nielsen is a relative unknown. However she has held a number of high profile positions; she was Chief Executive of the region’s Heart of England tourist board, Director of Aga Foodservice Group plc (then a FTSE 250 company) and has also been a Director at CBI West Midlands, a grouping of business leaders responsible for voicing industry concerns to policymakers at all levels.
More recently she has worked for Birmingham City University as Director of Employer Engagement, helping turn students into employees. Her highflying career has earned her ‘Midlands Businesswoman of the Year’, as well as an honorary degree from Coventry University.
Greens – James Burn
James Burn has made a bright start to his campaigning. The Leader of the Opposition for Solihull Council has already boldly called for a “second industrial revolution” to take place in the city. He envisages this taking hold by supporting home-grown companies involved in low-carbon manufacturing and technology. He has called a low-carbon private sector an “economic imperative” and is keen to see the West Midlands on the cutting edge of green business.
He has also questioned the concentration of power within the West Midlands Combined Authority. Whilst launching his bid on the steps of the Greater London Assembly, he highlighted the fact that the WMCA’s legislative process won’t be as heavily scrutinised as its London counterpart. In London the mayor is held to account by the assembly, which sits full time. By contrast, the WMCA mayor will have to sit in front of a committee on just four mornings every year. This, according to Burn, will result in the authority going behind people’s backs when making the big decisions.
The West Midlands will go to the polls on 4th May to decide who will be the region’s first elected mayor.