I spent election day in Sheffield where Labour’s been fighting a hard battle to win control of the Council from the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems ran the council with 41 seats against 40 Labour, 2 Greens and an independent. Nick Clegg is one of the city’s five MPs so a defeat for his party here on his home turf would be highly symbolic.
Labour’s leader in Sheffield Cllr Julie Dore is a local woman, a working mum who cares passionately about her city. I’ve got to know her well over the past few months. She’s unassuming but has a determination about her that’s as strong as Sheffield steel. I’m certain she’ll make an outstanding leader of the City Council. The results in Sheffield exceeded even her expectations as Labour won 9 of the 12 seats the Lib Dems were defending, giving Julie’s Labour team a comfortable majority and a mandate for change.
Out in the Sheffield Heeley constituency with Labour MP Meg Munn I met students, numerous across this university city, seething over Lib Dem lies on tuition fees. I met council housing tenants bitter that the Lib Dems had put Tories in power to cut spending on their homes and their children’s schools. Working people I spoke to felt betrayed over Clegg’s refusal to provide Government help for the Sheffield Forgemasters, crippling this local steel manufacturer’s chance of winning a big international contract that would have brought new jobs to this great northern city. On issues local and national I picked up a real sense of betrayal and a hostility to the Lib Dems that was open and heartfelt.
What people started to perceive is how the outgoing Lib Dem administration set a budget full of booby traps timed to go off after their defeat. They masked their own Government’s massive funding cuts to local services by using the council’s meagre savings to tide them over for a few months – fully aware that once that money’s used up their cuts would kick in. This was a deceitful trick, and they covered it up by refusing to publish a budget for the following years that would have exposed how they’d set a trap to make it look like the incoming administration is responsible for these Lib Dem cuts. A low trick that, of itself, justifies voters’ decision to crush this disreputable party. Even that hasn’t stopped Cllr Dore announcing, in her very first interview as Leader, that Labour would reverse Lib Dem cuts to children’s centres and Police Community Safety Officers.
What’s interesting to me is how similar the Lib Dems in Sheffield are to the Lib Dems in Lambeth. They’re all about short-term opportunism, electoral tactics, saying one thing while doing the opposite, and playing a blame game intended to deceive the voters. It’s what they’ve always done in local government because they used to get away with it. But yesterday that game came to a shattering end. Now the Lib Dems are propping up a Tory-led Government in Westminster their broken promises on issues like tuition fees, VAT rises, and savage cuts are all too plain to see. They can no longer say it’s someone else’s fault when their own MPs voted for it all.
The voters have rumbled the Lib Dems and that’s why it’s the Lib Dems who bore the brunt of voters’ anger yesterday. For the Lib Dems this election was as much about their lies as about the cuts they’re forcing through too hard and too fast. The Lib Dems have learnt a big lesson the hard way: that trust is a political commodity slow to build up but quick to lose, and I sincerely believe the way Nick Clegg has thrown away the trust he won before the last General Election could yet spell the end of the party he leads.