How the West Midlands metro mayor race has split the left

Sienna Rodgers

When Liam Byrne was endorsed by John McDonnell in his bid to become Labour’s candidate for the 2020 West Midlands metro mayoral contest, many left-wing party activists were surprised. And why wouldn’t they be? The Birmingham Hodge Hill MP co-founded the Blairite group Progress. Although a frontbencher under Jeremy Corbyn, and not a voice of dissent, Byrne can hardly be described as a Corbynite.

But Byrne has been working with Birmingham’s homeless community and volunteering with food banks (as highlighted by his recent video with austerity cookbook writer Jack Monroe). His metro mayoral campaign, ‘Radical Compassion’, apparently grew from another local initiative, ‘Winter of Compassion’, which Jeremy Corbyn helped launch last year.

Byrne’s plan for an “economic revolution” in the West Midlands puts a ‘green new deal’ front and centre, which aligns with Labour’s push for a ‘green industrial revolution‘. (GND was also recently adopted as a policy by Momentum.) He has now got the backing of left-wing MP Clive Lewis, too. The shadow Treasury minister responsible for sustainable economics said: “I’ve got a real interest in making sure that Labour’s economic policy protects people and the planet. Liam understands how important that is going to be in the next ten years.”

There are other theories flying around for why the Labour leadership might want Byrne to secure the candidacy and defeat Tory incumbent Andy Street. It wouldn’t hurt to reduce Tom Watson’s team, if only by one, some cynics have speculated. And perhaps a Corbynite could take his place as Birmingham Hodge Hill MP.

The Clarion editor has theorised that “it is possible some sort of agreement has been come to regarding Byrne’s seat”. After all, Labour’s national executive committee has banned Labour politicians from holding more than one full-time elected public office. Though an exception was made for Dan Jarvis, whose campaign was run before the ruling was made, it is assumed that this ban would apply to Byrne if he won the mayoral selection and election contests.

Either way, over 100 West Midlands Labour members, including top trade unionists and Momentum figures, aren’t convinced by McDonnell’s endorsement. Noting that only Byrne and former MP Lynda Waltho – “both from the right” – had announced so far, last week they signed a statement “calling for a left-wing candidate with strong experience in local government and trade union support to put their hat into the ring”.

A Birmingham Momentum representative also issued a fiery comment: “Mr Byrne’s austerity-based politics were responsible for the 2015 election loss. It is only with a candidate who advocates the popular, anti-austerity policies of Jeremy Corbyn that we stand a realistic chance of winning the mayoral election.”

Pete Lowe has now confirmed his intention to run, and he’s pitching himself as the candidate of the left. The former leader of Dudley Council has not received the official backing of Birmingham Momentum, which will be holding a hustings in due course, though he has the support of some local Momentum members and trade union activists.

Will Momentum nationally support Lowe, or opt for the same candidate as the party leadership and give Byrne its seal of left approval? There may even be other left options: Birmingham councillor Majid Mahmood, a Momentum and Unite member, is also rumoured to be considering joining the race.

When Skwawkbox reported last month that Momentum and its national chair Jon Lansman were endorsing Byrne, the claims were firmly denied (described as “bollocks”). So far, the national coordinating group hasn’t endorsed any candidate, and may opt never to do so. That means this selection is shaping up to be a battle between the party leadership, which is prepared to back a reformed Blairite, and local Momentum activists, who largely aren’t.

Read Liam Byrne’s piece for LabourList here and Pete Lowe’s piece for LabourList here.

This article was amended on 6th June to reflect that Pete Lowe has not been endorsed by Birmingham Momentum.

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