THE LONG BATTLE FOR THE WEST MIDLANDS MAYORALTY
Believe it or not, I hadn’t planned to run for Mayor. It wasn’t on the back of my proverbial envelope. But from the summer of 2018 more and more people I respected grew more and more insistent. And, as it happened, I was, as the saying goes, on a bit of a political journey.
Since I was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet, I had been free to work on issues around inequality that were completely different to my first years in parliament and I helped re-found the Tribune Group of soft-left MP’s. But the real shock came in the wake of my dad’s agonising death in May 2015 after a lifelong struggle with alcohol. I fell deep, deep into a dark space, spent a lot of time in counselling unpacking the agony of what I came to realise was life as the child of an alcoholic. In search of a salve for the personal pain, I’d started working with the homeless community in Birmingham. I joined Sunday night soup kitchens outside Digbeth coach station, slept out to raise money for the homeless, and helped the homeless census. I was just knocked over by the number of people I met who were self-medicating trauma with alcohol and drugs – just as my Dad had done. That realisation bit into me deeply.
Around the same time, the food banks in Hodge Hill literally ran out of food. As families were rolled onto Universal Credit demand for food parcels went through the roof. So we rustled-up sturdy green delivery crates from the Tescos’ behind my office, drove them out to schools, churches and mosques and started collecting food donations outside supermarkets. One freezing Sunday morning in early 2019 sealed it. It was just after ten. I was out with the Community Street Kitchen team in Birmingham city centre. There, in the underpass by New Street Station that stank of urine, we found a disabled gentleman, a double amputee, ashen grey, crying in pain, next to his wheelchair. Still dressed in his hospital gown, with a hospital tag on his wrist, he’d been there for three days. It took us two hours to get him an ambulance. I felt rise up in me the hot rage I’d felt as a teenager watching the miners’ strike on telly in 1984, not long before I joined the Labour Party. When homeless people started dying on the streets, I knew I couldn’t just stand by.
I thought it was pretty unlikely that I’d ever get selected. The party membership had definitely shifted left. Like anyone who’s been in politics for a while, I have made plenty of mistakes to have a go at. Most politicians will tell you that selections are ten times worse than elections. They’re right. And it’s got a hell of a lot worse with social media.
But, in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election, I was convinced the Party could mobilise social action on the ground in new ways – what I called the ‘coalition of kindness’. So we started playing around with making films to inspire people to get involved and created a sort of Macmillan coffee morning kit for food bank collecting. Lots of Labour members responded. More and more were watching and sharing our videos – what we called ‘social justice social media’ – on homelessness and food justice. In fact by the time I filed my nomination papers in August 2020, our videos had been watched 2.5 million times.
I knew what members respected more than anything else was motive of the candidates. But that motive had to come with a message. So before taking any decisions, I spent a lot of time with my friend Shabana Mahmood, whose tough-minded, down to earth politics I respected hugely, and researched how Labour members thought about the sort of Mayor they wanted. My brother Ben came and helped me talking and listening to Labour members. And of course, what we found was members were feeling just like me, outraged at what they saw as cranes in the sky of our city centres – but homeless people living in doorways. But they didn’t want to pass resolutions about it. They wanted to change it. They wanted action. Now.
“Homelessness! My God – it’s never been as bad as it is’ one member said to us. ‘If you’ve lived here as long as we have, most of my life, I didn’t see a single homeless person. Now you come into town, and every day you walk past a dozen. You can’t escape it. People sleeping on the streets. You stumble past them as you walk in the city centre”.
“New Street is spectacular now when you come in. It’s like Christmas” said another, “But only 150 yards away, you’ve got poverty. New Town – Jesus, it’s in a state. It’s almost like being in Brazil, where you’ve got these opulent white buildings and houses, and next door is the favelas.”
“[The crisis] is visual” said another, “You’ll walk through a street tonight, and you’ll see a dozen people homeless. People having to use food banks. Friends of mine have had to use food banks, and you’re just like, how on earth can it come to this?”
What Labour members wanted in a mayor was a ‘Champion of Social Justice.’ After all, this is what makes them Labour. From all walks of life, from a multitude of life experience, good people join the Labour party because in their marrow is an anger with growing inequality and social decay and in their minds an ambition to do something about it. In 2018, members felt that things were at breaking point; the agony of austerity had sparked a moral emergency. They wanted a more compassionate society, they wanted to do more, they wanted to bind the wounds. And this righteous anger was laced with a frustration that change was too slow and and a pride in the region that simply wasn’t punching its weight.
“I think we’re defined by how we treat the most vulnerable in society” said one member, “And at the moment, how we’re treating them is really bad. Piss poor.” Members thought we had it within us to fix this. They knew it didn’t have to be this way. People sensed our region’s unique strength lies in our people more than its economy. They prized our diversity and multi-culturalism and the truth that socially, ours is ‘a place that works’: a poster child in fact, for tolerance and rubbing along together where people are straight-talking, no-nonsense, down to earth.
“There’s a certain grit to people” one said to us, “perhaps because of the industrial background. We are who we say we are and we do what we say we’re going to do, there’s no messing around. We’re just very straight forward people.”
But what members wanted in a Mayor was someone who was going to get stuff done. People wanted a definite path to impact, to counter the inevitable cynicism of voters. Notions of a ‘new kind of politics’ appealed to some but more important was the hunger for our region to be a trail-blazer once again. ‘Action not talk’ was a powerful positive message at a time of stagnancy and inertia. It tapped into an optimism about the potential of the region and a sense of aspiration .
“I like the aspirational qualities of “Let’s Get Things Done” agreed one member, “We need someone who’s going to get things done. More action, less talk. That appeals to me – it made me feel about people going out to succeed for themselves, particularly the youth.”
“It struck a chord in me” said another, “We need to look after our region. It’s like a call to arms. If we want things to change, we need to do something about it.”
Our vision of a radical manifesto was seen as an absolute positive; it touched the desire for us to pioneer things again, to lead the country as we did once before. One member summed up the predominant mood for me; “I like ‘TURN IDEALISM INTO ACTION’” she said, “It’s alright doing this, but it’s all about putting it into action. I go to loads of meetings, but things don’t get done. So I do like that. Let’s start now.”
A champion for social justice is at the heart of what Labour members wanted from their mayor. That’s the north start to steer by. But action and civic pride were deep aspirations. And people are thirsty for a new political style. We did our best to boil it down into a simple – if imperfect – call to action: Radical compassion – Let’s Start Now.
On the weekend after the 2019 local elections, we launched our campaign on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme with veteran regional broadcaster Patrick Burns, and the next day we published a short endorsement film from John McDonnell, who was generously unequivocal; ‘Liam’ he said, ‘has got the experience and the values to put our policies into action’. A lot of people were surprised that John McDonnell endorsed me. I understand that. But I think some of my work on a new, more inclusive political economy may have helped as did my old friend, John’s Parliamentary Private Secretary and Tribune stalwart, Lyn Brown. She is extremely persuasive.
The senior leaders in Unite, however, the power brokers who dominated Labour HQ, were rather less than mustard keen for a Byrne victory. And so they dragged their feet. We expected the selection vote amongst the region’s 13,000 members to start right after the 2019 local elections so that Labour’s candidate would have maximum time to take on Andy Street in 2020. But, oh no.
As May dragged into June, and June into July we still had no idea on even a timetable. Frankly, I didn’t care. I set out to criss-cross the region, driving hundreds of miles each week to research food justice and homelessness so I could raise the issues in Parliament. I began documenting what we called ‘Austerity Street’ in YMCA’s, homeless shelters and food banks, organising over 100 meetings with members to draw up our 60 page blueprint for action, while rattling out almost daily videos from members and activists who wanted to endorse me.
It felt a hell of a lot more practical than what was going on in Parliament, where in the Brexit debates, MP’s went to war with each other while the Labour Party went to war with itself.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal was hurtling on its parabola into a brick wall – and Labour was hurtling on its path into election catastrophe. Upstairs in the committee rooms in February, Tom Watson, who I’d known since my student days, launched a group of MP’s to rethink Labour policy. There were rumours I never believed that he was prepared to lead 50 MP’s out the Party. Meanwhile, downstairs in the lobbies, vote after vote on the Brexit deals failed to produce a breakthrough. Finally, Theresa May fell, and on 24 July, Boris Johnson took over in fevered Westminster summer, on the promise of breaking the deadlock.
Deadlock finally ended too in the West Midlands. By August we had a timetable for the Metro-Mayor selection. But it still wasn’t quick. People told me later, my opponents were delaying so Salma Yaqoob could bank at least a few months of party membership before taking me on. Who knows the truth. What I do know is that dragging things out made it tougher for Labour to win. And of course, just to keep us busy, MP’s – myself included – were fighting trigger ballots some of which were very nasty. Some in my own constituency party were up to no good. And so on Sunday evenings, I was visiting new Party members, freshly signed up, some of who did not actually know they were members! It was chaos everywhere. And while we were talking to ourselves, Andy Street’s newspapers were landing, thump, thump, thump, on the door-mats across the region.
Even when the deadline was set, it moved, inexplicably extended by a fortnight into mid December. The Party seemed determined to give the Labour’s winning candidate as little time as possible to campaign. Rumours swirled that Unison official Pete Lowe would be kept off the shortlist. But when the shortlist was published on the 21 October, we were all contenders, including Salma. The Shadow Cabinet had a blazing row about it. And then on 22 October, Naz Shah MP dropped her bombshell video, laying bare the behaviour she’d experienced at Salma’s hand in the Bradford election, which said Naz had driven her to the brink of suicide. By late that evening, the videos had had 200,000 views.
As summer turned to autumn in London and the Johnson deal played it phases through the House, the frazzled, deadlocked parliament stumbled on its last legs. In the final chaos of votes on Johnson’s deal, Labour blocked and bowed to the Tories’ pressure for a general election in which we knew wide-eyed, we’d be destroyed. And so it proved. The election was called. And the race for the metro-mayor selection was suspended as we were tipped into the Stygian turmoil of the worst election campaign I’ve ever fought.
It was chaos on the ground, ugly on the doorstep and nasty in the Party. The West Midlands political temperature was as freezing as the weather. The campaign commenced with Tom Watson resigning his West Bromwich seat, while up in Dudley, Ian Austin defected and delivered a coruscating jeremiad to voters on the flaws of Jeremy Corbyn. On Thursday 21 November we launched our manifesto at Birmingham CIty University. The regional office spent much of the previous day trying to ban me from coming. There were almost no MP’s there for photos with the Shadow Cabinet. It was as if the organisation hated half the people it was supposed to be trying to get elected.
Given our position in the polls – 19 points behind – the seat targeting was bonkers. The national polling told us we ought to be defending not attacking. Yet resources were poured into the Tory-held Walsall North and activists were moved from seats we needed to defend like Erdington, which we held and Northfield, Wolverhampton South West and Stoke-on-Trent North which we didn’t. MP’s bought into national print materials and were charged £5000 for the privilege – but the letters landed on the Saturday after the election.
I got to almost every seat in the region and did my best to raise morale. It was freezing, dark, wet and miserable. While I was lucky, grinding out the biggest majority in the West Midlands, the results overall were a disaster. At the beginning of the month, the Yougov MRP forecast a Tory majority of sixty-eight. By election night, the Tory’s forecast majority was down to twenty seats. In the event, it was worse than anyone predicted. The Tories romped home with a majority of eighty.
When my results were declared in Birmingham’s ICC in the early hours of Friday 13th December I said, ‘this is a Friday the 13th that will forever live in our memory and in our history. We are in this party because we believe in a simple truth. But to be progressive, you have to deliver progress. And tonight we have failed in that task.’ I was more determined than ever to try and win the Mayoralty.
We didn’t have any big machines behind us. We were up against Momentum, Unite and Unison. But what we did have was a clear message, a tonne of ideas, massive passion, a Trojan work ethic, great technology and a genuinely broad church of backers which helped us mobilise scores of activists who were happy to endorse, make hundreds of calls and share ideas. By the time our mailings went out, we had support from well over a hundred of the key activists in the region, along with the Coop Party, the GMB, the TSSA, Community, Usdaw, the Fabians, Chinese for Labour, Labour Campaign for International Development, Labour Irish Society and the Socialist Health Association.
The game changer was a clever online callcentre called CallHub which let us dial into a system that then automatically served us up phone numbers. So we’d sit around upstairs in the Thousand Trades in the Jewellery Quarter, with a decent pint of Ubu, the air scented with wood smoke from its homely little log burner with a brilliant team making calls. Our icon was the legendary Elaine Hook, a former school-cleaner who got a pay rise when Labour Birmingham introduced the real living wage. I could listen to her all day; and I’ve never met anyone better on the phones than Elaine. We predicted our vote percentage within about 2%.
The night of 5th February 2020, I got a sense I’d made it. The deputy regional director messaged to check I was in Birmingham. And in the end it was a convincing win. I was ahead by over 1000 votes on the first round and delivered 56% on the final draw. Pete Lowe almost instantly published an incredibly gracious concession speech, a mark of his character. And in my victory statement, I tried to set out my pitch for the battle to come; “This is the first election since Brexit. The first election in a new, uncertain world. We need strong leadership to build a bold new future for our region. With the pioneering spirit of our history, we must now become the centre of Britain’s Green Industrial Revolution’. I’d campaigned for the selection as Green Labour. And now I wanted to campaign for office on the same terms. To build a future, inspired by our past.
“We were once the workshop of the world” I said, “Now we must become the workshop of a green planet. Becoming Britain’s first zero carbon city region and bringing to our region the green manufacturing jobs of the future, low cost solar energy for our citizens, new forests and clean air.
This new future was key to unlocking new chances for the young. “Our young people should lead the way” I went on “And we need to support them with youth workers back in every neighbourhood”.
I was clear that we’d put ending the moral emergency of homelessness centre-stage; “If we’re to end the shame of homelessness we need nothing short of a green home building revolution. To end rough sleeping and to give young families their first foot on the housing ladder.
“Our diversity is our strength” I concluded, “But we achieve most when we stick together and look out for each other. [Because] Communities that work together are stronger, and safer”.
A couple of nights later I invited everyone who worked so hard on the campaign to the Old Joint Stock pub in St Philip’s Square, one of my favourite Birmingham watering holes. It was just a lovely evening with lovely people. They’d been through hell in 2019, yet still put their shoulder to the wheel and won.
They have been no campaign without Jack Dromey, our campaign chair. Counsel, broker, fixer, pacifier, sage, coalition-builder, and campaigner par excellence he was, unlike me, permanently calm but like me started the day with a list of things to do before he slept. But that first morning in the office he was almost shivering with the cold.
The office was freezing. Upstairs in Labour’s Birmingham Bristol Street office, still badged with a sign for our last MEP, Neena Gill, there wasn’t any heating. It was like the Mary Celeste. We had a makeshift table. We all perched on stools I bought from IKEA. We huddled close for warmth and went through the battle-plan. Which didn’t take long because there wasn’t one. It was immediately clear that no-one on the regional team had run an election on this scale, the party had no money, no political strategy, and very few actual organisers. The regional press officer lived in Kent. And from there, it went from bad to worse.
When I was selected to fight the Hodge Hill by-election we had leaflets out with my face on them the morning after I was selected. Not this time. By the 11th of March – over a month on from the selection victory – I was screaming into my diary that the Labour Party machine was like a zombie organisation. We had no polling. Our focus groups got cancelled by HQ without anyone bothering to tell us. After a kick-off meeting with the elections team in Southside, HQ promised to carry the burden of our policy work. When I rang two weeks later to check where it was, I was told they could not help us after all. While Andy Street had delivered his second newspaper region-wide I think we eventually got our first, thin leaflet back 35 days after I was selected using photos we shot in the last general election. We eventually dragooned in a deeply unenthusiastic deputy regional director from the South West, before persuading the heroic Gareth Snell, who’d narrowly lost his seat in Stoke to take the helm. It was chaos.
We eventually got a poll by persuading our friends at Hope Not Hate to do one for us. And we were in for a nasty shock. Half of residents didn’t know there was an election coming and we were trailing Andy Street by 13 points – 50% to 37% amongst decided voters – with around a quarter undecided.
We had some strengths. Our support was young and centred in inner-city Birmingham but weaker in the suburbs, while the Greens had great support amongst eighteen to twenty-fours. The key battleground was amongst the thirty-five to fifty-four year olds where 39% were undecided, and were more worried about the economy and crime with much stronger views on housing and jobs for young people, parks and public spaces, and the lack of youth provision. Their ambitions for the green economy were also slightly different; they were much more focused on a nicer environment for themselves and their city. After Brexit, people felt on balance optimistic that new opportunities would flow, but incredibly, 70% of people in the Black Country said the next generation would have fewer opportunities than themselves while in the suburbs of Birmingham nearly 40% said things have got worse in their neighbourhood.
The good news was our basic argument looked popular; 42% said they would vote for someone who put tackling climate change and creating a greener economy at the heart of their policies, and overall three-quarters supported investment to create jobs in new clean industries with 78% wanting cleaner air quality. Over 70% agreed with me that the level of homelessness in the region was a disgrace. We realised we had a mountain to climb. And then suddenly, everything changed.
We’d been keeping a wary, worried eye on the spiralling Covid cases for months. Finally, on March 23rd, the Prime Minister got a grip and went on national television to declare “from this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.” The elections, almost upon us, were now postponed. After what felt like the longest ever selection campaign, it looked like I now faced the longest ever campaign for election.
But there was work to do.
As soon as the crisis broke, I knew straight away we’d need a first class radar for Britain’s second city; a good system that picked up the unknown unknowns fast. The stuff that comes from left field and knocks you sideways. I rang Sutton Coldfield MP Andrew Mitchell (who was Andy Street’s campaign chair) and proposed a weekly pow-wow with the city’s MP’s, leaders and NHS chiefs. He agreed instantly and for much of the next year we met together every Wednesday to take stock, listen and act, banging out letters, calls, WhatsApps to ministers about things the city needed. It’s typically prosaic stuff; have we got enough ventilators? When do we run out? Are more on the way? How fast can we move aid to businesses? Are the banks providing credit? Planet Ice have offered their ice-rink as a mortuary – do we need it? Is there enough mortuary space? What about food supplies? Have the food banks got enough stock? Where are the infections spiking? Can we surge in extra messaging? The system let us act with speed. So for example, when I saw early signs of price gouging by unscrupulous traders hiking up prices – like for the children’s medicine Calpol – I was able to raise it in the Commons within days.
In the background, we had now begun the haggling with the party to use the year we have been given to transform our chances of winning. I asked to be able to style myself as the shadow mayor of the West Midlands – which I thought was slightly comic – but I knew it would annoy the Tories and we wanted to give the media a sense that there was some clear opposition.
Crucially, we knew our first task was to re-build a regional party shattered by the heavy defeat just months before. So we asked for the resources to set up a policy unit and an informal shadow cabinet once a month to bring together Labour leaders, MPs and trade unions, together with the brilliant Steve Reed from the Parliamentary Shadow Cabinet, to help bring together some basic organisation.
Keir’s victory on 4th April was a game-changer. I immediately reached out to help and ask for help. In a five page note ahead of our first call I set out the prize at stake; the West Midlands election was the biggest scalp we could take in 2021 and at stake was stewardship of an £8 billion investment budget, oversight of the second largest police force in the country, the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and a real opportunity to shape and test a truly green Labour offer. Crucially we wanted to agree much better ways for our local government colleagues to work together with Labour’s front bench safe in the knowledge that the key lessons about running Britain day in day out, were being learned by Labour’s leaders on the ground.
Slowly but surely, as spring turned to summer, we began to create some order. I used a keynote speech to zero in on a plan to save lives and save livelihoods in the West Midlands. I reached out to some of the economists I’d worked with at the Cabinet Office during the global financial crisis and ran some basic numbers about what it would take to get our region back on its feet after the economic shock. It showed we needed something like £3 billion. And yet when we looked at how underfunded our region was compared to others, it was clear I was asking for no more than our fair share of the national capital investment pot. As if to underline the point, we quickly saw the Covid fatalities were much worse in our ethnic minority community. After a phone call with Cllr Paulette Hamilton that left us both in tears, I concluded we needed an urgent inquiry to get to the stories behind the statistics. I called Doreen Lawrence to make sure we were coordinating our work with her national commission, and over the weeks that followed, we heard hour after hour of the most harrowing testimony I’ve ever heard in public life.
We heard about a 35-year-old new mum who died after childbirth, never having the chance to hold her newborn son; the pastor’s wife who lost first her husband and then her best friend while battling the virus herself in hospital. She then learned the pastor due to conduct her husband’s funeral had also died. We heard from a son who said goodbye to his dad via WhatsApp while a doctor sat stroking his dad’s hand and holding him close “as if he was his own”. It was appalling. We worked together to produce a final 42-page report, with ten key findings from the experience of families who suffered devastating loss, and thirty-five recommendations for ministers, the region’s Members of Parliament, the Mayor of the West Midlands, NHS and Social Care leaders, Public Health Directors and local councils – some of which were quickly implemented. Some good came of our work.
Meanwhile, back on the campaign we finally ran our focus groups to fine-tune our message and plan the print runs. The truth is the Tories were already seen as doing a good job handling coronavirus. In some Black Country groups we ran in June people would say of Boris Johnson, ‘who’d want his job?’ ‘We are little country with a lot of people in it, people are bound to get ill’. ‘He (Johnson) is helping out with the furlough scheme’. ‘No one is ever dealt with anything like this before – what is he supposed to do?’
People were open to the idea that Johnson was a bit all over the place, that warning lights were flashing, that corners were cut with the NHS and Russian roulette played when the pandemic stock was cut. But no-one thought Labour could’ve done anything better. ‘It’s been a learning curve for everyone. We are being paid. What else could they do?’ went the conversation, and for the British public, there’s a simple rule of thumb: a national crisis requires politicians to pull together. ‘It’s not the time for bickering’ said was a typical comment, ‘This is not a time for different voices – we need to all be one’. ‘I think if Boris and Starmer got together they do a bloody good job of sorting the country out’ said a third.
Everyone was anxious about the second peak they could already see coming, the imminent recession and rising unemployment. There was a real readiness to talk about policy; a real interest in how we moved forward together as a society. The jagged, old divisions so familiar to us during Brexit were gone. And if there was a silver-lining it was the sense of community spirit re-built. Almost everyone liked the way that felt and crucially, wanted to sustain it.
Little was known about what Labour was up to. But Keir was clearly a vital asset. ‘Keir Starmer is a breath of fresh air’ said one ‘He’s strong, takes it back to the centre and seems to be well, brighter than Boris’.
Meanwhile, barely anyone had heard of Andy Street – or me. Those who had seen Street thought he was a bit of a ‘grip and grin guy’ – and the key attack line that cut-through was ‘can you name a single thing he’s done?’ Equally no-one really yet heard of Liam Byrne either and we realised that we could well be working from pretty much a blank slate. For obvious reasons, I wanted to know how big a problem my Treasury leaving note would be. I was astonished when no-one had heard of it. We asked the moderators to push as hard as possible; ‘You know, he worked at the Treasury under Gordon Brown’; that at least prompted people to remember the ‘selling of the gold’. But the note? It hadn’t registered.
Everyone’s chief concern was in fact, the things we needed to rebuild – jobs, security, growth, mental health and housing. In a region like ours, manufacturing was by far and away the key priority. But, there was a clear sense that young people had been hardest-hit of all, that they were our future and needed additional support and investment especially in mental health. Finally, as ever, policing was vital. It spoke to peoples’ extra new thirst for a sense of safety and security. But connected to this was a sense that our new community spirit was something everyone wanted to sustain. Lots talked about getting to know their neighbours better by going out to clap for the NHS on a Thursday night. But from there neighbours had begun WhatsApp or Facebook groups for their street to make sure that nobody was going hungry or lonely. “People have pulled together” one said, ‘Let’s keep it up’. ‘People are more pleasant and polite’ said another, ‘People seem a lot more engaged and being polite. The rat race scenario has cooled down. People have time to say hello. An extra bit of time on our hands.”
In this research my chief concern was to figure out how to get our green message pitch perfect. We’ve had new Labour, old Labour, bold Labour. I wanted to run as Green Labour. To create the greenest manifesto a Labour candidate had ever run on and win. Instinctively, it was the right thing to do and it was critical to mobilising younger voters. But I knew we needed to marry it to peoples’ pride in our region’s past and their sense, their wisdom, of how we had succeeded in the past.
In and of itself the environment didn’t work as a policy area – it was too big – but green initiatives do cut through when yoked to other issues. But on the environment and the economy, people felt like they were on the horns of a dilemma. Instinctively people felt that green was more expensive. They worried we needed to recover first and then ‘go green’. Nor did anyone feel very comfortable about the conflict. They didn’t want to kick the can down the road. They knew that we needed to get on with cutting carbon.
But what we discovered is that the dilemma dissolved when we talked about green manufacturing. ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could be known for this’ one exclaimed. ‘I think it would be great if we could be at the lead of this’ said another. ‘Bang on. We are manufacturing region’.
Crucially, people thought this was the way we could trade our way back to health and earn the money to pay for the NHS which have been worth it’s weight in gold. By far and away, our idea of green industry zones was seen as a practical plan to hope industry go green and grow creating jobs and wealth at the same time. ‘This is a much stronger message, much more a plan’ said one. ‘It’s more realistic – it gives us a sense of how we trade our way out of it. It’s the way forward for our children and grandchildren’.
So ‘making our green future’ squared the circle. Once upon a time we were the workshop of the world. For the future our region need to set course to become the green workshop of the world.
This research helped us pull into focus a simple three-part message; making our green future, and becoming a world capital of green manufacturing; supporting our young people and finally rebuilding safety and nurturing the community spirit. These felt like Labour things to do, it capitalised on what people thought was best about our movement and it rhymed with the things people felt had got us through the crisis. We summarised it under a simple, bold, ambitious heading: a new future for the heart of Britain.
From this I worked with my brother and Fiona Gordon to develop both a message plan and a long arc for our print with a mixture of three direct mails and two newspapers and waves of digital ads. By early June we had finalised our first mailing: a friendly and open letter to people checking in, seeing if they were okay and providing a pretty open survey designed to extract how people were feeling and their point of view about the agenda we’d pinned down in focus groups.
Finally, it felt like progress. But as John Reid used to tell me incessantly at the Home Office, ‘no plan survives contact with reality’. And so it proved. Everything was taking forever. In large part, I was to blame. I wanted to get it right. I revised stuff endlessly. But by early July, just as the John Lewis in New Street station closed, we had a message book that was outstanding and a direct mail that was ready to go to print. Now we just needed to hand deliver it to a quarter of a million homes. And we were about to hit the realities of a party machine that still wasn’t match fit – and divisions in our own ranks about how to work with the Tory Mayor.
The Labour family was divided about how to respond to the crisis. Few of the Labour leaders were up for challenging the mayor’s policy leadership and so ended up signing up to his proposal for a far more modest plan to reboot the region. I understood the dilemma but it was a problem we never fully resolved. In early July, Yvonne Davies the leader of Sandwell Council was suspended. Anneliese Dodds on her first visit to Birmingham as shadow chancellor was scheduled to visit Northfield – yet no one had bothered to tell me. I found out about the visit from Twitter at 9 o’clock that night. She was mortified when I rang her to let her know. Keir joined us for his first visit to the region on the 18th July to Coventry College. It went brilliantly. People wanted to talk. He’s an excellent listener, and authoritative when he sums up. Yet somehow, no one had bothered to tell Colleen Fletcher, the local MP, who’d actually attended the college.
It wasn’t until early August that I finally managed to get a conversation with the new general secretary David Evans. By this stage we’d been nagging people about the budget for three months. We’d reached the point that some staff we’d had to bring in were not getting paid. But David was already under huge pressure.
‘We’ve got this massive set of elections’, he pleaded; ‘not just the local elections but the national elections in Scotland and Wales’. At best he estimated he had a third of the wherewithal he wanted to fight the elections. And here we were asking for £365,000. With a goal of raising around £150,000 from private sources. That was the minimum – and it was a quarter of what the Tories were spending.
Because we relied on hand delivery of material, we needed to customise our literature down to 228 wards, to help make sure local activists were motivated to do their bit. But that entailed endless negotiation with colleagues about what the literature looked like. Without Gareth Snell’s patience and persistence it would have proved impossible. Constantly we were knocked sideways by surges in Covid infections. In the third week of August I finally managed to get a few days holiday, to only to spend almost all of it trying to navigate the new lockdown in Birmingham. There was a constant stream of phone calls from Dido Harding, Jon Ashworth, the leader of the council and Birmingham MPs, as we tried to frame the strategy, sort our asks of government and crystallise messages for the media.
By September, there were some signs of movement. The direct mail was really starting to shift, the first of our digital ads went up, and we finally drew level at 40 to 40 with the Tories. Anneliese came back for a brilliant visit to LEVC in Coventry, maker of the world famous electric London cab, to help launch our new Green Manufacturing Taskforce. Keir came back for a superb visit to Walsall, where my team had organised for all our council leaders to come and have a photocall. Obviously a local row meant we had to do this in the informality of a local Indian restaurant but it went well and so did his interviews.
But what was extraordinary was walking him back to the station through the busy Saturday market. As I stuck to his shoulder, tight as a magnet, I saw just how people responded to him. He had a simply brilliant reception. People knew him, wanted to chat and respected him. He left on a high and texted me back to say ‘Was great to see you & photos are fabulous” He was right. It was exactly what we needed.
We’d carefully organised our photos of Keir with local leaders to light up our next newspaper, which looked brilliant. The front cover had a nice picture of me and Simon Foster outside factories, with a simple message ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs’. We used the pages to publish the results of the thousands of surveys now flooding in. They were revealing. They showed people were super-worried about the future, with around half of people prioritising jobs as the number one issue followed by law and order.
Overwhelmingly, people felt the silver-lining from lockdown was a stronger community spirit, though people also appreciated cleaner air, spending time with family and the local environment. In fact, there was a real sense that politics had now become not just local, but hyper-local; focused on the state of the street, the park, the local parade of shops. Unsurprisingly, lockdown had shrunk the circumference of peoples’ horizons. Inside, we had a nice column from Keir Starmer and on page 3, a simple three-point plan to illustrate how we wanted to make the region Britain’s capital of green manufacturing.
But looking back on it now, it was just too high level; too Delphic and simply not practical enough for the here and now crisis that people confronted. That was my fault. By contrast we did have very clear plans on policing and our pledge to increase neighbourhood police numbers. Simon Foster zeroed in on that brilliantly. Crucially, we suffered from the contrast with Andy Street who could talk about what he was doing now whereas we were talking about things that we wanted to do in the future. And some of the things we proposed – like support for wages to protect jobs, or a job guarantee scheme – required a Labour government rather than merely a Labour mayor.
The truth is we were a bit dismissive of Andy’s campaign. It was, well, boring. There were no grand sweeps, vision, ambition. But Andy Street could talk about the money the government was actually investing in the region; it looked cheesy, complete with endless picture of hard hats – which by the way focus groups detest – but it looked practical and crucially underlined his access to Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson. He looked like a man who was getting on with the job. That’s the power of incumbency. The word ‘Conservative’ by contrast was in a six point font on the back page of a newspaper in various shades of green. But to be fair it was overwhelmingly positive and constructive with only the mildest pop at me here or there.
As new restrictions were coming down the tracks, we were once again running into budget problems. We didn’t have enough activists to deliver the newspapers – and by 14 September, the rule of six was complicating campaign activity. We couldn’t afford the Royal Mail. So we opted for a network of delivery companies that proved a bit of disaster. Once again, we felt we had the message and optics right. We just couldn’t communicate the message. And then the party decided to cut a budget once again. Worse, the new polling that showed us neck a neck wasn’t such good news in the Midlands where we were still ten points behind; our recovery such that it was, was delivered by a bounce in in London and the north.
By October the strain was really starting to show. I was exhausted at pouring in the kinetic energy day in day out. In exasperation I wrote another missive to David Evans and Morgan McSweeney with a plea for resources. They must have thought me a terrible, demanding primadonna. But this campaign wasn’t some picaresque little adventure for us. We thought a Labour victory was critical not just for the Midlands, but to rebuilding the foundations for a Labour government.
After five weeks, the first direct mail was still at best 70% delivered and it was clear our volunteer base was weakest in the places where hitherto, Labour majorities were largest. We were getting feedback that party volunteers would struggle to get anything else out that year. And we still had at least two products to deliver!
We were struggling either to create ads and still lacked any Facebook strategy or digital campaigners despite our incessant nagging of the head office digital team. They were first class but very, very busy. Although I’ve been asking for awhile to get online newspaper ads delivered we just didn’t have the resources to do it. At best we had six organisers but they were now doing huge amounts of delivering direct-mail and we needed to pull them off to help organise the next wave of print materials. Nor did we have any capacity to actually enter the data from the thousands of replies from surveys that we had or in fact to write back to the people who would kindly got in touch with us. I was having to provide a lot of management of the communications operation, which given our constraints, I was pushing much too hard. Volunteers were doing the media monitoring. The Co-op Party, thank the Lord, stepped in to help us organise a policy task-force. Thanks to Jack Dromey and Lee Baron, the TUC in general and Frances O’Grady in particular were utterly brilliant in producing their first regional recovery report and letting us join their launch. It was hugely influential on our thinking, and actually was part of a superb, practical, grounded set of proposals, rooted in the realities of working life, that we sought from regional unions like Usdaw, Unite, the GMB, Unison and the Musicians Union. It was welcome stuff. We were straining with our capacity to take the party members through the business of writing a manifesto, but I was determined to maximise members’ input. It is just the fastest way to good ideas. But without my head of policy, the incredible Jake Sumner, working every spare hour God sent, we’d have been lost. I was now literally feeling sick with worry.
Jack Dromey, in his wisdom, asked me to pull together a six page organisational review which revealed the huge gaps in our press and digital operation. We were proud of what we’d achieved. We had pulled the party together after the catastrophe of our general election defeat, created a good message strategy based on good research and delivered the first region-wide direct-mail. We’d designed-up seven newspapers, hosted two leader visits and were knocking out two to three proactive stories a week. I’d also raised about £55,000.
But we were at least five organisers short in Birmingham alone, where we had about half a person’s time in a city which we wanted to deliver half our vote, and we were relying on volunteers to help us organise events and visits. When the three tier system kicked in on 14th October, Andy Burnham was quickly out calling for the support his region needed. I thought we should follow suite. So we put on a press conference to set out the ask for Birmingham. On our grid call the night before I asked who was actually staffing the press conference which would take place on the steps of Birmingham’s Council House. The meeting just went silent. We were struggling with the basics of political communication.
Still, we drove the ‘machine’ on. By the end of the month we eventually got a digital ad strategy, which was very focused on trying to drive a differential turn out with core Labour voters, encouraging people onto postal votes and raising the awareness of the vote. But basic things like Google ads which we knew would make a difference we barely got round to organising. I was pushing, pushing to get next direct mail done, which eventually landed in Birmingham on 13 December. But of course, we had barely anyone to help organise delivery. I turned up at our headquarters on a Saturday to find our heroic Birmingham activist Cory Hazelhurst, who didn’t even work for the Labour Party, trying to organise on his own, 100,000 direct mails in hundreds of huge boxes on the pavement of Bristol Street. There was nothing for it. My son John and I rolled up our sleeves and spent the rest of the day helping Cory lug around the boxes into order to go out to a city of a million people. It reminded me of my younger days unloading prawn trawlers in Australia’s Northern Territory. You had to laugh.
But just as we were getting organised, the Covid caseload surged. On our calls with the hospitals each week, it was becoming clear the city’s intensive care units were almost out of space.
Crisis. January 2021
Looking back on it now, I see how our campaign was destroyed by decisions in the final hours of December and the first few days of January. Not by us. But by Boris Johnson.
By early December it was clear that the country was in a race between the virus and the vaccine. On the 8th December we discovered from ITV that Birmingham’s hospitals had not actually been prioritised in the first 50, for vaccination rollout. We couldn’t believe it. I immediately raised it – for which I was attacked for ‘scaremongering’ – but it wasn’t until two days later that we got news from NHS leaders that delivery was coming Friday night – ready for a Saturday start. It was, as one NHS leader said to me, ‘a shambles’.
Over Christmas, the caseload had continued its remorseless rise and then we got the news we’d been dreading at 16:27 on 30th December. Gareth Snell messaged to say ‘Party are going to say that leafletting is *not allowed* in Tier 4’. I’m not sure the Party had much choice. But for us, it was a disaster. We tried to argue that a blanket ban was ridiculous. Why couldn’t members go out for a walk and deliver a few letters? After all, the Royal Mail was still delivering.
That night I messaged back to say, ‘I think it’s probably time for us to ask for a meeting with kier/ Angela so they’re totally clear how difficult this is…There is also a cheeky question of some financial support to pay for posted DMs…HQ seems determined to lose this’.
That was unfair of me. Their hands were tied. But I was frustrated that while we were being banned from doing anything there was no advice on how we ought to adapt. I just couldn’t see any evidence anywhere of an elections strategy. Worse was to come. On 4th January, the ‘frustrating and alarming’ spread of a new variant – and a 100,000 lives lost – triggered a new national lockdown which knocked out our field team. Hundreds of thousands of direct mails, which we’d sweated blood to ready for Christmas were locked in activist’s living rooms and car boots ready to go. But ordered to stay.
Right at this time came worse news that the Party would not after all have the funds to finance our short campaign – that final month-long burst that is seen as critical to victory or defeat. We were stuffed. I frantically messaged Jenny Chapman to plea for help, but I’m not sure there was much she could do. Meanwhile Mr Street’s newspapers – printed and delivered by the Royal Mail at at around £150,000 a time were landing on the door mats. Thump, Thump, Thump…
With lockdown we had to completely rethink our strategy. We had built a good network of hundreds of activists but they were not now allowed out either to talk to voters or deliver direct mail. We were screwed.
Better news came when the Party at last sorted out the management of our regional office. Since my selection, I think I saw the old Regional Director – who was after all responsible for elections in the region – about twice. In ten months. The new RD, Richard Oliver was a breath of fresh air. Clear, sharp, determined, Labour to his fingertips with a no nonsense style and a determination to win. He quickly re-organised his team, put extra staff into Birmingham and insisted everyone started using the Party’s great new call-centre system called Dialogue. It had a choppy start but the Party quickly sorted out the technology. The problem was the politics.
Our script basically asked, ‘how has the crisis been managed? How about jobs? How about Keir?’ The problem was the answers always tended to be ‘good – good – don’t know’. We risked leading voters down a path to affirm their support for the Tories.
Nevertheless, by the end of January we’d made over 2000 contacts, and 64% were breaking Labour. Richard messaged me to say “it is easily enough of the voter pool to win” and by early February we were able to use the system to sign people up to postal votes.
We were now beginning to land blows in the regional media – which had studiously avoided the race in 2020 – thanks to Olly Longworth, who we had brought on board part time, to help improve our communications together with Helen McCulluch, the superstar East Midlands regional press officer. Helen cooked up a new strategy of organising roundtables on hot topics on Zoom and inviting the media along. We got good hits for our work on the need to use pharmacists to deliver vaccinations and the plight of students. But it didn’t take long for the media to get bored.
So we looked hard at the work of people like Tory Ben Houchen who built a powerful Facebook presence for the Tories in the north-east to see what we could learn. Our new, amazing digital officer Alex Aitken together with our intern Tom Beardwell who took leave to develop a strategy using Streamyard to organise virtual events in every constituency which we could beam through Facebook Live so at least we can provide a way of talking to at least some residents. It wasn’t the Beto O’Rourke tour of every county that we’d hoped for. But it was as close as we could get.
The numbers logging on was never in the hundreds, but it worked absolute wonders for our Facebook engagement. We also mastered the art of working in Facebook community groups. Tom Beardwell built an index of a couple of hundred of them across the region so that at least we could begin sharing news strategically once or twice a week. What we quickly found was that the Tories were not only firmly bedded in, they had actually built their own ‘white label’ community updates network which looked like a local news site but which was in fact run by Tory operators.
Mastering digital events did allow us to do some things better. So, to kick off our campaign on the 20th February, Richard and Helen organised a brilliant online members conference. Keir came to kick us off followed by a regional press round and over 500 people joined in to share views on the final manifesto.
I pitched the launch squarely at the plight of the next generation where the mayor had said almost nothing. “When we shortchange children’ I said, ‘we short-change our future. That is why the defining mission of my mayoralty will become the place that gives young people the best life chances in Britain’. I went on to set out how I thought we could become a global capital of green manufacturing, the place the makes the things the world needs to save itself, while creating over 21,000 new jobs in a Green Industrial Revolution.
‘We want to create here in the region that led the carbon revolution, a new leader of the zero carbon revolution. The first city region in Britain to go net zero carbon. The region that makes the things the world needs to cut carbon’ I said. But crucially, I wanted to root this story about our future in the pride I knew people felt about the past.
‘When my great grandparents came here to set up shop in Kings Norton, they came because they had heard from far away that here was a place where “if you could draw it we could make it. Well this century needs us once again to make history by inventing the future’.
For the first time we’d set out the thirty failures which Andy Street had presided over. Keir messaged me later to say ‘‘You’re running a fantastic campaign – energy, passion and a winning mentality.’ But it was a collective effort that was so impressive. By the end of February we were making 1000 contacts a week on the phones – and 62% was saying they were Labour. And then, just about detectably, the tide began to turn.
The Tory Party is an absolute master of the art of using incumbency to win elections – and this campaign was no exception. They were not mucking around. At the end of February, they announced new headquarters for Department for Local Government in Wolverhampton – something our local Labour leader somehow didn’t mention to us – and in quick succession came announcements on moving chunks of the Department of Transport to Birmingham, a deal between the BBC to re-locate a tonne of new programme making to the city, followed by a Commonwealth Games Legacy strategy which was the DCMS had been holding back and suddenly agreed at 4pm one afternoon for immediate announcement before purdah.
Meanwhile, we still had no clarity on rules for campaigners. The best we knew was that hand delivery of letters could be allowed from the 8th of March and political campaigning could be a lawful reason to be outside your house. That meant we had lost two clear months in the crucial quarter running up to election day. But our challenges went deeper than that.
As the vaccine programme gathered steam, the Tories, inexorably began to refloat in the polls. At peak, eight out of ten voters felt they were doing a good job on the single issue that mattered most to the country: the vaccination programme. We delivered a good BBC package on our launch but as the vaccination roll-out gathered pace the government was reacquiring an air of competence and a mood was growing of ‘let’s just get back to normal’. We were banking on a ‘change’ election. In fact, the market for ‘steady as she goes’ was suddenly bigger. The media zeroed in on the great unlock and nationally, we’d not quite got ahead of that curve. That’s when the lobby decided to turn on Keir.
For some time, our challenge was that we did not have a properly researched campaign to take on Boris Johnson and nor was our story anywhere clear enough. I had a moan to Morgan McSweeney on 27th February to say ‘the challenge at the moment feels like we cannot see the wood for the trees of Labour’s opposition. We see day by day the small nights of disagreement… But we can’t see the big picture’. We could point to a library of material about how the Tories wanted to brand Keir. But we didn’t seem to be having the same debate.
Later that week I messaged Jack Dromey to say ‘I think the National party is now allowing itself to fall into a very very serious position. There appears to be no polling, no focus groups, no clear message or message strategy and ahead of the budget, there are at least four different lines of argument in the media. We’ve been hammering away a competence for a year, rightly but that card is no longer the trump it was and we’re not dealing ourselves any fresh cards.’
Worse, by the end of February I was compounding the problem for our team. The patchy delivery of our pre-Christmas newspaper plus the lockdown which stopped us delivering ‘Direct-Mail Two’, meant that for many of our target voters, we had not delivered anything for nearly 8 months, while the Tories had delivered three newspapers and a direct-mail in 2021 alone. I was still pushing for a couple of stories out the door every week, but now I was now agonising about how to make sure we used the extra money – raised thanks to incredible efforts by Richard Parker and Stephen Goldstein – to write to the right people. We couldn’t afford the £150,000 needed for Royal Mail delivery of newspapers to every home. We had at best £52,000 for an extra run of postal vote sign-ups plus an extra mailing into Birmingham, where we knew we had to maximise turn-out – and Solihull, where we needed to hold down the Tory vote.
This provoked the regional director getting tough with me. Richard urged me to let go of the print process; ‘Once again a very very good but perhaps less than perfect direct-mail leaflet is infinitely better and no direct mail leaflet… This may mean that some are less than perfect but do you have an excellent team working on this… And I am certain that everything will be of an extremely high quality”. I rolled over and got out the way.
The final weeks
As we shifted into the second week of March, the ground finally started to open up. By early March the polls had us about 13 points behind. It didn’t feel like that on the doorstep but the Tory budget landed very well and only stalled in the wake of the row about nurses’ pay. On 10th of March, we learnt that the Labour Party was launching its national campaign but frankly it was pretty difficult to understand the topline message and bizarrely although we were fighting the key election in England we weren’t asked to be involved.
Still we had the start of hustings which were more than enough to keep us busy – and they seemed to go to our advantage. After one of the first business community hustings, we got a message back to say ‘I thought Liam did really well – he conveyed empathy with constituents, was the only one who I thought seemed to want to engage local businesses and was fully in command of the economics and employment context.” That was good news.
Finally, we got the green light to start delivering our last direct-mail. It was a great mailing with a tonne of empathy; it related back what we’d heard about peoples’ fears about jobs and unemployment with anxiety about rising crime not far behind, and lots of worries about young people becoming a lost generation. Locally, people had told us they wanted the same simple things sorted: clean streets, less speeding, nice parks; public spaces that are actually nice – not run down and dirty.
We set out our plan to deliver three big things: to make our region a leading centre of clean green manufacturing; a place where we have better chances for young people, by reinvesting in youth workers, mental health support and proper careers guidance. And finally, we wanted to fuel the community spirit by investing in the clubs, groups, markets and festivals that support local business and bring us together. Crucially, Simon Foster underlined his plans to bring back neighbourhood policing.
Better still was the sheer joy at being allowed back out to make visits. We’d hatched a plan to try and set the agenda for the final stages of the campaign with a key note speech each week on our key themes of green manufacturing, young people, and community spirit. Nothing made me happier than a trip to go and see Very Light Rail in the shadow of Dudley Castle – where of course the first steam engine had been pioneered – to make a keynote speech on how we as a region could make our green future. It was a strong speech and we made a great film that connected our history as the pioneer of the industrial revolution to an achievable future as a global hub of green manufacturing. But again it was impossible to get the media to pick it up and so the film was confined to the digital arena of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, a place of few voters.
In the wake of the Tories’ blizzard of goodies for the region, I was beginning to feel by mid-March, that we were simply not strong enough to win. I wrote in my diary that night “now rather feel it’s not gonna happen’. Another 14 hour day finished with a zoom call with Christians on the Left, whose prayers frankly, I felt I needed. Still, Andy Street’s launch on the 19th of March was pretty low-key. Grant Schapps came up to join in but the sound was so bad, Andy couldn’t hear any questions. It felt a huge contrast to the hundreds of people we had had on our launch.
I was now getting frustrated that we couldn’t effect much read across between the local and the national. We were finding it next to impossible to get regional media to cover us. We needed the Party’s national media coverage to help. But, as I moaned to Ellie Robinson one evening on WhatsApp, its was very hard to see Labour’s strategic narrative especially a story about the future. I could see the logic of connecting on values like family and patriotism. But without a story about the future, we were playing 2-D politics in the 3-D world. The disconnect became clearest to me, when Anneliese Dodds returned to do a keynote speech on high streets, which was not something we really majored on.
As we sailed into the end of March, we were really under pressure. A typical week could have three hustings, three visits and events, Facebook lives, Labour community events, a keynote speech and manifesto meetings with leaders. Meanwhile we just didn’t have anybody to write a flying start literature. We knew that we wanted good maps of every borough with a handful of nice specific projects which a Labour Mayor could deliver working together with councils. But I was the only person who could write it, and so had to spend two days just banging it out. Even here, we were hampered by our own internal divisions. We couldn’t get the members of parliament in Coventry and Labour group to agree on some precise wording, and so the exec of Coventry Labour Party decided it couldn’t green light delivery of the leaflets and so devolved a decision on whether they could go out to local wards! If any of this literature actually went out I’d be amazed. Money too remained a challenge. On 25 March, our regional director messaged me to say, we were out of budget – and needed to raise more to cover extra print.
Still, what the team was now producing was incredible. When the chips are down, what Labour Party organisers – and my own team – were capable of, was truly, truly impressive. At the end of March, I messaged Gareth Snell to say how incredibly proud I was of the effort we’d pulled together under his leadership; ‘Just reviewed a host of exquisitely beautiful films, tonnes of visits – including Shadow CX – and press releases, ads are both great and rolling, DM2 is largely delivered, our slogans and pledges are both stunning and perfect to the last syllable, the manifesto is bold, comprehensive – and agreed by a united and really pleased party executive, we’ve done Facebook lives and our flying start literature is sorted, customised to borough levels with brilliant borough level pledges’. Delivered in lockdown, when we couldn’t ever be together in one place, that was some going.
Finally at the end of March, we were allowed back out on the doorstep and after a couple of very heavy weeks getting manifesto slogans and pledges sorted along seven versions of our flying start literature, it was just amazing to be back on the doorstep. Our vote seemed strong and with a united – and excited – Party base, we could at least give the Tories a run for their money. It still felt like there was all to play for.
The manifesto was a beast. Forty pages long with 108 pledges. But it hung together well, told our story, was an action plan for office and actually united the full breadth of the Labour Movement, which we’d worked assiduously to involve at every stage. One would love to think these blueprints instantly awe the hearts of voters, but of course very few people read them. We anticipated this. So me, Jake and my brother sweated hard to boil it down into seven three word slogans each backed with a sentence of practical action. This is generally how manifestos do the driving for the final month of an election grid, and in a way, this was the stuff I was proudest of. We launched it with a day on the road visiting every borough – seven pledges for seven boroughs – which Olly managed to pitch into probably our best day of regional TV in the glorious sunshine of Birmingham’s Centenary Square. It was a good day. But in truth it was much too late. In retrospect we should have launched it at the beginning of the year and spent five months talking about them and nothing else. That bad decision on timing was on me.
When lockdown lifted, I was out the door like a bat out of hell. The heroic David Hallam, now recovered after a health scare, took leave to drive and round and round the region we ploughed. It helped we’re both fascinated by faith, Labour gossip and industrial history. One day we even persuaded ITV to come and film an interview at what was left of Boulton & Watt’s great factory, the Smethwick Soho Foundry, because we just wanted to get the history on the telly.
‘I think I’ve worked you out’, he said. ‘For you, the doorstep is a sacred place’. That was absolutely bang on. On the doorsteps is where I’m happiest. Not long after I was elected in 2004, I was at one of those drink parties in Westminster. I didn’t know anyone, and everyone just seemed to be having the best time. Siobhain McDonagh, the legendary campaigning MP for Mitchum & Morden, rescued me. And stumbling I asked her for a bit of advice about what I should be doing. ‘Coffee mornings’, she said. ‘Coffee mornings and after work get togethers. And never stop’. It’s amongst the best advice I ever got in parliament. And I never stopped. I’ve done hundreds in my time in Hodge Hill, and together with the humble art of doorknocking, I have to say its the place I’ve learned most about the sixth sense of the great British people.
This year, the atmosphere was already ten times nicer than the General Election. One glorious evening we pulled up outside a busy pub in Sandwell. It was sunny and the clientele was sitting out enjoying the refreshments. Spying our rosettes, one young man bounded over to us. ‘Labour?! Labour?!’ He shouted. With the general election fresh in my mind, I thought, ‘Here we go’. But I was wrong. ‘Give me some of those leaflets, mate. I’m going to put them out in the bar’. That was something new.
Best of all is when you meet an absolute diamond where you just want to listen all night. Mary was one of them. She was almost blind now, voted in every election since 1948, and always voted Labour. She’d been a Land Army girl, and sewed her own Labour rosettes which she proudly wore to the canteen every night, no matter who told her not to. ‘I can’t stand people who don’t vote’ she said, ‘we fought for that. We fought for that’.
By the end of April, the regional polls were showing we were 9 points gap behind, which privately, I felt was pretty impossible to close. But on the doors, our base seemed very strong and you could feel a discernible shift back to Labour – what I called the LTDs – they were Labour, shifted Tory and now had moved to ‘don’t know’. Some are shifting all the way to us. Some were sticking at don’t know. And if anything, we found a real antipathy to Boris.
I find lots of the media are enamoured with him. But the odd thing is, it’s actually quite hard to find much love for him. Fascinated, I started playing a little game with voters. ‘Give me three words’ I’d ask, ‘to describe Boris Johnson’. Most places, one word comes up time and time again; ‘clown’. But not quite everywhere.
Out on a neat estate one lovely Sunday afternoon in Sandwell’s Friar Park I met a lovely old lady in her 90’s who wasn’t sure who she’d vote for. Asked the Boris question she paused for a moment before replying, ‘Fucking dickhead’. Technically two words, but she’d made her point with eloquence. That kind of response was not uncommon and now Tory sleaze was starting to come up. Equally, our data was even showing a shift from Tory to Not Voting. Not ideal, but for us a helpful trend. And there was enough of our data for it to be pretty solid. In the final week, we spoke to 11,000 voters, with over 30,000 people spoken to in the final month. That was more than we achieved in the previous general election. And 62% were saying they were voting Labour. Keir came back for our best ever visit to Sandwell College to help me underline how under the Tories the apprenticeship system was in free fall. He practiced changing wheels, did a spot of welding (reasonably well) and led a politics class. Above all, he listened to people in a way you could simply never imagine from Boris Johnson.
We only got one debate on the TV – which bizarrely we had to film in a warehouse outside Manchester – but we thought we won it. Steve McCabe, the Selly Oak MP who lives round the corner from me, and whose judgement I’ve learned to treasure messaged to say ‘Thought you dominated debate & had the ideas whereas he looked a bit uncomfortable & diffident…Think turnout remains the challenge particularly in parts of Birmingham where no other elections’. As ever, Steve was right.
But the debate didn’t move the polls. On 18 April, the polls were running against us. Opros UK had the Tories besting us by 52-48 on the second round. Worse we now had Labour officials openly briefing against us. ‘Liam is under the illusion he’s going to win’ one waspishly told the Times, ‘He isn’t’. Another snitty little barb ran, ‘So pessimistic are the party that they believe he will not only lose but quit politics.” Charming from your own side. Yet the numbers were worse than the narky briefing. The Times poll on 22nd April was awful. It had Andy Street on 46% and me down at 37%. Yet on the doorstep it just didn’t feel like this.
As we got closer to D-Day, the challenge was becoming clearer: the national media – not completely unreasonably – was determined to make the frame whether Keir was doing enough to ‘recover the red wall’. Full stop. And we become the test case. Even the Daily Mirror couldn’t give us a decent write-up. National journalists would wander in, stubbornly unwilling to look past the ‘Westminster view’ and with no interest in either Street’s record or the issues at stake. No one ever asked about our plans for green manufacturing. Or why the changing dynamics of gang violence, county lines, social media and access to serious weaponry, meant youth workers were more important than ever. I think we were only asked once about our plans for council tax. Superficial doesn’t even become to describe it.
As we headed into election week, the West Mids skies were full of beautiful fluffy clouds through which the sun shone warmly enough for a bit a doorstep tan, and the rain held off long enough to get some proper door knocking done. The pink and white blossom was late on the trees but on a warm day, you could smell cut grass. It was campaign joy. Old friends like Rachel Reeves, Jon Ashworth, Seema Malhotra and Tulip Siddiq came up to help. Tonnes of people joined our zoom phone banks. Our campaign in the inner cities, carefully organised by my old friend Ansar Ali Khan was superb. Campaign teams led by Gurinder Josan and Sikhs for Labour, not only kept us well fed, they contacted thousands of people. Jack Dromey has an almost infinite capacity to organise visits with our friends in the trade union movement, keeping us rooted in the world of work. But while I headed out around the region for two-three door knocking sessions a day, we pulled all our organisers back to Birmingham where we didn’t have any other elections, and just tried to get every party member we could, contacting voters.
By Wednesday 5th May, the media narrative was simply awful. Tiny polls in Hartlepool and the West Midlands had us 17% behind, while our enemies within were briefing furiously. But Keir and Angela came down to Birmingham for a final stop. These things take huge amounts of organising and it was pouring with rain. But Keir and Angela were jolly, did their TV clips and together we took a stroll through town, down to the Bullring markets for some final interviews.
And while I was waiting for them to arrive, one of those strange things happened which in a slightly miraculous way, reminded me on the eve of the poll what the whole campaign had actually been for. We were waiting for Keir and I was joking around with the staff and the media in Victoria Square when suddenly a lean, smart dressed man strode across the square towards me. ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he smiled. Actually I remembered his face clearly, but the last time we met, he was not this smart. ‘Two years ago, I was homeless. And you helped me. You helped me tell my story and get me sorted. And now I’m back on my feet and doing well’. I wanted to burst into tears. And so with wet eyes, I said, ‘Well, look at you. All smart. You look amazing. So, what’s your next step?”
“Well, the next step is getting a job. But I’m up for that now. Anyway, I wanted to say thank you.” And off he strode. I looked up to the heavens and shook my head at the extraordinary way this world works. David Hallam, who is a Methodist preacher in his spare time, looked over at me and smiled.
When election day broke, David came to pick me up. The Birmingham Post, true to form, had decided to splash on the Tories’ press release that if I was elected Mayor, I’d never get an audience with Boris Johnson. I went out and voted and then we began our final tour around the region, joining teams in every borough for an hour each on the doors, before a final run through Saltley in Hodge Hill, where election day is like a carnival and I’m with people I’ve campaigned with for years, with residents I love, on streets I know backwards. It felt good, and we broke about 8:30 and people were getting ready to break their Ramadan fast. I was keen to do a final run, so we headed out to Selly Oak for one last blitz with Steve McCabe’s team, for the karma as much as anything else. We finished about 9.30 in the evening, deliriously happy that it was finally all over. The rain held off, and an exhausted, happy team came back to pile under the gazebo in my garden for a few libations. We lit a fire and candles and in the dancing firelight we drank the drinks cabinet dry, laughed, reminisced and told stories into the wee small hours. That was one fine team.
Birmingham doesn’t count votes fast. I knew it would be slow. But when news from Hartlepool arrived, I knew I’d lost. And so it proved. That night across our region, we were wiped out in Dudley, knocked back across the Black Country, and heavily defeated in Solihull.
In the West Midlands, we were forecast to lose by 17%, and we slashed that margin to eight points. We got our police and crime commissioner elected, amassed 46% of the vote (after second preferences were counted) and in terms of sheer raw number of votes, moved our numbers up by 14% on last time. We’d added nine per cent to the first poll we had taken before the race truly began. But the Tories’ doubled their vote in places like Dudley and Solihull, consolidating the old UKIP vote which collapsed and then going further.
I didn’t write a victory speech. Just a speech to say thank you, good luck and to say something nice about Andy’s mum, who had tragically died of Covid in Heartlands Hospital in my constituency that February. ‘I know she’s looking down today’ I said ‘and is looking on with pride’. I hoped he’d appreciate it. And then, we strolled out as a family through the grey car park of the NIA, through the grey damp of the drizzling afternoon to the car. I felt the rain on my face and cast a glance towards Edward Street, once the home of the Church of the Saviour, where a century ago the ‘civic gospel’ was born in the sermons of George Dawson. Seventeen of his congregation were elected to the Town Council and six were elected mayor, including one Joseph Chamberlain. I was not to join their ranks. I think it rained for the next fortnight.