May 17, 2017 / 2:21 PM / 4 months ago

Former John Lewis boss poaches Labour voters for May

Andy Street, the former managing director of John Lewis and newly elected mayor of the West Midlands poses for a portrait in Birmingham, May 16 2017. REUTERS/Carl Recine

BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Andy Street’s mayoral victory in Britain’s second largest metropolitan area may give the best indication yet of just how far Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives are poaching traditional Labour supporters ahead of the June 8 national vote.

Street quit his $1-million-a-year job as managing director of department store chain John Lewis to stand for the top political job in the West Midlands region of central England, which has a population of about 3 million.

His victory this month was a surprise because the seven cities and boroughs, including Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, that make up the West Midlands Combined Authority are a traditional stronghold of the opposition Labour Party.

“We needed a vast swing,” Street, 53, told Reuters in rented office space as he fielded calls on the transport chaos caused by the discovery of a 550 lb (250 kg) World War II bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe on the city over 70 years ago.

“We must have converted some people who’d previously voted Labour or stayed at home, to vote for me,” said Street, who will earn 79,000 pounds a year as mayor.

At the last national election in 2015 Labour won 21 of the 28 parliamentary seats in the area, while an election last year for a regional Police and Crime Commissioner saw the Labour candidate win with 63 percent of the vote.

Street won by 3,766 votes out of 473,490 cast, after offering a moderate, inclusive, brand of Conservatism, based around economic success and social justice that echoes PM May’s “economy that works for everyone” rhetoric.

His success echoes opinion poll surveys which suggest May’s strategy to win over working-class voters and ethnic minority groups could hand her a big victory in the June 8 election.

“We were active in the most integrated areas, the least integrated areas, the less affluent, the most affluent,” Street said.

Andy Street, the former managing director of John Lewis and newly elected mayor of the West Midlands poses for a portrait in Birmingham, May 16 2017. REUTERS/Carl Recine

MAY FOR THE MASSES?

In his victory speech, Street hailed the “rebirth of a new urban Conservative agenda”, echoing Joseph Chamberlain, a 19th century businessman who made fortune producing screws before turning to politics as a radical mayor of Birmingham.

“His philosophy was very much about using business success in order to improve public services, and, to use his words not mine, ‘improve the lot of the masses,'” Street said.

Andy Street, the former managing director of John Lewis and newly elected mayor of the West Midlands poses for a portrait in Birmingham, May 16 2017. REUTERS/Carl Recine

While election rhetoric may give only a vague insight into future plans, May has been clear that she views last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union as a “revolution” that exposed the failings of modern Britain.

Of his own campaign, Street said: “We went out of our way to demonstrate that the economic success had to be balanced by that much more inclusive society.”

But local factors also played a role, he said, including his appeal as a business leader who went from the shop floor to the boardroom and oversaw one of the most successful periods in employee-owned John Lewis’ history.

A “proud Brummie”, Street attended a Birmingham grammar school and has chaired the Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership since 2011.

As mayor he will have responsibility for investment in transport infrastructure, housing, job creation and skills. In addition to 8 billion pounds of new central government funding, he expects money from further devolution deals and the creation of an investment fund.

He does not see Brexit as an impediment to further foreign investment in the region, pointing to the success of its automotive, life sciences and energy technology industries.

So is the mayoralty a stepping-stone to bigger political jobs? “This is why I left John Lewis, this is the job I wanted to do. I have always told everybody -- concentrate on the current and the future will look after itself,” Street said.

Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Catherine Evans

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