Sheffield Hallam is one of the richest constituencies in the country, incorporating the leafy south-west of the city as well as vast swathes of the Peak District. Held by the Tories for over a hundred years until 1997, this vast constituency has transformed into a closely-fought battleground in a northern city dominated by safe Labour seats.
Labour’s candidate is Olivia Blake, until recently the deputy leader of Sheffield Council. Blake dramatically resigned her cabinet post to support a grassroots campaign to democratise the Council’s structure, but remains a councillor. A strong supporter of the Green New Deal, Blake has placed public services at the heart of her campaign in a constituency home to high numbers of health and education professionals.
‘Many policies have evidently cut through the noise of the billionaire press,’ she told Red Pepper. ‘From young people being enthused by a £10 minimum wage and the mass building of council housing, rural sections of Hallam expressing the fundamental changes universal broadband will bring to the areas, to older voters making it clear that Labour’s offer on social care is desperately needed for longer lives to be good lives.’
Blake hopes that her support for a range of radical policies will distance her from the seat’s notorious incumbent, ex-Labour MP Jared O’Mara. In 2017, O’Mara won the seat from Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg with a slim majority of 2,125 votes. It was the first time Labour won Sheffield Hallam.
O’Mara’s disastrous term in office, culminating in the MP admitting to the sexual harassment of his own staff, has however been a source of endless frustration for constituents. ‘Both voters and Labour campaigners have been justifiably upset about Mr O’Mara’s selection and election, particularly as many of Hallam’s Labour members were out knocking doors for him in 2017,’ said Blake.
Blake added, however, that in contrast to 2017, the local party had been ‘energised’ by the candidate selection process, where she was ‘democratically chosen to be the candidate based upon [her] record of organising for workers’ rights and campaigning on local issues in Sheffield.’ At the Council, Blake has backed a campaign for Sheffield to host a pilot Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme. UBI, a radical policy that would see guaranteed payments made to everyone regardless of their income, was recently included in the Labour 2019 manifesto.
‘My opinion is that UBI being trialled here is a superb opportunity for the citizens of Sheffield to see how investment in people and communities can transform our lives, and I’ve been thrilled to hear this sentiment echoed on the doorstep,’ Blake said. ‘The trial of UBI will allow people in Sheffield a direct relaxation from the pressures of rising costs of living, while a Labour government uses the next decade to fundamentally restructure the economy to ensure it operates in the interests of the many.’
Blake’s main opposition will be Lib Dem candidate Laura Gordon, who has sought to capitalise on local frustration over Labour’s choice of candidate last time around. As well as ‘stopping Brexit,’ Gordon wants to expand recycling in the city and – with a keen eye on the demographics of the constituency – to scrap the public sector pay cap introduced by the coalition government.
But rather than Labour, Gordon’s main enemy could turn out to be her own party. At a national level, support for the Lib Dems has collapsed over the course of a poorly-fought campaign, with recent polling suggesting that voters dislike leader Jo Swinson the more they see of her.
Both Gordon and Blake, the presumptive candidates for the seat long before the election was called, have moved to restore trust among their future constituents. They’ve each acted in effect as a shadow MP for the area, with Blake taking on casework and Gordon holding advice surgeries in the absence of a functioning MP’s office.
O’Mara’s decision not to contest the seat as an independent, despite previously indicating that he would, will be a source of relief for the Labour camp. Since losing the seat in 1997 the Conservatives have faded, winning 24 per cent of the vote in 2017 against Labour’s 38 per cent and the Lib Dems’ 35 per cent. Although Labour won Sheffield Hallam in 2017 with a 15-point lead over the Tories, The Observer recently recommended a tactical vote for the Lib Dems, despite the seat being a Labour-Lib Dem marginal.
Pub owner Liz Aspden, who is the only independent standing, managed to torpedo her own campaign before it began when she told Vice that she doesn’t consider trans men to be men or trans women to be women. The comments provoked anger in a seat that has a recent history of transphobia associated with historic comments made by O’Mara.
The Greens and UKIP both lost their deposit in 2017, with the latter facing added competition from the Brexit Party this time. ‘The vast majority of people we speak to completely agree that climate is an incredibly important issue,’ Green candidate Natalie Thomas told Red Pepper. ‘Our manifesto is the most radical when it comes to climate action and the proposals to build a real Green New Deal and create millions of jobs are practical and costed.’
Thomas also backs UBI, calling it a ‘revolutionary idea that will level the playing field for so many people’, as well as supporting the abolition of Trident and the introduction of proportional representation. She added that, despite their disappointing result in 2017, the Greens had received a ‘very good reaction’ on the doorstep, citing anger at the Labour-run Council for their ‘ongoing deceptions’ over the street tree controversy, twinned with a lingering suspicion of the Lib Dems. ‘Many are seeing the Lib Dems under Swinson as Tory-lite anyway,’ Thomas said.
On election night, Sheffield Hallam, which provided 2017’s ‘Portillo moment’ after Clegg lost his seat on live television, will be one of the most closely watched constituencies in the country. Whether Labour can retain the wealthy seat with such a radical set of policies will be a key indicator of the long-term prospects of the Corbyn project.
Lib Dem candidate Laura Gordon did not respond to requests for comment.
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