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Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK

How Sheffield was stripped of its socialists

Sheffield was the setting for the hit comedy The Full Monty

For many people the industrial northern city of Sheffield would not be their choice of a "jewel in the crown".

But Liberal Democrats could not contain their excitement at capturing the former socialist stronghold of South Yorkshire after almost 70 years of Labour control.

Sheffield was one of several councils which the Liberal Democrats gained overall control of in the local government elections.

It is the second big city to come under Paddy Ashdown's party's control when the Lib Dems took a total of 11seats from Labour.

Among the winners was 21-year-old Matthew Dixon who won the Netherthorpe ward. In contrast, one of the losers was Viv Nicholson, a councillor for 16 years.

'A great city'

The city was quickly hailed as the jewel in the Lib Dem crown.

Mr Ashdown said: "This is a great city with great people and they deserve something better than the rotten councils they have had here in the past.

[ image: The tram system came in for some criticism]
The tram system came in for some criticism
"The Liberal Democrats success last night was an astonishing triumph and I'm delighted for everyone involved.

"Liverpool was the first major city to come under our control. Sheffield is now the second and I predict many more will follow."

Sheffield was depicted worldwide in the blockbuster film The Full Monty.

The tale about five male strippers was set against the backdrop of unemployment and a city which had lost its traditional heavy industry base.

Sheffield was formally known for its steel works and also for being at the heart of the coal mining region.

But in the last two decades it has become better known for its shopping centre and sports facilities.

Sheffield is far from being unique in South Yorkshire for its unemployment and loss of industry.

Debt burden

Even in areas such as Doncaster, where the council was shamed by the convictions of several Labour councillors during the Donnygate scandal, Labour could still be sure of victory.

But in Sheffield, mounting debts, wasteful spending and cuts in services were perhaps the most obvious factors to pin Labour's fall on.

Labour had been haunted since 1991 by the debt left by the ill-fated World Student Games, which cost more than 150m in capital spending alone.

The city's tram system has also attracted a lot of criticism.

[ image: David Blunkett: Former council leader and Sheffield MP]
David Blunkett: Former council leader and Sheffield MP
The last three years have seen the Liberal Democrats chip away at Labour's majority and Thursday's elections finally saw seats tumble across the city.

Sheffield's Lib Dem leader Peter Moore squarely blamed Labour's defeat on years of wasteful spending.

He said: "We have been elected because there have been years of neglect by the council.

"We always said 2000 would be our year, but obviously the people of Sheffield decided 1999 would be the year instead.

"People wanted a change. We put across our views and ultimately, the people have made their minds up.

"We want to see Sheffield prosper and we want its people to be proud of it."

'Great tragedy'

Former city council leader David Blunkett, who is now the education and employment secretary said he was not surprised by the result.

He said: "I expected it. I am sad more than anything else.

"It is very sad for the new leadership of the party in Sheffield, which has now lost control, because they were starting to get their act together."

Mr Blunkett, who is one of the city's five Labour MPs, suggested light heartedly that if the Lib Dems could find Sheffield Wednesday a scoring centre forward they would be in power forever.

The council's Labour leader Jan Wilson expressed disappointment.

She said: "Unfortunately that progress hasn't come quickly enough for the voters and a tide of change has swept us away.

"However, we still have 39 Labour councillors who will continue to work for the good of Sheffield."

But the result was less obvious for others.

Another Sheffield Wednesday fan Lord Hattersley, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, said the loss of the city was a "great tragedy" but he could not explain why Labour had lost control.

The real test for the Lib Dems will now be to consolidate their hold over the steel city and change the face of South Yorkshire's politics in the new millennium.

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