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Last week’s ‘Andy who?’ is this week’s ‘Andy wow!’

Last week’s ‘Andy who?’ is this week’s ‘Andy wow!’

🕔18.Jan 2018

I hold no brief whatever for the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, and have been critical, including in these columns, of aspects of both his election campaign and his eight months in office, writes Chris Game.

But if I’d spent as much time, energy and money as he has, palpably doing his utmost to raise the profile of his office, himself, and our massively diverse city region, I’d be a bit miffed to have a 33% public recognition record presented under the headline ‘Andy who?’

This wasn’t social media, where negativity and cheap abuse are the default mode. This was last week’s Birmingham Post, presenting the results of a jointly commissioned survey of local opinion on the ‘Elected mayors: 6 months on’.

The name recognition question was an odd one, for a start. Nothing straightforward like: “Do you recall the mayor’s name?”. But “To what extent do you agree with this statement: ‘I can name my region’s directly elected mayor.’?”

33% of the West Midlands sample agreed that it was a jolly good statement, but none were asked actually to divulge the mayor’s name. So it’s obviously possible that scurrilous respondents in the other regions – though surely not in the West Mids – were only pretending they knew their mayor’s name, or had in mind someone completely different.

I’ll return to that shortly. My immediate gripe is that, having been accepted as valid, a 33% recognition rate should have been recognised in the circumstances as pretty good, not pretty poor – with a headline perhaps in the spirit, say, of: “Street’s cred! New mayor recognised by thousands who never even voted last May”. Turnout was under 27%, by the way.

I’m not asking for deference or flattery, just some realism. Knowledge of and interest in conventional politics nowadays are the preserve of minorities – evidence of which we see demonstrated annually in the Audits of Political Engagement undertaken by the estimable parliamentary charity, the Hansard Society.

In the 2017 Audit (Questions 5a,b.c), well over half of respondents cheerfully admitted knowing nothing or not very much about politics, Parliament, or the EU.

The proximity of the General Election meant they weren’t asked about their MP, but in 2015, right at the end of a five-year Parliament, just 22% managed to name correctly their own MP (p.27).

It’s a low figure, but more accurate than most – for precisely the reason that these respondents had to give a correct and checkable name. And it’s consistent with the responses to some of the other political knowledge questions asked.

These always intrigue me – not least because, even with a ‘don’t know’ option available, so many still prefer to have a go, despite clearly having no idea whatever.

In the 2013 Hansard survey (p.32), for example, 70% touchingly thought that there’s a minimum number of days that MPs have to attend Parliament each year (in their dreams!), and 21% that we voters elect the House of Lords.

Over half reckoned that most local council spending is raised locally, through council tax – the actual figure being about 15%; and 36% believed that, if you pay council tax, you’re automatically registered to vote.

Back, though, to ‘Can you name’ questions – and the disparate ways they tend to be posed.

Our MP, MEP, or a local councillor we’re asked to name without any prompt at all. But with ministers or shadow ministers we’re usually asked to identify not a ministerial title, but a photo – which most of us find a good deal easier.

Home Secretary? Gosh, it’s on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t quite nail it. But a photo of Amber Rudd might just do it.  Shadow Home Secretary? That’s a toughie, standing out there in the street. But offered a snap of Diane Abbott and it’s almost a breeze.

Incidentally, Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative Peer and tax exile, has his own polling company and carries out numerous polls for his party, including these photo-recognition ones.

The Miliband brothers, he found, were regularly confused (by the public, that is), which is hardly surprising; nor perhaps William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, or, by far the most frequent mix-up: former Labour front-bencher Chuka Umunna and Conservative Housing Minister, Sajid Javid.

But mistaking George Osborne and Nick Clegg must surely have upset both, though possibly not as much as Jeremy Hunt being identified as Bob the Builder – or Sarah Millican being mistaken for Theresa May.

Seriously, though… the generally low responses to the standard version of the MP recognition question has long bothered my academic psephological colleagues, who reckon it significantly understates our actual, albeit background, knowledge of our MPs.

They’ve tested alternative versions of the recognition question – asking respondents to pick their MP from, say, five fake names or photographs alongside the MP’s actual name or photograph. The correct responses do indeed rise dramatically.

Here, then, is my own proposed West Midlands mayoral question: “Here are seven names (or, in this case, photos) you may or may not recognise. Can you identify which is the Mayor of the West Midlands?”

It’s probably unnecessary, but, if only to keep the editor happy (thanks, ed.), they are, from the left: Roger Lawrence – Labour Leader of Wolverhampton Council; Jess Phillips – Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley; Sajid Javid – Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government; Siôn Simon – Labour MEP and defeated mayoral candidate; Beverley Nielsen – entrepreneur, educator and defeated Lib Dem mayoral candidate; Mayor Andy Street; Ian Ward – Labour Leader of Birmingham City Council.

Dispute my selection of names, by all means, but my – obviously quite unprovable – hunch is that Street’s recognition score would be raised significantly. For the simple reason that, like me, many of us are just rubbish at remembering names.

However, having worried about this stuff for a few days, it all suddenly became a bit irrelevant, with this week’s publication by the Local Government Chronicle of its annual LGC100 ‘power list’ of those judged potentially most influential in local government in 2018.

It’s a pretty big deal in the national local government world, as I tried to indicate in my blog on last year’s list. The judges change each year, as do their priorities and prejudices, but the lists are regularly headed by D(H)CLG and other key ministers – who took the top three places last year – heads of the local government associations, CEs of major authorities, and the like.

Highest local politician last year was London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, at No.10, followed by Andy Burnham, then Labour candidate for the Greater Manchester mayoralty, but previously a leading and nationally known minister.

This year things are a bit different. No.1 is from outside the local government world altogether – Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England. Highest minister is Sajid Javid at No.5, followed at No.6 by … yes, Mayor Andy Street, leaving in his proverbial slipstream Sadiq Khan at 18 and Andy Burnham at 20. (Also worth noting that WMCA chief executive Deborah Cadman comes in at 10, ed.).

No other elected mayors make the top 40 of the list, which is one of the points that will no doubt be raised in subsequent more detailed coverages of the rankings and their significance. This blog, however, concludes simply with congratulations to Mayor Street, whose suggested public profile problems suddenly seem a good deal lighter.

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