Labour's Richard Parker shakes off 'unknown' tag in bid to be Mayor of West Midlands

Richard Parker, pictured on the Lickey Hills near Birmingham
Richard Parker, pictured on the Lickey Hills near Birmingham -Credit:Jane Haynes

Hanging out with Massive Attack, a mad dash to collect a Jamie Oliver cookbook and mourning a family dog - I've only been in the company of Richard Parker an hour and the randomness of our chat has taken me by surprise.

He is thus far the largely 'unknown man' who, in just over a fortnight, could be installed as the next mayor of the West Midlands, unseating popular Conservative and ex-John Lewis CEO Andy Street in the process.

He is the man who 'created' the West Midlands Combined Authority and has now decided the initial vision he helped work up is being lost, so it's time for him to step in.

READ MORE: BirminghamLive and CoventryLive to host West Midlands Mayor hustings - how to get involved

Parker, 60, came seemingly from nowhere when he launched a successful bid for the Labour selection for mayor after deliberating for some months. When he was announced as their choice last summer, the news triggered an almost universal reaction.

Richard who?

Who indeed. Parker, originally from Bristol, knows he'd have no hope now of winning against Street if it was a straight recognisability contest. A recent Centre for Cities poll found around 65% of West Midlanders who were asked could name the mayor - well below the same finding for Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester or Sadiq Khan in London, but still superseding any other local politician by quite a margin.

But Street has one problem he can't avoid, try as he might - he is a Conservative, at a time when the party's standing in the country is at a desperately low ebb. It's the party's name that will be on the ballot paper - and that potentially gives a natural edge to anyone else. Parker could win, I suggest, without people 'really' knowing who he is.

That's not the way he wants to win, however. We meet in the cafe at the Lickey Hills visitor centre, a country park about ten miles out of the city. From a lookout nearby the high-rise towers and landmarks of Birmingham centre thrust white and grey fingers into the low-lying clouds. All of the land we can see in that direction is under mayoral command.

Parker hasn't come far. His family home is in Barnt Green, not officially in the West Midlands though he now has a flat in the city centre too. The ashes of a beloved family dog are buried on one of his favourite walk routes through the woods, says Parker. He's said if he loses the mayoral election he might get a new dog, though I sense he hasn't really given it too much thought, with losing not in his plans.

Over the next hour he recounts, at my request, his life and times. It’s a nervy encounter to begin with - Parker is still a relative novice at media relations compared to his rival Street, who has it down to a fine art - but he visibly relaxes as we talk about what motivates him and why he’s here.

READ MORE: BirminghamLive and CoventryLive to host West Midlands Mayor hustings - how to get involved

Parker was born and raised on a Bristol estate - his West Country burr is still strong - and was the son of a dock worker. His mum worked as a school secretary. His maternal granddad was seriously injured in the First World War and never worked after, with the family scraping a living selling faggots and doing anything they could to get by, he recalls.

The Parker upbringing was, as a result, rooted in working-class values of hard work and integrity, sprinkled with a ‘love your neighbour’ ethos. He recalls the arrival of a poor family of Asian origin in their street of otherwise white households, and how his mum and dad, not well off themselves, insisted they all ate with them every day for three weeks until they found their feet.

Leaving school at 16 with decent O-levels, he went straight to work, like nearly all of his schoolmates. In an office at the local port authority, his manager told young Richard not to waste his brains and told him should be at university. "I decided to go back to college and did my A-levels, and that changed my life really."

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He joined the Labour Party in his late teens, as arch-Tory Margaret Thatcher came to power, sharpening his activist chops while at uni studying economics. After graduating he got a finance job at Birmingham City Council, living in Bearwood and Balsall Heath, before getting a place with PWC, where he achieved his accountancy qualifications.

But he never really wanted to be an accountant, he adds. "People from backgrounds like me will understand this but what I wanted more than being an accountant was the security of a professional qualification. I felt it would give me some control."

It's a theme he frequently returns to. "Having choices is the biggest privilege. It is what is often taken from children and families through poverty - their choices become less or non-existent. My biggest passion and drive is to help create those opportunities.

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"Because unless you spend unfathomable amounts on public services and the welfare state, the only way we can really improve people’s lives is by helping them get the best possible jobs. At the moment 25% of the region's workforce has no or very low skills.

"That blights them to low pay and all the uncertainty and insecurity that comes with that, and they tend to live in the poorest communities. Breaking that cycle of inequality is what drives me."

He says when working for PWC and later self-employed he was a 'conviction consultant', tending to focus on work that aligned with his views around social justice, including supporting a Labour government. He was pressed into action as the company's link with the Blair/Brown government in the first decade of the century, whose views around investing in public infrastructure and big social reform programmes aligned with his.

Offering strategic and professional advice, his links to the inner circles of the Labour Party persist. If Labour had won the election in 2015 it would have been plans that he had helped draw up for ministers during the first 100 days in power that would have been enacted. It also means he can say, categorically, that he has the ear of the Labour hierarchy, and that's a relationship that has now been set up formally, with a monthly seat for Labour mayors at the cabinet table.

One of Parker's last PWC tasks was to bring to life a proposed regional body to act as a voice and focus for the whole of the West Midlands. He found there was a problem, a big one. Personal rivalries and a perceived Birmingham-centric arrogance meant key parts of the region had taken against the plan, unwilling to be subsumed into anything resembling a Greater Birmingham.

So it fell to Parker to turn things around. As Parker tells it, his initial advice resulted in the council leaders of the Black Country writing together to then Birmingham leader Sir Albert Bore inviting the bigger council to join them on their mission, rather than the other way around. 'It meant they felt equals, not secondary partners,' explains Parker. It set a tone that was at the heart of the new organisation, of seven equal parts coming together into one. "I was acting as ringmaster...getting them to sign it off was some achievement."

Since then, things have gone awry, he says. There is increasing dissatisfaction over the authority's priorities and performance, claims the Parker team. Current mayor Andy Street has made political capital out of dissing Labour councils in his patch, Birmingham in particular, rather than standing up for the beleaguered city.

"Birmingham's problems are deep and acute, framed by the billion pounds of austerity cuts over a decade, but there is an important case for local government more widely that hasn’t been made by the existing mayor. Birmingham’s issues are complex, but other councils are also thereabouts, at a tipping point or will get there by stealth. Once local councils fall over it’s a long way back, and there has been a lack of drive to avert this.

"I will be advocating the case for local government to develop stability and a rescue plan. It has to be done because the impact of failure falls on the poorest communities."

He added: "We have to grow the economy across the region. We have to give people hope - there is a mood in this country that has become hardened. We have not had economic growth for ten years. What’s really clear to me is that it is civic society, voluntary groups and so on increasingly hold our communities together and I will use the mayoral budget differently."

He spoke of the Benson football project in Smethwick that runs nightly for two hours but needs £20k a year to hire the pitches. 'I naively asked if they charged the kids and they said if we charged a pound we’d have to give it them on the way home towards some food.' That’s really moving and demonstrates the heartbreaking reality. We can do more to assist and empower organisations like those."

Talk of football brings us to his life away from politics. Raised as a Bristol City fan, they remain his team. Music features large - his teens and early 20s were on a diet of The Clash, The Jam, Talking Heads. Massive Attack are 'friends'.

The Godfather was 'the greatest film of its era, if not ever' while To Kill a Mocking Bird marked 'the start of my political education.' He likes cooking - we spend five minutes chatting about our favourite meals, with Parker's including that time he left Jamie Oliver's recipe book in a supermarket trolley and had to run two miles to retrieve it before cooking for 40 guests at his father's wake. There's usually time for watching live bands, going to the theatre and meeting friends for a pint or a coffee.

But when I ask about wider interests outside politics, his response is telling.

"To be honest, when things are going well I expect someone to take the mat away - I think it’s just a legacy of my childhood and early life. When your background is working class like mine, you don't have the entitlement and outer confidence that I think others have. I have probably as a result put my work first and this is no different. I just want a chance to make a difference, that's it really."

PART TWO COMING SOON: Five things Labour's Richard Parker would do if he was mayor of the West Midlands

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