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Byrne talks strategy while Simon gets back to basics with buses as Labour’s mayoral tussle hots up

Byrne talks strategy while Simon gets back to basics with buses as Labour’s mayoral tussle hots up

🕔16.Apr 2012

Bus on Colmore Row, Birmingham, England.

Labour’s internal battle to select a candidate to run for mayor of Birmingham is rapidly developing into a clash of contrasting styles, between Sion Simon’s man of the people approach and Liam Byrne’s grasp of grand strategy.

The differences were noticeable at a Vote Yes to Birmingham Mayor rally at the Town Hall, where Mr Byrne was at pains to hammer home his experience as a former West Midlands Minister and the role he played in knocking heads together to secure approval for the redevelopment of New Street Station.

The subtext here is obvious enough: “I already have the experience a mayor will require. Please select me as your candidate.”

The Hodge Hill MP went on to outline a five-point policy plan for the mayor, led by a suggestion that the Government be persuaded to allow Birmingham to keep welfare benefits saved through creating new jobs and using the money to build social housing.

He is also demanding mayoral powers to raise more money from businesses to reinvest in the city, powers to intervene and close failing schools, and the establishment of a mayor’s regional transport commission as well as demands that Whitehall budgets are handed directly to the mayor.

Mr Simon, on the other hand, may have rather more subtly judged the audience of largely working class Brummies, declaring to a ripple of sympathetic applause that he doesn’t drive and therefore has to use the buses, which are not very good.

When did anyone last hear, say, the leader of Birmingham City Council talk with any knowledge about travelling by bus? Was it not Mrs Thatcher who was alleged to have said that anyone over the age of 30 who has to use buses must have failed in life?

If Mr Byrne set out to portray himself as a power-broker, Mr Simon was content to give the impression of an ordinary bloke travelling by bus rather than ministerial limousine.

Describing Birmingham’s bus network as “like the wild west”, Mr Simon laid into de-regulation which he said meant that anyone in Birmingham who can fill out the appropriate paperwork can run a bus service 56 days later, which was “ridiculous”.

The profit-led service meant that Birmingham has no night bus and that there is a disproportionate level of provision where popular routes are served by scores of services yet poorer parts of the city have no buses at all. Buses were dirty, did not run to time and something had to be done.

To be fair to Mr Simon, he has been campaigning for the mayoral role for almost two years and has already launched a 10-point policy document. Even before Mr Byrne belatedly stepped into the race Mr Simon was pledging to create 30,000 new jobs, close failing schools, build 20,000 new homes, invest over £100 million in small and medium sized businesses and setting up a transport commission.

Mr Simon launched his policy paper in the rather cold confines of a warehouse belonging to a small business supplying Jamaican patties in Britain and across the world. I am unaware of Mr Byrne having a formal launch, along with his running mate Sir Albert Bore, but if he does get around to it the venue is likely to be somewhat grander than a room stacked with boxes of pasties.

Anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account will have noticed a mini-avalanche of postings from Mr Byrne in the past fortnight, usually drawing attention to his appearance at a local Labour party event, or canvassing for the city council elections.

He has given interviews to national and local newspapers demanding the Government “puts its money where its mouth is” by handing real power to mayors.

Mr Simon, not to be outdone, rushed out a press release after the Town Hall meeting commenting on the Warwick Commission report into mayors.  He said: “I welcome this report and strongly agree with the authors that the Government now needs to set out the powers elected mayors will have. This is essential in building trust and confidence ahead of the referendum on 3 May.

“Of course it will be significant in itself for an elected mayor to take charge of existing council responsibilities, but in order to allow a mayor to make a real, transformational difference we need to see ministers commit to devolve power and money from Whitehall to Birmingham. This is the litmus test.”

As far as the third Labour mayoral candidate for Birmingham is concerned, little has been heard lately from Edgbaston MP Gisela Stuart. She cannot, surely, allow the contest to develop into a two-horse race between Mr Simon and Mr Byrne.

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