Liam Byrne: Why I want to be mayor of the West Midlands

There was a moment in early February when I was out with a homeless charity one night in my constituency. We were just heading through the underpass to Birmingham New Street station when we found a man on the floor in real distress. Next to his wheelchair. Still in his hospital gown with a hospital tag on his wrist. He had been there for two days. It took us two hours to get him an ambulance.

This was the moment I decided to stand for mayor of the West Midlands. I simply cannot be a bystander when I see the very poorest wait for ambulances while the current West Midlands mayor rides around in a limo to visit interesting projects.

We face a moral emergency. Homelessness is soaring. Hunger is spreading. The most vulnerable are being stripped of the benefits they desperately need. In the soup kitchen where I volunteer on a Sunday night, the queue stretches around the bloke. The food banks I help serve now need warehouses, so big is demand. Tory austerity is destroying lives.

The story of the West Midlands is becoming a tale of two cities. Sure, there are cranes in our skies. But our homeless neighbours are sleeping in the doorways beneath, where someone now dies every fortnight. Our society feels like it’s ripping apart. Brexit has divided us and hate crime is surging.

Meanwhile, our economy is failing a generation. Over half the people in poverty in the West Midlands are in work. Half our wards are in poverty. For thousands of our young people, their possibilities in life are defined by the postcode where they’re born. And looming above the crisis is a climate that is warming faster than we thought, posing an existential threat to generations to come.

This is not justice. It’s a Tory choice. It’s not acceptable. It’s not inevitable. If we don’t take a stand today, things will get much worse. We will be more divided than ever in our history. There may be gleaming office blocks and fortunes for some. But inequality will spiral, entrenched poverty will deepen, and the West Midlands will fall further and further behind.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We all joined the Labour Party because we know the world and the West Midlands can and should be much better than this. We know that there is an alternative. We could have a West Midlands where we put compassion first and everyone has a bed for the night. We could have a West Midlands where we come together and celebrate what we have in common. We could be looking to a future where everyone has a good job and our environment is cleaner for all of our children and grandchildren.

My great-grandparents came to the West Midlands because they heard we could make anything here. As my father-in-law used to say, “if you can draw it, we can make it”. We’re been the home of industrial revolutions from the steam age to the jet age. We were the workshop of the world. And yet what defines us is not just our genius but our grit and our goodness; our care for our neighbours. That’s what gives us unity in our diversity.

We need a metro mayor who will turn our ideals, our values, our radical compassion into action. Action that changes our region for good. Action that shows our country: there is an alternative.

Our Tory mayor Andy Street will never do this. He spent £500 on a limo to visit the homeless – then let homelessness triple. While food bank demand has gone through the roof, he’s never once written to ministers to challenge Universal Credit. Needless to say, the West Midlands combined authority is not a real living wage employer.

Change is possible. We can turn our anger, our idealism, our radical compassion into action. Action to:

  • End the moral emergency of homelessness, hunger and cuts to disability benefits.
  • Transform the social solidarity of our region by building a home together where we have #MoreInCommon.
  • Build a new prosperity for the many not the few in our region by pioneering a Green Industrial Revolution that not only delivers decarbonisation but jobs and justice.

My political hero is Clement Attlee. He once said: “we need to be not just dreamers for better days, but the doers to get there”. Delivering these missions would require us to become a trailblazer for the bold ideas in our last general election manifesto.

In the West Midlands, we can show the country a digital green socialism. We can lead the way in ending homelessness and tackling poverty. We can live in more united communities that push hate out and bring hope in. It’s a vision of the future that doesn’t need to be just a dream. It can be a reality. So let’s start now.

More from LabourList