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Who can beat the Street?

Who can beat the Street?

🕔14.Jun 2019

You could be forgiven for not realising we are in the foothills of the very long run in to the West Midlands Mayoral election, not least with the distraction of the horror show that is the Conservative Party leadership contest writes Kevin Johnson

Who will face Mr Street on 7 May 2020? For Labour, it seems it will come down to former Dudley council leader Pete Lowe or Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne. Former MP Lynda Waltho is also campaigning and there’s time for others to step forward.

As with so much in politics today, it’s impossible to predict with any certainty – not least as the selection process is not in place and it appears Labour’s ruling body, the National Executive Committee, and the party’s regional board will first tackle the selection of a candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner.

Mr Byrne was first out of the tracks. He’s been in campaign mode for some months, not least on the issue of foodbanks, and has been carefully re-positioning his political image from one characterised by a background at Havard and Rothschilds and support for Tony Blair that proved imitation is the finest form of flattery.

Mr Byrne is certainly injecting a level of energy which varies by a quantum to that of the man he helped in the latter stages of the last Mayoral election.

His social media game is strong, including the latest video on ‘Austerity Street’. It starts with an easy hit on the Chancellor’s recent assertion that the idea vast numbers of people are facing “dire poverty” is “nonsense.” In 2010, Mr Byrne’s infamous “no money” note was intended for a man he knew well. But the Coalition meant it was a Lib Dem not Philip Hammond who then succeeded him as Chief Secretary.

Cllr Lowe is to the left of Mr Byrne and is steeped in the union movement, the NHS and local government. He may not have the lectern oratory or media experience of his rival, but he is an effective ground campaigner. He’s positioning himself as more radical and has a focus on public transport costs, an environmental revolution and a turnaround in local government funding.

Mr Byrne, too, is committed to environmental policies. Proposals include a municipal energy company which comes as something of a surprise given the challenges that councils have faced in trying to establish such enterprises.

Unions are coming out in favour of Cllr Lowe, but he does not have as much support from leading councillors across the region as once hoped given recent changes in several local authorities and the work done by My Byrne with council leaders.

As well as underlining his union bone fides, Cllr Lowe will also stress his Black Country credentials in contrast to his Birmingham adversaries.

Early endorsement of Mr Byrne from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell came as a surprise to many. Momentum has sought to reverse the support, but Chamberlain Files understands Mr McDonnell’s backing came unprompted. It is possibly a sign of how Mr Corbyn’s right hand man is reaching across the party spectrum ahead of the next General Election and a tilt at the top job once his long-time comrade retires to the allotment.

Without a selection timetable in place, it is difficult for potential candidates to plan their campaigns which must first target the Labour selectorate before engaging the wider electorate.

It is already striking how Mayoral campaigns are touching on policy areas that sit outside formal mayoral competencies.

The last Mayoral contest – and the General Election that followed – seemed to suggest we were back to two party politics. That appears to have be been blown apart in more recent elections and polling, but who knows how the pieces will fall in 11 months given the fractious state of our politics.

It’s difficult to predict with any certainty how the Brexit Party and Lib Dems will affect the next West Midlands election. The 2017 election was not kind to Green and Lib Dem candidates given their commitment to the campaign. Maybe 2020 will give a fairer representation.

Mayor Street, meanwhile, has been pushing his work on High Streets and proposals on Business Rates as well as the rollout of the Local Industrial Strategy.

Mr Street surprised many with his last victory, not least himself. Part of his success was due to a very effective campaign managed by experienced Conservative Party staffers and activists.

But the Conservative brand has been significantly tarnished in the last two years. It’s possible, I suppose, that it will recover in the months to come, under the leadership of Boris Johnson and a brilliantly managed exit from the EU. Politics is full of surprises, after all…..

It is notable that Mr Street is not endorsing a candidate but has set out seven tests he is applying to the wannabe leaders. No wonder he is not tying his colours to a Conservative colleague when the tests include backing HS2, tackling the need for foodbanks and appropriate funding for local services.

Mayor Street, who stood on a platform of ‘Urban Conservatism’, places much store in loyalty. An old-fashioned value in politics, perhaps. His support for PM May and her Brexit deal may prove costly. The green-edged flavour of his successful 2017 campaign has taken on a bluer tinge in office. The prospect of Boris the Buffon in No 10 and a No Deal Brexit may be too much for this liberal Conservative.

The progress of the West Midlands economy in recent years has been, in part, due to the promise of HS2 and success at JLR. Without overstatement, there are increasing risks to both endeavours. Add in a No Deal Brexit – or at least prolonged uncertainty – and the optimistic outlook of the Street Mayoralty may be more difficult to sustain.

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Mrs May took the opportunity presented by Andy Street’s friend Michael Fabricant MP to congratulate the Mayor on the first Local Industrial Strategy and his birthday. Mrs May is on her way. Liam Byrne and Pete Lowe will be hoping there are no more happy returns for Andy Street.

They say Boris is the only person who can beat Boris. For Andy, the blue rosette might be his undoing.

Pic: Mayor Andy Street appearing at Treasury Select Committee

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