Star Interview: '˜We have a very good chance to put a Liberal Democrat MP back in Sheffield Hallam'
Laura Gordon is feeling the winter chill. She's gamely posing for photographs outside Sheffield Cathedral and trying her best to adjust to the plummeting temperatures.
It turns out she spent the last two winters in Sudan administering overseas aid for the Government, and only returned this summer, so a little acclimatisation is necessary.
The weather was just the same last month when, as the Liberal Democrats’ prospective parliamentary candidate for Sheffield Hallam, she met party leader Vince Cable to launch their campaign in the constituency.
There’s no polling day ahead - or at least, not yet. But a political vacuum does exist in Hallam, one the Lib Dems are positioning themselves to fill.
The district’s Labour MP Jared O’Mara is still lying low, denied the party whip after offensive comments he posted online emerged to derail his career just months after he was elected.
While his fate is undecided, the Lib Dems have sensed the prospect of a byelection. The way Laura describes it, defrosting over herbal tea in a nearby cafe, she appears to already be working as a shadow MP, while O’Mara picks up his Westminster salary.
She is helping people with casework, ‘taking up issues’ for Hallam constituents with councillors and the Lib Dem parliamentary team.
“I feel this is something we can usefully do,” Laura says.
“At the moment Jared O’Mara is not holding surgeries, so somebody needs to be looking at those casework issues.
“He hasn’t voted since the 18th of October, it’s on the public record. He’s the only MP elected in 2017 who hasn’t made his maiden speech yet. It kind of speaks for itself, really.”
Laura is reluctant to predict when an election could happen.
“I don’t really want to get into the speculating game. I think it’s very clear though that Jared O’Mara is not doing the job of representing the area and if he’s not going to get back to doing it, it would be better for the constituency and for the city of Sheffield if he were to step down.”
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Laura moved around a lot with her family as a child as her father worked in the foreign office. Her parents eventually settled in Kent, and Laura started her career with Oxfam, before joining Save the Children and Danish Church Aid.
She moved to Sheffield in 2012 with husband David, who works at the children’s hospital in A&E, and the couple live on Crookes Road.
“We liked it here, and I re-arranged my work effectively around enabling me to stay in Sheffield,” says Laura, now an independent consultant for humanitarian organisations.
“It does very much feel like home, which is something I really appreciate.”
She enjoys climbing, and hiking, and David volunteers with a mountain rescue team.
“There’s something about the spirit of the city that we just liked as well. There’s a lot to get engaged with and it feels quite dynamic, an exciting place where we can build something good for the future.”
Laura became properly politically active in 2004, at a student rally against tuition fees, and joined the Lib Dems three years later.
She admits it’s ironic that fees sparked her interest. Nick Clegg, the former Hallam MP and ex-Lib Dem leader ousted by O’Mara, may have owed his defeat to breaking a manifesto pledge to abolish them when joining the Conservatives in Government in 2010.
Laura believes the debate has moved on, claiming: “If you talk to students they understand there are much bigger issues that will affect their futures like housing, Brexit, jobs and inequality, than tuition fees. Once you’re repaying them, it’s effectively a graduate tax.”
Aged 33, she’s of the same generation as Jared, who grew up when the internet was in its infancy, but struggles to sympathise with the embattled MP.
“I spent a lot of time online and I’ve managed to do it without calling anyone by a homophobic or transphobic slur. If you go through my Facebook I’m sure you’ll find some pictures of me as a student that aren’t the most flattering in the world, but there is a difference. You do have to think that way to use language like that.”
In line with her party’s stance, she’s ‘very much against’ leaving the EU, and wants a second referendum.
“Once we know what the terms of the deal are, that’s the point people can make an informed decision.”
Housing, school places - especially around Ecclesall - and changes to NHS services, in particular the proposed closure of the Royal Hallamshire Hospital’s minor injuries unit, need addressing in Hallam, she thinks.
“If you’re living in somewhere like Dore or Totley, getting up to the Northern General is really quite a long way. It’s really up to the Clinical Commissioning Group to make the case to us that this is a change that will be beneficial and not just a cost-cutting measure.”
And the controversy over the felling of Sheffield’s street trees?
“I don’t think the campaign is just about trees. I think it’s gone beyond that.”
She’s irritated by the council ‘releasing a minimal amount of information and then using very heavy-handed tactics to crush dissent’, and displaying ‘a lack of willingness to engage constructively’.
Laura has been knocking on doors in Crookes, Ecclesall, Dore, Totley and Stannington so far, and plans to hold public Q&A sessions in the New Year. Many residents she has met have shown concern about O’Mara’s absence, she says.
“Clearly he wasn’t ready for the job, and it’s the responsibility of the Labour party really to adequately vet their candidates. They didn’t interview him. I was interviewed by the Lib Dems when I stood for Thorncliffe ward on the Ecclesfield parish council. It’s basic due diligence.”
She agrees that constituents - particularly older people - will not have understood the role Momentum, the Labour-supporting group that backs Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, played in Jared’s victory.
“If you’re an MP you’re one of 650 people who make the laws, so if you’re a political party and you’re putting someone up in a seat - especially a set where you’re only 2,500 votes behind - it’s really a profound responsibility to make sure the person reflects your brand.
“Certainly in a seat like Hallam where there’s a very strong tradition of Liberal Democrat representation, we’ll definitely be fighting it hard. I don’t think it should be easy, but I think we have a very good chance. It’s up to us to show we can provide a better alternative for the area.”
Clegg’s defeat ‘a national tragedy’
Laura Gordon says former Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg’s electoral defeat was ‘a tragedy for our country’ - and she has his full support.
She has already been to see him to speak about her campaign, and reflects that he was ‘very active locally’ as a constituency MP.
“A lot of people have commented on that as I’ve been going around talking to people. Lots of people have said ‘I was helped by Nick’, often with things that we might think of as quite small, like getting a road fixed and campaigning on school buses or crossings.
“He was very willing to get engaged on local issues, as well as doing all this work on the national level. I’ve got big shoes to fill but I’m going to do my best to fill them.”
She adds: “With Brexit, we really need now more than ever people with his expertise and experience. I do think it’s a tragedy for our country that we lost someone of his knowledge, experience and gravitas at a time when we really need that.”