Behind the scenes of Sheffield’s extraordinary elections

If there are three words to sum up the past three weeks of elections they’re coalition, referendum and pandemic.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 1:33 pm

The 2021 local elections were never going to be straightforward. The campaigns were subdued because the Government initially prohibited leafleting but even when that restriction was eased, candidates seemed mindful that going door to door perhaps wasn’t hygienic.

Polling stations looked pretty much the same, apart from plastic screens and no communal pencils, but the election count was very different.

Normally counts have every human emotion compressed into one hall – despair, joy and surprise manifested in hugging, backslapping, hand shaking and cheering.

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The Labour and Greens co-operative leadership.

Those interactions were banned this year as the council and English Institute of Sport tried to make it as Covid secure as possible.

The number of journalists was slashed and no photographers or cameramen were allowed so one reporter had the challenging task of recording the results, grabbing interviews, tweeting, taking photos and videos and trying to predict which ways things were heading.

Approaching the floor was forbidden and it was tricky to spot candidates from afar, particularly with everyone in masks. Half the count was on the running track while the other half was in the netball court so it was only possible to watch some of the proceedings.

There was no podium for candidates, just council chief executive Kate Josephs reading out the results by herself. And what a set of results it was.

The Leader of the Council Bob Johnson lost his seat, Labour lost overall control and the council went into limbo.

That wasn’t the finale either as two days later voters decided through a referendum that they wanted the council to switch from the current Cabinet system to committees.

In one weekend the council ended up with no Leader, no ruling party and a whole new way of governing.

The following two weeks were spent waiting for the three political parties to come to some agreement. There were protracted negotiations, false starts, rumours and a reluctance to switch off from work in case the announcement was suddenly made.

In the end, the politicians went right to the wire with Labour and the Greens announcing a “cooperative” just a couple of hours before the council’s annual general meeting.

There was surprisingly little fanfare, just three senior councillors and new Council Leader Terry Fox, in the Peace Gardens. Covid put paid to any group photos or Town Hall press conferences.

From there it was straight to Ponds Forge, a temporary venue as 84 councillors and officers can’t socially distance in the chamber.

It looked like a GCSE exam with councillors spread out on individual desks and the media invigilating from a balcony. New Lord Mayor Gail Smith had to forsake the traditional Town Hall ceremony and instead started her new role in a sports hall.

These past three weeks have been physically tiring and mentally mind bending and while everyone feels desperate to take a break and catch their breath, the real rollercoaster ride is only just beginning.