West Midlands mayoral race: the left says no to a Byrne coronation

By Daniel Round, Clarion editor

Last Friday (24 May), Birmingham Momentum published a strong letter to John McDonnell, asking him to reconsider his endorsement of Liam Byrne’s in his bid to be Labour’s West Midlands Metro Mayor candidate in 2020.

In a video endorsement, McDonnell said that Byrne has “the experience and the values to put our policies in to action”, highlighting his work on hunger and homelessness and urging Labour members in the region to support him.

McDonnell’s endorsement comes despite the official nomination period not having yet been opened, and with more candidates presumably to come forward. It is especially bizarre that McDonnell should endorse Byrne, a co-founder of Progress, given his political background.

McDonnell has form on this. In 2017, he endorsed the maverick centrist councillor Alan Hall for Lewisham mayor, presumably due to union connections (he didn’t have the support of the local left and ended up coming fourth). In this case, it is possible some sort of agreement has been come to regarding Byrne’s seat of Hodge Hill. Whatever the reasons, McDonnell’s endorsement is peak Consolidation Corbynism, part of the political stalling or levelling out of the movement which Simon Hannah explores in more depth here.

Instead of backing parts of the Labour right that have been less disruptive towards the leadership than others, McDonnell and other key figures on the left should be assisting in building up grassroots, socialist alternatives across the party and at the local level, not reinflating the old right-wing establishment. This is all especially worrying here given that the West Midlands has for decades been the power base of the Labour right, and is the most likely site of its resurgence.

Birmingham Momentum’s statement is very welcome, then, but there remains a worry that McDonnell’s backing will lead some ultra-loyalists to reassess Byrne, or skip over his record. After all, Byrne has shrewdly kept himself out of factional disputes over the last couple of years, and is a member of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet (Digital).

So, for the consideration of West Midlands Labour members, here are five of the worst things about Liam Byrne (leaving aside that note):

1. Bigoted by-election campaign in Hodge Hill

When Liam Byrne was first elected to the House of Commons in 2004, he ran a racist and deeply socially authoritarian campaign in the Hodge Hill by-election. One of his leaflets said the following:

“I know that people here are worried about fraudulent asylum claims and illegal immigration. Yet the Lib Dems ignore what people say. They ignore what local people really want. The Lib Dems want to keep giving welfare benefits to failed asylum seekers. They want your money, and mine, to go to failed asylum seekers.”

Other leaflets repeated the line that the Lib Dem candidate was “soft on failed asylum seekers and yob crime”. His campaign was sharply criticised at the time by the trade union movement in Birmingham, with the trades council’s anti-racist officer saying Byrne’s tactics “pandered to racists”, playing into the hands of the BNP.

2. Competing with the Tories on cuts

Byrne was the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary between 2011 and 2013. During this period, he attempted to position Labour on the same ‘tough’ ground on welfare cuts as the Tory-Lib Dem government. Initially, he said Labour would accept two-thirds of the government’s planned cuts (£2.5bn of £3.4bn), using the language of “workers not shirkers”. By 2013, he was going further, saying that “it is still too easy to get away with things”, even after some of Iain Duncan Smith’s harshest reforms. He had previously said Labour would make more cuts to the welfare budget if it won the 2015 election, hitting some of the most vulnerable people in our society after five years of being pummelled by the Tories.

His successor Rachel Reeves may have been more open about punching down rather than up, but Byrne helped set the direction of policy beforehand and equally “bashed the victims” of successive governments’ failure to build an economy based on good, secure work.

Previously, towards the end of the last Labour government, Byrne had said that Labour would make bigger spending cuts than Thatcher if re-elected, hammering the working class in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis.

3. Tough on migrant workers, tough on free movement

As Minister of State for Borders and Immigration in the Blair government, Byrne oversaw controversial changes to the Immigration Rules in 2006. These changes, later legally challenged, prevented migrants who entered the UK under New Labour’s Highly Skilled Migrant Programme having the right to remain extended unless they could prove they were earning at least £32,000 or had a high level of English.

Towards the end of the Miliband period, Byrne was one of the voices in the Shadow Cabinet pushing hardest for curbs on free movement and broader immigration reform. In 2014, he said “we want the right skills coming in, not no skills”, echoing Chukka Umunna’s talk of “legitimate concerns” and calling for “fair” rather than free movement. Presumably Byrne enjoyed a cuppa or two from one of those dreadful mugs

Byrne voted for a confirmatory vote on Brexit in the latest round of indicative votes and may go on to pitch himself as the candidate for Remainers, but his record clearly shows he does not share the politics of left anti-Brexit campaigners who want to protect migrants’ rights and defend (and extend) the principle of free movement.

4. Sion Simon’s disastrous mayoral campaign

Liam Byrne ran Sion Simon’s West Midlands mayoral campaign in 2017. It was a disaster from start to finish. A lot of this was to down to the candidate himself, but a large chunk of the blame has to lie with Byrne’s inept strategy.

After Byrne got on board, the main theme of the campaign shifted towards English nationalism, with the flag of St. George featuring prominently on leaflets. Campaign literature bemoaned Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland being given a seat at the Brexit negotiating table in a crude attempt to capture the Brexit-supporting, English nationalist vote. Simon bizarrely took swipes at the Barnett formula rather than focusing squarely on the government’s funding cuts that have devastated the region’s diverse, working class communities.

The campaign was Birmingham-centric, with little attention given to the rest of the region, and Simon paid the price in a contest Labour should have easily won. He lost to Tory candidate Andy Street by 0.8% of the vote in the second round.

It goes without saying, from a simple electoral point of view, that to make the person who ran the last rubbish campaign the candidate at the next one would be a serious misstep.

5. Keeping quiet on the Birmingham PSPO issue

Tackling homelessness has been one of the key planks of Byrne’s campaign so far, and rightly so given its shocking rise across the region. It is worth noting though that while a major campaign has been launched against Birmingham City Councils’ plan to bring in a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO), effectively criminalising the homeless in the city centre, it is yet to receive Byrne’s support. It is also worth noting here that Byrne is close to Ian Ward, Birmingham City Council’s anti-worker leader.

Pete Lowe and Majid Mahmood, Labour councillors in Dudley and Birmingham respectively, are rumoured to be considering runs for mayor. Both recently gave speeches against the PSPO outside Birmingham City Council House, alongside local trade unionists and homelessness campaigners. With his campaign centring on the issue of homelessness, it is telling that Byrne didn’t join his potential rivals.

Whatever happens between now and the close of the nomination process, it is absolutely essential that four years into the Corbyn era, there is no coronation for a veteran of the Labour right in the West Midlands. Though the powers of the Metro Mayor are limited, the West Midlands needs its very own Jamie Driscoll – someone with fresh ideas and a consistent record who can enthuse people and beat the Tories; a radical voice for the region, pushing plans for a People’s Bank and raising issues of workers’ rights. Liam Byrne is clearly not that candidate.

If you are a Labour Party member in the West Midlands, you can sign the statement calling for a left mayoral candidate here.

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