West Midlands Mayoralty: Byrne, Baby, Byrne

By Laura Griffiths

Prior to us knowing the full scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in delays to democracy, Labour members in the West Midlands finally selected their candidate for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) mayoral election just three months before polling day in 2020. Using a preferential system, similar to procedure used for the Mayoral vote on 6 May, Liam Byrne MP was selected by Labour members across the West Midlands on second preferences.

Having three months of campaign time to win an election where you are not the incumbent, was an immeasurably tall order for any candidate. However, the postponement of the 2020 election cycle has afforded Byrne valuable extra campaigning time to hone his message and target his key supporters. Against the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, all candidates are competing against a drastically different set of circumstances, as they seek to win the West Midlands mayoralty.

So who is Liam Byrne and what does he stand for?

First elected as the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Hodge Hill in a by-election in July 2004, Byrne was the most widely known contender vying to be Labour’s West Midlands Mayoral candidate. Endorsed by the likes of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, then-Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP and early Labour leadership candidate, Jess Phillips MP, Mr Byrne had the most trade unions and affiliate organisations supporting him in his candidacy.

The most politically experienced candidate in the field for Labour, Byrne held the role of Shadow Digital Minister until Sir Keir Starmer became Leader of the Labour Party in April 2020 and has served under four Labour leaders: Corbyn, Miliband, Brown and Blair. Famously departing his ministerial role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury with the ‘no money’ note in 2010, Byrne was the first Minister for the West Midlands under Gordon Brown’s premiership.

Given his role as Member of Parliament, Byrne has an edge over Andy Street in being able to ask questions to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on funding for house building in the West Midlands, in a way his fellow parliamentary colleague and Mayoral Candidate for West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin MP, also can.

Launching with a manifesto of “radical compassion”, elements of his manifesto transfer from different wings of the Labour Party, such as the ‘Green New Deal’ instituted under Jeremy Corbyn, or his commitment to ending homelessness, a problem that was greatly improved under the years of Blair but has now become a rapidly escalating issue across the WMCA once more. When it comes to homelessness, there is a personal element to this as well – many people who are homeless or at risk of this status have additional complex needs such as alcoholism, which Byrne’s own father died from, or mental health issues. Byrne has blended the history of ideas in the Labour movement well within his manifesto through a zero-carbon revolution that could lift families out of fuel poverty, green housebuilding, and decarbonising transport.

Byrne is also incredibly knowledgeable on economics and business which will be vital in terms of bringing much needed investment and infrastructure across the West Midlands. An early champion of the New Street development, he has raised questions about rail devolution in relation to the West Midlands franchise. Moreover, he is concerned with jobs in the area that relate to the ongoing delays of HS2, but wants to provide a transport system with better connectivity across the West Midlands.

Additional issues which have become more explicit for Byrne during this pandemic have been those relating to employment, an increasingly pertinent focus given the economic impact COVID-19 has had on both an individual and national level. Byrne is a leading voice on the Alliance for Full Employment alongside former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and is advocating for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, where the West Midlands will be put on the global stage, to pay the living wage.

Given his passion for digital and experience as a Shadow Digital Minister, this could be advantageous to his campaign over the last year due to the limitations that have been put in place on more traditional forms of campaigning.

With a narrow majority of some 3,000 votes for the Conservative incumbent Andy Street, this West Midlands mayoral election may be one to watch.