Cameron Beavan-King discusses the upcoming mayoral election in the West Midlands, the themes of Liam Byrne's campaign, and why it matters for Labour nationally.
Four years ago, the West Midlands, covering Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell, and Solihull, voted for never-knowingly under-photographed Conservative Andy Street to be the first Mayor of the West Midlands.
If defeated in May by Labour’s former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, then Street’s legacy will be one of just a few new miles of tram track in the city centre and the closing down of John Lewis’s flagship Birmingham store in New Street Station. The latter being particularly embarrassing for Street as the former Managing Director of John Lewis. Street has often argued that being a Conservative means he can do business with the Government to bring investment into the West Midlands. However, just last year transport spending per head in the West Midlands region was only £462 compared to £903 in London.
We can and must be more ambitious for our region. Birmingham and the West Midlands has a proud history of radical local government. At the close of the 19th Century, non-conformist preacher George Dawson espoused his Civic Gospel to his congregation in Birmingham. Amongst them the future Mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain.
Chamberlain transformed Birmingham through the municipalisation of private utilities, such as gas and water, not only to strengthen the city’s finances but to dramatically improve the provision of services to residents. He would invest in new public spaces, civic buildings, and services, which not only made Birmingham an attractive place to start a business but improved the social fabric that weaved the city together and encapsulated his view that local government was a ‘co-operative enterprise in which every citizen is a shareholder’. Birmingham would be proclaimed the ‘best-governed city in the world’.
If elected, Liam Byrne can take important steps to mandate Transport for the West Midlands to begin the process of decarbonising our network. We must also be ambitious in investing and developing the network; expanding the tram lines, and ensuring we have a true network rather than just a hub and spoke model connecting places to Birmingham New Street.
With a Labour Mayor, we can create a new Office of Community Wealth Building to coordinate a procurement spend of twenty-five billion to boost social value and the local economy; a new West Midlands Peoples’ Bank to secure finance for small and medium-sized businesses and develop the new industries of the future, and a new Green Development Corporation to kickstart the construction of eco-council homes for an affordable rent and create good jobs that provide dignity for workers and their families. The West Midlands can lead the way to create shared prosperity and in a green and sustainable way.
In May, we have the opportunity in the West Midlands to set a new course; to unleash a new Civic Gospel and lead the Green Industrial Revolution. George Dawson said towns were solemn organisms, through which flow the highest ends of man’s moral nature. This is a moral endeavour of civic renewal to create a region that works for everyone. We live in difficult times but that only strengthens the need for bold and radical ideas. This agenda matters because it paves the road back to Downing Street.
There are twenty-eight constituencies covered by the West Midlands Combined Authority. In the last election, they split fourteen to both Labour and the Conservatives. Of those twenty-eight, five are Conservative-held with majorities of less than five thousand. They are all fallen bricks of the Red Wall.
If Liam Byrne wins, this won’t just be a victory for Labour in an urban metropolis; it will be a victory for Labour against an incumbent Conservative Mayor, and it will be a victory for Labour by appealing to former Labour voters in Wolverhampton, Walsall, and Dudley, who backed Boris Johnson last year. It will be a crucial test of Keir Starmer and one he cannot afford to fail if he wants to be the next Prime Minister.
Cameron Beavan-King is the Vice-Chair of the West Midlands Young Fabians. He tweets at @CamBeavanKing