A seismic day in Sheffield politics

'If you do a spectacularly bad job and really anger people on one issue, you can get a voting pattern that you aren't seeing elsewhere'

Good morning — and welcome to The Tribune’s election special. Yesterday was momentous in the politics of this city, as Labour lost control of the council for the first time in a decade.

We’ve got the full results, some great graphics from our data reporter Andrew Dowdeswell showing the new composition of the council chamber, expert analysis of what happened, and reactions from a few of the candidates.

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Labour loses control in Sheffield

Top line: For the first time in 10 years, Labour no longer controls Sheffield City Council after a Green surge swept across the city.

What happened? Labour lost eight seats overall, five to the Greens and three to the Lib Dems. The Conservatives also won one seat from UKIP giving them their first councillor on the city council for almost two decades.

The new reality: The electoral map of Sheffield is beginning to take shape into a three-way fight between Labour in the east, the Lib Dems in the west and a narrow but growing band of green wards in a central belt of the city stretching from Hillsborough in the north to Gleadless Valley in the south. 

Here’s what that looks like:

The big changes: The most eye-catching result was clearly Hillsborough, where council leader Bob Johnson lost his seat to Christine Gilligan Kubo from the Greens.

  • Walkley also went from red to green as did Nether Edge and Sharrow, Broomhill and Sharrow Vale and Gleadless Valley.

  • The Lib Dems gained both West and East Ecclesfield and Beighton from Labour.

  • And in Stocksbridge and Upper Don, the Conservatives won the party’s first seat on Sheffield Council since 2004. The seat was won by UKIP last time whose candidate was standing as an independent this year.

The power of local: While the electoral trends across the country weren’t good for Labour in this election, the Sheffield results should be seen as a verdict on recent city politics. This was the chickens coming home to roost.

  • The street tree saga has badly damaged Labour’s standing in the city, with the main beneficiaries being the Greens and to a slightly lesser extent the Lib Dems.

Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester and co-author of the excellent book Brexitland, told The Tribune:

Most of the time people don't notice or care what their local government is doing. But then if you do a spectacularly bad job and really anger people on one issue, you can get a voting pattern that you aren't seeing elsewhere. There are always some councils where you see that.

The new balance of power

This Tribune graphic shows how the council looked after the 2019 set of local elections, with Labour comfortably in control. The Greens had been building up their powerbase, and had been much more successful in Sheffield than in other comparable cities (Manchester got its first Green councillor since 2008 yesterday), and the city didn’t have any Conservative representation.

And then this one shows how things look after yesterday’s results, with gains for the Greens, Lib Dems and Conservatives pushing Labour back into a minority. They are still the biggest party by far, but they will need to negotiate in order to get things done, meaning that the Greens are probably the kingmakers in Sheffield.

A tale of three cities

We spoke again to our elections expert Jason Leman, who is reading for a PhD in governance in English local councils and was also a Green Party candidate in Ecclesall. Here’s Leman’s take on yesterday’s dramatic results:

By Jason Leman

The 2021 Sheffield City Council election was not a complete disaster for Labour, but they will be picking through the rubble for a while. The Green Party gained five seats, all it could have hoped for, including the Labour Council Leader’s seat in Hillsborough. The Greens kept the Labour voters it won in 2019, gathered up the Lib Dem vote, and rolled right through the Labour administration. 

Although the Greens mostly maintained their 2019 gains, Labour pulled back some votes, coming tantalisingly close to defending their seat in Broomhill & Sharrow Vale. Despite their gains, including ‘that’ win for Christine Gilligan Kubo in Hillsborough and former Green Councillor Bernard Little returning to take Walkley, this wasn’t an easy success for the Greens. The party will have challenges in keeping hold of their expanding constituency.

Many Green shoots: average vote share in the main Green Party seats

The closest race this year was in East Ecclesfield, which went to the Lib Dems as predicted, but by just twenty votes over the incumbent Labour councillor. The Conservative candidate in the ward was appealing for help on Twitter to deliver leaflets, which might be rued as a missed opportunity, as they lay just behind in third place. Over in Stocksbridge, the Conservatives gained victory over Labour and Lib Dems, solidifying the right as memories of UKIP fades away.

Lord Mayor Tony Downing held off the Lib Dem challenge in Mosborough. Labour still has it’s heartland areas like Darnall, Shiregreen, and Woodhouse. What they won’t like the look of is the blue vote creeping up in Sheffield’s ‘Red Wall’.

Looking over Sheffield’s Red Wall: Average of Labour stronghold vote shares

Conservative voters in Lib Dem wards were less likely to vote tactically this time round. Perhaps more significantly, the Labour vote showed significant gains in Lib Dem areas. Labour candidate Ruth Milsom beat the Lib Dems handily in Crookes & Crosspool. Could Keir Starmer’s move to the middle be a slow-burn success? The Lib Dems may come to feel the squeeze from the two main parties in orange parts of the city.

Squeezed till the pips squeak: Average of vote shares in main Lib Dem seats

The 2021 election was more balanced than it might appear. Sheffield looks towards a period of multi-party government, as parties appeal for the votes of an electorate that is happy to shop around. The council is now under ‘No Overall Control’, and no party has a ruling majority. Some have raised the idea of new Stocksbridge councillor Lewis Chinchen being kingmaker, but so toxic is the Tory brand in Sheffield that other parties will perform political gymnastics in order to avoid that embrace.

Luckily for Labour, Lib Dems and Greens, the governance referendum is announced on Monday. Having had the council leader unceremoniously voted out, the Modern Committee System may arrive just in time for the new political reality for Sheffield. If the referendum votes for change, the three political parties will have to work together anyway. But politics is politics. It may be a bumpy year ahead, even after the rubble of this election is cleared away.

What the candidates are saying

Christine Gilligan Kubo, Green Party, Hillsborough

“It’s been a whirlwind but I’m really happy the Greens have made more headway on the council. I am a bit overwhelmed by it all,” she told The Tribune. “The tree campaign raised the awareness of the Sheffield Green Party. A lot of people didn’t think about us as a proper party, but we had publicity with the tree campaign and they began to realise that we were a proper party. So it helped to raise awareness of green issues overall.”

Shaffaq Mohammed, Liberal Democrats, Ecclesall

“The voters of Sheffield have sent a very clear message to the Labour Party in Sheffield that they want to see a change in the way Sheffield is governed,” he told The Tribune. “With the council now in ‘no overall control’ Labour city councillors will now have to collaborate and work alongside city councillors from other political parties. This will require a cultural change which is not something that will come easy for Labour in Sheffield given their track record for the past 10 years.”

Lewis Chinchen, Conservatives, Stocksbridge and Upper Don

“It was a bit of a shock but it was an excellent result for us,” he told the Tribune. “I thought it would be a very unpredictable ward given its history. The issues extend beyond Brexit. It’s about values and people in the Stocksbridge and Upper Don Valley area see the Tories as the party that most aligns with their values.”

Membership challenge after Labour choose new leader

Labour moved quickly to select a new leader on Saturday. Councillor Terry Fox of Manor Castle, the former deputy leader, will take over from former leader Bob Johnson who lost his Hillsborough seat to the Greens on Friday. However, an open letter from a group of party members in the city has now called for the full membership to be given a say, rather than councillors alone.

It says: “As devastating as this result is, it comes as little surprise. Many people, from all wings of the party, have raised concerns with the previous administration, including an enduring unpopularity from the continued fallout from the Streets Ahead highways PFI, and the distance it maintained from party members and the general public alike.”

They are asking Labour’s governing NEC to facilitate this process by creating an election timetable which will allow members to ‘meet, reflect, discuss and rebuild’.

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