All is not rosy in Nick's back yard – but green shoots of recovery begin to emerge
Jonathan Brown visits the Deputy PM's Sheffield constituency and finds growing support for the Lib Dem leader and his AV crusade
Saturday 30 April 2011
Clegg-bashing, if not quite elevated to the level of an Olympic discipline, has become a national sport over the past 12 months. And in his constituency, a perfect storm is brewing for the Liberal Democrat leader.
His party faces the prospect of next week losing control of its flagship Sheffield city council – and must also persuade its supporters to come out and vote for a change to the electoral system.
Mr Clegg's critics say that if he can't win here he can't win anywhere. But some of the Coalition's toughest decisions have made life even more difficult for the Lib Dems in Sheffield. Foremost among them have been the axeing of an £80m government grant to local engineering firm Sheffield Forgemasters and raising – rather than scrapping – tuition fees (as Mr Clegg promised), which has gone down particularly badly with Sheffield's 40,000 students, many of whom thronged the city centre to mark his triumphant return at the end of last year's election campaign. Labour – and the neighbouring MP, David Blunkett – are making hay.
Yet in the verdant constituency of Sheffield Hallam, which went Mr Clegg's way in 2005 after almost a century as a Tory seat, there appears a glimmer of hope for the embattled Deputy Prime Minister. Here the city forgets the social deprivation of its inner core and lost steel mills. Hallam is richer than Twickenham, 60 per cent hold a degree and the professional classes' large detached homes give way to the rolling Peak District.
Just a few yards away from Mr Clegg's constituency office, retired businessman Alan Birch, 67, a lifelong Conservative voter who admits he is no fan of Mr Clegg, says: "People expected better of him to tell the truth and he has let them down and he has got his just desserts. But I will be voting for electoral change because sometimes you have to do what your head tells you rather than your heart says. The Tories aren't right on everything. No-one is."
Teacher trainer Rufus Nicholson, 45, also believed that the present voting system was outmoded and he had some sympathy for Mr Clegg. "Yes he probably is toxic for the Yes vote but from my perspective he is trying to do the best thing he can in a very difficult situation," said Mr Nicholson. "This is the last position he thought he would be in a year ago. It is easy to snipe at him. Was he really going to forego power for his principles? He's a politician – what do you expect?"
A short drive away, close to the Cleggs' imposing former constituency home (he has since switched to a flat, adding strength to Labour taunts that he is Sheffield's "illusive Pimpernel" MP), a few Liberal Democrat posters grace the front gardens. Well-heeled locals remain defensive of their former neighbour.
One retired academic said his home was divided on the issue of electoral reform even if they remained supporters of the local party. "I will be voting No but my wife will vote for it. Clegg hasn't made the case really," he said. "One thing Nick Clegg did say is that it [AV] was about a lack of faith in politicians. I really don't see the logic in that.
"They badly mishandled the tuition fees issue and the scrapping of building schools for the future programme was not a good idea. If you live around here you can see the benefits as we have schools which have been transformed."
Retired studio potter George Hart, 72, and his wife Linda, 59, still have to make up their minds on AV, but they remain supportive of Mr Clegg.
"I think he is fundamentally a nice bloke," said Mr Hart, a former Labour activist. "But he hasn't had time yet to mess it up. It will get to him eventually."
Near Sheffield Hallam University, the bars and restaurants are doing brisk trade despite the holidays. Mr Clegg is a hate figure here, with many students furious at the imposition of £8,500 fees, but there is little in the way of organised opposition.
James Couth, 20 and his girlfriend Georgia Lowery, 19 – both studying here – said AV was little discussed among students. The real estate student said he would not let his feelings about the Deputy Prime Minister affect the way he votes next week in the referendum and he remains undecided. "Nick Clegg is not going to be around forever but if we change the voting system that will be around for a lot longer than he will."
For Sheffield Labour leader Julie Dore the glittering prize next week is winning the three seats it needs to regain control of the city council and turf out the man described as Mr Clegg's closest ally in local government, Lib Dem leader Paul Scriven.
She remains a potent opponent of the Yes vote and of Mr Clegg. "It is a ridiculous waste of time and money at this point," she says. "If it came with other electoral reforms, such as the House of Lords, I would back it."
Izzard on tour for yes camp
Comedian Eddie Izzard tomorrow starts a four-day UK tour in a final drive by electoral reformers to target the millions yet to decide how to vote in Thursday's referendum on scrapping the first-past-the-post system. Polls show the No campaign has a double-digit lead – but more than 20 per cent are undecided on the alternative vote (AV).
The Yes team is pinning its hopes on larger turnouts in parts of the country, such as Scotland and Wales, where there is strong support for AV. However, it fears a low turn-out in London, where there are no local elections on Thursday, could hamper its chances.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party will today unveil its latest round of advertisements urging people to stick with the current voting system.
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