West Midlands mayoral candidate Liam Byrne: “Let’s just get shit done”

Sienna Rodgers

Labour MP and mayoral candidate Liam Byrne has declared in an exclusive interview with LabourList that the “unofficial slogan” for his West Midlands campaign is “look, let’s just get shit done”.

In an online event broadcast live on Tuesday evening, Byrne set out his plan for winning the contest taking place next year and concluding in a vote on May 6th alongside other local elections.

The Hodge Hill MP told LabourList: “This is the signature election in England next year, whether we win this or lose this will tell us whether we are on the way to rebuilding the ‘Red Wall’ in England.”

Commenting on the campaign of his rival, the incumbent Tory mayor, he added: “It will be super tight. Andy Street spent a million pounds on this contest last time round and will no doubt spend the same kind of money again.

“Tory central office know that this is a must-win for them next year. So we’re up against it. But that’s the kind of people we are. We’re in this business to change things. If we have an unofficial slogan for our campaign, it’s: look, let’s just get shit done.

“We’re just sick of what we see – we’re sick of people having to go to food banks, we’re sick of people dying homeless in the streets, we’re sick of the way that we’re falling behind the rest of the country, we’re just sick of it.

“We are kind of a coalition of people who have come together to just get shit done by pulling together in a Labour way. And so that’s our rocket fuel.”

Describing rival Street – former managing director of John Lewis – as “never knowingly under-photographed”, Byrne said: “No-one can actually name anything that he’s delivered. Actually, that isn’t fair.

“No, he has produced – in his period as a mayor – he’s built two kilometres of tram track. Two kilometres, that’s it. So he’s not entirely without achievements. But look, our region needs a champion.

“It needs an activist mayor, it needs someone who is going to go out and fight our corner, because people know that we’re not going to punch our weight if we’ve got a mayor who pulls their punches. That’s what we’ve got right now.”

The Labour backbencher added: “It’s important for our colleagues in local government, because I am very clear that we deliver through councils. We call it a servant model of leadership.

“It’s about making sure that the mayor’s resources and powers and money are serving the people who are doing the business, who are ward-level councillors.

“Andy Street operates a hero model of leadership, which is ‘find a pedestal and stand on it, have some pictures taken and bugger off until the next thing comes along’. And that is the wrong model for change.”

Byrne also talked about his anger over the need for food banks in the UK, saying of volunteers: “Anybody who is involved in this is just fucking angry that we have to do this in the sixth richest country on Earth.

“That’s what makes people angry. It’s a privilege to work alongside people who are doing this. I mean, they are just phenomenal. They’re absolutely phenomenal. But this is what Labour people have always done down the generations.”

Setting out why he stood to be Labour’s West Midlands mayoral candidate, the MP explained: “I was out with a Sunday church group and we met a man, Richard. And he, Richard, was a double amputee.

“He was in the underpass between New Street Station and Snowhill. And it stank of urine, and he was in acute distress. He had been there for two days and he was still dressed in his hospital gown with a hospital tag on his wrist.

“That was the sort of snapping point for me. That’s when I thought, I’m not serving in a city and I’m not bringing up a family in a city where we have people who are in hospital gowns and underpasses.

“That’s partly why we called our manifesto ‘radical compassion’, actually, because we felt that we needed an economic settlement that was radical, but we needed to couple that with an agenda about good old-fashioned compassion.”

Byrne told LabourList that he started to work with the homeless community in Birmingham as a result of his father dying, which led him to “understand that being the child of an alcoholic was a thing”.

Talking about his experience of undertaking a homeless census in his local area in November 2015, the MP recounted: “We met somebody who reached in his pockets, and he pulled out two bits of paper.

“One was a bank statement, because he wanted to show us he was a good person and paying into a bank account, and then the other bit of paper with his prescription for his mental health medication.

“He couldn’t read it because he couldn’t read. And he then began the story about how he had been abused as a child and how he was basically now self-medicating trauma with drugs and alcohol.

“That, for me, is when the penny dropped because that’s exactly what my dad had been doing. My dad slipped into the abyss of alcoholism after he lost my mum to cancer when she was 52.”

Asked about his past as an immigration minister under the last Labour government, and for his reflections on those policy decisions, Byrne admitted that “too often, we were following polls”.

“We were following headlines, certainly that was the pressure that I used to get on me from No 10,” he said. Byrne expressed regret for his past “clumsy” language but also said the immigration system was improved under his watch.

Byrne will run in May as Labour’s candidate against Andy Street, who was reselected by the Conservative Party after winning against Labour’s Siôn Simon by 50.4% to 49.6% with a turnout of 26.7% in 2017.

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