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Can the election favourite be Trumped in the West Midlands?

Can the election favourite be Trumped in the West Midlands?

🕔17.Nov 2016

It appears a close run contest in the weeks leading up to polling day. Betting odds changing, polls shifting either way.

The career-long elected representative, who has held out for the top job for years, surely can’t be beaten by the upstart business leader turned latter-day politician.

As the results roll in late night and into early morning, it appears to be in the bag for the old political hand. The candidate may not have excited the media or even some parts of their own base, but they now seem to be within a few counts of victory.

A highly professional and effective ground campaign, backed by good digital and social media use, has won the day. Hasn’t it? The candidate who captured national media interest will have turned out be be no more than a brand in search of votes that might have been.

Then, as night turns to dusk, the new man on the block is suddenly powering through the districts, from ballot box to ballot box.

New at this game called elections, he’s actually done it.

The race to be the first elected West Midlands mayor is some distance from the US Presidential Election. I am not sure who will be most offended by the comparison, Siôn Simon as Hillary Clinton or Andy Street as President-elect The Donald. On reflection, most sincere apologies to Andy, although I am sure he wouldn’t mind being the surprise winner. Beverley Nielsen and James Burn will also be hoping to fare better than the third and fourth candidates in the States, as I am sure they will.

Rest assured, though, candidates are trying to work out what Brexit and the US election results tell us all about this new era of politics. What lessons are there from these seismic campaigns? Anti globalisation, standing up for the left behind, anti politics, authenticity over messaging and change are all in there.

We are still in the pre-campaign phase, but Andy Street will be heartened by the Birmingham Mail’s reveal that he has overtaken Siôn Simon in Ladbroke’s betting odds. A bit like the polls, I wouldn’t read too much into numbers at the betting shop. Mr Street is getting more attention in the media, partly as a new figure on the political stage with a good business record, endorsement from the PM and partly because his campaign is putting more effort into media coverage.

In these odd political times, perhaps aided by a Lib Dem resurgence off the back of a surprising Richmond by-election campaign, with Corbyn’s Labour party struggling for attention and broad appeal, a low turnout and the supplementary voting system, could she? Could Beverley Nielsen pop up though the middle? Probably not, but anything seems possible these days. But Ms Nielsen has the potential to mix up the close campaign and keep the two front runners from having it all their own way.

The battle lines for the campaign, which will move into higher gears in January and again in March, become clearer by the day.

Mr Street continues to attract enthusiastic support from the business community. His campaign will continue to stress his leadership capabilities, including his track record at the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP). His core offer will be to bring people together, including business and political leaders of every hue. Any gifts for the West Midlands or the Midlands Engine wrapped up in next week’s Autumn Statement are likely to highlight the name of Mr Street on the gift tag.

Andy Street’s brand also relies on his highly effective communication skills and his seemingly boundless dynamism and energy. They are incredibly powerful assets for a business or political leader. But in the dog fight of an election campaign – as well as in the closed room of political leaders who do not want a mayor, and certainly not one with a Conservative Party membership card – such assets can switch to the liabilities section. Nevertheless, even in this day and age, image and presentation do still matter and Mr Street will look to exploit what his camp think is an advantage.

The Conservative candidate will promote his access to Government and the personal backing of senior Tories, including the PM. This is the person will has the ear of Government and who they can do business with, it will be suggested.

The flipside for Mr Simon is that he can position his opponent as the stooge of a Tory Government. In this era of outsiders and the rise of anti-establishment figures, Labour’s candidate is likely to say that the region needs someone fighting for it, arguing for a better deal, and not someone in the pocket of Government.

In the comfortable surroundings of Colmore Row and Birmingham’s cosier suburbs, it is easy to forget this is a West Midlands election. All candidates are criss-crossing the region, although I have yet to see personal planes or campaign choppers in the skies. So far though, it seems clear that Mr Simon is emphasising his positioning as a mayor for the whole West Midlands in contrast to the man who has made his name, in part, as the champion of the Greater Birmingham brand.

This is going to be a turnout election. It is likely to be depressingly low, although we will do everything we can here – as will colleagues across the mainstream media – to make that not the case. It’s likely that a very low turnout could favour Mr Street more, given the political landscape of the region and national political factors.

If Siõn Simon can mobilise the Labour base, he should prevent a last minute surprise victory.

The signs are that the Labour candidate is focused on the ground war. Identifying likely voters and engaging potential activists is at the heart of most successful political campaigns. In a region with fragmented media and which can only give so much attention to a contest for which much of their audience currently has little understanding or appetite, the ground war becomes even higher priority than the air war.

The two main campaigns have similar size teams at present. Sion Simon’s campaign will be aided by Labour’s coffers bulging with membership fees. His political campaign is led by Caroline Bradley, the person who masterminded Gisela Stuart’s landmark victory in 1997. Liam Byrne, the man of the infamous note but who still possesses one of the sharpest brains in politics, is in the camp too.

Andy Street will not benefit from the same level of party resources, but he will continue to receive the political capital of the party in Government. His campaign is co-chaired by Charles Barwell, a leading Birmingham Tory who spends his days at Barclays Wealth, and Rachel Maclean, who ran a strong campaign against Labour’s Richard Burden in Northfield.

Actual policies? Signs of change? I hear your cry.

There is a search on for attractive policies in each of the camps – and for the slogans and messages that sell them.

So far, it’s policy light. But that is perhaps to be expected at this stage.

Andy Street has pledged to eradicate youth unemployment in the region. Beverley Nielsen has been underlining her commitment to manufacturing in the region and the SME community. Expanding Birmingham Airport is one of Siôn Simon’s top priorities.

But then, detailed policies don’t appear to be the winning factor for The Donald. Let’s hope they matter more here in the West Midlands.

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