Candidates explain low turnout in Sheffield City Council elections

A ballot box being taken into an election count
A ballot box being taken into an election count
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Two Sheffield City Councillors who won the seats with the highest and lowest turnouts in last week’s local elections have described why they feel candidates in City Ward struggle to engage with voters.

Green Councillor Martin Phipps, who won the seat from Labour by just 16 votes and a turnout of just 12.9 per cent, said: “City has got some quite unique circumstances, it’s got a high student population and I think students are generally less engaged. It’s not entirely by their fault they’re less engaged at local elections but there’s things like anti-bias regulations in student accommodation where they don’t allow a certain amount of involvement from political parties as normal. So, if it’s not addressed to a specific student, you can’t actually deliver to student accommodation.And when you’re a student, you’ve got a lot on and it might not be your top priority and if it’s not majorly engaging I could see why turnout is low.

“I also spoke to a lot of people who were quite keen but it was too late for them to vote here which was kind of sad.

“It’s very transient, people move a lot so there’s not this permanent base where there are long-term residents. There are in pockets, but not in general. So it doesn’t have the same kind of familiarity of the other wards with the political system and who’s standing and who they should vote for or feel like do the work in the areas. And people move, who are registered here but don’t actually live here so they won’t vote which makes the figures slightly worse. So, 12 per cent is just 12 per cent of those who are registered here, not those who live here who could have realistically voted.

“It kind of looks worse than it is, but it’s a unique ward.

“I’d like to see universities be a bit more open like accommodation with the level of engagement. Students are people, they live here and are affected by local elections as much as anyone else so why shouldn’t they be allowed to engage with the political parties and see what they are saying they will do in the same way they do nationally on social media.

“There are lots of permanent residents in Ecclesall. I don’t know if there is any link between how affluent an area is and whether that increases turnout and how Ecclesall compares in that but I imagine that is a factor. But mostly I’d put it down to permanence."

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat group leader Councillor Shaffaq Mohammed, who retained Ecclesall Ward with a majority of almost 2,000 votes and a turnout of 49.64 per cent, said: “I think obviously the first thing is there’s a much more stable community in Ecclesall and a much more transient community in the city centre, there’s a large number of students. There’s a huge challenge with a lot of gated areas. It’s a big challenge for whoever stands in City Ward to actually get people to turnout.

“It is disappointing to have such a low turnout. The challenge for whoever stands in City from our side as well as Labour and Greens and others is how do we engage with those. Maybe we need some more different ways of campaigning to the traditional door-knocking and leaflets we do. I suspect social media will have to play a much bigger role in engaging people in the city centre and elsewhere.

“It wasn’t just the city centre, it was Labour areas which in my view were taken for granted. For myself and my colleagues we have a representative in all parts of Sheffield - it’s whether we can get into those communities. I want to govern the whole of Sheffield and therefore we have to work in all of Sheffield.

“We had 28 candidates, I intend to talk to as many as them as possible in the next year or two to see where we can go forward and how we can campaign. This time round we had a city-wide tabloid, we weren’t specific to one ward. Everywhere there was a consistent message from the Liberal Democrats.

“I want to see turnout go up. What we have seen in areas where we have campaigned is people have voted in large numbers for Liberal Democrats, wherever we have campaigned heavily we have seen increases. And we’ve seen that across South Yorkshire.

“Clearly people always look at the national picture and then look at the local council and sometimes people just aren’t interested in local council issues. And that’s our challenge, to actually engage with people, to say that actually council is just as important as central government and often the council ends up having more impact on them.”