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As we prepare for tonight’s second West Midlands Mayoral Hustings in Coventry, Sam Davies reflects on the first event two weeks ago held at Black Country Living Museum, Dudley.

Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the first of four Mayoral Hustings, held at the Black Country Living Museum, where the five candidates for the new role of West Midlands Mayor were
publicly gathered together on a podium for the first time, facing questions from the Chair and a select audience.

Whether you believe the decision to appoint a Mayor for the West Midlands to be sound or not this election process and the three year term that will follow are undeniably a once in a generation opportunity for the region to shake off the shackles of post-industrial decline and malaise. The Black Country in particular has suffered as the world has evolved around us, rendering a once proud and highly skilled populous feeling entrenched in a cycle of few jobs, poor pay and low prospects.

On arrival at the venue we were chauffeured to the Workers’ Institute in a Victorian bus, complete with in-character driver and ticket inspector, and I was reminded how lucky we are to have such a splendid memoire to our history and culture here in the Black Country. The scale and atmosphere of the surroundings are something to behold after sundown; the tangible echoes of our ancestors adding gravitas to an evening of democratic theatre.

And so it was with great intrigue that I prepared for the evening’s proceedings and waited for the five prospects to woo us with their opening statements, before entering into the inevitable sparring with the distasteful and unhelpful political point scoring which we have become so accustomed to in British elections at every level. Indeed, this style of competing has become such a staple of our democracy that many of us have given up ingesting anything politicians state as a fact because it invariably turns out to be untrue, and they face no sanctions nor are they penalised in any way. The hypocrisy of these actions is all too clear for many ‘absent’ voters.

This however, was a different type of politics which took me somewhat by surprise. This was the politics a generation has been craving. Yes, there were disagreements on every topic debated (what sort of election process would it be if all candidates agreed), and yes there were a handful of light hearted digs thrown in, but there was so much more on show here. On at least one occasion each the candidates declined to give an expansive answer, instead agreeing with a previous speaker, in a show of respect for the time available both to themselves but also to us as the audience and those following the live stream at home. There was no filibustering, no clever word play to undermine an opponent, just straight talking and seemingly honest opinions. The caveat being, of course, that the proof will always be in the pudding.

Having drawn lots prior to commencing the hustings Andy Street, the Conservative candidate and former CEO of John Lewis, had the advantage of delivering his opening statement first and closing statement last and throughout he was the most adept public speaker. He clearly shares the view of many that change and development take far too long in Britain, and reiterated several times that all of his plans are built around delivering effective changes quickly in order that people feel the benefits as soon as possible. His experiences in big business and at Board level make him the early favourite of many, as the role will involve managing large amounts of decentralised government funding, although I would argue that his lack of political experience and nous could well alienate him from key allies if not managed effectively.

Peter Durnett of UKIP was next in line, bravely laying his cards on the table by admitting that he does not believe the West Midlands Mayor is an effective use of time, resources or funding, and boldly stating that he had stood on the basis that if there was to be a Mayor responsible for so much investment in the region he wanted to be sure that there was an effective scrutiny of every decision. Having been dubious about UKIP’s chances of winning the election I must admit that Mr Durnett spoke eloquently, sensibly, and much of his rhetoric will resonate with the average citizen, certainly many of those that I have spoken to in the months since the EU Referendum last May. He could be a strong wild card in the coming weeks.

Labour have chosen Sion Simon to represent them, and the jury was out before the evening began as he picked some unusual battles over the preceding weeks, referencing Scottish independence as part of his campaign. As the night wore on he grew into the situation, and although not a natural speaker he is a Black Country lad who spoke proudly of his love for the area and his dreams for the future, even drawing the first cheer of the night with a Corbyn-esque defence of his absence from earlier business hustings. His only obvious slip was a dressing down of Beverley Nielsen for ‘bragging’ about her previous achievements before proceeding to reel off his own curriculum vitae in response. Beverley Nielsen is standing on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and although she has acquired experience as a local councillor for Worcestershire County Council her primary experiences which will underpin the campaign are in business, education, and marrying the two elements together with a particular focus on young people. Despite regular rundowns of her international experiences and love for the West Midlands after twenty years campaigning on our behalf, I was not convinced that Beverley put forward a particularly strong case in terms of action and much of her rhetoric seemed to focus on aspirations which we all share but little in the way of a pathway or mechanisms.

Finally, the Green party will be considered rank outsiders for this electoral process despite much growth in recent years – the ‘Green Surge’ a point of interest – and a little research on their candidate James Burn, councillor for Chelmsley Wood, did not suggest anything to the contrary. However his performance was strong and articulate, and if it were a three horse race I think the Greens would perform much more strongly than anticipated. As it stands it seems probable that support away from Conservative and Labour may well end up divided between the others this weakening their opposition.

Throughout the evening the debate focussed largely on transport, jobs, housing and young people, the key areas over which the eventual incumbent will have a great deal of input. The audience engagement was strong, if occasionally undermined by the usual inability of some to allow the conversation to develop away from their remit, and ‘Hashtag Harry’ provided updates from the side of the stage on how online viewers (and those in the room) were responding to the conversation, as well as the Wolves score. At one point the hashtag #WMMayor was trending on Twitter, which is impressive although may say more regarding the decline of the once indomitable social media platform.

The M6 toll road and whether to nationalise it caused the largest conflict, with around one billion pounds the difference in costings suggested by the various parties, although by the end it was fairly convincing that although use of the toll road could be improved, the impact on other infrastructure as a result would be fairly minimal. In contrast the suggested improvements to the cost and quality of public transport met with a quite mooted response from audience members, although the potential improvements in mobility and prospects for our young, coupled with the obvious environmental benefits would surely make this a better long term solution to many of the challenges a Mayor will have to tackle.

I had the opportunity to pose a question of my own, an exciting prospect but in hindsight one I could and should have thought through a little more. When asked whether their actions would be determined by their party allegiance or the best interests of people of the West Midlands each candidate showed their political nous and declared that of course the people would take precedence. As they each repeated the same mantra it dawned on me that the question should have included a second clause, along the lines of “…and how will you react when a conflict arises”. Cue Andy Street to the rescue, who in giving the final response pointed out the foolishness of my wording but also stated that he had only accepted the opportunity to represent the Conservative party if his superiors accepted that the party line would not always be appropriate for the Mayor to follow.

All in all, this was a great start to the four hustings and definitely whet the appetite ahead of the next which will be held tonight at Coventry Cathedral. Hopes are high that the campaigns will be fought in good spirit and with a real focus on positive change for the West Midlands and all those who sail in her.

Until next time, be involved.