He’s been described as the “invisible candidate” by rivals – but Labour’s Siôn Simon took centre stage, both literally and metaphorically, at the first ‘West Midlands Elects’ public debate this week.
The experienced MP was the focus of much attention as he set himself apart from his four rivals over his claim that the M6 Toll road should be nationalised and pitched the mayor’s role as having to do battle with London Government and “take back control” of local public services from anonymous civil servants in Whitehall.
Also nicknamed “Submarine Siôn”, he’s got a reputation as the guy who rarely, if ever, attends the hustings events.
The other four, Conservative Andy Street, Lib Dem Beverley Nielsen, UKIP’s Pete Durnell and Green candidate James Burn, have been like a touring stadium rock band – appearing together on stage at the conference rooms and debating halls of the West Midlands.
So at the Black Country Living Museum’s impressive Worker’s Institute hall their equilibrium was shattered by the appearance of open collared Simon in their midst.
He was the new boy and needed to be put in his place – but as the most experienced politician he’s used to it.
The first question posed was why he had not been to a business group hustings earlier that day. He replied he was out with Personal and Commercial Services (PCS) union members on a protest in Coventry and will be attending a number of public debates between now and May 4.
Later, Nielsen told him his disappearing act suggested he was anti-business.
His team, probably rightly, guess the huddled masses of union members are more likely to vote for him than the guys in pin-striped suits. They calculated this media hustings would reach a much wider audience than the 100 or so people in the room.
In a dig aimed at Street, Simon said he was proud to be Labour’s candidate and stand for Labour values. Street’s election newsletter, on the other hand, was notable for giving his Conservative Party ticket a very, very low profile over its four pages.
Simon’s analysis that since the 1970s government centralisation had robbed the West Midlands of
its fair share of funding was brutally shot down by UKIP’s Durnell, who pointed out that Labour, having led most councils, had the most MPs and been in Government from 1997 to 2010, had failed to do something about it.
But these barbs and divisions were the exception during a good-natured, positive two hours in which the quintet found broad consensus.
We heard “I agree with” so much that there were flashbacks from Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s “I agree with Nick” phrase during the 2010 election.
The scale of the problems facing the region, including the housing shortage, the skills deficit, the persistent deprivation and overcoming years of chronic under investment in public transport were ticked by all.
There are significant differences in style, but whoever wins we will see disused rail lines like the Camp Hill Chords and long-awaited Metro extensions brought back into use. There will also be plenty more houses built.
A few occasions where candidates broke ranks stood out.
A vote for Labour’s Simon is a vote to nationalise the M6 and “take back control”.
While Lib Dem Nielson pushed for the under 25s – our “human goldmine” of talent she called it – while promising free bus passes for young people and a focus on improving skills.
James Burn rejected the need to attract global business giants and international investors to the city, arguing that they suck profits abroad. He wants to support more smaller local businesses to grow and spend their profit here on other small local businesses.
Durnell would be the reluctant mayor. He believes it is an expensive and unnecessary extra tier of local government and a way for government to pass the buck for failing services to the region. As a sceptic, he will exercise an iron grip on the budget to stop excesses.
And finally Street is the leader of business, bringing his skills to politics – he will ensure the West Midlands gets the best possible
deal from the Government and Brexit – “one which satisfies the leave camp and allays the fears of remainers”.
With the best part of two months to go, we should expect to see those differences grow and offer voters a decent choice. Roll on the next debate .
A question on how the candidates stay in touch with the real people brought a few chuckles...
Siôn Simon’s West Bromwich Albion season ticket keeps his feet on the ground – and at times causes him to “lose the will to live”.
Nielsen’s work with students exposes her to forthright opinions.
And UKIP candidate Durnell is one to sup a pint with the great unwashed in true Nigel Farage style.
“You can’t be in UKIP if you
don’t go down the pub,” he joked, “It’s on the membership form I think.”
He believes in the people - but we're not sure about dear Jeremy
Jeremy Corbyn is clearly being regarded as a liability for Labour in this mayoral race following the disastrous Copeland by-election.
Asked if he believes in the dear leader, Simon’s sidestepped reply was: “I believe in the people of the West Midlands.”
Cue hundreds of Momentum members throwing ‘vote Siôn’ leaflets in the bin.