What the West Midlands mayoral elections mean for the rest of the country

Ahyan Sikandar - Apr. 6, 2024 - 4 min read - #Politics

In under a month’s time, on the 2nd of May 2024, the constituents of the 7 main councils that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) will have the opportunity to take to the polls and elect their mayor, whether that be the continuation of Tory leadership in the form of Andy Street or a new vision from the challengers. Although the WMCA makes up just under 2.2% of the UK’s population, the result of this election could decide what direction the incumbent Conservative government will go in the general election coming up this year.

The WMCA encompasses seven constituent authorities: Birmingham, Sandwell, Solihull, Coventry, Walsall, Dudley and Wolverhampton as well as a further 10 neighbouring authorities that are ‘non-constituent members’ with fewer voting rights. These will not be voting in the election of the WMCA Mayor. The party politics within the combined authority is almost as split in two as it could be, with Labour currently controlling 4 councils - Birmingham, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and the furthest east in Coventry; whilst the Conservatives control 3. This paints a shootout between the two major parties in Britain for the position. But who are the candidates?

The current mayor and perhaps the most well known amongst the candidates is Andy Street. The representative of the Conservative Party and former John Lewis CEO is thus far undefeated in mayoral elections having won in 2017 and 2021. Street is a man of immense character in the region and appeals to many of the traditional left wing with his perhaps more liberal view on many key social issues. Although no official manifesto has, as of yet, been released his main priorities from the past include supporting Birmingham and Coventry city centres as centres of knowledge based jobs; getting people back to employment; and improving the bus network. His biggest challenger will come from Labour’s Richard Parker. Parker, like Street, has a corporate background having worked at PwC for the 26 years between 1989 and 2015, most notably managing the company's relationship with Labour’s shadow government during the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. He has previously stated that, if elected, he would take back public control of the bus network, give better pay to the WMCA staff (perhaps sparked by the fair pay scandal that rocked his party’s Birmingham city council) and move the net zero deadline closer - from 2041 to 2035. The perhaps more minor parties in the region have also put forward their own representatives; the Lib Dem’s opting for their candidate from the Tamworth By-election, Sunny Virk - a barrister by trade; Reform chose someone else in the legal profession in Elaine Williams; whilst the Greens went for Siobhan Harper-Nunes - vice-chair of the Birmingham Race Impact Group.

The biggest talking point from this election will be based around how Andy Street does. His green branding and centre right politics aims to set him apart from the floundering Conservative Parliamentary Party. He’s keen to say that first and foremost he is a Mayor who incidentally happens to be a member of the Tory Party - something his Twitter bio has no mention of. When May 2nd rolls around he hopes voters see him as an individual first, a staunch representative of the West Midlands and not a cog in the Conservative Party machine. Street has in the past walked the walk in this regard threatening to not welcome Liz Truss into the Tory conference hosted in his own city over a dispute regarding the unspent £90 million from the 2022 Commonwealth Games as well as more recently calling the decision to scrap the northern leg of HS2 as a ‘betrayal’. Should he win the election it could see Sunak move towards a more central policy position as Britain heads into an election his party is almost bound to lose. Street has previously won unwinnable polls with him winning the spot as the Tory candidate in 2017 unchallenged due to the fact everyone else had no confidence in beating Labour in a traditional red wall region. Maintaining his position during a crisis within his party would be remarkable but equally remarkable would be losing. As the WMCA’s only ever mayor his position looks impressively strong and a failure to deliver on May 2nd could make the echoes of the noisy far right within the party impossibly loud, making Street an unlikely bastion for their hopes of a Reform UK-esque manifesto.

On the other hand, Richard Parker embodies the Labour Party’s safe and steady approach to ending 14 years of Tory rule. However, with this mindset almost set in stone, there’s little doubt that this election will mean more for the Conservatives than Labour. It could well and truly be an audition and, if they do well, a dress-rehearsal for the centre-right.