In his first interview since announcing his campaign to become Birmingham’s first elected mayor, Sion Simon talks to Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale about his ambitions.
Sion Simon will campaign to become elected mayor of Birmingham on a platform of rescuing the city from divisive party politics and of celebrating its “great multi-cultural success story”.
Mr Simon, who hopes to be the Labour candidate for the expected mayoral election in 2012, said he would make economic development and job creation his number one priority.
He intends to appoint successful local business leaders to help run the city and has already begun talking to a number of possible candidates.
In his first major interview since announcing his candidacy a year ago, the 41-year-old former Erdington MP said he represented a new generation of Labour figures who believed passionately in the ability of powerful and charismatic mayors to make a difference in Britain’s biggest cities.
He promised to “reclaim Birmingham from London, reclaim it from the city council, almost to reclaim it from politics”.
Mr Simon said: “I definitely want business people involved in the administration of Birmingham.
“The whole point is to reclaim the city for the people who live and work here. It has got to be a very inclusive coalition that has to include the business sector.”
Before the end of the month the Government is expected to set out a timetable for a referendum asking voters whether they want a mayor and will make clear the arrangements for an election.
There has been speculation that a confirmatory referendum might be held after a mayor is in place, and Mr Simon said he believed Prime Minister David Cameron’s outspoken support for mayors meant that a way would be found to ensure that Birmingham held a mayoral election in May 2012.
Once a mayor is in place the role of the city council will diminish, with councillors outside of the cabinet having little more than a scrutiny role. The mayor would replace the council leader and have the power to select his own cabinet from councillors of any political party.
There would appear to be little chance of any of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat cabinet being asked to join Mr Simon’s top team – or wanting to – and a number of highly-paid council officials might also find themselves surplus to requirements.
Mr Simon anticipates Labour beginning its selection procedure this May, giving the successful candidate about nine months to campaign. A suggestion that the union block vote might derail his chances of being selected were dismissed by Mr Simon, who explained that Labour’s rules allow only for one member, one vote in the selection procedure for mayoral elections outside of London and no special treatment for the unions.
Following widespread criticism of the method for electing Labour leader Ed Miliband, who owed his victory to the union block vote, Mr Simon says he does not expect the party to repeat the same mistake with mayoral elections.
This means that his chances of selection lie firmly in the hands of Birmingham’s 5,000 or so Labour members.
Nevertheless, to make sure of getting on to a shortlist for the Labour nomination Mr Simon must get support from constituency parties, trade unions and other affiliated organisations.
He already has endorsements from three Birmingham Labour MPs – Liam Byrne (Hodge Hill), Khalid Mahmood (Perry Barr) and Gisela Stuart (Edgbaston). Support from Jack Dromey, his replacement as MP for Erdington, is thought to be a given.
Having quit as an MP and resigned as Creative Industries Minister to concentrate on his mayoral ambitions, he recognises that this is make-or-break time for him.
Born in Caernarfonshire to Welsh-speaking parents, Mr Simon grew up in Birmingham, attended Handsworth Grammar School, joined the Labour Party at 16 and went on to Oxford University.
He is probably not the best known Labour figure in Birmingham – that accolade almost certainly goes to 64-year-old council opposition leader Sir Albert Bore, who will be battling against Mr Simon for the mayoral nomination.
In order to provide the gravitas expected of a mayor, Mr Simon will have to overcome mistakes committed earlier in his career.
He is best known for being one of 17 Labour backbenchers to call publicly for Tony Blair to resign as Prime Minister in 2006.
During the same year he attracted criticism after creating a YouTube spoof of David Cameron’s video blog, in which, pretending to be Cameron, he offered viewers one of his children and the opportunity to sleep with his wife.
The stunt was generally regarded as tasteless by many Conservative and some Labour members.
Mr Simon said a highly visible and active mayor would stand a better chance of solving Birmingham’s “chronic” unemployment problem. He promised to make economic development and job creation the main priorities of his administration, adding that Birmingham “has not done very well in these areas in the past”.
He would look to introduce a system of low-interest cash loans for graduates from Birmingham universities wishing to start up their own businesses in an attempt to stop the damaging brain-drain of talent from the city.
“We have high quality universities in Birmingham, but graduates from these universities are disproportionately unlikely to settle in Birmingham when they finish their studies and get a job. We have to change that,” Mr Simon added.
By far the most powerful argument in favour of having an elected mayor, he believes, is the direct accountability the role offers.
He added: “There is nowhere to hide for the elected mayor. People think it sounds a bit soft but it’s actually very hard.
“If 200,000 people vote for me to be mayor then that’s a massive responsibility. They will have placed their trust in me and they expect results. You have four years to deliver or you are kicked out.”
He believes that Birmingham must rely far more on self-help and not expect to be bailed out by the Government, adding that even with difficulties posed by the credit crunch and recession he does not believe council leaders have done all they could to kick-start the city’s economy.
“All the evidence is clear. You can’t look to Ministers in London to solve Birmingham’s problems when it comes to employment. The UK constituencies with the highest rate of unemployment are all in Birmingham. That’s not a problem for Ministers in London. They don’t care. If an elected mayor doesn’t take responsibility for this, then who can?,” he added.
Mr Simon is urging Brummies to be proud of their city, noting that there is a tendency to downplay its successes. He tells of visiting colleges where young people remain convinced that Birmingham and the West Midlands no longer produces cars, and even when told about Jaguar and Land Rover insist that parts are made abroad, shipped to this country and fitted together by unskilled, cheap labour.
Even when told that this is not true, they remain sceptical because they have heard so many times that manufacturing in Birmingham is dead.
Mr Simon added: “We have got lots of things to be proud of in Birmingham, but we don’t always sell our story well. We are one of the world’s great multi-racial cities where normally people get on pretty well with each other and we should be proud of that. We should be talking about this and it should be one of the reasons why people want to come to Birmingham.”
He speaks of a culture shock when Birmingham gets an elected mayor, quoting research showing 60 per cent of people are likely to be able to name a mayor against only 20 per cent who are able to identify a council leader.
“The biggest change will be that most people will know who is in charge. There will be a face and a name,” he said.
And in a direct shot at the current administration, Mr Simon was sharply critical of city council chief executive Stephen Hughes, whom he believes has too much power for an unelected official.
He added: “Mr Hughes is currently the biggest influence in Birmingham but he is not democratically accountable to anyone. No one has heard of him.
“With an elected mayor it wouldn’t be like that. There is nowhere to hide for an elected mayor who gets things wrong.”