Why Sheffield hated having the Lib Dems for the weekend

by Kevin Meagher

Last May, I stood on the periphery of a throng of hyped-up students, Lib Dem activists (you can always spot them) and passers-by outside Sheffield City Hall waiting for Nick Clegg to disembark from his general election battlebus.

I had come to witness the true scale of Cleggmania as the Lib Dem leader arrived back in the city he represents to make his final speech at an open air rally. After an encomium – for the benefit of the television cameras – about “the new politics”, the crowd melted away and the rest, well, is history.

Fast forward ten months.

The hope and pluralism that the public felt Clegg personified have given way to anger and resentment towards him. “I agree with Nick” was a sentiment the apolitical, urban middle classes took to their hearts. His fall from public affection has been dramatic and real. No one seems to agree with Nick any more. He is the corporeal representation of that most loathed characteristic of the modern politician: career over principle.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems rejoice at opinion polls that put them in double digits; with neighbouring Barnsley the scene of their sixth place in the Parliamentary by-election just a week and a half ago.

The contrast in Lib Dem fortunes from those heady days last spring is hard to overestimate. At the weekend, I again stood outside the City Hall, the venue for their spring conference. The free and easy atmosphere of last May was gone; with the square encased behind a six-foot steel fence (supplied, it turns out, by a Sheffield company).

Lib Dem activists scuttled around outside, eyes down, their conference security passes tucked away, with the odd flash of canary yellow from the lanyards around their necks the only giveaway.

Security clampdowns at party conferences are nothing new. But the atmosphere in Sheffield was different. There was a palpable sense of resentment on the streets of the city centre.

Clearly the thousands of students, trade unionists, green activists and others who hemmed the Lib Dems inside their bunker this weekend had no shortage of grievances to vent.

But the general public seemed put out too – in a way they seldom do in Manchester, Brighton, Bournemouth or Birmingham when they host party conferences (of whatever hue). The owner of my favourite cafe in the city centre said it had been the quietest Saturday he had known. Other traders were equally miffed, according to the Sheffield Star.

The only brisk trade was in protesting – and thousands did at the weekend. A trade unionist friend of mine reported an odd mixture of defiance from some delegates, amid the taunts and chanting, and a desire to engage with the protestors from others. I explained that this latter symptom is known as Simon Hughes syndrome. It is a delusional belief that you can convince people that propping up a neo-Thatcherite government is not a wholesale betrayal of progressive beliefs.

The arguments got heated at one stage. An under-employed policeman came over to warn off my friend. “Can I ask” he replied to the bossy cop, “who’s going to kettle you in when you lot end up marching on the streets to defend your pay and conditions”?

The sheer scale of the police operation was appalling to see. It resembled a state militia out on manoeuvres rather than “policing by consent” in Britain’s fifth largest city. An illiberal memento for a so-called liberal party gathering. Officers’ fluorescent jackets showed they had been bussed in from far and wide. The last time the local police were augmented by outsiders to quell protestors was during the miners’ strike.

Hosting the conference in “the socialist republic of South Yorkshire” was always a quixotic move by the Lib Dems, planned, no doubt, in happier times. They control the city council by a single seat and doubtless hoped for a PR boost ahead of May’s elections. They will be sorely disappointed.

When it’s not encased in steel and guarded like the presidential palace in a banana republic, Sheffield’s City Hall serves as a comedy club.

But this weekend’s jokers have left the people of the Steel City thoroughly unamused.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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3 Responses to “Why Sheffield hated having the Lib Dems for the weekend”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Bearing in mind the fiasco of Clegg not supporting Sheffield Forgemasters last year, it was a very brave Clegg who stood on a platform there and tried to demonstrate he wasn’t a Citizen Dave clone. Indeed, with polls running so heavily against the Lib Dems, one cannot but wonder if Mr Clegg’s time in parliament is coming to an end?

  2. paul barker says:

    The massive police presence was a response to Labours predictions of tens of thousands of demonstrators ready to close down the city. In the event a few thousand turned up, shouted & went home. More public money wasted thanks to Labour.

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Paul – that would be a good point, if it weren’t for the fact that Labour made no such prediction.

    Some amongst the anti-cuts protestors did, and anybody who’s been along to one of their demos knows that there a lot of people in that who aren’t Labour supporters and are in fact reflexively hostile towards it.

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