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What did the circus leave behind?

What did the circus leave behind?

🕔10.Oct 2016

So, the conference circus has left town and won’t be back for another two years. Just what joy did it leave in its trail, asks Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson?

Wander around Broad Street and Brindleyplace (sorry, Westside to you Mike Olley) or tune into political coverage of any kind last week, and you couldn’t help trip over the words Midlands Engine, Joseph Chamberlain and Andy Street. It’s hard to imagine such positivity from the lips of leading politicians and in the media just a few months, never mind years, ago.

Together with all the positive imagery of our city staging a major event for the governing class and their supporters, there can be little doubt it was a good week for Birmingham. Sure, the experience of politicians blocking our roads and bringing scores more armed officers onto the streets is not for everyone, especially opponents of Conservatives. But the opportunity to position Birmingham as part of the political optics and extended chances to lobby ministers should not be underestimated.

We are helped hugely, in my view, by the fact we now have ambassadors and spokesmen (er, yes mainly men…that could do with some rapid re-balancing) in the shape of Sir John Peace, Cllr Bob Sleigh, Andy Street, (more of him in a moment), Steve Hollis and Cllr John Clancy in whom we can have confidence championing our interests. Turn a corner in the ICC, and up one of them would pop on some panel or other. A Conservative Party Conference is obviously the natural habitat for the Solihull leader and WMCA chair, but the sight of Birmingham’s leader putting political loyalties to one side and striding amidst the Tories would probably give the Corbynista wing palpations.

Yes, Andy Street. If there was one clear message ringing out from this conference in local terms, it was that the former GBSLEP chair has the full throated backing of the PM and her party in the forthcoming mayoral contest. What’s more, they think he can win.

He can, indeed, win. But it is far from guaranteed. In fact, it’s going to be very tough for any Tory to win in the metropolitan West Midlands. The Conservatives are right to draw strength from research that shows he needs less than a 5% swing based on voting at the last parliamentary General Election. But that’s still difficult and doesn’t take account of the peculiarities of this election, not least the great unknown that is turnout in the first ballot of its kind, when no other vote is taking place, for a role that does not have widespread public understanding or support (yet).

The enthusiastic applause seeping from Symphony Hall (of which Mr Street happens to be a trustee) is perfectly understandable from his own party. But, as I walked around the conference zone as well as up and down Colmore Row on a daily basis, the support and excitement surrounding Andy Street’s candidature is palpable, but would be concerning if I were his campaign manager.

I see entirely why the business community is turned on by the prospect of the mayor being the man who has made such a success of GBSLEP and John Lewis. He’s a very accomplished performer on a platform, highly personable and personally impressive and has a great Brummie back story. He may well make a great mayor. In my view, his trump card will be his access to, and confidence he has of, a government that is likely to be in office for a good while.

But, many of these assets will mean nothing to hundreds of thousands of voters who are either unlikely to turn out at all or who will vote for Siôn Simon or any Labour candidate in a heartbeat. I know that Mr Simon does not excite many in Birmingham’s posher bars and restaurants, but a seasoned politician and campaigner who has been trying to be mayor of somewhere for years is not going to be beaten easily. His trump card will be years of policy and campaign preparation and a well ordered ‘get out the vote’ operation.

That we have a mayoral contest in play and some credible candidates is now a given. That in itself is huge progress. If nothing else, last week also underlined the governing party’s support for devolution as well as HS2. There is a real sense that our area (in its different forms) has momentum and has emerged from the shadow of the Northern Powerhouse.

Midlands Engine, Midlands Connect, WMCA and GBSLEP were all out in force hammering home their messages and lobbying like their lives depended on it last week. But the overlapping of these different layers of the devolution cake is going to be increasingly difficult to communicate and understand. GBSLEP has done a good job in graphically highlighting the distinctive roles of the Midlands, West Midlands and Greater Birmingham institutions, but for anyone other than devo aficionados it remains a gooey mess.

Having a party conference take up residence for a few days provides unique opportunities to show off and break bread. City and regional political leaders and some senior business figures certainly took advantage of that. However, I know I’m not alone in thinking we should extend that opportunity even further in two years’ time.

Political jamborees are curious affairs which are difficult to navigate for first timers. You not only need a good map, a timetable and vast quantities of caffeine/alcohol, but to tune into a different mindset and ecosystem in order to extract value from the experience. Which is all fine for political nerds and those business and civil leaders who are used to taking a deep breath and jumping in.

I hope we can develop even more interest in the next conference amongst a wider circle that goes beyond the political institutions and seasoned lobbyists. There were times last week when I sensed Birmingham doing what it does best, talking to itself with one or two ministers and others thrown in. As Paul Dale described it in our preview, conferences and the fringe in particular are where politics happens in the raw. I believe we (including here at the Files) should try even harder next time to engage many more in the exercise.

In those intervening two years, we’ll have elected a mayor, HS2 legislation will be fully in place and the project will have moved from words to shovels and Brexit will be, perhaps, months from meaning Brexit. That’s quite a thought.

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