In a normal year, right now Liam Byrne might well – voters permitting – have been getting to grips with a new job as Labour’s first directly elected mayor in the West Midlands. Instead, after the contest was postponed because of coronavirus, he has been spending his time quite differently.
“It’s been intense,” he says, as he talks about his work helping to coordinate responses to the crisis in his patch and thinking about what comes afterwards.
As former chief secretary to the Treasury in Gordon Brown’s administration, Byrne had a ringside seat during the last financial crisis and is well-placed to contrast responses to a global emergency then and now. It’s not a comparison that reflects well on our current leaders: Byrne says that at a time when the need for globally coordinated responses has never been greater, the quality of leadership both in the US and the UK is ‘not up to the job’.
“No matter how long I’m in politics, one of the things I’ll be proudest of is being part of that team that stopped the recession becoming a great depression,” he says. “I was running down the street to Gordon Brown during the G20, and Gordon was on the phone, constantly coaxing, cajoling, harassing, arguing with leaders around the world to get the global scale of response in place. And you see why we need that leadership now because the G20 has basically undercooked significantly the scale of response that is needed. The IMF is being denied the access to credit lines that it needs to support countries around the world and so what it means is that the globally coordinated response is much weaker than it needs to be. That in part is why people’s forecasts for next year are so pessimistic.”
As MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill as well as mayoral candidate, Byrne has been part of the team of national and local politicians working together on the coronavirus crisis in the region, addressing everything from burial arrangements to food supply and the impact on cultural institutions. His perspective, he says as we talk via video call, has been very much informed by his time in government more than a decade ago. “I learned a lot of lessons that we’ve put to work in Birmingham. The thing that I remember most vividly is the ‘unknown unknowns’ that just hit you from left field,” he says. “You’ve got to have good systems to deal with and act on, and we actually did that really quickly in Birmingham and that was one of the lessons that we learned from last time around.”
But the financial crisis that Brown’s government had to deal with pales into insignificance compared with today’s challenges, Byrne believes. “What was happening [then] was the financial system was basically having a heart attack. The lifeblood of credit was no longer being pumped around because the banking system had fallen over, and the interventions that were needed were actually pretty targeted. So we used to say back then we knew what to do, we just didn’t know how to get re-elected once we’d done that, and that proved to be the case,” he reflects. “This is like multiple organ failure: it is a far more pervasive shock to the system. And it’s more complicated because we don’t quite know how a supply shock will unwind.”
Byrne’s offer to West Midlands voters when the mayoral election eventually takes place next year will include an ambitious plan for new jobs, new homes and a huge solar and retrofitting programme. ”The industrial revolution began in Dudley castle when the first steam engine was demonstrated,” he says. “I’ve always felt that the region that started the carbon revolution has a responsibility to lead the zero-carbon revolution. I want to be the ‘green machine’ capital of Europe in the West Midlands. I want us to be the first city region that goes net-zero, and the recovery plan that we need could help us get there.”
If the Treasury allocated the increased investment it has said it will spend according to population, that could fund more than 10,000 new homes and 92,000 jobs in his region, Byrne asserts. But he also wants to go further – with a right to work and a right to train. “One of the mistakes we’ve made in the past is that we’ve just assumed that any job is OK. And actually this time we need to do things a little bit differently so giving people things like an apprenticeship guarantee, working with employers to pay furlough if employers agree to train for a nationally recognised qualification. These are all things that are doable if the government could just simply get its act together. We have to guard against making the mistake of underestimating what’s needed, and it’s too easy to underestimate the scale and the speed of the policy response to a crisis like this.”
Byrne believes a new generation of local Labour leaders – including Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and, he hopes, himself – can build a new ‘green municipal socialism for the 21st century’ which can work in practice and go on to inform the next Labour manifesto. That’s in part why he decided to go for the mayoral job rather than stay in Westminster.
“I’ve been in the cabinet, and I’ve been in the Treasury I’ve worked in Number 10. I genuinely think that politicians can make change happen fastest on the front line,” he says. “Whitehall is pretty broken and ministers move around much too quickly. There are constant turf wars between departments. When you work on the front line you’re able to join things up much faster, to move much faster.” Many would see the decision of Burnham, Khan and now Byrne to put regional office above being an MP a sign that Labour takes the regional agenda more seriously than the Conservatives. Byrne agrees. “As a movement we’ve always had this tension between the centralisers and the localisers. My generation of politicians that came into parliament nearly 20 years ago, we were different from the generation that came before. We spent a lot more time in our constituencies, by and large, we took local politics much more seriously, we took local campaigning much more seriously. You’ve got a lot of very seasoned Labour politicians now asking themselves: ‘OK, where can I make change happen? Where can I and Labour make the world a better place?’ And very often, that’s on the ground, at the front line.”
The move, Byrne insists, is not a reaction to being less than central to the Corbyn project. Indeed, he has warm words for John McDonnell – they are both economic policy wonks and both interested in ideas, he says. And Corbyn, he insists, was entirely right to ‘put the fight against inequality centre stage’. In his time since the incident for which Byrne is best known in the public consciousness, his ‘leaving note’ left in the Treasury after Labour’s election defeat in 2010, he decided he had a responsibility to ‘help figure out’ what the future of Labour looks like. “I’ve made some significant mistakes, not least my infamous leaving note,” he says, adding: “I have spent time trying to reflect on where New Labour had gone wrong, and, in particular, I felt we had just misconceived our strategy for tackling inequality. I serve the most income-deprived constituency in Britain, and so I deal with the consequences of inequality every day at work, so I wanted to stay the course and I wanted to be part of the renaissance of Labour’s ideas.”
Clearly important too in his ambition for political change is his own personal journey, one that has led him to promote the idea of ‘radical compassion’, the title of his mayoral manifesto.
”It began after my dad died about five years ago,” he recalls. “I lost my dad to what was a lifelong struggle with alcohol. Not long after that Jo Cox was murdered and those two things together triggered a pretty profound personal crisis for me. It was a very dark time in my life and to try and get myself back on my feet I began working with the homeless community in Birmingham because I had some strange notion that it would be cathartic in some way. Of course it’s not cathartic, it’s bloody difficult. But a lot of the people that I met were self-medicating trauma with drugs and alcohol in exactly the same way my dad was.”
From that work, he began fundraising for the homeless community and then branched out into working with food banks, building a campaign in the West Midlands called ‘operation compassion’. “We were almost creating like Macmillan coffee morning packs for food bank collectors – we would print up shopping lists and stickers and show people how to do it. We trained up a whole load of Labour activists across the West Midlands in a range of methods in food bank collecting. Radical compassion grew out of our operation compassion social movement.”
Radical compassion, Byrne says, draws on a tradition embodied in a book he keeps on his desk by Clement Attlee on social work. “The story of the book is that if you’re a socialist, you believe in society and you believe in society-building,” he says. “Radical compassion as a concept evolved over four or five years but it’s actually a very old story within the Labour party that we want to bring to the fore because we are society builders. That’s why we’re in the Labour party because we believe in cooperation and we believe in building and strengthening society because we believe that’s what yields you a good life.”
Right now, after months of lockdown, there is an opportunity for communities to pull together, Byrne believes.
“There’s a real moment for us to capitalise on the surge in solidarity that we’ve had over the past weeks when people have come together like never before. People like the way that feels, people are happy that they’re pulling together with their neighbours. It’s what’s getting us through, and people want that to carry on.”
The appeal of Labour values has never diminished, he adds, but what voters doubted at the last general election was whether the party had a plausible plan to deal with the challenges ahead.
“People are too worried to take what they feel are speculative leaps – they want a plan that they can believe in,” he says. “People like what they see of Keir Starmer – they think he’s decent and civilised and he’s a good representative of Labour values. That’s been a sharp contrast to what people have seen in the behaviour of Boris Johnson and his mate Dominic Cummings.”
But before Starmer’s appeal is tested at the ballot box nationally, there are next year’s contests to fight. Byrne believes the West Midlands, which Conservative incumbent Andy Street won narrowly in 2017, will be a crucial test. “There are lots of people, and I’m one of them, who say that this is the most important election that Labour fights in 2021. There are obviously Scottish elections too where we need to make progress but we have to show we are winning back middle England. You cannot govern Britain unless you win in the West Midlands, so this is in my view the most important race that we face in 2021. We know the battle is going to be tough but there is a massive level of motivation to win in the Labour family right now.”
Meanwhile, as well as drawing up plans for what he’ll do to kickstart a recovery in the West Midlands if Labour wins, he has been hearing ‘harrowing stories’ of the impact of coronavirus on the black and minority ethnic communities as part of a BAME taskforce he set up. And, while working on a new book called the Road to Dystopia about the rise of nationalism, he has been thinking about the need for collective action, here and abroad. “It’s not just pandemics that we need to worry about. We have what I’ve called the three rises: the rise in temperature, the rise in new technology and the rise of trade wars. These will all have a massive impact on jobs, unless we find new ways to work together. We’ve got to demonstrate that we’ve got solutions that are plausible. Otherwise, people will vote for things that sound good, but take us backwards.”
At a national and international level, then, Byrne believes the left has to take on authoritarian populists and build a moral economy in place of the market economy. And at a regional level, it must deliver real change.
The thread running through all of this is collaboration and solidarity and it is there, Byrne believes, that Labour has a winning message. “The challenges the world faces over the next 20 years can only be solved by cooperation – there are millions of people who see that. Those are the people who are going to want to come together behind a party that believes in the ethos of compassion and cooperation.”