In another world, we would be spending today on the doorsteps of the West Midlands. We would be getting out the vote and reminding people that it was their chance to elect the Labour and Co-operative mayor for the West Midlands that we so desperately need. But like so much else, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has changed that.
With the election delayed by 12 months, we are now focusing our efforts on how we use this additional time to create a compelling and irresistible vision of what the seven boroughs and cities of the West Midlands could be.
Our vision is of a partnership of equals between proud communities, led by a Labour mayor and supported by Labour councils and Labour councillors wrestling powers from Westminster and taking control of our own destiny and fortunes.
A vision of a region that is the Green Heart of Britain, in which our industrial past is the key to unlocking our bright high-tech future, and where the West Midlands is leading the charge for a net-zero carbon economy.
And while we are chomping at the bit to unleash the potential we know exists in our region that can only be achieved with a Labour metro-mayor, that is a now a year away. But our region cannot wait.
The pandemic has brought into stark relief the fragility of our economy. Zero-hour contract and gig-economy workers are finding their livelihoods disappearing overnight with no notice; manufacturing workers are unsure when their production lines will start again and SMES unsure whether their business can survive long enough to be viable once this lockdown is over.
The need is now and the challenge is immediate. So we cannot wait for another year before getting to work – and that’s why, this week, we launched Labour’s economic recovery plan for the West Midlands. It’s an unashamedly bold and ambitious plan. It will cost – at least – £1.7bn, and it will prevent the great lockdown turning into the great downturn. It will restart the West Midlands as an economic powerhouse and it will tackle climate change at the same time.
Our plan to save lives and save livelihoods would see emergency capital spending to fund the building of efficient green council houses. It would convert offices to council flats, and it would electrify the public transport network and double the tram network. It would see the roll out of low-cost solar panel for schools and homes – reducing both bills and dependency on fossil fuels, plus the acceleration of High Speed 2, which is the one of the largest construction projects in Europe. It’s a blueprint for a green revolution.
However, we both know from our time in business and industry that any economic recovery must be built on getting people back into work. But our values as trade unionists means we want those to be well-paid and secure jobs. And it is quite simple – take the emergency wage subsidies in place now and create a new ‘Right to Work’.
A new ‘Right to Work’ would ensure everyone who loses their job as a result of coronavirus is offered a guarantee to help keep them in work. We want to spare every worker and their family the unemployment that could last for years, not least because we know that national debt is going to rise as a result of this crisis. We want to fashion a new social contract in which public money is used to prevent unnecessary job losses.
In our region, it is estimated that unemployment could rise by anything between 50,000 to 167,000, but with the right support and with determination and ambition we can prevent this catastrophe. The jobs guarantee scheme would be based on the last Labour government’s successful Future Jobs Fund that guaranteed anyone losing their job had work, costing up to £520m for the West Midlands.
This is an unprecedented time and that calls for unprecedented actions – but at the end of all of this, we will only thrive as a region and a nation if we protect jobs and keep people in work. Building on our heritage as we enter the next industrial revolution. With action now and a Labour mayor in May 2021, all things are possible!
Liam Byrne is shadow mayor for the West Midlands. Jack Dromey is chair of the Liam Byrne for West Midlands mayor campaign.