West Yorkshire devolution: Who could be in the running to be Yorkshire's newest mayor?

The political landscape in West Yorkshire has changed, meaning that in just a few months time the county’s voters will get a chance to choose the leader who will help shape its future for decades to come.

Saturday, 22nd August 2020, 5:45 am

At the December election nine Yorkshire seats previously held by Labour went to the Conservatives and across the North red constituencies turning blue was one of the themes of the night.

Since then Boris Johnson’s party has espoused the benefits of devolution, signing deals in South and West Yorkshire, with promises to do the same in the north and east of the region.

But even though the message at the top might be the more local powers the better, the lack of Conservative candidates for West Yorkshire mayor paints a picture of uncertainty over whether the powerful role could go blue.

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A new mayor will be elected for West Yorkshire next year. Photo: JPI Media

The deal, signed in March and to be laid before Parliament later this year once other boxes have been ticked, will unlock £1.8bn of funding and hand over control of transport, skills, the economy, housing and regeneration.

And all this will be headed up by a new directly-elected mayor, with elections to be held in May next year.

But before voters in West Yorkshire get to put their cross on the ballot paper, the parties have to decide who they think has the best shot of winning them the seat.

How the candidates would use their new powers to build fairer, greener, and healthier communities across West Yorkshire will surely be a key point during campaigning, but so will representation.

back row, left to right) Councillors Shabir Pandor, Denise Jeffery, Judith Blake and Tim Swift, (front row, left to right) Susan Hinchcliffe, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Simon Clarke MP after the signing of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority devolution, at the Nexus Building at the University of Leeds. Photo: PA

Henri Murison, the director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership lobbying group, said he felt the new mayor needed to be a woman.

“There are a number of strong candidates being talked about, and all of the serious names I’ve heard so far are senior women from within the region,” he said.

And with all current metro mayors across the country being men, he said that should be “widely welcomed”.

But that is not to suggest that a woman who got the nomination would have done so through anything but being the best for the job.

The women being spoken about in Labour circles close to the selection are former Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff, Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin, and leader of Bradford City Council Susan Hinchcliffe.

Ms Brabin said: “I’ve been approached by Labour members to think about it, and I’m sure there’s lots of other people who have had the same approaches. As someone who has advocated for the devolution deal it would be an honour to do it, but at the moment I’m very much focussed on the recovery from the coronavirus.”

She added: “I do think whoever it is, it’s got to be someone who has the reach and can work with opposite numbers, and we’ve got some really good examples of that in our Labour groups.”

While Ms Hinchcliffe added: “As Chair of West Yorkshire Combined Authority I am of course giving this serious consideration. However as a leader at this time of national pandemic, I have a place to run and a virus to beat.”

No Conservatives have announced yet that they will be putting themselves forward, but party co-chair Amanda Milling previously said the search was on for an “exceptional candidate”.

She said: “Many people may have already written the election off as a Labour victory, but as we can see from the four new Conservative constituencies in West Yorkshire, it is not a foregone conclusion and we will be fighting the best campaign we can to deliver a Conservative mayor for West Yorkshire.”

But within the party opinion remains split on whether the race is worth their effort, with one source suggesting officials might be better off focussing their attention on keeping Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands, in place in elections also held next year.

But others suggest that December’s election victory shows the tables have turned and that throwing resources into fighting for the mayoral seat in West Yorkshire might see results - or at least give Labour a bloody nose on the way down.

“Look at Ben Houchen in Tees Valley,” one source said, referring to the Conservative’s unexpected victory in a former Labour heartland in 2017.

If he had not won his Colne Valley seat back in December, having previously lost it to Labour’s Thelma Walker, MP Jason McCartney might have been a credible pick.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the Dewsbury-born former Minister, has been approached by Tory MPs about running but has decided she does not have enough time at this stage of her life to take on a job of this size.

Huddersfield Giants chairman and businessman Ken Davy has also been suggested, after coming within 5,000 votes of beating MP Barry Sheerman in December, although when approached by the Yorkshire Post he said the job was “not on his radar”.

Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield, who grew up in West Yorkshire and lives in the region, is another name mentioned as a contender, along with Hemsworth Labour MP Jon Trickett, and Roger Marsh, Chair of the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership.

Hugh Goulbourne, a Huddersfield-based lawyer, has already signalled his intention to stand, and said: “I’ve come from a different world (to other political candidates). I’ve been a lawyer and a negotiator first and foremost and I think I could bring something extra to the challenges we face.”

The Yorkshire Party’s leader Dr Bob Buxton, former Green Party councillor Hawarun Hussain and current councillor Andrew Cooper, and Green Party candidate for Hemsworth Lyn Morton have also said they would like the top job.

The selection process is expected to start towards October and November, after 4,413 people responded to the devolution consultation which closed this week, making it the largest ever public consultation on English regional devolution.

Once all five councils and the Combined Authority in the region have considered the consultation findings, a summary report will be sent to Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, along with a draft order that will set out new governance arrangements for the mayoral combined authority.

After that, the road to selecting candidates can begin in earnest.

Labour is expected to invite applications from those interested in standing once it formally opens its process. The party will interview applicants from a long list before presenting a shortlist to members to vote on.

For the Conservatives, local associations put forward longlists, which are then slimmed down by the party centrally through interviews, before the final pick is handed back to associations.

Any MPs who put themselves forward to stand are likely to be told they would have to trigger a by-election in their seats, another consideration parties will be likely to weigh up when looking for candidates.

A Labour source said: “The party should take steps to avoid a repeat of the controversy in South Yorkshire and make sure if a sitting MP is chosen that they stand down from parliament if elected as mayor.”

Whoever each major party picks, the new mayor will have significant power to shape the lives of the 2.32m people who live in West Yorkshire.

“Mayors matter,” said Amreen Qureshi, researcher for the IPPR North think tank.

“They are among the most important political leaders in the country, and the creation of a Metro Mayor for West Yorkshire means that 62 per cent of people in the North of England will be able to vote for a Mayor in next year’s elections.”

Ms Qureshi added: “The huge challenge of Covid-19 has shown us the importance of empowered local leadership – and the problems of over-centralisation.

“Devolution means more money, power and authority will be transferred out of Westminster, towards communities in West Yorkshire. This is positive news because we know that devolved policy tends to be better policy.”