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LGC Briefing: Tories target West Midlands

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LGC’s commentary on the latest devolution developments

“A great leader can inspire those around them, bring together partners and residents in meaningful collaboration, and drive forward the changes needed to get the best possible results.”

Those were the words of David Simmonds (Con), chair of the LGA’s improvement and innovation board and deputy leader of Hillingdon LBC, in LGC last week.

Cllr Simmonds was talking about the LGA’s work to bring through the next generation of councillors and future leaders, but his words ring true when considering who might become regional elected mayors in next year’s elections.

Confusion surrounds prime minister Theresa May’s position on elected mayors: she is rumoured to favour ditching the requirement for areas to adopt one as part of significant devolution deals, allegedly in part down to concerns it will offer Labour a base from which to revive its party.????

However, contests in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, and West Midlands are now unstoppable, gaving already been legislated for. 

Labour MPs Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are hot favourites to triumph in the party’s heartlands of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region respectively, but it could prove a closer contest in the West Midlands where regional MEP Sion Simon is the party’s representative.

Centre for Cities’ analysis of voting patterns from last year’s general election show a 9.4% lead for Labour in the West Midlands – the slimmest of all deficits in mayoral regions where the Tories trail.

That might still sound a lot but the Labour party has by all accounts since descended into chaos and it will be interesting to see how Mr Simon, who made a concerted effort to court Jeremy Corbyn supporters during the selection process, fares in eight months time.

Writing in The Times today Centre for Cities’ chief executive Alexandra Jones said: “Turnout will be lower in May 2017 than in the General Election, so if as usual younger people (who are more likely to vote Labour) do not turn out, but older people (who largely lean to the Conservatives) do, that could help tighten the race between the two leading parties.

“If voters perceive that the new mayors are using their office as a pulpit for national politics, rather than for delivering the best deal for local people, they may decide to go elsewhere with their votes – and that could provide significant opportunities for Theresa May’s Conservatives in the years ahead.”

Rumour has it that John Lewis’ managing director Andy Street, who is also chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, will be the Conservative candidate for the West Midlands having previously expressed an interest in the role.

Writing for the Birmingham Mail last month Ms May increased speculation as she specifically name-checked Mr Street and praised the work he, and the region’s LEP, had undertaken to help unemployed people back into work.

LGC senior reporter David Paine said at the time Ms May’s reference was “significant” and expressed a view that Mr Street, highly regarded among the region’s business leaders, could win should he be picked.

Whoever is the successful candidate will have their prospects boosted by a prime, profile-building position as the warm-up act to Ms May at the opening of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham on 2 October.

The stage is set for a fascinating election battle.

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