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First Mayor, Last Push

First Mayor, Last Push

🕔03.May 2017

Elections, elections. Everywhere you turn, there’s an election. You can’t even escape across the Channel this week. Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson has his last word before the polling stations open on the campaign closer to home.

There is just one more day of campaigning before nearly 2 million ‘West Midlanders’ (if that is a term) have the opportunity to go to the polls. It’s difficult to tell who will be most relieved – the voters or the candidates.

READ: Mayoral manifestos – it’s make your mind up time.

Whilst most media attention is on the General Election, it is the contest to be the first West Midlands Mayor that in some ways is more important to both main parties.

It will be no shock if Jeremy Corbyn does not become Prime Minister on 9th June.

However, it will be a body blow if Labour cannot return a Mayor in their heartland.

So, where national newspapers, TV, radio and journals like the New Statesman, The Economist and blog site Conservative Home have been covering our election, the focus has largely been on whether a Tory can historically take the West Midlands.

Can Andy Street – a sort of modern day Joe Chamberlain meets Lord Heseltine, if his media coverage is to be taken at face value – really sweep aside Siôn Simon, the Labour candidate he describes as a “career politician”?

If so, will it – along with a possible landslide victory a month later – prove that the Tories are an electoral force in the Midlands and North?

READ: Conservative hat-trick forecast in Birmingham at General Election.

The polls indicate it’s possible. I say “polls” – there’s only one, as conducted by the Birmingham Mail using Google Survey. It indicates a close run thing, with Siôn Simon winning by a whisker once second preference votes have been counted.

The Conservative camp is buoyant, whilst Labour sources don’t pretend it’s anything other than close, but they still believe Mr Simon will do it – possibly with room to spare.

The General Election campaign has probably been good news for Andy Street. He’s revelling in his association with Theresa ‘strong and stable’ May whilst Siôn Simon has been deploying a political lexicon that refuses the mere mention of Jeremy Corbyn.

Amusing and bemusing at times to observe, it’s an important dividing line in this campaign.

Whilst Andy Street has run partly on the Street brand and in part with Conservative colours, a key message has been that he has Number 10 on speed dial – and they will take his call. His principal opponent describes him as “London’s Ambassador” or the “Conservative Party’s Yes Man”.

Siôn Simon, meanwhile, is his own man he says. He doesn’t need Jeremy Corbyn’s approval (he told us he hadn’t even had a conversation about putting the nationalisation of the M6 Toll in the party’s General Election manifesto), he has his own mandate. That’s what devolution should mean – running our own affairs. To the Street campaign, Mr Simon is Jeremy Corbyn’s man – a description they, probably rightly, judge will not appeal to many potential Labour voters.

The truth is that the two candidates are probably closer to each other on the political spectrum than Mr Simon is to Mr Corbyn.

Whilst a Tory West Midlands Mayor will probably help to keep the devolution train on the tracks and secure a few early gifts, a centre-left Mayor who moves from campaigning to office mode – alongside counterparts such as Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham – will also have his calls taken in Downing Street.

That survey threw up a number of interesting points – two of which are worth underlining.

UKIP candidate Pete Durnell – out campaigning with his leader Paul Nutall in the Black Country yesterday – scored a remarkable 15.7%. That’s more than the Lib Dems and Greens put together. (Note – today’s latest poll from the Birmingham Post, again using Google Survey, sees the UKIP vote fall by about half).

Now, Pete Durnell is a decent chap and a long way from what many people in the political mainstream would think of as a typical Ukipper.

But his campaign – if you can call it that – has fallen short of the effort, miles and resources invested in those of Beverley Nielsen and James Burn. No manifesto, hardly any press releases and far fewer tweets on the road tell their own story.

That’s no slight on Mr Durnell – frankly, he has been badly let down by his party which seems to be in free fall as a political force.

Although does it? If that survey proves anywhere near accurate, it will tell us a lot about the core UKIP vote in the West Midlands and underline that hard campaigning does not always equate to votes.

The political climate – with a General Election campaign under way and Brexit overshadowing everything – expected low turnout (although Andy Street is bravely sticking with his 30% prediction) and the use (or not) of 2nd preference voting are all in play, making forecasts impossible.

As Chris Game has touched on, the application of 2nd preference votes is fascinating, such as more Lib Dem backers lending their votes to the Conservatives. But perhaps more shocking is the apparent lack of strategy from the candidates on how to optimise the system.

Read: Will the Mayoral Election be decided by Supplementary Votes?

Pete Durnell used half of his opening statement at the Final Public Debate to try and explain Supplementary Voting. Beverley Nielsen clearly has SV in mind in some of her campaign activities.

But neither of the two favourites were prepared to suggest who they would mark in their 2nd column. After James Burn had effectively endorsed Siôn Simon, the Labour candidate’s refusal to suggest who would get his extra vote (and in so doing appeal to Greens for their 2nd votes) seemed a missed opportunity.

It is widely accepted that no candidate has outright ‘won’ our four Public Debates. Nobody has flopped embarrassingly; no one produced zingers to rival JFK, Ronald Reagan…or even Nick Clegg.

But many have been impressed by James Burn – or the “Green Chap” as some debate audiences refer to him. Quietly spoken and with a brevity that some others find difficult to master, he has distinctive positions and speaks with authority and sincerity. It will be no surprise to us if Mayor Simon or Mayor Street find a role for him in their Mayoralty.

Campaign spending has become a talking point in the latter days of the campaign, with Andy Street not really denying estimates of a near to £1M outlay. Other candidates accept that he has played by the rules, with the major spending items happening outside the official campaign period.

It seems unlikely that anyone considering voting for the formerly well paid retail boss turned Conservative candidate will have been put off by spending speculation.

Nobody doubts that in the end, possibly with round two required, it will be Street vs Simon.

There are policy differences – such as whether nationalising the M6 Toll is a good use of public funds; whether a statutory spatial plan and use of the greenbelt are needed and if regional economic growth will necessitate a second runway at Birmingham Airport in the future.

There are style differences. The business leader and self-styled centre forward who will work closely with Theresa May’s Government to champion and deliver for the West Midlands against the politician – MP, minister, MEP, two-time wannabe Mayor – who wants to fight for the region in the face of the Tories who just don’t care.

It’s the man with the plan versus the politician ready to do battle.

It’s the Conservative who will make the case against Labour’s man who will fight for the region’s fair share.

In campaign terms, if Andy Street wins it will be partly on the crest of the political waves, but it will also be due to a highly energetic, well organised campaign which has used media and social media extensively.

If Siôn Simon becomes Mayor, it will be largely due to having effectively mobilised the party’s bigger base and adopting more aggressive campaign rhetoric.

Chamberlain Files is not endorsing a candidate or even predicting the winner. They are both mugs’ games.

But, we make three pleas:

  • Vote (and encourage friends, family and colleagues to do likewise)
  • Use both your votes (if you actually want the Communist, Green, Lib Dem, or UKIP candidate to be Mayor, vote for them 1st but also use the second column wisely as this could be crucial to the result)
  • If possible, ignore the party and that other election on 8th June (in other words, ignore Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn for the moment) – vote for the person who you think will make the best West Midlands Mayor.

We know this election and this role are not everyone’s cup of tea, through apathy or reasoned objection. Both are understandable.

But it’s happening and we believe it will be a positive step for the region. The first West Midlands Mayor certainly has their work cut out.

It’s been a well fought contest with six candidates who have campaigned hard and – we happen to think – have good intentions, ideas and skills to offer.

As the WMCA says, vote 4th May and be part of history.

You can find out more about the West Midlands Mayor – the candidates, how to vote and what can they do – over at our dedicated site, West Mids Elects.


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