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By Edd Mustill, Sheffield Heeley CLP
Sheffield Labour lost seats despite slightly increasing our vote share from that achieved in the last local elections two years ago.
Labour scored a 40.3% share across the city with the Liberal Democrats in second place on 24.5%. The party retains a healthy majority on the council despite losing four wards (two to the LibDems and two to the Greens) and gaining only one from the welcome collapse of the Ukip vote.
The Council’s bungled handling of the implementation of the Streets Ahead contract, signed with the multinational company Amey, no doubt contributed to the loss of at least three wards and a significant increase in the Green Party’s vote across the city. The contract includes an unpopular street tree felling programme which has led to the arrests of peaceful protesters. In Nether Edge and Sharrow, the ward where the tree issue arouses the most passion, the sitting Green councillor increased her majority from eight votes to nearly 1400 – and this against a leftwing Labour candidate who polled the third-highest labour vote in the city.
It should be noted that the Labour vote increased significantly, by up to 10%, in working class heartland wards like Arbourthorne, Darnall, and Burngreave. The Tories, who still have no councillors in the city, also increased their vote in some of these areas as good old-fashioned working class Toryism fills the vacuum left by Ukip’s collapse.
It is gratifying to see the Labour vote hold up so well despite widespread dissatisfaction with the council in many parts of Sheffield. Some in the council will no doubt see this as a mandate to continue as they were, safe in the knowledge that electoral discontent is restricted to the leafier (or perhaps, now, not so leafy) wards in the west of the city. This would be a huge mistake. The Streets Ahead contract no doubt led to a suppression of the Labour vote in some areas as well as a general apathy among party supporters, and even in some cases members, towards the election.
The tree-felling issue, despite being somewhat tediously overblown by NIMBYs and political opportunists of all stripes, is a real one. The dominant politics of the tree people is sanctimonious and often reactionary; on Nether Edge one can encounter signs stapled to trees bemoaning the exact impact of their felling on house prices in some of Sheffield’s most desirable streets, where the palatial houses were for the most part decked out with Green Party placards during the campaign. That said, it is not merely a ‘middle class’ concern to want to live in pleasant surroundings or have a measure of control over one’s own neighbourhood. For a layer of people the tree issue has become something of a cipher for disaffection with a council that is generally seen as unresponsive and out of touch.
Those of us who worked hard for the return of a Labour Council encountered this attitude on the doorstep; it will be hard to win many of these people back to Labour without a change in attitude, or at least emphasis, on the part of the Labour Group. It is nigh-on impossible to convince people that the Labour Party now opposes PFI contracts and the privatisation of services when the Streets Ahead contract looms large in most political conversation in the city. Unfortunately, most of the left candidates selected this time round, who could have begun the process of changing the council’s approach, fought and lost marginal seats. Nevertheless, the left had successes. In Graves Park ward we ran a political campaign with a left candidate that significantly ate into the Liberal Democrat majority, bucking the trend in the west of the city to such an extent that Liberals at the count were left asking why the Sheffield Labour Party had decided to ‘target’ the ward (they did no such thing – we just ran a good campaign). In Stocksbridge a left Labour candidate won the ward from Ukip.
There are many more local issues, not least the ongoing ‘redevelopment’ of the city centre, that tree-induced myopia has pushed off the agenda. If they are handled in the same way as Streets Ahead has been, the council risks sleepwalking its way towards losing control to a Yellow-Green NIMBY coalition in a few years’ time; this would be an embarrassment for the Labour Party and, much more importantly, a disaster for working class people in Sheffield.
Of course the left should redouble efforts to get candidates selected next year but we should also discuss the basis on which we want to send leftwingers to Town Hall. This means also arguing for a greater voice for the membership in deciding the manifesto and in electing the leadership of the Labour Group itself.
CORRECTION: It has been brought to our attention that the notices pinned to trees refer not to the effect of their felling on property prices but to their Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees (CAVAT), which is a means of expressing the value of trees as social goods in monetary terms.
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