Andy Street: Rise of political figure at centre of melting pot
From the formative 1970s to the top of the business world, the first mayor of the West Midlands looks back fondly over his career so far.
He’s remarkably well-mannered and indubitably polite. Though I suppose that’s what you’d expect from the businessman who rose to the top of the John Lewis empire.
Andy Street is also considered and reflective. He thinks before he speaks, mulling over questions to make sure he’s correctly understood their meaning before tip-toeing his way through an answer.
A humorous and artistic man of considerable influence and no little power, he’s surprisingly apolitical when we speak. His views are balanced and his actions intended to serve all. In the political melting pot that is the West Midlands, the region’s first metro mayor wants to be a team builder, leading collegiately, looking to reach out to opposing factions and bring them together, rather than entrench division.
He’s bright, too, though that’s almost a given. After all, Street was born to two scientists and went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Keble College, Oxford University. He describes his career as a happy accident; he’s been hard-working and committed to excellence but there’s been no great masterplan, he’s got to where he’s going through talent, hard work and a competitive streak.
Street was elected Mayor of the West Midlands when Theresa May was in power. Yet he has few of the characteristics that led May to reflect on the Conservatives’ reputation for being The Nasty Party. Warm and empathetic, socially liberal but economically conservative, his adult life has been built on reaching out to those less fortunate, on supporting ethical issues and on facing down the sort of racism, social isolation and absence of opportunity that those to his right propagate. In the 2017 mayoral election, he polled more highly than Labour rival Sion Simon in Dudley and Walsall, but was outgunned in Sandwell and Wolverhampton.
He acknowledges the need to reach out. “There’s been a few big political spats but one of the reasons it’s worked is that there’s been that cross-party programme.
“This job is very clear in its purpose and outcomes. The objective is to represent the region. You never quite know what that involves but with Covid-19, I’ve ended up representing it in terms of telling people what we are doing. Michael Gove rings me up and tells me.”
His passions are jobs numbers and skills, housing numbers and investment, infrastructure and transport. His job at regional level is to bring others together, rather than replicate the detailed things that local councils do. He wants to create opportunity across the region, saying: “One thing that gnaws away at me is opportunities for young people. I don’t want them to have to move away, you’ve got to have economic growth and investment.”
Street had a happy childhood. He enjoyed a treasure trove of wonderful kid experiences with his parents, brother and sister. His was a very conventional family that was very secure. As he went through his teens and was schooled in central Birmingham, he became more aware of the city around him.
“It was tough. I was 18 in 1981 and there was a deep, deep recession. There was a real sense of hopelessness really. Many of my school mates aspired to leave, that was it. If I compare that to now, where there’s a sense of opportunity, back then it was a downbeat and dour place.”
He remembers the closing of factories and the racial tensions in Handsworth and elsewhere.
“That was the soundtrack to my formative years.”
His response was to push back. At school, he developed a sense of social responsibility and became involved in a charity group at the age of 17, running holiday camps for children from the city.
“We’d visit them in their homes before we went on those things. We took kids to places in Wales and it taught me a lot. It taught me about leadership.”
By the age of 19, he was leading those schemes and found himself providing opportunities to others who had been very, very unfortunate in life.
Street was 15 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and he remembers the Winter of Discontent that preceded her reign. His politics were forged in that epoch of trade union dominance, strikes, inflation and public inconvenience.
“The late 1970s were my formative years, they were gruesome economically. Lots of people turned to socialism as the answer. My answer was that there had to be a different economic answer, about setting people free, investing and taking risk, while understanding that some people weren’t able to do that, so public services also had to be properly funded. That coincided with me going into sixth form.”
He chose Keble College because he thought it would be appropriate for a lad from Brum. Keen to avoid colleges that were the preserve of privileged public schoolboys from the south, he had a lovely time, enjoying some of the happiest days of life.
“I look back very fondly. Perhaps the most important thing was that I made very good friends and they remain with me.”
He was keen to return to Birmingham but the city council rejected his application to become a social worker.
“My politics were clear but I was also clear that we had to look out for those less fortunate. The council told me I didn’t have enough experience of life. They were right, frankly. I had what I now describe as a near-miss.”
Instead, he began a retail management scheme. Marks & Spencer had also turned him down, so he ended up at John Lewis. He remembers meeting unusual and fascinating people, who were clear mavericks. “I thought that was interesting. I thought it was a bit different.”
Street imagined he’d stay for a short while but instead remained for 30 years.
“I became very taken by their business model where it was owned by partners. It was trying to demonstrate that there was a different way of doing business that could be more successful. I always said that if you were not motivated by doing things differently there was no point at all.
“There was a social responsibility, it was a business doing things differently.”
He remembers his younger self as being unusually self-confident, though not openly ambitious.
“I had a steely determination from about 16 or so. I knew what I wanted to do to succeed. I was a very sociable person. I genuinely was someone who wanted to burn the candle at both ends and travel. I think I had a wide-eyed wonderment.”
Street’s innate patience kicked in when he started work at John Lewis.
“It wasn’t about going from being a trainee to being the boss, that’s just not how it works. It took 20 years. There had to be a lot of patience in that. It’s very, very unusual now to move through a business in that way. The conventional wisdom is that people move company. I sort of sensed that I was being being nurtured, that was one of the remarkable things about JL. You had the sense someone had a guiding hand behind your career.”
The importance of team-building was one of the key lessons he learned. “Team was the most important thing of all in JL. But teams mattered when I was running the holiday camps for the kids as a teenager. You see teams in sport and every walk of life. They can perform much better than some or all of its parts. I was a great believer in that.
"You need diverse people in your team. You needed a few mould-breakers who think outside the box. I actively tried to recruit people who were different. I think that diversity of thought was important. I wanted a gender balance around the table. You needed competition and rivalry in the team and you needed people to be given lots of rope and they needed to be accountable.
“One of our most brilliant buying directors was absolutely like that. He was proud of being disruptive. I’m quite conventional in many ways, but you need to be able to see the value of those who are not.”
He was motivated to help the region, too. A local whose family continue to live in the region, he’d watched the place he loved decline.
“Jobs had gone backwards despite Tony Blair’s economic boom. It’s incredible that we were so much the laggard in that decade. I just thought it can’t be right. I wanted my home city to do better.”
Come 2010 and a new election, the John Lewis model was held up as an exemplar by Nick Clegg and to some extent George Osborne and David Cameron. They set up Local Enterprise Partnerships, and Street was asked by the then-leader of Birmingham City Council to chair one. He had no political experience but did it because he wanted to contribute to the economic fortunes of the place. “That was 2010/11. I had no idea it would lead to this.”
The idea of metro mayors was floated in 2015 and Street was asked to run. Theresa May was running the country, following the Brexit Referendum, and she and Street discussed matters.
“I said I would do it on the basis that Theresa backed me all the way with the whole campaign being run from Birmingham.” She agreed and Street resigned from John Lewis the next day and left the Local Enterprise Partnership.
“This was a once in a generation opportunity for the region, that’s why I couldn’t let it pass by. I thought it was absolute moment of truth. People thought I had no chance.”
Yet win he did.
“One of the things I brought to it was the facility to bring people together. I think the way we’ve tried to do it is that we’ve worked cross party. If you are in Manchester or London you don’t have to do it, those areas have a one-party state, it’s the same in Newcastle and Sheffield. Here, politics have always been balanced with Labour and Conservative councils. You have to work cross party. I do think in this role collaboration and the ability to work cross party is enormously important.”
Though Street rose to the upper echelons of British business, he kept his feet on the floor. Not a gregarious man – he’d be the last to seize the microphone and get on stage – he has remained accessible and humble.
“I get that impression from people. I always use public transport when I travel about. People stop me and so I think they view me as quite normal. I know I’ve had a lucky life going to a good university and becoming the boss of a good company. I don’t think I’ve lost connection with my roots.”
Not that his mayoralty has been plain sailing. It has coincided with the biggest peacetime crisis since World War II and the worst economic crash in 300 years.
He is critical of the lack of information that was initially provided by the Government on Covid-19, though things have improved since the horror show of spring.
“Every day now I get a very accurate picture of new cases. I could have those details down to the individual postcodes. So I can be pretty clear in what I say to the media and therefore what the public hear about the level of risk. It is true though that in the early stages, everything was a nightmare. We weren’t really played into that, to be honest, it was a very centralised approach. There was a crisis, they pulled things closer without sharing. There’s been a lot of learning from that.”
The other big issue of the year has been Black Lives Matter, another topic close to Street’s heart.
“It’s critically important to me. The West Midlands is right at the cutting edge of the social issues that will define the county in the coming decades. What goes on here is on the leading edge. We are different in all sorts of ways. One of the most exhilarating and challenging issues is the diversity that we have.”
There have been improvements since the disastrous, xenophobic, homophobic and outwardly racist days of the 1970s and 1980s.
“You can’t tackle subjects like opportunity and social mobility without addressing issues in community.”
Street opposes intolerance to LGBT, faith or economically deprived groups.
“All of the policies that we try to carry out are about providing opportunity for everybody. There has to be enough for everybody. With Black Lives Matter, we were in the midst of the pandemic. I knew that people would want to protest and I respected their right. I am incredibly proud of the fact it was done in a very safe way here.
"People made their point in an incredibly heartfelt way. I remember different ethnic minority communities and their passion and intensity to make things better.”
A team-builder and a cross-party consensus politician, a gentle, wise voice and an advocate of social mobility, Street is also an optimist.
“There has been incredible progress. It would be inconceivable that in the 1980s it would have been possible for me as an openly gay person to be mayor of this region. I know that from personal experience that there has been huge progress.
“There has not been enough, nobody is satisfied or complacent, but I think of the number of senior people from BAME communities with incredible responsibility who have leading roles across the region, and it shows there has been progress. It is insufficient. But that gives me hope.”
He will stand again next May and is proud to have been the first mayor of the West Midlands.
“I hope what we’ve done is establish the fact that having a regional representative has been a step forward for the reason.”
A risk-taker and a supporter of mavericks, a man with high ideals and humility for the life he’s led, Street expects it to be a close-run thing.
He will stick to his guns, whatever the outcome.
“I’ve always believed that values and principles go further than anything else.”