Who has the spark to light the Midlands Engine?
Next May the public will elect the first West Midlands Metro Mayor and in doing so vote into office a powerful new political figure – but do they know or care? Are they underwhelmed or simply uninformed?
An elected mayor was a condition of the creation of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) whose members are the seven metropolitan authorities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull and Walsall. Three local LEPs and neighbouring local authorities have varying degrees of membership too.
The WMCA area has a population of four million people, making it the largest combined authority in the UK. The region once known as the ‘Workshop of the World’ has an economy worth £80 billion a year but also carries an unemployment rate of 9.3%. The new Mayor can expect to have a substantial ‘to do’ list.
Arguably this is the least predictable of the mayoral elections taking place next May. The 2015 General Election results place the Conservatives only 9% behind Labour across the WMCA area.
So, who are the candidates?
The Conservatives have chosen former John Lewis boss, Andy Street, who brings an impressive track record in business. It’s not clear yet if he’ll be able to convert that success to the political stage, but the Prime Minister has taken a keen interest in ‘Greater Birmingham’, and senior Tories think they stand a real chance of winning.
Labour has selected MEP Siôn Simon. Simon stood down from his Birmingham Erdington parliamentary seat in 2010 to campaign for an elected mayor for Birmingham – so no lack of commitment to there!
Beverley Nielson is the Liberal Democrat choice and a former director of CBI West Midlands, chief executive at the Heart of England Tourist Board and an Associate Professor at Birmingham City University. Representing the Green Party on the ballot paper will be James Burn who is leader of the opposition on Solihull Borough Council. Other candidates are likely to emerge over the coming months but one who definitely won’t be throwing his hat into the ring is Lord Digby Jones who has ruled himself out.
Who is likely to win?
Declared candidates are already engaged with the business community and opinion formers. Manifestos are being refined and messaging tested. Candidates will become more visible and need to speak directly to the public. A strong offer around job creation, training opportunities and transport investment is likely to feature prominently across the campaigns.