Millbank promoted Labour's achievements for Middle England but left the old guard out in the cold
The Labour election machine could barely creak into action on Sicey Avenue two weeks ago. Canvassers were supposed to be out doorstepping "core" voters living in north Sheffield's vast inter-war council estates, where the grass verges are overgrown and seven out of 10 voters abstained in the European elections. Nowadays, in Sicey Avenue, in David Blunkett's Brightside constituency, all politicians are derided.

Twenty-five years ago, this was where a socialist New Model Army was enlisted. Then, Brightside led a successful tenants' rent strike and ditched its right-wing Labour MP in an audacious coup.

Today all three council seats are still held by Labour, but the Brightside ward party is a demoralised shell. The city council is blamed for the state of the verges and the general deprivation. People don't want to give up time for Labour. The enthusiasm felt in the 1970s - and again when Tony Blair came to power - has gone. "These days, if it wasn't for the three councillors, the leaflets wouldn't get delivered," said councillor Peter Price.

Across the city, Harold Chamings, secretary of Sheffield Heeley constituency party, is still nursing wounds inflicted by local and European elections. One ward, Park, has lost two of its three Labour councillors. The Park vote ratio used to be three-to-one for Labour. Proportional representation, and the list system of candidates dictated in London, meant the Sheffield MEP lost his seat, despite getting 40 per cent of the poll.

Heeley returned Bill Michie as its Labour MP with 61 per cent of the 1997 general election vote. This year the constituency party failed to raise a quorum for an annual meeting. And, on the night of 6 May, Liberal Democrats won control of the council - a devastating result for Labour.

"The willingness of party members to campaign has fallen off," Mr Chamings said. "The support of potential Labour voters hasn't been enlisted because of decisions made in London which favour the 'Middle England' of the south. An accumulation of policies - from privatisation to disability benefits - has antagonised people. They say there's no point."

Sheffield's politics of futility seems to confirm last week's stark warnings. An internal report said Labour was "ramshackle" and out of touch with its heartland constituencies. Ian McCartney, the industry minister, complained in another report that Labour needed to "involve members and engage with local communities". John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB union, called for a "re-direction" in government policy. Tony Blair, meanwhile, insisted that New Labour would not be diluted.

Political discussion in Brightside is easily parodied by those championing the Government's record. "Apart from pounds 20bn for health and education, better pensions, winter payments, tax cuts for families, the minimum wage, trade union reforms, the Social Chapter, devolution, and windfall taxes on the utilities, what has the Labour Party done for us?" sums up people's complaints, they say.

This is the nub of the problem for Labour and it echoes across the city. Socialism is being built, but by stealth. So stealthily that many of its own supporters and voters are benefiting from its effects, but are unhappy because they listen to the messages from Millbank HQ, which always emphasise the benefits the Government has brought to Middle England.

One party boss, with close Cabinet links, said: "Blair operates on moral conviction, not class politics. It means he'll never be as big an asset in Sheffield as he is down south. But when you stand back, we've devolved power and redistributed wealth. All the effort goes into keeping Middle England sweet, and the spin has definitely led to some members' gripes."

Peter Price has been a Brightside councillor since 1972, the sort of man who could be cast as an heroic idealist in a Ken Loach movie. But instead of condemning New Labour, he has "mixed feelings", he says. "You can't see resources being switched to the inner cities, but it is happening."

Ken Curran, of the left-wing Tribune group in Sheffield, detects "unease" among Labour supporters. "They're beginning to feel there's not a lot happening for them, but I suspect that's based on perceptions, not reality. Welfare reform got off to a very bad start. Harriet Harman managed to get the debate focused on negatives. But compare this with the same stage of the Wilson or Callaghan governments. It seems a lot better to me. There are some good things happening, but the presentation isn't right."

Patrick Seyd, a politics professor at Sheffield University, suspects that demoralised party activists and supporters are a predictable but temporary feature.

"There was a post-1997 election shift at the grass roots," he said. "Members actually came more into line because of their lust for power. What's happened since is fascinating, and my hunch is that members cannot see redistribution of wealth and elimination of poverty being delivered.

"The Government spins everything for the Daily Mail. Why not have a few more businessmen moaning? Membership can be expected to decline after the election victory. What is the motivation to belong? It used to be to get those Tory bastards out. I think there needs to be an appeal to a new idealism in place of anti-Conservatism.

"And the incentive of doing a job in local government has gone. Local councils have no power, and the Blair government seems reluctant to restore the power - and the incentive to participate."

Peter Price thinks the spirit of the 1970s could be rekindled in Brightside. "Politics has become less relevant, except when it comes to finding scapegoats for the housing, or the old folks' homes, or whatever. We can't do what we want to do, not even fight elections.

"The European campaign was the most inept I have ever worked on because everything was run from London; even the leaflets. We've done very well in south Yorkshire out of Europe, thanks to Labour. But we couldn't get that message across."