The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire – a retrospective

As Sheffield prepares for this year’s council elections, we remember the so-called ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, Sheffield’s fiercely left-wing council of the 1980s.

Despite having little relevance now, the title is used as both a term of derision and fond recollection among those familiar with the Steel City’s council in the Thatcher years.

Led by future Home Secretary David Blunkett, Sheffield City Council fiercely opposed the Conservative domination of the national government by enacting a series of small-scale socialist policies in the 1980s.

Such strategies ranged from the practical, such as subsidised public transport, to the symbolic, such as signing a peace treaty with Donetsk in the USSR and flying the red flag above the town hall.

According to Stephen McClarence, a columnist for the Sheffield Star during the period, the council’s activities even included a three-hour debate on the rights of goldfish, leading to a ban on them being offered as prizes in fairgrounds.

Martin Dawes, a retired journalist who started working at the Sheffield Star in 1977, said the city was a world apart from his previous home in ‘Sunny Devon’.

He said: “It felt to me like coming to an East European Soviet vassal state with overtones of a banana republic.

“Obviously, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but I was quite struck by the tower blocks like the Kelvin Flats and Park Hill and the overtones of industrial Eastern Europe.”

But despite his emphatic words, Mr Dawes remembered the period fondly.

“Looking back, it was a very exciting time really,” he said. “It was probably because I was younger but life seemed more immediate. It was certainly a different tenor of life to what I was used to down south.”

Although the name lost its relevance with the advent of the post-Thatcher years of consensus and New Labour, it has since remained in casual usage.

According to Olivia Blake, the Cabinet Member for Finance and Deputy Leader of the Council, the city’s residents recall the radically left-wing council with affection.

Ms Blake, who will also be the Labour candidate for Sheffield Hallam in the next general election, said: “The council had such an impact in the city, and I think people do remember that very fondly because it had such a vision. We are still feeling the echoes of it today.

“I think people are quite proud of Sheffield standing up for Sheffield people.”

But, according to her, increasing cuts to the council’s funding have prevented them from taking similarly radical steps in recent years.

“It’s very difficult times at the moment and it’s been felt right across the public sector.

“We’ve been really pressed to think imaginatively about how we can deliver high quality services to people, but as long as we can capture that essence of trying to improve people’s lives in the city we’re onto a winner really.”