‘If a left candidate is on the shortlist, I wouldn't write them off’

We look at the runners and riders for the job of Mayor of South Yorkshire

When Dan Jarvis won the South Yorkshire mayoralty in May 2018, he was elected to a role which had no powers. The horse trading over devolution to what was then called the Sheffield City Region had been interminable, and the process had been further derailed by a last ditch attempt by several South Yorkshire councils to secure an unlikely “One Yorkshire” deal. In the end, the new mayor’s relatively limited powers weren’t fully signed over to him until 2020, by which point we all had other things on our minds.

Jarvis’ mayoral term was further complicated by the fact it wasn’t his only job. The former paratrooper opted to remain as Labour’s MP for Barnsley Central in the face of strong opposition from his party’s leadership. The decision was widely criticised at the time, as Jarvis acknowledged when in September he announced his intention not to seek another term. But it did allow the new mayor to maintain his national profile. When he steps down next May, he’ll most likely slip seamlessly back into a senior role with the Labour Party at Westminster. 

These two factors make Jarvis’ term in office difficult to judge, although his role in finally getting the devolution deal over the line should not be underestimated. But whoever succeeds him next year will inherit a very different role than the one he took on in May 2018. For 2021/22, the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (as it was renamed last month) has a budget of £358m and can also levy taxes via a mayoral precept (although Jarvis hasn’t used it).

In addition to its annual budget, the combined authority also gets a £30m investment fund from the government each year. And in March, Dan Jarvis announced the creation of a “South Yorkshire Renewal Fund” worth £860m — to be funded largely by borrowing — to help the region recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. This will be available from April 2021.

In terms of policy, the South Yorkshire Mayor has powers over transport, skills and employment and land and housing. However, unlike other metro mayors (like, for example, Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester) he has no powers over public services like health, crime and punishment and the fire service. 

Dan Jarvis MP, Tracy Brabin (Mayor of West Yorkshire) and Andy Burnham (Mayor of Greater Manchester) at the Labour Party Conference 2021. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

But according to a recent report by IPPR North, Northern Mayors: 100 days of a new term, metro mayors are increasingly reaching beyond their formal powers and expanding their roles. “Collectively, they are moving into a phase in which high-profile mayors command public support, represent the North on national stages, and continue to grow their influence to govern in the interests of the places they represent,” the report said. 

So the question of who will become South Yorkshire’s new mayor is not a trivial one. We spoke to experts and insiders about who might run (and win) in May 2022.

‘It’s a big job in itself’

The metro mayor roles are still seen in some quarters as stepping stones to bigger jobs in London. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has made no secret of his desire to return to Westminster at some point. And Jarvis’ decision to stay on as Barnsley MP would suggest that he always saw his long-term future on the national political stage.

But according to Akash Paun, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government and devolution expert, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It’s definitely not a step down for an ambitious Labour type, especially while the party is in opposition at Westminster,” he told The Tribune. “On the contrary, it's a good platform from which to build your profile, get things done, and potentially return to Westminster in future.”

But others, like Sheffield South East MP Clive Betts, reject the idea that the job was simply a stepping stone to higher office. “It’s a big job in itself,” he says. “And is likely to get bigger as more powers are devolved from central government and the mayor is given more control of their own budgets.”

Betts says having been an MP isn’t a prerequisite for the role, although he acknowledged that the experience may help in the selection process. But he added his preference would be for someone who wasn't a serving MP, as another by-election was something “no one wanted.” 

As to whether the role favoured someone with national or local political experience, Paun said that knowledge of and connections with both Westminster and local politics was important to do the job well, as the mayors have to negotiate and cut deals to get much done. “They don’t have much in the way of unilateral powers they can exercise by themselves,” he added.

“It is a difficult job,” agreed Betts. “You need skills to be able to lead on the economy, transport and other areas and take four councils with you at the same time.”

A Labour region

Despite recent Conservative incursions into the traditional working class vote, Labour still dominates South Yorkshire and whoever the party chooses will be a very strong favourite. In 2018’s mayoral poll, Dan Jarvis got 47.1% of the vote, almost enough to win in the first round. When second preferences were included he won 74% of the vote.

And even at the last general election in 2019 — which was one of Labour’s worst results in South Yorkshire in its history — the party still won 11 of the 14 seats available in the county. The other three (Penistone and Stocksbridge, Rother Valley and Don Valley) went to the Conservatives in what was their best ever result in the county.

But if it is to be Labour, then who? The party is famously a “broad church”, and the internecine warfare between the party’s left and right wings continues unabated. But the dynamics of that fight have changed recently as the left’s dominance of the party has waned. As a result the party's candidate is now more likely to come from Labour’s centrist wing than would have been the case a few years ago.

Runners and riders

One senior Labour figure in the region currently without a job is Caroline Flint. A former Labour minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, she served as the MP for Don Valley for 22 years from 1997 to 2019 but is still very much in the public eye as a result of her regular media appearances. Very much from Labour’s centrist wing, she will split opinion in what is still a very divided party. Flint also made enemies during the Brexit negotiations by urging Labour to accept the result of the 2016 referendum.

Another “moderate” reported to be considering a run is Oliver Coppard. Coppard ran former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg close in Sheffield Hallam in 2015, losing to the erstwhile Lib Dem leader by less than 2,500 votes. He has since gone on to set up campaigns and communications consultancy Campaigns Plus and is chair of Sheffield Hallam University’s students’ union board of trustees. 

As Akash Paun says, experience of council politics could well be an advantage. Former Sheffield City Council leader Bob Johnson is being urged to put his hat into the ring by some, while Rotherham Borough Council leader Chris Reed told the Guardian’s northern editor Helen Pidd he wasn’t ruling out a run. Long-time Barnsley leader Sir Stephen Houghton was touted as the frontrunner last time but ended up not standing.

In terms of the candidates from the left of the party, Stocksbridge and Upper Don Councillor Francyne Johnson and former Gleadless Valley Councillor Chris Peace are both rumoured to be considering a run. Both stood in the 2019 election (Johnson in Penistone and Stocksbridge and Peace in North East Derbyshire) and have experience of high-profile selection processes.

One Sheffield Labour left winger who spoke to The Tribune on condition of anonymity said that while Labour centrists had recently regained control of the party nationally, there were still hopes that South Yorkshire could buck the trend. “Obviously there is a general mood of despondency from the left nationally,” he said. “But in Sheffield at least the left still make up the bulk of the membership, so it will be an interesting dynamic.”

He added that Labour losing control of Sheffield council this year and possibly Rotherham next year could make it difficult for a candidate running with the backing of the party establishment to run and win the nomination. “While [centrists] are maybe more likely to make the shortlist, left candidates are generally more popular with the membership,” he said. “If a left candidate is allowed on the shortlist, I wouldn't write them off.”

Other parties

In 2018, the Conservatives were closest but were still a whopping 84,897 votes behind on first preferences. Ian Walker (who came second to Jarvis last time out) or former parliamentary candidate Spencer Pitfield could well stand for them again, as could David Chinchen who stood in this year’s election for Police and Crime Commissioner.

Third last time were the Liberal Democrats on 27,146 votes (10.4%); the Yorkshire Party came fourth with 22,318 (8.6%); and the Greens came fifth on 20,339 votes or 7.8% of the vote. Candidates for these parties are more likely to see standing as a profile-raising exercise rather than a serious attempt at winning.