By Jack Scott
It has been a year since I fought Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam. The last 12 months have seen an unprecedented focus on Sheffield’s politics.
Sheffield is a unique city. An early Labour authority, it built over 50,000 council homes on time and on budget and was the first authority to set standards for air and water quality. It is fourth largest city in England and the greenest city in Britain – over half of it is in the Peak District. It is also the most unequal city: Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam is the richest constituency outside of London; David Blunkett’s Sheffield Brightside is one of the poorest. Our industrial heritage has bestowed a strong trade union movement and a deep tradition of social justice.
So the loss of Sheffield to the LibDems in 2008 was a body blow for Labour. But in 2010, Labour made gains and the LibDems lost their overall majority. Following the formation of the coalition, a LibDem defection to Labour leaves the council the most finely balanced in Britain at 41 LibDems, 40 Labour, 2 Greens and 1 Independent. There have been no Tories since 2007. Unsurprisingly, Sheffield has been described as the biggest prize that Labour might capture today. So what have been he defining issues of the campaign? There are three main themes: Clegg, Clueless and Cuts.
A punchbag has its uses. Nick Clegg doesn’t. In Sheffield, Nick Clegg isn’t a punchbag – he’s a traitor. Remember the debates? when Clegg talked talked about “my home city of Sheffield” ad nauseum (despite living full-time in Peckham and being known as the Invisible Man, even before he became LibDem leader), he gave the impression of a connection and affection for Sheffield.
So the contempt for the man now is something to behold – in a decade of campaigning I have never seen anything like it. Several Sheffield parliamentary seats saw swings of around 10% to the LibDems in 2010, including in one which hyper-marginal, so there are a large number of people who have historically voted Labour, changed to the LibDems in 2010 because of Clegg and have now swung back firmly behind Labour because of Clegg.
When challenged on this recently, one Sheffield LibDem councillor said “The important thing is that the LibDems aren’t being ignored anymore”, which says a lot about their paranoia and why, I believe, they are unlikely to walk away.
Clegg was an asset for the LibDems in 2010 locally and covered every leaflet. Now, completely absent from LibDem leaflets, he is a hate-figure, a laughing stock and a turn-coat.
This election isn’t a referendum on Nick Clegg. Locally the LibDems have been completely useless in running Sheffield City Council. Their flagship policy, the much trumpeted “Community Assemblies”, which are supposed to be bastions of devolution, are slow and clumsy talking shops that entrench the loudest and most articulate and exclude everyone else. They have engaged less than 1% of local people and some measures of community engagement have actually gone backwards. The Lib Dem budget this year wasn’t a budget for two years or even 12 months. It was a budget to put off the real decisions and get them through the elections, which is an appalling way to treat the public money Sheffield City Council spends.
Our council leader is widely seen as arrogant, out of touch and only interested in his own advancement – although he is quite good at singing to promote his favourite hotels and restaurants. He has been steadfast in his support for Nick Clegg. Rumours abound that his reward will be a peerage later this year. All this contributes to the feeling of an administration that has wasted its years in power and lost touch with the electorate and doesn’t know what to do next.
Like other big cities, Sheffield has been hit hard by the Tory-led government decimation of local government. Locally, our LibDems have stuck like glue to Nick Clegg, even when confronted with their own anti-Tory leaflets from last year, where they were saying that rapid Tory cuts would “destroy our public services and cripple our local economy”. Helpfully for Labour, they are still producing their bar charts saying “it’s Labour or LibDem here”.
For years before the general election, Forgemasters were in discussions with the Labour government over how a loan (not a grant – a loan), of £80m which would enable them to build and equip one the world’s largest moulds – the sort used in the production of nuclear power reactors. This would have enabled Forgemasters, a massive Sheffield employer and a great company, to compete internationally, creating hundreds of new clean, high-tech manufacturing jobs and apprenticeships and a supply chain running the length and breadth of Britain.
Then the Tory-led government, in a fit of spite, cancelled the loan at the last hour. Nick Clegg said the Regional Growth Fund would make up the difference, but of the £450m handed out, not a penny went to Sheffield.
People in Sheffield painfully recall the last Tory government’s attack on public services and the concurrent destruction of our private sector, which led to one of the largest increases in unemployment in Britain, with all its accompanying problems. Knocking on doors, it is striking how many people have a very anxious sense of déjà vu at a government that they didn’t vote for and that doesn’t care about them.
It is never wise to predict the outcome of elections on the day. We are hopeful of good results but not taking anything for granted. So we are working for every vote (as the roadtrip has blogged), to make the choice facing our great city even clearer: Clegg, his cuts and his cronies running a clueless council that is only interested in the super-rich areas or a Labour council that is on your side, at your service and standing up for Sheffield.
Jack Scott is Sheffield’s youngest councillor and fought Nick Clegg in 2010. You can follow him on twitter here.