The Grand Central shopping centre arrived in Birmingham six years ago as a glass and silver-wrapped symbol of renewal. Perched atop a previously dingy train station, it was dominated by a £35m John Lewis department store. Andy Street, then the retailer’s chief executive, predicted “there will be a Harvard business case about the revival” of the city.
Buffeted by the economic storms of the coronavirus pandemic, John Lewis is now selling off the flagship store that Street once used as his second office. The symbolism is awkward for the 57-year-old Tory, who is up for re-election in Thursday’s local elections as the conurbation’s directly elected “metro mayor”.
The West Midlands is Britain’s closest region to a US swing state. Electoral dominance has gone between Labour and the Tories, depending on whose national fortunes are up. Street squeaked in as mayor in 2017 thanks to his business record and moderate centre-right politics.
Speaking on a park bench, he acknowledges Covid-19 has tempered his optimism. “We’ve seen a big rise in unemployment, so the question now is: who do you trust to rebuild the West Midlands economy after Covid? Look at what happened in the first three years because there’s the evidence — this guy’s got a plan and knows what he’s doing.”
Street has attracted investment, raised employment to record levels pre-pandemic and helped save the High Speed 2 railway, which will connect Birmingham to London in 45 minutes. But the Tory party of 2017 is not that of 2021: the mayor was no fan of Brexit and his persona does not sit easily with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s — although he argues he can do deals with anyone.
Labour’s candidate hopes the poll will be a moment for a new social compact. Liam Byrne, a longstanding MP for Birmingham, thinks voters want to “build back fairer, stronger and greener” after the pandemic. “There is this kind of dawning realisation we’ve now got this immense job to do getting back on our feet. What people in our region want to do is to build back fairer, build back fairer, stronger and greener.”
Yet among the spring sun-seekers in Birmingham City centre, Byrne isn’t winning over voters. “I’m a life-long Labour supporter but I’ll be backing Andy again,” says Lorna Lee, a 55-year-old human resources consultant. Jujar Furniturewala, a small businessman, feels Street is “quite good”, adding that “he’s brought lots of jobs to Birmingham”.
The West Midlands is one of three key races that will reveal the mood of English politics. The other two, the mayoralty in Tees Valley and a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, are also leaning towards the Conservatives. Both show the party’s newfound appeal to Brexit-supporting working class voters.
Street’s 2017 victory was the first indication that Labour’s support was ebbing away. The Midlands is too often overlooked in discussions about the so-called “red wall” of the party’s former heartlands. It may be home to the major cities of Birmingham and Coventry, but it also has poorer towns that have suffered harshly from deindustrialisation.
The removal of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and a decade of Tory rule should point to a Labour victory here. Yet a survey by Opinium predicts Street could win on first-preference votes alone. The successful vaccine rollout is aiding the Tories, while Labour is struggling to articulate a vision to voters.
When Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader last year, one of his close allies told me the West Midlands “would be our first step back to electability and proof that Labour can win elections again”. If Street wins on Thursday, it will be proof that the pandemic has done little to dent the Tories’ standing, and will suggest that Labour’s troubles are deeper than just the unpopularity of its last leader and stance on Brexit.
Johnson achieved a thumping majority in 2019 based on a message of hope and optimism. But the more success the Conservatives have on this ticket, the greater the pressure to make good on those promises. If Street and the other Tories are victorious on Thursday, they will have to prove they are reversing decades of decline. Failure to do so would hand Labour the opening it is desperately lacking.