On the ground with Andy Street in Birmingham


TO BIRMINGHAM to look at the state of the race to become mayor of the West Midlands (to be decided on May 4th)—and to take the temperature of the most important swing region in the general election on June 8th. When I asked for a return ticket to Birmingham the ticket seller replied grimly that “nobody ever asks for a one-way ticket”. The city is recovering haltingly after decades of poor management and industrial decline: New Street Train Station is a buzzing shopping complex. A new tram service links the town centre to the Black Country. The Jaguar Land Rover car plant is working overtime, providing China with four-wheel-drive status symbols. But the scars of the years of decline are nevertheless visible everywhere.

The mayor’s race pits two very different politicians against each other. The Conservative candidate, Andy Street, is a Birmingham-bred businessman who ran John Lewis for nine years and gave up the top job in order to run for mayor. The Labour candidate, Sion Simon, is a professional politician—a former MP and MEP—and a card-carrying member of the Labour’s West-Midland “mafia”, which includes the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, that has run the region for decades. I must admit that I find Mr Street the more compelling candidate. Britain is engaging in an important political experiment on May 4th: creating six new positions as “regional” mayors who will be responsible for running broad regions rather than sitting on top of city councils. The West Midlands includes big industrial cities, such as Birmingham and Coventry, and has a population of 2.8m people, more than Wales and about half as many as Scotland. This is an attempt to deal with Britain’s over-centralisation and constitutes one of the most admirable legacies of the Cameron-Osborne years. But it also has another great virtue in that it will allow the British political system to recruit new sources of talent from outside politics. Too many British politicians start off in Westminster in their mid-twenties as special advisors (Spads, in the jargon) and never have a career outside politics. Mr Street is exactly the sort of person that is needed to bring new talent into Britain’s sclerotic political system.

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