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The tight race for West Midlands mayor could have national significance

Written by on 18 April 2021

Of the hundreds of elections taking place on 6 May, few could be more important than the race to be mayor of the West Midlands.

Likely to be a tight two-way fight between Conservative incumbent Andy Street and his Labour challenger Liam Byrne, it is a race that could have national significance.

The elections next month will be the first since Sir Keir Starmer became Labour leader last year, and the pressure is on for him to show progress has been made since the party’s drubbing in the 2019 General Election.

The West Midlands is a key battleground.

Liam Byrne Image: Labour candidate Liam Byrne

In 2019, 14 of the House of Commons seats in the region – the largest city region in the UK outside London with a population of nearly three million – were won by Labour.

The other 14 voted Conservative. Nearly 1.2 million votes were cast, but fewer than 3,000 separated the two parties.

As in other parts of England, Boris Johnson knocked chunks out of Labour’s “Red Wall” in the West Midlands.

Six Labour seats in Birmingham and the surrounding area, some of which had been red for decades, turned Conservative blue.

Now, Sir Keir needs to prove that he’s the man to win them back.

“I think most people in the Labour movement know that the race in the West Midlands is probably the most important race this year that Labour contends,” the party’s candidate Liam Byrne has told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

“The defeat that we had in December 2019 was really significant and a lot of people have underestimated the depth of that defeat.”

Despite that, he is confident.

Andy Street Image: Incumbent Conservative candidate Andy Street

Asked by Ridge if he is anticipating a comfortable victory, he was clear: “Yes. We’ve found door-knocking has gone really well. We’ll do well.”

His election message is about one thing: “The number one issue by a mile is jobs, jobs, jobs.

“People are worried about the economy, the livelihoods of small business and how we get back on our feet as fast as possible.”

Andy Street, who narrowly won the 2017 election to become the region’s first mayor and thinks the race will once again be “very, very close”, agrees about the importance of prioritising recovery from coronavirus.

“I think there’s one overwhelming issue and that’s how we’re going to bounce back from the pandemic,” he tells Ridge.

“This was a region that was performing very well before the pandemic but we’ve had a horrible swipe left. The big question is who is going to lead the economic recovery of this region.”

West Midlands Image: Six Labour seats in Birmingham turned Tory at the last election

As Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer go head-to-head in an election for the first time, it is tight races like this that will give the clearest indication of which leader the public believes has fared better over the past year.

It could also go some way to answering the biggest question ahead of the next general election: can Johnson keep hold of ‘red wall’ voters he won in 2019? Or can Starmer lure them back to Labour and start rebuilding the wall?

Liam Byrne believes those former Labour voters backed the Conservatives in 2019 because they wanted Brexit done and they didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn.

With Brexit completed and Corbyn gone, he expects them to return to the fold.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at prime ministers questions Image: Prime Minister Boris Johnson knocked chunks out of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ at the 2019 election Sir Keir Starmer Image: How well Labour fares locally will reveal how much progress Sir Keir Starmer has made

Andy Street disagrees. For him, the red wall turned blue because of “something much, much deeper”, namely that “Conservatives deliver in areas that have been left behind”.

Only one of their analyses can be right.

As Bronwen Maddox from the Institute for Government explains, losing this race will be a blow to either party.

“It will be a setback for the government if they don’t hold this,” she says.

“But it is [also] the kind of place where Keir Starmer has to show that he’s getting through to people, that he’s got something to say.”

As the election results trickle in over the second weekend of May, keep an eye on the West Midlands.

Who comes first in England’s second city could tell us quite a lot about what the future holds for Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer.

West Midlands mayoral candidates:
Labour – Liam Byrne
Conservative – Andy Street
Liberal Democrat – Jenny Wilkinson
Green – Steve Caudwell
Pete Durnell – Reform UK

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