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And then there were five….no, six

And then there were five….no, six

🕔09.Mar 2017

After a number of hustings featuring just three or four mayoral candidates, the first Public Debate took place this week with all five main candidates.

Were there any killer blows? No.

Were there any terrible faux pas? No.

In fact, for the author of this post there was a little bit too much agreement between the candidates. We’ll be working on that for next time…

But don’t let that summary put you off.

Siôn Simon (Labour) lined up alongside his main rival Andy Street (Conservative) as well as James Burn (Green), Pete Durnell (UKIP) and Beverley Nielsen (LibDem).

Proper journalists Pete Madeley – political editor of the Express and Star – and Neil Elkes – local politics guru at the Birmingham Mail – were fully focusing on the Public Debate. I suggest you read their reports for the whole picture of the evening.

In a dig aimed at Street, Simon said he was proud to be Labour’s candidate and stand for Labour values. Street’s election newsletter, on the other hand, was notable for giving his Conservative Party ticket a very, very low profile over its four pages.

As Pete and Neil report, the M6 Toll was the only area of major disagreement between the candidates. Siôn Simon stands alone in calling on the Government to nationalise the road.

The cost would be £2 billion – that is the equivalent of all the money we have to invest in capital on our transport infrastructure. That is not the best use of the money.

There were clashes over procurement obstacles, social housing and whether it is a Conservative government or local Labour councils – or both – which has been responsible for holding the region back.

But with candidates agreeing that championing the region and radically improving its storytelling are vital, voters will rightly be interested in how the candidates tell their own story.

For some of those who have been following the campaign but don’t know Mr Simon, they will have seen what Mr Street describes as a career politician in action for the first time.

Mr Simon, who was not using notes or wearing a tie, leaned on his lectern to reach closer to the audience. He spoke in conversational language, sometimes passionately, which also meant he was the candidate who used up most airtime at the first Public Debate.

He was far from rolled over by the Street machine, but neither did he come riding into the Worker’s Institute at the Black Country Living Museum to claim a clear victory.

Twitter is a dangerous place from which to draw conclusions. It is so often an echo chamber, not least when it comes to political views.

But, if the social media platform is anything to go by – where the debate was trending at number two in the charts for parts of the evening – Mr Burn and Ms Nielsen impressed.

James Burn is quietly spoken and could teach the other candidates a thing or two about brevity. But he has distinctive positions, not least on economic strategy and governance.

Mr Durnell earned, perhaps, the largest laugh of the night when answering debate chair and Express and Star editor Keith Harrison on whether the Black Country would witness Mayor Durnell popping down the pub for a regular pint with Nigel Farage. He suggested beer drinking was a requirement on the UKIP application form (you had to be there, honest).

Mr Durnell is among the more moderate members of UKIP that you are likely to meet. (I can hear the emails and tweets pinging already). He was also the only candidate who said he had changed his mind based on evidence since the start of the campaign, having spent two hours with the operators of the M6 Toll. Changing minds based on evidence – it won’t catch on, surely?

Pete Durnell is fighting the election with the least funds among the main parties and an almost non-existent professional machine behind him. He would benefit most from Paul Nuttall, his party leader fresh from losing the Stoke by-election and a week’s holiday, sorting out what he himself has described as UKIP’s “mess.”

Andy Street was, as ever, the polished professional. There is seemingly no question to which he has not carefully worked out the model answer in advance. The question remains whether it, regardless of an impressive and hard-working campaign operation, will be enough to overturn a natural Labour majority in the West Midlands.

The Duracell candidate was looking slightly tired, as might be expected from a man who is not only covering every square mile of the West Midlands, but popping up in India and London. Elections are gruelling affairs, even for the fittest of people. Every ounce of energy has to be spent in the right place.

So, next time we expect the candidates – Messrs Simon and Street in particular – to press their attack lines harder and search out more dividing lines. We’ll also want to dig further into the rehearsed soundbites and headlines and find out exactly how the candidates propose to renew rail lines, build thousands of houses and reverse decades of deprivation in parts of the region.

Coventry Cathedral provides the next backdrop to a Public Debate with the main five candidates. It takes place on 22nd March in partnership with Coventry Telegraph which is promoting the event. The Public Debate is also supported by The University of Warwick, West Midlands Combined Authority, Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce and Centre for Cities.

The West Mids Elects series of Public Debates are organised by Urban Communications, sister firm of Files publisher RJF Public Affairs. Our dedicated website has more details on the Public Debates and lots of information on the Mayor, candidates and election.

Oh, and just when you thought we had the full quota of candidates there are now six.

Graham Stevenson is aiming to stand for the Communist Party of Britain, if they can raise the required £5,000 deposit and secure 100 signatures for his nomination (including at least 10 from each of the seven metropolitan districts). Another £5k is required for a place in the official election information booklet.

Mr Stevenson said:

This is a chance for people in the seven boroughs to start the ball rolling on something completely new. Air quality is so bad that something must happen and quick. A way to do that would be to take control of public transport, away from the private firms who put profit before people and increase fares without improving service.”

We don’t want Blairite Labour or Tory austerity any more, it’s done enough damage and still does so. The West Midlands need proper jobs that pay well and give workers security. This will regenerate the regional economy.

The aim is to take power from the elite and let the people’s voices be heard. It’s time things changed to end the system of property, privilege, and private profit. We need local public assemblies where the needs and ideas of all communities can be heard so we can build the region we need.

Pic: Five main candidates with Express and Star editor Keith Harrison (third from left) in the ‘spin room’ at the Worker’s Institute, Black Country Living Museum on 7th March 2017. 

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