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Sheffield election sees the return of four-party politics

A week after surprising local election results, Edd Mustill looks a bit deeper at some longer-term trends in Sheffield politics.

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Photo by Callum Wale (Unsplash)

The results of elections to Sheffield City Council held on 6 May have attracted more interest than usual, largely because the Labour Party lost their majority, forcing the council into ‘no overall control.’ The outgoing leader of the council, Bob Johnson, lost his seat in Hillsborough to the Green Party.

Beyond the headlines, the election serves to confirm some longer-term trends in Sheffield politics.

Four-party politics is here to stay

The Conservatives’ vote share has been recovering in recent years and they have finally picked up their first city councillor since 2007 in Stocksbridge and Upper Don.

At 18.5%, their city-wide vote share was up 10.4% on the last council election in 2019, while UKIP’s share collapsed by the same amount. This follows the national trend, since the Brexit referendum, of the Tories swallowing up the UKIP vote.

Across England, Conservatives won councillors in areas where they unseated Labour MPs in the 2019 general election and the Stocksbridge gain should be seen in this context.

2015 2021 SUD votes

Labour actually increased its vote share

Despite its seat loses, the Labour Party increased its vote share in Sheffield by nearly 5% compared with 2019. It should be noted that 2019 was a particularly bad year for Labour, with the party shedding votes over Brexit and opposition to tree felling.

Nevertheless this year’s results show that, despite dissatisfaction with the Council, Labour remains by far the most popular party across the city. Claims of a working-class abandonment of Labour appear unfounded in Sheffield as the party still dominated across the Brightside and Hillsborough wards (with 51.7% of the vote) and the South East wards (45.9%).

The Greens' targeting strategy has been very effective

The Green vote across the city retreated from its 2019 high watermark, but the election is further proof of the effectiveness of their targeting strategy.

The party achieved large swings in Walkley and Hillsborough, gaining their first councillor in each of these wards, but in some of the wards they won handily last time their majorities were much slimmer. Broomhill and Sharrow Vale only went Green by 77 votes compared with the majority of 1,648 they achieved two years ago.

Going forward, Sheffield Greens will have to consider whether they have the capacity to continue to make gains in new wards as well as devoting more resources to holding wards they have previously won.

2015 2021 Hillsborough votes

The Lib Dems may be in trouble in the long term

By contrast with the Greens, the Liberal Democrats’ targeting strategy is meeting with mixed success.

The party won Beighton and both the Ecclesfield wards from Labour, but two of these with only razor thin majorities. Labour retained Mosborough reasonably comfortably and there were significant swings away from the LibDems in wards they held, like Stannington, Beauchief and Greenhill, and Graves Park.

The Liberal Democrats’ vote across the city appears to be stagnant and they do not seem to have benefited electorally from their support for the change to a committee system in the Council governance referendum.

The smaller parties aren’t attracting votes

Beyond the big four parties, others are struggling to register significant votes.

The Yorkshire Party posted some respectable figures in the Ecclesfield wards but support for regionalism among Sheffield voters appears to be low. The Womens’ Equality Party’s two candidates, in Walkley and Ecclesall, won a total of just 290 votes.

UKIP are a spent force and will probably soon disappear from the political landscape entirely. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), having suspended most electoral campaigning during Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour leader, returned with eight candidates but failed to garner significant support.

2015 2021 BG votes

Other trends

Local voting patterns are so complex these days that, even within one city, it’s impossible to talk about uniform swings from one party to another. That said, a number of factors in play seem to have affected specific wards or parts of the city.

For example, there seems to have been a swing away from the Lib Dems to the Tories in some wards. This could be due to Brexit or a newly-emboldened attitude on the part of Sheffield’s traditional ‘shy’ Tories. It has not yet put the Tories back in contention in their old Hallam hunting grounds, but did nearly deliver an unexpected gain for Labour in Beauchief and Greenhill.

It appears Labour also benefited from an increase in postal voting that ensured a higher turnout. Labour usually suffers on the postal vote, a big strength for the Lib Dems in many wards, but this may be starting to shift from yet another unforeseen consequence of the pandemic.

Candidates backing the Labour for a Green New Deal manifesto, most of whom also backed the change to a committee model, tended to score significant vote increases, as did those in parts of the city where the collapse of UKIP may have benefited Labour as well as the Tories.

With the margin of defeat so narrow in many wards, Labour activists will be left pondering whether a stronger polling day operation, or a more coherent message from the national party, may have been enough to save the party’s majority.

Whatever the composition of the new Council administration, it’s clear that Sheffield politics will remain in flux for some time and activists of all stripes have much to ponder in the coming weeks and months.

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Figures, patterns and comparisons in this article are drawn from the writer’s own number crunching, which you can see on an open-access Google Sheet.

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