Metro Mayor Labour candidate Siôn Simon talks graduate retention, arts funding and civic pride to an audience organised by the Guild of Students

Final Year Philosophy Student & Redbrick News Editor
Images by Joseph Timan

The first of four Q&A sessions for the West Midlands Combined Authority Metro Mayor candidates took place on Monday 23rd January with Labour Party candidate and MEP Siôn Simon speaking to an audience of students at the University of Birmingham (UoB).

The event began with a short video that explained what the role of the new Mayor would be, how much responsibility the winning candidate would have, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of the new position. Simon followed the video by saying he sees a low turnout as inevitable given that it is a new position and that no other elections are taking place on the same day.

the West Midlands has quite a low number of students choosing to stay in the region after they graduate

‘You’re asking people to vote for something that doesn’t actually exist at the time you’re asking them to vote,’ he said. ‘Something that will happen in the future, that up until that point cannot ever have made any difference to them or anybody that know at all because it didn’t exist.’

Simon, who previously served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further Education, swiftly moved the conversation onto the subject of graduate retention. Simon claimed that the West Midlands has quite a low number of students choosing to stay in the region after they graduate and said that it’s really important that this is changed.

According to Simon, graduates from West Midlands universities, which includes the universities of Warwick, Coventry and Wolverhampton, are less likely to stay in the region than those graduating in Manchester or Liverpool. After expressing his desire for the region to keep more West Midlands graduates, who he described as ‘the best and the brightest of not just the country, but the world’, he turned to the audience to ask: ‘why is that?’

'There are a lot of graduate jobs, and there are a lot of graduates, but they don’t always match up very well'

In response, members of the audience pointed to the aspirations of many young people to live in London, as well as graduate salaries being generally higher in Manchester and Liverpool than in Birmingham whilst the cost of living is similar. Simon also put forward the idea that this is partially because graduates don’t feel as though they will find suitable jobs if they stay in the region.

‘There are a lot of graduate jobs, and there are a lot of graduates, but they don’t always match up very well,’ he said. Simon claimed that the there is a need for more housing in the region as a whole, and a lack of infrastructure and space available in the East of the region where jobs are being created. Rather than committing to specific policy on the issue however, Simon took the opportunity to hear personal feedback and experiences of students, reminding the audience that his manifesto had not yet been released.

Another issue that was raised in response to Simon asking the audience whether they feel as though they could find a job in Birmingham, was the recent announcement that arts funding will be cut by Birmingham City Council. Redbrick’s Comment Editor Harry Tennison told Simon that as a Drama and Theatre Arts student, he won’t find any jobs in Birmingham given that local authorities have cut funding for certain creative institutions by as much as 70%.

‘I don’t really have an option,’ Tennison said. ‘I can’t stay in Birmingham because there’s no jobs for the people who currently work in Birmingham in the industry I want to go into, let alone other people going into it.’ Tennison then asked Simon, as the Labour candidate, what he would do about these cuts given that they are taking place under a Labour-run council.

'We should be left alone to spend our own arts money on our own arts in the West Midlands'

Simon was quick to stress that he ‘believes in’ music, culture, drama, and art in general, claiming, ‘it is one of the things that makes us a civilized society’. Despite pointing to their ‘relatively small’ costs compared to the full-scale of public expenditure though, Simon claimed that government cuts have effectively left councils with just enough money to fulfil statutory obligations such as children’s services and schools.

Nevertheless, whilst conceding that the elected Mayor would only have influence and not have direct control over arts funding, he made it clear that he believed that Arts funding should be devolved rather than taking the national Arts Council approach that currently exists.

‘Currently it’s also massively disproportionately weighted to London,’ he added. ‘We should get our fair share, we should get West Midlands regional arts funding, and we should be left alone to spend our own arts money on our own arts in the West Midlands.’ Simon said that this would be his approach to everything, but ‘certainly to the arts.’

Towards the end of the event, Simon was pushed for answers on why he would be the right candidate and what qualifies him for the job. Simon pointed to the variety of experiences he has had within politics, from being an MP, an MEP, and a government minister. After serving as the MP for Birmingham Erdington for almost 9 years, Simon stood down from Parliament to campaign for direct election of the Mayor of Birmingham – a position that he said he would stand for if created.

Responding to criticisms of being a ‘career politician’, Simon stressed the fact that he has also had extensive experience in the private sector in which he has worked for a multinational company as well as a self-employed sole trader. ‘I actually understand what it’s like to be in the small business sector, which is the heart of the West Midlands economy,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a rich range of experience that I think is pretty unusual and qualifies me well for the job.’