On a rainy Friday morning, Nick Clegg, fresh from surviving the televised leaders’ debates, was visiting the Fulwood Lodge Care Home in his constituency of Sheffield Hallam in the affluent southwest of the city.
Residents looked on bemused as the deputy prime minister and a small group of soggy journalists traipsed into a large carpeted sitting room, where Clegg proceeded to chat to a group of four elderly people about how much he loved the area.
The visit was ostensibly to coincide with the party’s announcement that it would put £2.5bn towards a care closer to home fund, which would put money into providing care options that avoid hospital admissions for older people. But, just two days after polling from Lord Ashcroft put Clegg two points behind Labour in the constituency, the visit also marked the beginning of a long Easter weekend of hard canvassing for the Liberal Democrat leader.
“There clearly are some folk in Sheffield, as there are across the country, who either are not happy that the Liberal Democrats have entered into a coalition or they’re not happy about some of the decisions we’ve had to take,” said Clegg earlier on Friday morning at the launch of the party’s new campaign poster on the border of the Lib Dem-held constituency of Hazel Grove, Greater Manchester. “But I didn’t come into politics to introduce cuts, of course I didn’t. As I said last night on the telly, it’s something that I had to do because of the circumstances in which we found ourselves.”
The poster pictures Clegg alongside the words “£825 tax cut delivered to working families. Promise kept”, a bold statement from a party leader who is so frequently reminded of his broken promise on tuition fees. “I meet people – and I no doubt will this weekend – who just don’t like the decisions we’ve had to take and I need to get out there, as I will do this weekend if it doesn’t pour with rain too much, and explain that we’ve done what we had to do as fairly as possible.”
Senior members of the Liberal Democrat campaign are dismissive of the idea that the deputy prime minister could lose his seat on 7 May. But four of the five published polls conducted in the constituency since the 2010 election have shown Labour ahead, with an average lead of 4.6%. The average is dragged up by a poll from the Unite union and Survation, published in January 2015, which had Labour’s candidate Oliver Coppard ahead by 10 points.
The constituency of Sheffield Hallam has never in its 130-year history been represented by a Labour MP. Apart from two years under the Liberals between 1916-18, the seat was represented by the Conservatives up until 1997, when Richard Allen won it for the Liberal Democrats, subsequently handing it to rising star Clegg in 2005. A poll from Lord Oakeshott in May 2014 was the first to show Labour as the party Clegg needed to beat.
“There’s been quite a big demographic change in the south-west of Sheffield, but that’s been going on for ages,” said Clegg. “It used to be a true blue seat, so actually the transition from Conservative to Liberal Democrats showed that there was a change there anyway, and that’s just to do with the very sharp increase in public sector employment in South Yorkshire over the past ten or fifteen years.”
He added: “The south-west of Sheffield used to be the place where the factory-owning classes lived and that’s changed over time. So, like any part of the country, it changes and the politics changes with it a bit.”
The Lib Dem leader argued that his party has won four of the five local elections in the constituency in the past year and that their aggregate vote share in those elections actually increased. He has described representing the constituency as “one of the greatest pleasures of my public life”.
Oliver Coppard, out canvassing on Friday lunchtime, agreed that there have been demographic shifts in the area over the years, but said that doesn’t explain why Labour is polling so well in the constituency.
“I don’t think a shift of this size, certainly as shown in the polling, can be explained just by demographic changes over what is a relatively short period of time. I certainly think there has been a demographic shift, but actually the type of people who lived here in 2010 are by and large the same people who are living here now,” he said.
Nick Clegg said he doesn’t see the gradual move to the left as a long-term trend that will result in an eventual Labour victory in the area. “I don’t see Hallam turning Labour,” he said. “Of course, I understand that there are people there who are a little bit unsettled by some of the decisions we have decided to take. I totally understand, particularly those people working in the public sector who have seen changes to their pensions … I totally understand that people like that have misgivings about what’s been going on.”
Sheffield Hallam is the one and only non-Labour constituency in South Yorkshire. “The last thing that a wonderful city like Sheffield needs is one-party rule,” says Clegg. “There are Labour MPs as far as the eye can see in South Yorkshire. I think it’s a good thing when you’ve got a mix of different parties representing parts of the country.”
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Saturday 4th April 2015 00.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010