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Why May believes next May’s mayoral election is wide open

Why May believes next May’s mayoral election is wide open

🕔05.Sep 2016

Chris Game, from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies, does the electoral math and sums up why the Conservatives could be Street ahead at the metro mayor election. 

Perhaps fittingly for a vicar’s daughter, Theresa May has seemed to move in some mysterious ways, her promised devolutionary wonders to perform.

For the first month of her Premiership she said virtually nothing – which at least was understandable: other Brexity stuff to do, holidays to plan, etc.

But then she interrupted her own Swiss mountain climbing holiday to write for the Birmingham Mail – or have “penned in her name”, as the Chamberlain Files phrased it.  It described her “plan to build a Midlands Engine, that “starts by devolving powers to the West Midlands and giving you a powerful new voice by creating an elected mayor next May.”

The mayor bit wasn’t exactly news; still, it was good to learn that the new PM seemingly approved of metro mayors. But perhaps most significant was her decision – or that of her amanuensis – to name-check and generally big-up one of the two likely hopefuls for the Conservative mayoral candidacy:

The region is already showing what can be done when we all work together.

Businesses and local authorities in the Local Enterprise Partnership – led by Andy Street, the Managing Director of John Lewis – have come together with government support to create a brilliant new project that’s helping place unemployed people in work placements and jobs. They’ve already helped more than 15,000 people. This adds to the success of the 82,000 private sector jobs created in the area since 2010.

Presumably a shortage of space kept out an equivalent name-check for the man who is posed to be Street’s main rival for the candidacy, Cllr Les Jones. He could, at least, give the experienced businessman but electoral novice some hints on fighting and winning West Midlands elections, having been a Dudley councillor for nearly two decades, Council Leader, and two-time candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner.

Anyway, having just endorsed the principle of metro mayors, it seemed odd for the still holidaying PM just days later to have another story placed in The Times – and reported in the Chamberlain Files – announcing her intention to “ditch George Osborne’s policy of directly elected mayors for city regions, partly to avoid Labour using them as a platform for a revival in its heartlands”.

A story which was immediately and variously rubbished, reinterpreted, and generally downplayed by everyone from Lord Heseltine and Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers to the omnipresent “another source”.

If you tried following this stuff assiduously, it was undeniably confusing. However, if you’re satisfied with the headlines, several things seem to have become clear.

Devolution and even devolution deals are still on the cards, but in a less top-down, more flexible, diverse and probably more limited form than under George Osborne’s orchestration.

Elected mayors won’t be the only form of acceptable governance – certainly not for county-based deals and possibly not even for future city region deals.

Greater Manchester and Liverpool Region will almost certainly be led from next May by Labour metro mayors with parliamentary and government experience. But not much else should be considered set in stone – witness Friday’s reports that the North East devo deal, on paper a safer bet to produce a Labour mayoralty than Greater Manchester, could “collapse completely” at next Tuesday’s meeting of council leaders.

The West Midlands mayoralty, meanwhile, given a combination of a half-split, Corbyn-led Labour Party, Andy Street as a ‘non-politician’ candidate, and possibly some high-profile electioneering from the PM in person, is, she evidently reckons, winnable by the Conservatives. A huge prize in itself, it would also give them a counter-balance to Labour’s control of London and the north-west.

What’s more, she’s not the only one. Last Thursday, the independent urban policy research unit, Centre for Cities, produced a projection of next year’s metro mayoral contests on the basis of the respective areas’ 2015 General Election results. The unit’s Chief Executive, Alexandra Jones, suggested that:

…while Labour should expect to win most battles, Conservative candidates should not be discounted everywhere.

There are currently seven Combined Authorities expected to elect their first metro mayors next May, in three of which Labour had apparently unbeatable leads over the Conservatives in 2015 of over 20% – Liverpool City Region 41%, Sheffield City Region 29%, and the North East 23%.

In Greater Manchester Labour’s lead was nearly 20%, in Tees Valley 13%, and in the West Midlands 9.4%, as shown in the first chart below. The seventh, if you’re counting, is the West of England (the one-time County of Avon), where the Conservatives had a 9% lead in 2015.

WMCA 2015 G Election

Setting out the figures in this form is useful. First, they confirm what we’re used to being reminded of in almost every General Election: that while, as a standard English region with currently 59 MPs, the West Midlands will usually quite closely match the party politics of England as a whole, that overall picture is an almost accidental balance of a strongly Labour metropolitan core and an equally strongly Conservative periphery.

In 2015, across the region, the Conservatives won 42% of the vote to Labour’s 33% and 34 MPs to Labour’s 25. Over five-sixths (21) of Labour’s 25, though, were/are in the metropolitan county or metro mayor area.

This lop-sided representation – with, of course, not one MP across the whole region representing the more than 25% of votes cast for all the other parties – means that those of us living in the metropolitan area tend almost instinctively to think of it as being overwhelmingly Labour.

The actual voting figures are a useful reminder that, though our parliamentary representatives may be, we voters aren’t, to anything like the same extent.

As a supporter of electoral reform and proportional representation, I regularly point out that over half of all our 650 MPs were elected on minority votes – less than 50% of the votes cast and counted. But, as shown in the final column of the table below, among the Labour MPs in the metropolitan West Midlands it’s 13 of the 21, or getting on for two-thirds.

WMCA MPs

In short, the metropolitan West Midlands is nothing like the Labour stronghold that some recent reports have been suggesting.

Even without all the other considerations that will no doubt be discussed on these pages in the months to come – Labour’s ability to get out even its 2015-level vote, the Conservatives’ usually better record of getting their supporters out in non-parliamentary elections, the impact of a high-vis candidate like Andy Street – this particular mayoral election is anything but a done deal for Labour.

Which is no doubt why the John Lewis boss is hot favourite for the Conservative nomination, and why, as reported last week by Paul Dale, there’s a convenient Sunday afternoon slot in the party’s early October Conference programme for him (if it be he) to be “anointed” by the PM herself.  So, on reflection, perhaps her ways aren’t that mysterious after all.

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