Nick’s reluctant friends in the North

Prospect Magazine

Nick’s reluctant friends in the North


An Ipsos Mori poll shows support for the Lib Dems is at its lowest since 1991. Nick Clegg has been the focus of anger towards the party, and Sheffield, the city he represents, has joined in too. But will local Lib Dems stand by their man?

Click here to read David Goodhart’s interview with Nick Clegg

Sheffield—the city of unemployed steel workers and The Full Monty; of snooker; of blunt talk and rough edges. It’s still in many ways a classic northern left-wing city—returning five of its six MPs under Labour colours. A city of half a million souls, over-dependent on the public sector and therefore close to the frontline of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s deficit-crunching public-sector shakedown.

But in the past 20 years it has become something else too: a successful post-industrial city with nearly 100,000 people (students and staff) in higher education, and one of the biggest retail centres in northern England. It’s full of shiny new buildings and sports centres, with a first-class travel infrastructure—and it has acquired a post-proletarian politics to go along with it. The city council is Lib Dem-controlled and its most senior political figure is no longer the gruff former Labour home secretary, David Blunkett, but the charming Lib Dem chap who represents Hallam in the city’s affluent west, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (see interview, p46).

Sheffield is Clegg’s backyard and his frontline. As deputy leader of a government embarking on an unprecedented public spending squeeze, he is not making many new friends in a city where the state counts for well over half of GDP. To the Labour and trade-union establishment he’s a cuckoo in the Sheffield nest. Following his change of mind on tuition fees, the local student leaders have him in their sights too. The new Labour years brought a lot of investment to the city, and while most of the cuts are still noises off, life is about to get tougher for some in Sheffield—especially poorer people more dependent on the local and national state. Nick Clegg is a convenient target for protesters. In fact, hating Nick Clegg is something of a national sport; he’s the poster boy for anti-coalition, anti-cuts sympathies everywhere.

But just how ferocious is real anti-Clegg sentiment in the city he represents, and how will ordinary Sheffielders react to the various bombs the coalition is preparing to chuck at the public sector? Will local Lib Dems, having to defend and implement unpopular decisions made by their own leaders in London, turn out to be sturdy defenders of the coalition, or its weakest link? Sheffield is the acid test. If Clegg and his party can win the argument here, or at least hold the line and avoid a political wipeout, it will be an important signal of the national mood.

Sheffield, rather like Liverpool, has a powerful sense of itself and its own myths. From the late 19th century until the 1970s it was the home of the skilled steel and engineering worker, a labour aristocracy town. It briefly became the capital of the “socialist republic of South Yorkshire” in the early 1980s, when the closure of the nearby mines and steel plants pushed unemployment to 17 per cent—the start of the Full Monty years. But it has seldom been a militant city. And since it stopped being a centre for steel and cutlery (and armaments) it has done a pretty good job of reinventing itself. More than 7 per cent of Sheffielders work in the creative industries, above the 4 per cent national average.

Yet, although not as dependent on public spending as Middlesbrough or Newcastle, one third of its employees work in the public sector (less than 30 per cent of new jobs in the past decade have come in the private sector) and many more are indirectly dependent on state spending. It is also sharply polarised between the affluent west and council estate east.

So is the city marching to the barricades waving a “Sheffield against Clegg” banner? There is, in fact, such a banner, as I discovered when I spent some time in the city in late November. It was on display on the rougher edges of the student demonstration against tuition fees on 24th November outside the Sheffield town hall—along with dozens of schoolkids with “Fuck Clegg” painted on their faces and a few retro-looking direct action types with Mohican haircuts.

The charge sheet against Clegg from student leaders, union officials and local Labour politicians is a long one. Paul Blomfield, the neat, rather monk-like Labour MP for Sheffield Central, points out that Labour and Lib Dem voters rejected the swift path to reducing the deficit. Clegg’s decision to ignore that majority, says Blomfield, means not only lost jobs and services at city council level and a squeeze on the city’s many welfare recipients, but also cuts in the Whitehall back office jobs that came to Sheffield in the 1980s.

There are other Clegg betrayals with a particular local flavour, too. The Lib Dem about-turn on tuition fees is a big deal in a city with two large universities—one old Russell group one (Sheffield University) and one new one (the ex-polytechnic, Sheffield Hallam University)—with a combined 60,000 students whose spending helps to keep the city afloat. There is also a further education sector which will be hit by the unexpected abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA), which paid some 7,000 poorer students in Sheffield up to £30 a week to stay on in post-16 education.


Then there was the coalition decision to stop Labour’s £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, one of the remaining bright spots from the city’s manufacturing past. The coalition, Blomfield believes, is “remodelling British society under cover of the deficit.”

“Sheffield can now see what some of us have known for a while—that Clegg is a right-wing, small state Liberal,” says Blomfield. He quotes from a recent Clegg article in The Times: “It is not the responsibility of the state to compensate the poor for their predicament.”

Clegg’s name is dirt, too, among local student leaders. “Abolishing tuition fees was a central plank of Clegg’s election pitch in university towns like this. He came here to the campus several times campaigning on it—we’ve invited him back since his change of mind but haven’t had a reply. A lot of people here are very pissed off,” says Joe Oliver, education officer at Sheffield University students’ union. Oliver, like several of the other full-time student officials, is a young Labour politician (and a middle-class southerner).

But there seems to be little interest in serious agitation among students. At the students’ union building, the most visible banner was about rag week, and while the protest on 24th November drew about 2,500 people, at least half seemed to be school pupils protesting about the abolition of the EMA—which means only about 2 per cent of Sheffield’s university students showed up. After the rally there was a token occupation of a lecture room at Sheffield University, but the student leaders were more worried about disruption to a practice session for the University Challenge quiz team.

Down at the offices of Unison, the public services union, there are Cleggzilla posters everywhere and a bustle of anti-cuts activity—it is expecting to ballot its members for strike action when all 8,300 non-school city council employees are re-employed on less favourable terms. But local officials Kevin Osborne and Robert Gascoigne are aware that given pay freezes, or even cuts, in large parts of the private sector in Sheffield, there will be little sympathy for public-sector workers, so their campaign is about loss of services.

Yuri Matischen, president of the chamber of commerce, is, naturally, calmer about the coming squeeze. Sheffield, he says, is an £8bn economy so it is not catastrophic to have to lose £200m and 10,000 jobs over four years. He enthuses about the city’s traditions of technology and innovation and about how Sheffield has lost the chip on its shoulder. “In the past, at a time like this, we would have moaned about how the south doesn’t understand us, but now—with the private sector in the lead—we are helping ourselves and the Lib Dem city council is well prepared for what’s coming,” he says.

Seeking a novelist’s eye on events I visited Marina Lewycka, who won fame with her 2005 novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. She moved to Sheffield 25 years ago with her husband, a National Union of Mineworkers researcher. A member of the literary wing of Sheffield’s leftish intelligentsia, Lewycka lives in a large, slightly unkempt Victorian house close to Clegg’s Hallam constituency.

I ask her if she thinks many people in Sheffield, or indeed she herself, now hate Nick Clegg. “I’m not usually a hating sort of person, but I am disappointed with him. He’s so mesmerised by power that he’s surrendered on virtually every honourable policy the Lib Dems once held.” Warming to her theme she continues: “Sheffield is a city where there’s still a high degree of social solidarity, where the poor, the eccentric, the wacky, the self-made and the un-made, the excellent and the awful, the dim and the ultra-brainy, seekers and dreamers, refugees and migrants, students, poets, idealists and enthusiasts of every variety have their place. It makes me so sad to think that soon they will all be driven to market.”

I am brought back down to earth by Richard Marsden, the young, rather hard-bitten political editor of the Sheffield Star. He says that Sheffield will not be as badly hit as some other northern cities and thinks that Labour exaggerates the degree of anti-Clegg sentiment. “Most people here think that the cuts are inevitable and a few of the reforms are even popular—some of the welfare reforms will be welcomed on the big council estates on the eastern side of the city, where there is resentment against people with fancy television sets and fridges full of beer who don’t work,” says Marsden.

Nevertheless, he says, an inexperienced Labour group will almost certainly take back control of the council in the May elections. After the defection of one young Lib Dem councillor, Ben Curran, to Labour, the Lib Dems (41) have only one more seat than Labour (40), with two Greens and one Independent. (An October council byelection saw Labour holding a seat with a positive swing of 17 per cent.)


Which brings us to the question of Lib Dem resilience—and the uncomfortable position of Paul Scriven, the Lib Dem leader of Sheffield city council. One might expect the 44-year-old son of a Huddersfield binman, who has spent most of his career as an NHS manager, to be championing the needs of a beleaguered northern city against brutal decisions from London. But his own party is the co-author of those decisions and his friend Nick Clegg both the local and national face of them.

Unsurprisingly, I find Scriven in defensive mood in his office when I suggest that the Lib Dems will get a drubbing in the May elections. “Of course the national mood music is not very good for us, some people do feel let down, but it is my job to say where I think the government has got things right and where it has got things wrong—over tuition fees and council tenancies for example—and to focus on what we have achieved locally over the last three years,” he says. He lists his most notable achievements: ending a culture of complacency in the council, raising education standards and reducing the number of managers on over £50,000 a year by 12 per cent.

The Lib Dems have a tough budget to prepare in February, needing to find £200m in cuts (over four years) from an annual revenue of £1.3bn. But Scriven says that if the wages bill can be reduced a bit then job losses can be kept to “hundreds.” Labour, which will probably end up implementing the cuts, has promised the unions no compulsory redundancies.


Sheffield’s Lib Dems are, for now, absorbing the blows of unpopularity. Many people assume that northern Lib Dems tend to be on the left of the party. If anything the opposite is true. In the south the Lib Dems’ opponents are usually Tories, but in the north the enemy is Labour. Moreover, thanks to Thatcherism and the disappearance of the deferential (and Protestant) working-class Tory vote, the Conservative party crumbled as an electoral force in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield in the 1980s and has never recovered. The result is that most northern Tories in these places now vote Lib Dem. Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency, one of the richest in the country, is a case in point—it was a Tory seat for 79 years until 1997.

Andrew Sangar, a Lib Dem councillor in Hallam, admits to feeling the heat, though the cuts have barely begun. “But those of us who support electoral reform and multi-party government accept what is happening even if we don’t agree with every decision,” he says. One decision that has caused anguish in the area, especially among the local Lib Dem-leaning business class, was the cancellation of an £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters to enable it to buy a 15,000-ton press to expand further into civil nuclear power. The loan was negotiated over an 18-month period and had semi-commercial payback terms—but one of the first acts of Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the treasury, was to cancel it. Clegg was kept informed but did not overrule Alexander.

Why not? At a time when everyone wants to rebalance the economy away from financial services it seemed a fine opportunity to expand into an important manufacturing growth sector that the banks were too risk averse to support (nuclear investment does, admittedly, entail big political risk). Labour’s David Blunkett says that Clegg’s claim that the loan was not affordable has been undermined by the subsequent Irish loan. Doug Patterson, a Sheffield official of the Unite union, believes Lib Dem antipathy to nuclear power is behind it; a more plausible explanation is that Clegg did not want to be seen to be giving special favours to his own backyard—exactly what Blunkett says he should be doing.

So, finally, what about Clegg himself? Contrary to what some Sheffield student leaders claim, he has not been avoiding the city. He has been back to face the music in several town hall meetings and explained the thinking behind the Forgemasters decision to a chamber of commerce dinner. He has suffered a few impromptu protests and it is true that he has not been on campus to address the Sheffield students, many of whom queued up to vote for him in May—but then as deputy prime minister, he must have quite a full diary.

And the idea that his seat might be in danger from angry voters is baloney: Hallam is not an angry place. First elected in 2005 with a 9,000 majority, Clegg’s majority rose to 15,000 in the last general election. His seat is not an authentic old Liberal non-conformist seat, rather it is a tactical voting seat. Moderate Tories who did not want to vote for Thatcherism and moderate SDP/Labour supporters who did not want to vote old Labour came together in the 1990s to create a rock solid Lib Dem seat. As well as being affluent, it is also full of highly-educated people, always good territory for the Lib Dems: a constituency of professors, consultants and bosses.

Danny Dorling, a sociologist at Sheffield University who lives nearby, says that some of the local SDP-types who fell for Clegg’s charm feel jilted, especially by the tuition fees decision. But local Lib Dem councillor Alan Whitehouse says his disarming honesty will help win them back. In any case, the weight of political demography means that he is as safe as those big Victorian houses, almost whatever happens.

Sheffield may be out of love with Clegg but there is little common ground among the various protest groups and even some understanding for what he is doing—most importantly inside his own party backyard. But what happens next May when the Lib Dems lose the council and, at the same time, might lose the national vote on the alternative vote? Will grumbles turn into revolt? “No, we’ll stick by Nick,” says one Lib Dem activist, “Sheffield has changed. Until we first won the council in 1999 Sheffield had been run as a Labour fiefdom for 50 years. We’re never going back to those days.”

Click here to read David Goodhart’s interview with Nick Clegg

  1. December 17, 2010

    Trish Oliver

    Describing Joe Oliver as a middle class southerner is inaccurate. Joe was born in Sheffield. He attended a tough state secondary school where less than 40 per cent of pupils left with 5 gcse’s. this experience ignited his passion for access to good education for all – and gave him a first hand understanding that fees of £6-£9k a year would be an effective deterrent to pupils from poorer families going to uni. Joe’s family home is a small terrace in Exeter. Not so middle class after all then.

  2. December 17, 2010


    Congratulations on a great piece, Mr Goodhart. I only wish more journalists were so thorough and insightful!

  3. December 17, 2010

    Roberto Mancini

    I’m not sure about the lack of student support against the hike in tuition fees.
    I understand there were nine coaches that travelled down to London from Sheffield for the first (Millbank) protest.
    Nick Clegg owes his election to a huge student vote, so I think Joe Oliver is spot on to say they are pissed off with him and the Fib-Dems.

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David Goodhart

David Goodhart
David Goodhart is the director of Demos and editor at large of Prospect. He is the author of "The British Dream" (Atlantic) 

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