TO BIRMINGHAM to look at the state of the race to become mayor of the West Midlands (to be decided on May 4th)—and to take the temperature of the most important swing region in the general election on June 8th. When I asked for a return ticket to Birmingham the ticket seller replied grimly that “nobody ever asks for a one-way ticket”. The city is recovering haltingly after decades of poor management and industrial decline: New Street Train Station is a buzzing shopping complex. A new tram service links the town centre to the Black Country. The Jaguar Land Rover car plant is working overtime, providing China with four-wheel-drive status symbols. But the scars of the years of decline are nevertheless visible everywhere.
The mayor’s race pits two very different politicians against each other. The Conservative candidate, Andy Street, is a Birmingham-bred businessman who ran John Lewis for nine years and gave up the top job in order to run for mayor. The Labour candidate, Sion Simon, is a professional politician—a former MP and MEP—and a card-carrying member of the Labour’s West-Midland “mafia”, which includes the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, that has run the region for decades. I must admit that I find Mr Street the more compelling candidate. Britain is engaging in an important political experiment on May 4th: creating six new positions as “regional” mayors who will be responsible for running broad regions rather than sitting on top of city councils. The West Midlands includes big industrial cities, such as Birmingham and Coventry, and has a population of 2.8m people, more than Wales and about half as many as Scotland. This is an attempt to deal with Britain’s over-centralisation and constitutes one of the most admirable legacies of the Cameron-Osborne years. But it also has another great virtue in that it will allow the British political system to recruit new sources of talent from outside politics. Too many British politicians start off in Westminster in their mid-twenties as special advisors (Spads, in the jargon) and never have a career outside politics. Mr Street is exactly the sort of person that is needed to bring new talent into Britain’s sclerotic political system.
He is an excellent candidate: a bundle of energy and ideas with a compelling personal story. He started off on the shop floor and worked his way to the top of one of Britain’s favourite stores. He masterminded the construction of a huge John Lewis store (the biggest outside London) in the New Street Station. He got sucked into the politics of his home town when running the Birmingham enterprise partnership, a voluntary partnership between local government and local businesses designed to stimulate economic growth. Electing a Tory to run the West Midlands would be a well-deserved shock to the Labour establishment that has run the region with no great distinction for decades. It would also be good for the devolution project: the other candidates who stand any chance of winning the cities (such as Andy Burnham in Manchester) are Labour Party hacks. The chances that Theresa May will support the devolution project will be significantly reduced if all the new mayors are Labour politicians asking for more money and power for “their” cities.
The race is too close to call at the moment. The one local poll puts the candidates neck-and-neck; the bookies give Mr Street a slight advantage. But this is Labour territory. Twenty-one of the 28 MPs in the region are Labour. Six of the seven councils are Labour-controlled and in Sandwell, 70 out of 72 councillors are Labour. The Labour Party has a large army of foot-soldiers who turn out for all these MPs and councillors. It also has a reliable base of supporters in Birmingham’s huge Muslim population: people who originally came from Kashmir, Bangladesh and Pakistan and who vote as a block, and in large numbers, under the watchful eye of local community leaders. This block is strongly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s faction of the Labour Party, not least because of his long-standing hostility to Israel.
Mr Street has been somewhat ambivalent about selling himself as a Tory in this Labour heartland: his pitch is that he’s a problem-solving businessman rather than an old-fashioned politician, a John Lewis man rather than Tory man. But his party has been pouring resources into the race, particularly since Mrs May declared a general election, because the West Midlands is such a tempting prize. Theresa May has visited three times in the past few weeks and knocked on doors for Mr Street. A visit from Boris Johnson is being finalised (“make sure you’ve got plenty of Pork Scratchings available,” says one operative over the phone). Bagehot’s visit coincided with a visit from Chris Grayling, the transport minister and, during the referendum campaign, one of the six members of David Cameron’s cabinet who came out in favour of Brexit.
Messrs Grayling and Street decided to go canvassing in Bilston, a suburb of Wolverhampton. This is about as far from Tory Britain as you can get. During the industrial revolution this was known as the Black Country because the fumes from the local blast furnaces and coalfields turned everything black. Today it might be called Blighted Country. Obesity is rife (perhaps because of the popularity of a local delicacy, “orange chips”, or chips cooked in batter). So is public boozing. A worrying number of obese people are confined to wheelchairs, with one or both legs missing, presumably because they suffer from chronic diabetes. Mr Grayling looks like a visitor from another world in his smart suit and silk tie. (Mr Street is much more informally dressed as well as being about a foot shorter than the transport minister.) “Who is this geezer?” shouts one amazed punter, referring to Mr Grayling.
Mr Grayling sticks to the Tory talking points with tedious discipline—Theresa May represents “strong” and “stable” while Jeremy Corbyn (“unfit to lead”) represents a “coalition of chaos”. He is more interesting on strategy: the Tories think that they’re in with a chance of detaching significant social groups from the Labour coalition, such as members of ethnic minorities and the “just about managing” (which frequently blur into each other). The Labour Party has taken these groups for granted for decades, particularly in the West Midlands, without delivering significant benefits. Now two developments have strained weak loyalties to breaking point: Brexit and Mr Corbyn. The Tories believe that they can use the combination of the two to detach faltering traditional voters: “narrowcasting” the first messaging to pro-Brexit voters and broadcasting the second. Mr Grayling did not stray into this area but Bagehot speculates that there is also some interesting ethnic politics at play. The Tory Party wants to eat into Labour’s solid lead among ethnic minorities by attracting groups such as Sikhs and Gujarati Hindus and leaving Labour with a (largely Muslim) inner-city machine.
An hour’s stroll around Bilston while stuffing yourself with orange chips from a paper cone (me, not the transport secretary) hardly constitutes rigorous polling. Most people were too busy or indifferent to engage: the British are weary of politics. But I would estimate that half the people we did talk to were willing to consider voting Tory. One man vigorously declared that he would vote Tory because of Brexit: “We were sold doom and gloom about leaving but the country’s doing better now.” (A glance at the high street hardly suggested new-found economic dynamism.) “The only people who voted for Europe are on the dole,” he adds. A woman declared that she would vote Tory because “I’m very right-wing and I like Theresa May. She knows how to get things done unlike some people who just talk and don’t do anything.” She then pointedly adds that her husband is a Labour Party supporter.
The Tories are clearly on the offensive in this election—taking advantage of Mr Corbyn’s incompetence to advance their tanks deep into Labour territory. But I wonder whether there is something else going on: the party of Margaret Thatcher is beginning to transform itself into the party of Michael Heseltine. The battle between Mrs Thatcher and Mr Heseltine was one of the most profound struggles of the 1980s: Mr Heseltine was the leader of the Europhile “wets” who emphasised the virtues of public spending and co-operation between business and industry and who wanted to take Britain into the heart of Europe. He was particularly keen on using public-private partnerships and enterprise zones to revive Britain’s post-industrial big cities, and led the government’s efforts to revitalise Liverpool after the Toxteth riots in 1981.
Mr Heseltine has decisively lost the battle over Europe (and recently resigned his position as an elderly Spad over the Brexit vote). But he is belatedly winning the battle over devolution, urban regeneration and “industrial policy”, a phrase banished under Mrs Thatcher. The idea of regional mayors, who are responsible for co-ordinating and catalysing economic development over entire regions, is rooted in Mr Heseltine’s idea of regional development boards. Benjamin Disraeli once said that “the Conservative Party is a national party or it is nothing”. Mr Heseltine kept this creed going at a time when the Tory Party threatened to retreat from Disraeli’s vision of a national party into a Southern-English party.
There are reasons to celebrate the Tories’ willingness to sound these themes. Places like Bilston can only benefit from political competition: nobody benefits from being taken for granted by one side and ignored by the other. And Britain as a whole will profit from the sort of devolution that is represented by the regional mayors. The country’s hyper-centralisation is obviously bad for the provinces, depriving them of talent, resources and attention. It is also bad for London, turning it into a bubble of self-satisfaction and self-indulgence. The morning after my visit to Bilston, with its scruffy patriotism and middle-aged amputees, I read an article in The Times about the decision by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, not to underwrite the annual running cost of about £3m for the Garden Bridge, a proposed tree-covered walkway across the Thames. Joanna Lumley, the “Absolutely Fabulous” actress who has championed the bridge, says that she fears that Britain is becoming “a nation that pulls the shutters down”. She said, “I had this slightly hippie dream of putting something gorgeous and free in the middle of London to bring beauty and peace to tired commuters, so for those of us who have loved this idea for some time the news is absolutely, shattering, devastating.” Perhaps I’ve eaten too many orange chips but I rather feel that Britain got into the habit of pulling the shutters down on places like Bilston decades ago—and that the most pressing task is not to build garden bridges in London but to build commercial and political bridges from Britain’s island of success to its inland continent of failure.
Correction (May 9th): An earlier version of this piece said that 72 out of 72 councillors in Sandwell belonged to Labour. In fact the number is 70.