A new poll by Survation shows Labour ten points ahead of Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam. Here is our report, originally published on our sister polling site May 2015, on whether the Liberal Democrat leader will lose this May.
Traipsing through sludge on a blustery Monday evening is few people’s idea of fun. Why bother? “The fear of losing by five votes – that’s what drives every candidate on.”
So explains Oliver Coppard who, while working for the Obama re-election campaign in 2012, learned that “The only thing you have the same as your opponents is your time – it’s about who uses it better.”
The mere fact that Coppard has a chance of winning in May is remarkable. Sheffield Hallam is among the wealthiest constituencies in the country: far from natural Labour territory. Labour’s best ever result here was 70 years ago when, even in Clement Attlee’s landslide win, it still lost the seat by 8.6 per cent. According to a Lord Ashcroft poll last November, Labour only trails in the seat by three points.
The upshot is that Sheffield Hallam suddenly feels like one of the most important seats in the country. Should Labour win, it will mean a P45 for Nick Clegg and, in the event of a hung Parliament, significantly increase the chances of Ed Miliband being Prime Minister instead of David Cameron. “This seat will have implications for the national picture, of course it will,” Coppard tells me while refueling over a coffee in The Sportsman Pub. “But that’s not my priority – my focus is holding Nick Clegg to account.”
Last week Steve Richards termed the general election “a contest decided by what happens on the ground in different constituencies almost irrespective of the national battle. There will be no uniform national swing, but a hundred different swings.” Sheffield Hallam is on course to produce one of the most dramatic swings in the entire election. The Ashcroft poll suggests that Clegg has lost the support of 22 per cent of the constituency since 2010.
Coppard insists that he is not merely running an anti-Clegg campaign. “We can’t simply be talking about the negatives about Nick Clegg and why Nick Clegg has been such a disaster for our community. We have to talk about the positives and what we will do if we’re elected here,” he tells me.
Yet a stroll through the doorsteps of the middle-class houses in Crosspool, in Crookes ward, makes it clear how central anti-Clegg feeling is to Coppard’s appeal. The Labour candidate introduced himself to one middle-aged man and asks whether he likes the honourable member for Sheffield Hallam. “Erm,” responds the voter, laughing in a way that makes his disdain clear. Asked if he voted for him in 2010, the voter responds with a curt “Yeah,” delivered in the air of a remorseful schoolboy. “Round here all the polling shows that the next election in May it’s going be either me or Nick Clegg,” Coppard responds. “If you want to see the back of him in May then I’m the only person who can do that.”
He has had a long time to hone his pitch. An early sign that Labour was taking the seat seriously was that the selection meeting to choose the parliamentary candidate was as early as June 2013. This gave Coppar virtually two clear years to mount an assault on Clegg. “I took on this seat and this challenge because I thought we could win,” he recalls.
That notion is no longer fantastical. The odds on Coppard winning have dropped to as low as 3-1. Still, for all the bluster about Labour’s decapitation strategy here, that has not been enough to convince the party to throw central funds and staff at the seat. Sheffield Hallam is not on Labour’s target list of 106 seats and the party is clear that there are no plans to add it to this list. One source believes that the Ashcroft poll was a “rogue”.
Coppard sees no sense in complaining about a lack of support from party HQ. “People from across the country, to a certain extent, have seen the value of the campaign we’re running,” he says, noting that he has received small donations from Labour supporters outside the constituency. “This is a campaign that is built locally. That is always what we said – we will do it from the ground up and we will fight hard.”
Localism is a central strand of Coppard’s appeal. He went to school in the constituency and, after studying at Leeds University, returned to Sheffield six years ago. He attacks the “fairly abysmal” attendance record of Clegg in the constituency, which “highlights how much he’s taken this seat for granted and this community for granted.” As he ups the ante on Clegg, Coppard hopes to be able to share a platform with the Deputy Prime Minister. So far Clegg has been resistant. “At a national level Nick Clegg is calling David Cameron all sorts of names for avoiding the debates,” Coppard says. “But Nick Clegg, in Sheffield Hallam, is doing exactly the same.” In his defence Andy Sanger, the election agent for Nick Clegg, claims that those who attend hustings “tend to just be party political members.” Sanger admits to being surprised by the Ashcroft poll – “Our immediate response was what has the methodology been? Because on the doorstep it feels much better to us.” He accepts that Clegg faces a fight to retain his seat. “It’s clearly not going to be like 2010 – we’re going to have to keep working and we’re very confident of victory.”
Whether Clegg is booted out in May could be determined by the student vote. Sheffield Hallam has one of the largest student populations in the country (confusingly, the vast majority are students at Sheffield University, not Sheffield Hallam): 17.3 per cent of the electorate here are students.
Henry Kissinger famously quipped: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” But May 2015 presents Sheffield’s students with the chance to make history: Clegg could be one of the most senior politicians ever booted out by the electorate.
The clout of Sheffield’s student vote is not merely the result of sheer numbers, but also a bureaucratic triumph. Sheffield University has liaised with Sheffield City Council to allow students to be included on the electoral register when they enroll at university. The effect has been dramatic: 65 per cent of students at Sheffield University today are registered, compared with under a third from Sheffield Hallam.
The mood is sombre in the Sheffield Students’ Union. The start of term brings exams, and anxious-looking students munch on their lunches while perusing their laptops. In May, Christy McMorrow will be attempting to drag those here to the polling booths in Sheffield Hallam. The fight against Clegg is “pretty personal” for Christy, a third year Politics and Philosophy student. “When I was 16 I thought the Lib Dems looked great,” he reflects. He was in the first cohort of students to have to contend with £9,000 a year fees. A sense of betrayal by Clegg is greatest among those who started in September 2012 and were therefore anticipating the old fees regime. Anger “probably mellows down by year – it’s almost a case of reminding younger students what happened.”
Kicking out Clegg seems even more important than University finals. “Upon arriving in Sheffield I didn’t realise how likely it was that Nick Clegg could lose his seat,” Christy says. “If you’d asked me last year or the year before I’d have said no but I genuinely think we could win now.”
Fees are not the only thing that matters to students – Christy reckons private rent caps are a bigger vote winner – but the resonance of knocking out Clegg would be great. “It would send a very important message from the student movement that students won’t be lied to. You can’t just get back in again having made promises that you couldn’t fulfill.”
On the campaign trail with Coppard, there is an unusual youthful fizz. Among the young people canvassing is Harry Barham, who has just finished four years at Sheffield University. He turned 18 just before the 2010 general election and campaigned for the Lib Dems. “I saw them as a party that cared more about young people,” he reflects. He was dismayed when the Lib Dems went into coalition and “very, very angry” about the trebling of tuition fees. The combination led to him joining the Labour Party and then becoming increasingly active in student politics. “When I started it was a lot about Clegg,” he says.
As the prospect of booting out Clegg has come to seem like a realistic one, so Sheffield University Labour Club has swelled. Its mailing list rose from 200 to 320 between October 2013 and October 2014. Others are joining in the fight, too: students from Hull, York and Lancaster are being bussed in to campaign for Coppard on March 7.
But, for all Labour’s optimism about the electoral power of the student vote, another party is having similar thoughts. With its huge student population, trendy architecture and alternative eateries, Sheffield rather feels like the Brighton of the North. The SU café is brimming with middle-class delights: smoothies, milkshakes, bubble tea and plenty else besides. It also contains a portrait of Malcolm X, and a mural commemorating his visit to Sheffield University three months before his assassination.
It amounts to a place with bountiful potential for the Greens. Sheffield Central is a safe Labour seat, but the fact it has the second highest student population in the country gives the Greens hope of achieving a strong second place finish. The party’s ambitions are more prosaic in Sheffield Hallam, but its effect could be greater here. Lord Ashcroft’s poll put the Greens on nine per cent in Sheffield Hallam, a fivefold increase on its performance there in 2010. By splitting the anti-Clegg vote, the Greens are, however inadvertently, aiding the Deputy Prime Minister’s re-election campaign.
Not that Peter Garbutt, the Green candidate in Hallam, minds. “This is not a Clegg election for me,” he tells me in The Showroom, one of the city’s chic coffee shops. “The people that were betrayed by him are no longer students.” Instead it is about austerity – “It’s what all the parties from Ukip to Labour are wedded to.”
I ask him how he would feel if his performance was to help Clegg get re-elected, and help facilitate another term of a Conservative-led government. “To me it doesn’t matter. It realty is of no significance if it’s a Tory-led government or a Labour-led government, because they’re both wedded to austerity,” he says. “Under both there would be something like TTIP [The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] coming in and that will more or less kill our democracy. It will ensure fracking, it will ensure there will be no significant action on the climate.”
In theory, Labour’s candidate in Sheffield Hallam should be well placed to prevent the Greens from acting as a Ralph Nader style spoiler in the seat. Coppard has avowedly green credentials: he is manager of the Dearne Valley Eco Vision project, which develops a low-carbon economy in ex-mining communities. His selection is a “smart move from Labour,” Garbutt reckons. “I’m fairly certain that’s why he was selected there because there was a recognition that there might be a strong Green surge in Hallam – Hallam being not only one of the richest constituencies but also one of the best educated constituencies. And the best educated people vote Green – I have to say that, without tongue in cheek.” This elicits a correction from his press officer, who has been sitting in on the interview. “We’ll say higher educated people tend to vote Green,” he corrects Garbutt.
To Garbutt, Coppard’s selection is just one example of a national trend: local branches of the Labour Party selecting candidates with policy platforms well to the left of what the national party will offer this May. “At a big public meeting they’ll give their views about what should happen which is normally quite a long way from Labour policy. So when challenged on that they say no it isn’t Labour policy but I want to change Labour policy to be like this – to the extent that they are actually given Green Party policy as what they want to do.”
Amid the factionalism on the political left, the Conservatives rather feel like a sideshow. They should not. Sheffield Hallam was a Conservative seat for 79 consecutive years from 1918 to 1997. And yet the Tories campaign here seems moribund. The party rather gives the impression of deliberate soft-pedaling to protect Clegg: it was not until January 17, 110 days before the election, that a candidate was even selected.
“It would have been better if we’d got our act together a bit earlier,” admits Ian Walker, the Conservative candidate. He calls the seat “traditional Conservative territory” and explains the Tory troubles since 1997 as punishment for a party who “took their eye off the ball some time ago.”
Like Coppard, Walker is a local – he is an engineer – and he intends to trumpet this connection to the constituency. “Yorkshire folk are fairly straight-talking folk. They like local people. Like Oliver Coppard I was born and bred in Hallam,” he says. It is said that the first time Clegg stepped inside Sheffield was to attend his selection meeting.
And what of the accusation that the Tories are taking the fight lightly to try and ensure Clegg is re-elected? “I can understand why the question was posed but there’s no truth in that whatsoever,” Walker insists. “This is winnable.” He is certainly not going easy on the sitting MP, who “epitomises some of the worst aspects of the career politician” and he likens to an “absentee landlord.”
Such bluster is deeply unhelpful for Clegg, who desperately needs the votes of natural Conservatives. “That was very much the pitch he took in the local elections – that there was no way that the Conservatives could take control of Sheffield City Council so vote Lib Dems so you don’t get a Labour-led council,” explains Walker. But he reckons that the quasi-presidential nature of the election campaign – “It’s either going to be David Cameron or Ed Miliband in Number 10” – will squeeze Clegg’s vote among right-leaning voters.
Clegg’s team tacitly admits the importance of Conservative voters to his re-election campaign. “There has been a coalition and therefore some Conservative voters are more prepared to think about voting for the Liberal Democrats than they have been previously,” explains election agent Andy Sanger.
He would not be heartened by a conversation on the campaign trail with Coppard. “Your biggest problem is your two Eds,” a loyal Conservative voter in his 60s tells Coppard. But his disdain for Labour’s figureheads is exceeded by his lack of regard for the Liberal Democrat leader. “He’s a waste of space really.” Such thoughts do not lend themselves easily to tactical voting for Clegg.
Whether Sheffield’s sixth MP joins the other five in being a Labourite could have a critical impact on the government formed in May. If that remains unlikely, that the question of whether Clegg will lose is even being asked is testament to how unpopular the Lib Dems have become. The Deputy Prime Minister is now dependent upon an unseemly coalition – borrowed Conservative voters and a left-splitting Green surge – for his political survival.