The Strange Case of the West Midlands Mayoral Campaign: Lessons for All

By now you will have noticed that Labour lost the West Midlands Metro Mayor election to the Tories. Labour MEP Sion Simon narrowly lost in the second round of voting to Andy Street, up until recently MD of John Lewis and also the Chair of the Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.

In the aftermath, many of focussing on the spend of the Street campaign. Simon’s campaign started the campaign proper with a 15 point lead over the Tories according to private polling. By the time we got to a few weeks out — and before the General Election was called — that lead had been wiped out. Street’s campaign certainly had a generous budget which was ruthlessly focussed on boosting turnout in Tory areas. It was a tactic that worked. However, to focus on this alone is to ignore some serious issues that Labour needs to reflect on with some humility, issues that have a national and not just a local significance.

All Major Elections Need to be Properly Resourced

By all accounts the Labour Party coffers have been boosted significantly by membership increases but you’d never have guessed that here. Simon’s campaign was required to submit a campaign budget. The campaign was granted only 25% of what they thought was the bare minimum needed to mount an effective campaign. Very late in the day somebody nationally panicked and a load more resources were suddenly offered. However, it was just too late. The new resources could not be spent because of election campaign limits. Street had, of course, spent the bulk of his cash months ahead of time. I suspect he also spent his money carefully. We all saw the leaflets that came through every door but most of us on the left simply won’t have seen his targeted Facebook campaigning.

This financial crisis was compounded by the actions of UNITE nationally who — it is said — blocked a donation of £10K Simon’s campaign. Simon is known to be a very close friend of Tom Watson. The £10K had been approved by the West Midlands Regional Executive of UNITE, local members wanting to support local campaigns.

In a bizarre twist the Communist Candidate — a past UNITE official — spent £10K on his campaign. Rumours persist that much of this came from UNITE. The Communist candidate polled 5,696 votes in the first round. Street won by 2,000 votes in a second round where it is clear the Communist votes did not transfer to Labour.

Was this a result of incompetence, the destructive impact of tribalism or pure malice?

Who knows but the impact could be seen quite clearly.

During the Stoke by election campaign I spent a fair amount of time phone canvassing from the Regional Office, in space adjacent to Simon’s campaign office. For much for the time the organiser Adam McNicholas was working completely alone. I came to admire him greatly.

But maybe even more telling was a conversation I had a politically aware but not politically active friend the day after the result was announced. This friend lives of the edge of the region. During the campaign he had received no communication from Labour. He took that as complacency and arrogance on Labour’s part. He only heard from Street during the campaign. I explained about the shoe string budget and he understood although he was confused. Labour Councillors and MPs are fairly thick on the ground near him. Why had he not heard from them?

Which brings me to the next point.

Labour Activists and Elected Representatives Need to Fight Every Seat

Simon’s campaign is upset about the support they received from sitting Councillors and some MPs. Rightly they regard these elected representatives as professionals. The basic Councillor allowance in Birmingham is over £16K a year.

I spent most of my time supporting Simon’s policy process although I did my fair share of leafleting and street stall sessions. But from what I saw the team’s complaints had some validity to them.

It became popular to argue that the public didn’t want a Metro Mayor, it was an unnecessary election for which there was no enthusiasm. This is used to explain the lukewarm interest from many senior Party members.

The Mayoral Election turnout was indeed lower than most local government turnouts but not that much lower. It was significantly higher than the turnout for the Police Commissioner elections for which there seemed to be a lot more enthusiasm from the same complainants.

This was an important election which too many did take seriously enough.

The Labour Candidate is the Labour Candidate

The next factor introduced by many was the candidate himself. It was said he was not charismatic or inspirational. His campaign tactics were poor and complacent. Members were not inspired to work for him.

I will make no comment on any of these points other than Simon was elected on an OMOV vote by a high margin. I would like to have seen a greater range of candidates myself but few put their names forward. Simon was up for the challenge and secured the Labour nomination. He was Labour’s candidate. If I had chosen not to work for people I wasn’t keen I’d have sat out a lot of local and general elections. Labour wins by working together and collectively, by backing Labour candidates.

The Implications of Complacency

The Tories now have a significant foothold in the West Midlands. I have worked with Street in other settings. He is a formidable communicator and networker, a man who places social responsibility at the heart of his philosophy. He is, of course, still a Tory but I doubt he will be a disaster as a Mayor. He will fight for — and probably receive — additional powers over the next few years. It is likely that the job will be seen as more significant at the next election in three years time.

Shock waves are now being felt in Birmingham where there are all up elections in 2018 on a new four yearly election cycle. Street has given Birmingham’s Tories an ideal platform to take the city next year.

There is more that could be written. Street set out to run an inclusive campaign and his claim to have taken votes from Labour in all parts of the West Midlands — and from all communities — seems to be accurate. His campaign attracted a lot of interest and support— more than is traditional for a Tory candidate — from various BME communities and it is widely expected that he use his Assistant Mayoral appointments to show a more diverse Tory Party administration.

The Party’s Dysfunctionality Is Proving to be Fatal

The issues raised here may be valid in some places and not valid in others. I am simply reflecting the discussion and concerns that are being aired locally. However, it does seem to me that the failure of the West Midlands campaign is symptomatic of the divisions in the Party and the unwillingness of the Leadership to embrace the traditional broad church of membership and supporters.

In all organisations dysfunctionality quickly seeps down from the top to all levels of operation. Political parties are no different.

It is likely that after the General Election we will spend our time in heated debate about failure. The lessons from the West Midlands, Teeside and elsewhere must not be lost on any leadership, current or future.

Once the General election was called Simon’s campaign was always running uphill. But there is no doubt. We could have — and should have — done better.


  1. PETER KENYON says:

    Dear Andy

    Tell us more about the West Midlands Regional Office, the number of CLPs/branches either suspended or in special measures, and their contact rates. Dare I mention conversations?

    I see little progress on these issues since our ill-fated general election campaign in 2015. Should Corbyn have acted on these matters? Yes. Should Miliband before him? Yes. Should Brown before him? Yes.

    Identify the culprits hindering the empowering of members on the ground and we will be in a better place to address your (correct) assumption IMO that we could and should have done better.

    Peter Kenyon

  2. Andy Howell says:

    This is little to do with our regional office (this time).

    I’ll take one ward in the inner city. The turnout in one ward was less than the normal Labour vote. This is a ward where there are three Labour Councillors and visually no electoral activity — certainly not in the last week. That Labour vote alone would have won Labour the election.

  3. Warley Woods says:

    Sion Simon’s campaign themes were regressive and cynical; nationalising the M6 Toll, pro-car, not attending debates, lack of engagement with business, UKIP type campaign branding and his Take Back Control slogan. Simply put his strategy was wrong, Street was coherent, hard working, largely progressive policies and deserved to win.

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