Eddie Izzard, Paul Mason and the massive fight for a safe Labour seat
‘It just seems really cynical to me’
By Dan Hayes
A professionally photoshopped meme is doing the rounds at the moment, which compares the forthcoming Labour candidate selection for the Sheffield Central constituency to a blockbuster movie. “For one month only,” the text of the meme reads. “The greatest show on earth.” Above the words Sheffield Central in huge block letters are images of the seven candidates who had declared their candidacies at the time.
Created by Labour Central member (and photoshop whizz) Kevin Kennedy Ryan, the meme is a jokey reference to the high-profile candidates who have put their names forward for the seat currently occupied by Paul Blomfield MP, who is standing down at the next general election — whenever that may be. So far nine candidates have announced their intention to run, although it’s fair to say some are attracting more attention than others.
As Kevin’s creation suggests, a couple of “celebrity candidates” have brought a sense of glitz and glamour to what is normally a fairly sedate process. Of these, the highest profile is undoubtedly stand-up comedian, actor and activist Eddie Izzard (who has adopted the “she” and “her” pronouns and announced during the pandemic she is now “based in girl mode”). Joining Izzard is former television journalist turned left-wing political commentator Paul Mason. Once one of Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest cheerleaders, more recently the former Newsnight correspondent seems to have become an equally big fan of Keir Starmer.
What are their links to Sheffield? Well, neither are from this city or seem to have lived here in the past three decades. Eddie Izzard did start an accounting and financial management degree at the University of Sheffield in the early 1980s — but dropped out after the first year. Paul Mason also attended the University of Sheffield, graduating with a degree in music and politics in 1981, before continuing his postgraduate study here in music until 1984.
These somewhat tenuous links to the city haven’t gone unnoticed. When Izzard announced her candidacy on Twitter, many questioned whether she was right to use her celebrity status to parachute into a safe Labour seat, with one commenter saying it risked good local candidates being “completely overshadowed by ‘some celeb’”. Paul Mason came in for similar treatment. One Twitter user accused him of “unbelievable arrogance” to think his fame gave him the right to stand against better-placed Sheffield candidates. His recent comments comparing local radio journalists to Alan Partridge didn’t go down well either.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge that among the brickbats, there was also a great deal of support. But the strikingly box-office nature of the contest was immediately picked up on by the Westminster bubble, with muckraking website Guido Fawkes asking what “Sheffield had done to deserve this?”
Guido unsurprisingly failed to mention any of the local people standing, but it’s arguably these candidates who actually have the most interesting stories. The frontrunner is Firth Park councillor Abtisam Mohamed, who reportedly has the private (although not yet public) backing of current MP Paul Blomfield. The daughter of a Yemeni steelworker who moved to Sheffield in the 1980s, she qualified as a teacher and then as a lawyer and has since been working as a community organiser in the city for 20 years. There’s also veteran Southey councillor and local beautician Jayne Dunn, who grew up in a house with domestic abuse before becoming a homeless single mum. And public affairs consultant Abdi Suleiman, who came to Broomhall as a three-year-old refugee from Somalia and served as the president of the University of Sheffield Students’ Union.
That’s not all. Journalist and campaigner Mike Buckley, who was born in Sheffield, has served as an aid worker and has most recently been the party’s campaign coordinator in the Labour Central constituency. Local dentist and public health consultant Rizwana Lala has also announced her intention to stand. And in the last week, senior Darnall councillor Mazher Iqbal and Sheffield-based A&E doctor Chris Carson have added their names to the lengthening list (Chris Carson is something of a minor celebrity himself, appearing regularly on the Channel 5 show Casualty 24/7: Every Second Counts).
Why is the seat attracting so many high profile candidates? In order to answer this question I think it's instructive to remember Mrs Merton’s acerbic question to Debbie McGee: “What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” (for those too young to get the reference, McGee was the famously glamorous wife of the somewhat less good-looking TV magician). To be more direct: Sheffield Central is one of the safest Labour seats in the country (the 32nd to be precise), and currently has a majority of 27,273. It’s difficult to see it changing hands for the time being. It’s essentially a seat for life.
This wasn’t always the case. In 2010, at the height of New Labour’s unpopularity, the Liberal Democrats came within 165 votes of taking the seat. But that was before Nick Clegg entered into coalition with David Cameron and tripled the university tuition fee cap to £9,000 a year. In Sheffield Central, the constituency with the highest number of students in the UK, the yellow party’s reputation has never recovered.
So who is going to win this glittering prize? Insiders who have spoken to The Tribune believe that despite their celebrity status, neither Izzard nor Mason are likely to win the selection. They say that across the country, selections for Labour candidates have been becoming notably more local in recent years. Of the 35 most recent contests, 32 of them have been won by the person perceived to be “the local candidate”.
In this context, some have suggested that a run-off between Abtisam Mohamed and Jayne Dunn is the most likely outcome. One insider told us that Paul Blomfield’s backing makes Mohamed a clear favourite. “He hasn’t been that vocal about it in public but he is certainly saying that behind closed doors,” he told us. “Jayne is more of an underdog but I don’t think it will be a coronation. Jayne has more experience and is a more active campaigner. Both have compelling stories. It will be an interesting contest.”
Kevin Kennedy Ryan, the man behind the meme, says he isn’t convinced Jayne Dunn has a strong enough campaign to win. “She will undoubtedly have some support but when she ran in the [South Yorkshire Mayor] contest she wasn’t incredibly successful,” he tells me. “I would question her level of support and the sophistication of her operation. Having spoken to other party members, I’ve not heard anyone say they are voting for her.” Others say she declared too late to be a serious contender.
There are around 2,000 members in the Sheffield Central CLP (Constituency Labour Party). This still makes it one of the largest CLPs in the city — but is a long way down on what it was just a few years ago at the height of previous leader Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity. This change will have made the local party more politically moderate than it was, which explains the more centrist officers they have elected to senior roles in recent years (they also endorsed Keir Starmer for leader in 2020).
This shift would seem to mitigate against the more left wing candidates doing well in the contest. These include Abdi Suleiman and Rizwana Lala (and possibly also Paul Mason, although recently he has defied easy categorisation). However, one insider told us backing from celebrities including Human League founder Martyn Ware, Reverend and the Makers’ John McClure, poets Otis Mensah and Warda Yassin, artist Pete McKee and Shaun Doane from the Everly Pregnant Brothers could help Suleiman get on the ballot. “We will see how clinical the NEC are for the longlist,” he added, referring to Labour’s National Executive Committee.
In the next few days, the Executive Committee will produce a long list for the local branch to choose from, which is then thinned down by the local party. Candidates with union backing tend to be put through automatically (Abtisam Mohamed has the backing of Unite and Jayne Dunn has been endorsed by the GMB and Unison), but this hasn’t always been the case. Candidates from the left have been blocked by the central party in recent contests including Emma Dent Coad in Kensington and Chelsea and Maurice Mcleod in Camberwell and Peckham, although some, like Craig Gamble Pugh in Penistone and Stocksbridge, did get through to the latter stages.
One source told us he thought Abtisam Mohamed, Jayne Dunn, Mike Buckley and Eddie Izzard were guaranteed for the shortlist. “I don't know how far Paul Blomfield's support will take Abtisam,” he said. “But I think the groundwork Mike has put in might carry him through.” However, they said that if no left candidate was to make it through to the ballot, where that support goes could well decide the contest. Mohamed, Buckley, Dunn and Iqbal had all been “more keen than usual” to attend picket lines in recent months, presumably in an appeal to the left of the party, he added.
While most of the sources The Tribune has spoken to think a local candidate was always likely to win, they’ve also been disappointed with the celebrity contenders’ campaigns. Kevin Kennedy Ryan questioned why Izzard had fought for a seat with a large majority rather than one where her name could have swung the race. “Do it somewhere you can make a difference,” he tells me. “It just seems incredibly cynical to me.” Another source told us that Izzard’s campaign had “failed to take off as expected” while a third described it as “lazy”. Of Mason, most believe he announced his candidacy far too late to be taken seriously.
However, contrary to predictions, one thing that hasn’t been much of a talking point in the campaign is Eddie Izzard’s identity as a trans woman. Canterbury Labour MP Rosie Duffield even said she would resign from the party if Izzard was placed on an all-women shortlist. But the question never came up (the party has actually now dropped all-women shortlists for parliamentary seats after receiving legal advice that continuing to use them when their majority of their MPs at Westminster were women would be unlawful).
So, in the end, despite the high-profile nature of some of the candidates, Sheffield Central may be about to opt for a home-grown candidate after all. In doing so they will likely prove legendary US House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim right: “All politics is local.”
The longlist will be finalised in the next few days, followed by the shortlist around a week later. Members will then be balloted before the winner is revealed in November.