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'I'm Terrified I'll Win' – Inside the Most Dramatic MP Race in Britain

A lot has happened in Sheffield Hallam over the past couple of years – so much so that one candidate in this election dropped out before his race had even begun.

by Michael Segalov; photos by Danielle Maibaum
13 November 2019, 11:00am

Gareth Arnold. Photos: Danielle Maibaum

Sheffield Hallam has had a rocky few years. The constituency – which covers the west side of the city and extends outwards towards the Peak District – was Nick Clegg's patch from 2005, under his party's control from 1997. But in 2017, in one of the biggest shocks of that year's general election, Labour scalped the Lib Dem leader, winning with a majority of over 2,000.

As local lad Jared O'Mara gave his victory speech, a despondent Clegg – maybe realising austerity hadn't been the best policy to back – stood behind him on the podium in shock.

If what happened that night was unexpected, everything that's happened since is barely-believable. During his time as an MP, O'Mara was accused of a ludicrously long list of allegations, ranging from the mildly unpleasant to the actually criminal.

There was his suspension from Labour in 2017 after historic misogynistic and homophobic forum comments were dug up by Guido Fawkes (O'Mara apologised "if [his] comments caused offence"), then his quitting of the party after he was reinstated in 2018 because he felt he had "not been listened to or given a fair investigation" after his suspension. There was the allegation from a staff member of sexual harassment (he called this his "lowest point" and said he would be apologising personally to the victim) and the time, in April, that he suspended constituents' casework for a month, pending a move to a new office and the hiring of new staff, after it was reported that all of his staff had either been fired or quit. Then there was his arrest this August in a fraud probe (O'Mara was released a day later, subject to further investigation, and has not been charged) and his ongoing employment tribunal, at which he has said his autism, cerebral palsy and mental health problems meant he could only fulfil some of his MP duties, but not others.

He said he would – but then didn't – resign, and at the end of October told a court he wouldn't be standing again.

When I arrived in Sheffield this week to meet the 2019 Hallam constituency candidates, it became clear that the local drama is set to continue. Although the seat looks again to be a race between the Lib Dems and Labour, two independent candidates have also thrown their hats into the ring.

liz aspden sheffield
Liz Aspden.

The first is Liz Aspden, who runs a pub in the city. "There are a lot of issues at the moment that I don't think any of the main parties are really tackling, because they've been so long-gone with Brexit," she told me when we meet at The Harlequin just before it opens.

Aspden's platform, she explained, will focus on two things: support for small businesses ("they've been neglected") and her view that the progress slowly being made to protect and support trans people in the UK has gone too far.

I asked if Aspden considers trans women to be women and trans men to be men. "No, I don't," she replied bluntly.

gareth arnold
Gareth Arnold

At another pub, in the quiet village of Hathersage, Gareth Arnold – who last week also announced his intention to run in the Hallam race – was having an early afternoon pint. Arnold's claim to fame is that, after working for O'Mara, he hacked into his boss's Twitter account to post his resignation ("Jared, you are the most disgustingly morally bankrupt person I have ever had the displeasure of working with"). For some reason, O'Mara still later referred to Arnold as the "Noel to his Liam".

But by the time we met, Arnold said he was thinking of withdrawing. "I'm fucking terrified I'll win, and I don't want to be an MP," he told me. "There's some good candidates. I just don't really think they give a shit that much about Sheffield. Am I the right person? Probably not, to be honest. I'm a bit of a gobshite."

Just after out chat, Arnold pulled out of the race on Twitter.

Even in such politically volatile times, it looks incredibly unlikely that either of these potentially independent MPs would have succeeded. Despite both the Greens and Conservatives putting candidates forward, Sheffield Hallam will be a race between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

olive blake sheffield
Olivia Blake (centre).

Olivia Blake – a scientist turned local councillor – is Labour's candidate, and is hoping her party's national policies can cut through over the local frustration. "I think people recognise his individual circumstances a lot of the time," she said of O'Mara, "and the people who are most disappointed are Labour Party members. He left the party a long time ago now… but it has been difficult."

"To be honest," she continued, "I think the Liberal Democrats have been quite irresponsible with some of the literature they've been putting out – like really quite negative leaflets, given [O'Mara's] vulnerability. He's come out and said that he's attempted to take his own life a number of times."

olive blake sheffield
Olivia Blake

Voters on the doorstep, she said, want to talk about the NHS, Labour's policy of a Green Industrial Revolution and free childcare for two to four-year-olds. Because of austerity, the library we were sitting in is run by volunteers, she pointed out.

Since 2010, Sheffield City Council has seen cuts to its annual budgets of £390 million – and she hopes voters won't forget it was the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular, who were responsible for this, alongside the Tories, during their coalition. "Brexit is also absolutely front and centre," she added. "I am a remain candidate. I've said openly that I will campaign for remain if we get that second referendum."

laura gordon sheffield
Laura Gordon.

It's a similar Brexit pitch to the one I get from Laura Gordon, the Liberal Democrat with a background in international development hoping to take Sheffield Hallam.

"If we're able to prevent [Brexit] we can start fighting for a sort of different vision for this country," she told me. "People are incredibly frustrated and feel very let down by [O'Mara's work with the] Labour Party. I think it's definitely putting people off supporting Labour, because actually, you know, how can you trust them in future when that's the position they've left you in?"

laura gordon sheffield

If O'Mara's legacy could damage Labour, I asked if Nick Clegg's might harm her's. Austerity aside, there are over 60,000 students living in Sheffield, paying considerably more for higher education than they would be had the Lib Dems not allowed the hike in tuition fees while in coalition, after pledging to oppose the increase.

"It's not coming up," she replied, "and people are much more concerned about the climate and about Brexit than they are about tuition fees. It's worth bearing in mind that today's students were 11 when tuition fees came in. It's not a priority for them."

As manifesto pledges continue to be announced in the coming days, it's clear that – just as in 2017 – Sheffield Hallam will almost certainly be decided on parties' national campaigns. But with two women fighting for the job – both ardent remainers with a passion for climate change; both keen to make clear their support for trans rights and the entire LGBTQ+ community – it may well come down to another question too: whether it's the memories of Jared O'Mara, or those of Nick Clegg, which leave a more bitter taste in the mouths of the local electorate.

@MikeSegalov

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jared o'mara
General Election 2019
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