Local Elections: Lib Dems poised to end Labour's 70-year reign

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THE CITY of Sheffield, the Labour bastion once so left-wing it declared the founding of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, may soon fall to the Liberal Democrats. They need only a modest thrust to win control of the city council and deliver a shock that will resound through the Labour movement.

Sheffield has been electing labour councillors since before there was a Labour party. At every election since 1929, Labour has won a majority of elected representatives. Within the past 20 years ago, the red flag flew from the Town Hall to announce that Socialist Republic, and a young David Blunkett, then leader of a group of left-wing councillors, rallied resistance to Margaret Thatcher.

Conservative revenge was insidious. Sheffield's budgets were squeezed by Whitehall grants that ignored problems caused by job losses in steel and coal. Rather than cut services, Sheffield Labour mortgaged and remortgaged, gambling on Labour general election victories that never came. The council went into deeper debt to build spectacular sports facilities and a new tram network. Voters grew irascible as construction work gridlocked the city and humble services deteriorated.

Now Labour's majority is down to 14, and a repeat of last year's voting pattern will give Liberal Democrats the eight gains needed to take control of the 87-seat council.

Peter Moore, the Liberal Democrat leader, claims a typical council tax demand of pounds 886 includes pounds 60 a year just to pay debts left by Mr Blunkett and his successors. "A lot of voters remain disgusted by Labour's psychology of borrowing for a red-letter day which never came," Mr Moore said. "We've prepared for power, and our support is not just condemnation of Labour. It's based on policies we have worked out with the council's officers."

Finances have improved since Labour won power at Westminster, and the Liberal Democrats would use the windfall to reduce debt further, restore parks to their former glory, and repair pot-holes and graffiti.

But image may be the key to the election. New Labour ideas have been embraced by a new leader, Jan Wilson, a former advice bureau worker, who has been helped by a friendly government in London that bailed out some of the tram debts, and used the city's investment in sport to house the UK centre of sports excellence. "We're making enormous progress," Ms Wilson said. "Sheffield is on the up because we have a Labour council working with a Labour Government. We've adopted a manifesto we can be measured against, including a pledge to reduce infant class sizes to no more than 30 children by September 2000."

She has comparative riches to spend - pounds 67m on school buildings and pounds 10m on the parks, potholes and graffiti.

But many feel New Labour is too late. The Liberal Democrats are winning seats in wards characterised by public housing and poverty. No social or economic group in the city remains entirely loyal to Labour, and the appeal of a swish city centre rebuilt at a cost of pounds 120m may not prove irresistible to voters who would rather have the money spent on housing or home helps.