‘We have a fighting chance of reclaiming control’
The Tribune’s politics analyst looks forward to the local elections
This year’s local elections in Sheffield are now less than four weeks away. On Thursday, May 5, 28 council seats in the city will be contested, one in every ward. Last year’s momentous elections saw Labour lose control of the council for the first time in over a decade. This year’s polls will decide the make up of the council as we move into uncharted territory — the dawn of the new “modern committee system” we voted for last May.
A senior Labour source we spoke to this week didn’t sound overly confident of getting their majority back, but said May’s races contained lots of unknowns, most notably how being part of a cooperative executive for the past year will impact the Greens. “We do think we have a fighting chance of reclaiming council control again,” they told us. “Four seats last time had majorities of less than 100 votes. There are a lot of seats that Labour are defending this time that have gone Lib Dem, Green, and even Tory recently. My sense is that a majority is possible but unlikely — I wouldn't be surprised if we did though.”
The Labour source says the party’s campaign has been much better than last year, with improved “contact rates” now they were able to get out and speak to voters again. “Does that benefit Labour as we have more activists or does that mean as much in the age of social media,” they said. “Whether this affects turnout a lot remains to be seen and it's never easy getting people out for local elections.” Whatever happens, expect lots of horse-trading in the days after the vote, as the parties vie for key chairmanships in the new committee system.
For some deeper electoral analysis, we have turned once again to The Tribune’s elections expert Jason Leman. He is reading for a PhD in governance in English local councils at the University of Sheffield, and is also an active Green party member in the city, though he is not standing for election this year. Here’s his analysis of what to expect in May.
By Jason Leman
Since last year’s elections, Labour and the Greens have shared power in an often fractious administration. The coming year looks no less interesting. The Council will have a brand new committee system, in what is hoped will be a new era for democracy in the city. As the second-largest party, the Lib Dems will look forward to gaining senior strategic positions under the committee system. However, any party that manages to gain an outright majority on the full council will still be in a powerful position to have the final say on the all-important budget.
Labour will hope to gain outright power again, or at least stop haemorrhaging seats in Sheffield. From dominating Sheffield Council five years ago, the party now has 41 councillors: two seats short of an outright majority. The national trend is certainly in Labour’s favour with the party consistently ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. According to betting exchange Smarkets, Labour have more than a 90% chance of winning the popular vote on the night, compared to just 14% for the Tories. Locally, the party have been pushing hard, bringing in former party leader Ed Miliband to bring a bit of glamour to the doorsteps of Sheffield. However, national trends only tell us so much in local elections…
The Lib Dems were outwardly happy with their results last time, but in reality it was a mixed picture. With 29 councillors, the party is some way off their high point, having been squeezed out of contention in several seats by the Greens, and facing challenges from Labour in others. The Lib Dems weren’t helped in 2021 by Conservative voters putting a cross by Conservative candidates, instead of tactically voting, as has been the tradition for the last decade or so in Sheffield. The big uncertainty for 2022 is what those natural Conservative voters do next. If they switch back to the Lib Dems then it’s a good election for the Lib Dems and they might gain two seats, but otherwise they might be facing losses of up to five seats.
The Conservatives themselves will be hoping for more successes after a notable victory in Stocksbridge and Upper Don and a fairly close call in East Ecclesfield last time. However, even a second Cold War doesn’t seem to have helped Boris in the polls, so it’s unlikely they will gain more than one seat this time.
The biggest winners in 2021 were the Greens, gaining five seats and deposing the Labour leader. A year in a cooperative administration alongside Labour doesn’t seem to have hurt the party’s standing, but they remain a relatively small party spread across more key battlegrounds. They will be looking to gain three seats and defend others this time, but that will be a tall order.
Let’s take a look at some places that might deliver some surprises, the wards where just a few votes could swing it. Every Sheffield ward has three councillors, with just one standing for election each year and elected for four years. This means that the councillors up for election this year were last elected in 2018, before the pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, and when Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer were not yet leading their parties.
If the Lib Dems are to have a good result overall then they’ll want a clear win in Beauchief & Greenhill. Last year the Lib Dems were just 37 votes ahead of Labour. The Lib Dems have a popular incumbent councillor and Labour don’t look to be trying too hard, so it should be a Lib Dem hold, unless they are having a really bad election.
Also on the south side of the city is an even closer battle. The Lib Dems won Beighton by just 42 votes last time over a Labour incumbent and they are hoping to take another seat from Labour in the ward. Both parties are pushing for a result and it’s too close to call. Out east and Mosborough is a similar contest, finely poised, with the decisions of Conservative voters to vote tactically or not making the difference. Graves Park and Stannington are other seats where the Lib Dems could lose on a bad night but should win.
One of the surprises in 2021 was the big Lib Dem loss in Crookes and Crosspool to Labour, who are again hoping for victory in the ward. The Lib Dems and their incumbent councillor Mohammed Mahroof will be hoping to stave off the challenge from Labour’s Minesh Parekh, but it looks likely Labour will gain here.
Next door in Broomhill & Sharrow Vale and now it’s Greens and Labour batting it out. The Greens hold the seat and have young community activist Maleiki Haybe standing for election this time, with former midwife Alison Norris standing again for Labour, who lost by just 77 votes in 2021. Both parties are pushing hard in the ward and it is another seat too close to call. The Greens will be hoping for some clearer water in Hillsborough, with candidate Henry Nottage aiming to replicate the success from 2021, but Labour are pushing to keep their incumbent councillor Josie Paszek. The Greens should scrape it, but might be one for the recounts.
When councillor Moya O'Rourke won East Ecclesfield for Labour in 2018 it was a gain from UKIP. Now UKIP have disappeared as a political force and Moya, the youngest ever Sheffield councillor, has decided to step down. Labour will hope to win the seat, but the Lib Dems have won in the ward since 2019, even though the victory last time was just 20 votes. Just another 130 votes behind were the Conservatives, though there’s little sign of strong campaigning from them. It’s possible Conservative voters will switch back to voting Lib Dem, but otherwise the ward is a three-way split and too close to call.
Also in the north is the ward of Stocksbridge and Upper Don, site of that one Conservative victory in 2021. The party looks likely to pick up another councillor in 2022, with their candidate David Chinchen looking to make a brace of Conservative councillors in the Sheffield Council chamber. Labour’s Janet Ridler will be hoping to resist that challenge.
Overall, Labour stand an outside chance of taking back their majority on the Council, but the likelihood is another year of no-overall-control. With so many close calls there will definitely be drama at the election count. For what it’s worth, my prediction is that Labour will pick up a couple of seats from the Lib Dems and see a slight gain, but also lose a couple to the Greens and Conservatives, with more colourful cooperatives and coalitions ahead. Of course, what actually happens, is up to you.
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