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Mayor 2020: on the right track?

Mayor 2020: on the right track?

🕔11.Feb 2020

The race to win the West Midlands mayoralty may be the election contest to watch in 2020, writes Kevin Johnson. Well, at least until the one across the pond has selected a Democrat to challenge President Trump.

As a straight battle between Conservatives and Labour, it will be used to assess whether Boris Johnson’s honeymoon is lasting (with EU trade talks then in full swing) and if Labour’s new leader (who will be announced just a month before) is having an immediate impact.

Liam Byrne won the nomination last week following a ballot of Labour Members in the West Midlands, shaking off former Dudley council leader Pete Lowe and former Respect member Salma Yaqoob.

There will be other candidates, including Beverley Nielsen for the Liberal Democrats. But recent elections – including the first West Mids Mayoral race in 2017 – would seem to suggest it will be another two horse race.

Labour’s late selection is unlikely to help Mr Bryne’s chances, whilst the surprise inclusion on the shortlist of Salma Yaqoob – backed by the Unite union and some parts of Momentum – may be hard to forget among some Labour members and supporters.

It was Pete Lowe, a former vice chairman of the WMCA, who came closest to the Hodge Hill MP and ensured second preference votes were needed.

Also last week, Andy Street effectively kicked off his campaign by unveiling a 20-year, £15billion transport plan.

Mr Street’s regional transport blueprint came just days after Birmingham city council, led by Labour’s Ian Ward who also doubles up as WMCA’s Cabinet member for transport, published its draft transport plan.

Transport could be the main battleground in this election.

In many ways it should be. The Mayor and the Combined Authority (WMCA) he chairs has far more transport powers than any other function.

Today Boris Johnson endorsed HS2, albeit with changes to follow for the northern phase and at Euston. Mr Street, who sat on the review panel, will mark that as a win for his efforts to lobby Government and put the high speed project back on track.

Time will tell if he is given political credit for persuading Conservative colleagues to re-commit to something Parliament backed after years of campaigning, legislating and planning for HS2. Conservative-led administrations have been green lighting HS2 for the last 10 years.

It’s somewhat odd observing the excitement of HS2 green signalled yet again, even after poor salesmanship, spiralling costs and months in the sidings. The project has almost replaced Brexit as the issue to divide Tories.

New stations, re-opening rail lines, metro extensions and investment in electric and driverless vehicles will form part of Mr Street’s narrative for his three years in office.

In 2017, Andy Street’s 46 page Renewal Plan was packed full of aims and ambitions.

His first Aim was:

Your commute in the West Midlands will be quicker, with less traffic, and more punctual and less crowded transport.

You probably don’t need to check the data to know that is not the experience of the region’s commuters. All information points to increased journey times, with nearly two-thirds of the region’s population expressing dissatisfaction with congestion.

According to statistics published by the Office for Data Analytics and the Black Country’s Economic Intelligence Unit, still only 43% of the region’s residents are able to access three or more strategic centres, including Birmingham city centre, by public transport within 45 mins travel time in the morning peak period.

Mr Street will point to the recently opened Regional Transport Co-ordination Centre and the Congestion Management Plan, as well as wider transport investment and ambitions.

The recent performance of West Midlands Trains led to the surreal spectacle of a tough talking Mr Street on one side and Labour’s Police and Crime Commissioner, David Jamieson, and Cllr Ward on the other preparing a public hearing.

The operator has this week been forced by the Department for Transport, not by the Mayor, councils or PCC, to spend an extra £20 million on improving services for passengers. The fundamental issues of a creaking network and a franchising system that is more outdated than a Northern Rail timetable have not disappeared.

Just in case you want a reminder of all Mr Street’s promises from three years ago, we kept a copy here.

Transport was not the defining feature of the selection battle in the regional Labour Party.

Mr Byrne’s campaign focussed around the impact of austerity, rising homelessness and rough sleeping and his Green Industrial Strategy.

Cllr Lowe emphasised his links to the trade union movement, his Black Country roots, socialist policies as well as diversity and inclusiveness. The Green agenda and social justice were also key to Ms Yaqoob’s plans, which included transport, but her campaign did not benefit from the same level of understanding about the mayoral office.

So, will transport drive this election? In a YouGov survey of the top national issues facing the country last week, transport was ranked 12th.

Or will it be more about national politics, personalities or other policies like housing and skills?

Will the Boris honeymoon still be playing out in May? Will the HS2 decision, a Budget Bonanza next month and the promise of “levelling up” play into Mr Street’s record and future ambitions to see him returned?

Perhaps more importantly, who knows about a Mayor of the West Midlands?

How far has a Mayor, this Mayor, reached and impacted the people of the West Midlands?

Awareness and turnout could be the real issue in this election, not the slight differences between left of centre and right of centre white, male, middle-aged and established politicians.

One other aim in Mr Street’s Renewal Plan was to increase turnout between 2017 and 2020 by 5%. That feels quite a challenge.

Labour’s General Election strategy was to avoid Brexit (don’t mention the war) and try to swing the result by promising to save the NHS and give us all free fast broadband. That didn’t work so well, not least due to personality and the credibility of promises.

Mr Byrne is a far more energetic campaigner than the 2017 candidate, Siôn Simon. Will he pick the issues on which to fight and attract more attention to this election?

Time will tell if transport, including today’s HS2 decision, is the main platform in the Race for Mayor 2020.

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