With two days to go before the local elections in England, Liam Byrne’s pedometer showed he had already clocked up 29 miles this week, more than a marathon’s worth of walkabouts and door-knocking as Labour tries to gain ground in the West Midlands mayoral race.
Recent polls have not been promising for the party, showing the Conservative incumbent, Andy Street, between seven and nine points ahead in first-preference votes. In 2017, Street scraped the win by barely 4,000 second-preference votes.
But Byrne is bullishly optimistic, insisting his data and experiences on doorsteps across Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton suggest the race will be tight and Labour is pulling back more voters.
“There is now a clear trend of people switching back to Labour. It’s not a tidal wave yet, but it’s big enough to be a clear trend,” he said as he campaigned in his constituency of Hodge Hill on Tuesday. “In Northfield, for instance, about 13% of the contacts we make are people switching back to Labour from Tory.”
Pressure on Byrne is ramping up as the election is being proclaimed as a barometer of Britain’s political mood and a key indicator of whether Labour can win back the seats it lost in the 2019 general election. One party source has said that if Labour cannot win in the West Midlands, “it means Labour can’t govern nationally”.
There is concern that the pandemic and political apathy mean turnout will be low, though Byrne attributes it to Street’s relatively low profile in comparison with other metro mayors. “Very few people know who Andy Street is, so people haven’t got a good sense of what a mayor can do. It’s a very different situation to Greater Manchester where everyone knows who Andy Burnham is,” Byrne said.
For many voters the issue runs much deeper. In nearby Ward End, Saad Zaman, 24, said he probably would not be voting in the election on Thursday, despite his family having voted Labour for generations.
“I would vote if I thought something was going to change. But nothing ever changes. There is crime and litter everywhere. Kids are killing each other,” he said as he worked in his family’s convenience store. “They say ‘vote for us’, ‘vote for us’. But nothing gets done. It seems like they just do it for fame.”
Byrne said one of the main issues coming up on the doorstep was knife crime and a lack of police resources to deal with it, and although the mayor does not have much sway in this area, he would use mayoral resources to get youth workers back into communities. “People can see there are shiny towers going up in city centres, but people just feel that things are going from bad to worse in their local neighbourhoods,” he said.
Street claims to have helped secure more than £3bn of government funding to the region since he took office, as well as bringing in HS2 and the Commonwealth Games. But some think he has fallen short in other areas, particularly public transport, where extra investment has yet to result in better services.
“[Street] has done a reasonable job, but he could have done a lot better,” said Wilf Smith, 72, from Wolverhampton. “I use local transport a lot and it hasn’t improved. If anything it’s gotten a lot worse.” However, he said he was unconvinced by the other contenders, adding that he was not sure what Byrne stood for.
Smith said he saw the local mayoral vote as separate from national politics, but Byrne is banking on recent scandals in the Tory party cutting through on Thursday, and said the polls were conducted too early to take this into account. “People always thought [Boris Johnson] was a clown. Now they think it’s not a joke,” he said. “But whether they will then hold their nose and vote Tory, we’ll see.”
The government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic could also have an impact. “I normally do vote Conservative but I don’t know whether I will this time. I’m not sure,” said Pat Phillips, 64, as she shopped with her daughter in Birmingham’s Bullring. “I think [Street] is quite committed. He seems a decent guy, but I’m not sure about Boris any more. I think the Covid vaccination has been good, but I think leading up to that wasn’t so good.”
Street has faced accusations that he has tried to distance himself from the Conservative party throughout his campaign, using green instead of blue on his election materials and rarely using the party logo, but he insists he is a “proud Tory” and happily cycled with the prime minister around Stourbridge on Wednesday for some last-minute door-knocking.
Johnson put him in an awkward spot last week after allegedly describing his Downing Street apartment as a “John Lewis nightmare”, forcing Street – a former managing director of the department store – to concede “you can’t please all people”.
“It’s going to be very close,” Johnson said on Wednesday, adding that Street had “a fantastic agenda to take the West Midlands forward”.
Asked what it would mean for Labour if the polls prove right and the Conservatives claim a sweeping victory in the region, Byrne was defiant. “For me it’s not an issue because we’re going to win,” he said.
“We’ve helped people see our core identity as the community party, and we are focused on that and just talking to people every day. That is a huge source of energy and inspiration for us.”