Only Change Can Keep Sheffield Red

As an unpopular Labour establishment looks set to lose control of Sheffield City Council – the former 'People’s Republic of South Yorkshire' – it's clear that real change is needed to reverse the party’s decline.

Once denounced by George III as a ‘damned bad place’ because of its predisposition to radicalism, the city of Sheffield has a history steeped in socialism. It fermented the politics of both John Ruskin and Edward Carpenter, hosting Ruskin’s Communist experiment in Totley, and also Carpenter’s Commonwealth Café. Even the University of Sheffield, unlike its redbrick contemporaries, was funded by penny donations from the city’s steel and factory workers to ‘bring the highest education within the reach of the child of the working man.’

Sheffield City Council has a similar history to tell. The city’s radical Labour administrations of the 1950s and 60s saw the construction of great public housing works from the streets-in-the-sky of Park Hill to the experimental design of the Gleadless Valley estate. And – before his reinvention as a war criminal – David Blunkett’s leadership of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire saw the municipality revered for its staunch opposition to Thatcherism, declaring itself nuclear-free and a demilitarized zone, and running an extensive subsidised public transport network – the memory of 2p bus fares one that still refuses to fade.

The Steel City has long been considered a traditional Labour heartland. Even so, political life in the city has been bolstered by the effects of Corbynism. At a parliamentary level, Sheffield seats – like many cities across the country – welcomed the Corbyn surge of 2017 with resounding majorities. More interesting is how those majorities remained strong in the 2019 general election; Sheffield Central’s Paul Blomfield, for example, was re-elected in December with a majority over 27,000. This was almost 10,000 more votes than he received in 2015, and far more than his 165 majority in 2010.

Similarly, Sheffield Hallam notably bucked the nationwide trend and returned a Labour MP. This came despite Hallam only electing its first Labour MP in 2017 – Jared O’Mara, whose tenure was riddled with controversy and who resigned from the party shortly into his term. Olivia Blake, the newly elected MP for Sheffield Hallam, is firmly on the left of the party. She is an activist with a track record of defending public services and fighting for greater local democracy. She also noted shortly after her election that she wouldn’t have won without Corbyn leading the party.

It’s clear that the democratic socialist politics espoused by Jeremy Corbyn and the party he led resonated strongly with the people of Sheffield. As the Left begins the arduous task of reflecting on the aftermath of the Corbyn project, Sheffield should feature heavily in our analysis. But while support for the party has remained strong in the city at a parliamentary level, the reputation of Sheffield City Council is a far cry from that of its glory days.

Before they were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the local elections scheduled for May saw Sheffield City Council facing a critical juncture, with Labour looking set to lose control of the council. With Sheffield Central, Heeley, and Brightside & Hillsborough all safely re-electing their MPs with strong majorities—and the significance of Blake’s victory in Hallam—it becomes clear that the council must bear some responsibility for this potential loss of control.

In the 2019 General Election I was a local party organiser and spent hours campaigning for Labour across Sheffield. Alongside Brexit and Corbyn, one thing that came up repeatedly on the doorstep was people’s distrust of the Labour Council, with Council Leader Julie Dore personally mentioned on multiple occasions as the reason people weren’t voting Labour again.

From its former heyday as the socialist republic, the ruling administration of Sheffield City Council is now most well-known for its failings in addressing its disastrous PFI contracts, particular regarding its approach to Sheffield’s street trees. A hangover from the last Labour government, Sheffield has—like many other cities—been trapped by its expensive and destructive PFIs. Less well publicised have been the slash-and-burn approach it’s taken to its planning department as it liberally axed disability officers, conservation officers and design teams. 

Once a haven for radical democratic planning, the council cabinet is now dominated by a culture of secrecy and backroom dealing, with allegations of fraud rife among the ruling coterie. Alongside purging the last remnants of its legacy of municipalist planning, it is the culture of the clique—driven by an outward hostility to any deviation from doing things the way they’ve always been done—which has scuppered any imaginative solutions to the crises of austerity.

With local elections, and a citywide referendum on how the city should be governed, delayed until next year, Sheffield Labour Party has been given a second chance. If we want to keep control of the Council, Labour members in Sheffield will have to show the public that we have learnt from the failings of the previous leadership, and begin the process of rebuilding the trust that has long been eroding. Cllr. Julie Dore and several close allies had pledged to stand down ahead of that election, presumably to avoid taking the blame for losing a referendum initiated in direct response to their tenure. With their departure, Labour members will have an opportunity to mark a decisive shift away from the old style of rule.

As a minimum, we need the next council leader to be elected from the membership, not decided in backroom meetings between the ruling cabinet. But the shift will need to go far beyond simply who’s behind the wheel—in order to challenge the widespread acceptance that councils can just be the managers of decline, we need to fundamentally change the direction of travel.

And the seeds of that change are in place. Last summer, five socialist councillors—including Olivia Blake, then Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Finance, now the MP for Sheffield Hallam—resigned from their respective cabinet positions to support greater democracy in the council’s running, seeking to move away from the strong leader and cabinet model so favoured by the Blair government.

Despite being in an ideological minority among their cabinet, the resignees can count to their record a number of successes, including bringing the Council’s contracts with Capita back in-house, instituting an ethical procurement policy which brought in an extra £80 million to the local economy, getting the Council to be an accredited Living Wage employer; and leading the city to declare a climate emergency and commit to decarbonising by 2030.

On the left much has—rightly—been made of the Preston Model and other radical experiments in municipal socialism. But we should also recognise the achievement of Sheffield’s left-wing councillors successfully championing the trialling of radical socialist ideas against the ruling elites, and treat this as a legacy socialists can build from.

Sheffield’s referendum comes as a result of a petition which received over 26,000 signatures, making it the largest ever petition for a change in local governance. Sheffield has made it clear that if the ruling Labour Group doesn’t change course then we run the risk of being voted out of Sheffield Town Hall. 

Though it has been many years since the red flag last flew from atop Sheffield Town Hall, our city’s history was forged in the radical tradition. Our great public housing works, and one of our universities, first came about because of politicians and public alike acting with a view to transform, not ticker. 

We need to show the people of Sheffield that Labour can once again be radical on a local level, and trial the policies that will get us back into government in 2024. Now is not the time for business as usual.