Andy Westwood, Director of the University of Wolverhampton Observatory, blogs about what a Mayor means for the West Midlands.
The West Midlands – like Merseyside, Greater Manchester, the Tees Valley and the East of England – will be electing their first ‘metro mayor’ on 4th May. Depending on who you talk to this is the either the first stage of a devolution revolution restoring both the pride and economic performance of our city regions or it’s a waste of time and money adding an unnecessary layer to local government. Both of these outcomes feel like possibilities depending on what happens after mayors take office. Can they make a difference? What impact will they have? And who is likely to become the West Midland’s first ‘Metro Mayor?’
The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) already exists as in each of these places and although each have slightly different sets of powers and accountabilities according to the devolution deals struck with Government, all have agendas around planning, economic development, skills and infrastructure. Unsurprisingly given that the idea of city region mayors originally came from George Osborne, the deals negotiated with the Treasury make economic growth central to Mayoral objectives and to the candidates’ campaigns.
But they will have quite a job on their hands. Productivity levels in the West Midlands are some 10% below the national average. According to WMCA, productivity – measured by output per hour – is still 16% behind pre-crisis trend levels. There is a net deficit of public spending over tax income of some £3.9bn (tax income is estimated to be £30.7bn and public expenditure £34.6bn). Reversing this longstanding trend will require long term action. One of several key constraints is the poor level of skills in the region – with one of the lowest proportions of graduates and the highest numbers of people without any qualifications at all. If the skills profile of the area matched the England average annual GVA in the area could increase by as much as £22bn.
So improving technical skills and supporting key sectors such as manufacturing, science and engineering will be amongst the best bets for filling the region’s output gap as well as improving productivity and increasing the number of skilled jobs across the West Midlands. Better transport and infrastructure will relieve daily frustrations and reverse longstanding underinvestment, but the main reason to prioritise it is to move people, services and products more quickly and efficiently around (as well as to and from) the region.
All of the candidates are pledging to seek more powers and resources in each of these important areas. So from nationalising the M6 Toll road to reopening disused train and tram lines, it is likely that a key part of the job will entail lobbying Westminster for even more new powers. Devolution will be a dynamic and not a fixed process and the Mayor will be looking to increase their responsibilities, budgets and decisions whilst in office. But given that the challenges of poor infrastructure, low skills and poor productivity go back many decades, it will be practically difficult for any of the candidates to solve them in what is only an initial three year term.
Electorally it looks like Labour’s to lose. Of the 28 parliamentary constituencies in the West Midlands, 21 are currently held by Labour and only 7 by the Conservatives. None by Lib Dems, UKIP or the Greens although each have a small number of councillors across the region. For the local councils that make up the WMCA, it is even more strongly in Labour’s favour with Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry and Sandwell all controlled by Labour, Walsall led by Labour in coalition with the Lib Dems, Dudley with no overall control, but Labour led and only Solihull currently controlled by the Conservatives.
In the most recent set of elections – the General Election in 2015 and local council elections in 2016, Labour took 42.5% and 47% respectively and the Conservatives 33.1% and 28%. Of the other parties, the Lib Dems received 5.5% and 7.4%, the Greens 2.9% and 5.3% and UKIP 15.5% and 10.3%. Turnout may not reach the heights of either and might be closer to those for Police and Crime Commissioners. In 2012 the Election for Police and Crime Commissioner was won by Labour’s Bob Jones with 42% of the vote and following his death in 2014, by David Jamieson with 51%. The turnouts were 12% and then 10% respectively.
At the recent hustings organised by the Express & Star, the candidates seemed to agree that it might be somewhere in the low 20% region though Andy Street who could benefit more from a larger turnout, hoped it might be somewhere nearer 30%. But as recent by-elections and the national polls show, Labour are also capable of losing. The EU Referendum casts a long shadow over all recent voting with 52% nationally and in the West Midlands voting to leave. But in some areas and especially in the Black Country, it was much higher with Dudley and Walsall (68%), Sandwell (67%) and Wolverhampton (63%), all voting overwhelmingly for Brexit.
The Referendum result recalls the 2014 European election results in the West Midlands, when a turnout of 34.2%, gave UKIP a winning proportion of 31.5%, Labour came second with 26.7%, the Conservatives 24.3%, Lib Dems 5.6% and Greens 5.3%. Coincidentally this was the election that saw Sion Simon elected as an MEP. Both the 2014 elections and the 2016 referendum have obviously had a impact on how Sion is organising his campaign and the choices made by those that voted leave and those that have voted for UKIP could prove decisive.
In that context, both Andy Street and Sion Simon will look at the recent by-elections and find positives. Andy Street because Copeland showed that the Conservatives, even as the governing party nationally, can still be seen as insurgents and also that given sight of a win, they will put serious resources into his campaign. The day after the Budget, Philip Hammond spoke to the BBC from Dudley before going on to meet Street in Birmingham. Expect many more visits to the West Midlands from fellow cabinet ministers between now and the 4th May.
Sion Simon will be rather more enthusiastic about the result in Stoke. A Midlands city (sort of) that looks and feels more like the towns in the West Midlands and with a similar voting record in both general elections and the EU Referendum. In it, Labour still saw off UKIP and its leader Paul Nuttall despite the local electorate’s concerns over the leadership and the party’s uncertain stance on either Brexit or immigration. He may prefer it if some of Labour’s most senior figures stay well away.
Voters get to choose a first and second preference for Mayor and it’s tricky to determine the effect of this on the result. Up to now the parties of the other candidates have had little electoral success and only small proportions of the vote. But in the wake of Brexit and a strong vote to leave across the West Midlands, the UKIP second preferences could be significant. That may account for Sion Simon’s ‘take back control’ slogan, though many UKIP or Leave voters might also be expected to support Andy Street as part of a Conservative governing party determined to get on with a speedy Brexit.
The bookmakers make Andy Street a slight favourite. According to the Express & Star, four out of every five bets are being placed on an Andy Street win. At the start of the campaign he had odds of 2/1. But he is now available to back at a best price of 1/2, with Sion Simon 6/4 and Beverley Nielsen 50/1.
It’s certainly a tough election to call. Turnout looks like it could be low and that might favour Sion Simon and Labour’s strong organisation on the ground. But the choices and second preferences of those that either voted leave in the referendum or UKIP in recent elections could prove decisive and tip the balance in the direction of either main candidate. In turn that could focus more campaigning interest on the Black Country where support for leave was strongest and where skills, productivity, infrastructure investment and employment levels are amongst the lowest in the region and the country. Who wins may well come down to who is most convincing in promising change in Wolverhampton and the Black Country. Then the winner will have to follow up any promises with ideas and policies that make a real difference. Winning the Mayoral election may be the easiest part.
A West Midlands Mayoral Election event covering Wolverhampton involving all candidates will be held at the University of Wolverhampton on Monday 24th April 2017 starting at 6.00 pm. More information on booking will be available soon.