Sheffield Hallam General Election profile: Lib Dems and Labour vying to replace absentee MP Jared O'Mara
But the ensuing chaos brought on the constituency by Jared O’Mara, who was one of Momentum's first MPs, has damaged Labour’s reputation potentially beyond repair. Momentum no longer backs Mr O'Mara, who has been an independent since last year.
And if the polls are to be believed, Jo Swinson’s party are set to take the seat back.
Lib Dem candidate Laura Gordon – who has been taking her one-year-old daughter out on the campaign trail this week – is currently ahead in the polls, and in the large village of Dore, by the River Sheaf, orange square placards proclaiming “Liberal Democrats winning here” line the leafy streets.
“I’ve been calling it Schrödinger’s election and Schrödinger’s by-election,” Ms Gordon joked in reference to the famous thought experiment involving a cat which may be dead or alive, as she explained the scandal with Mr O’Mara started when she was halfway through being selected as the
Lib Dem candidate. “It’s been pretty full on since then,” she said.
Mr O’Mara, who has rarely been seen in public in recent months, announced this summer that he would be quitting as an MP before changing his mind.
And Ms Gordon has been picking up casework he should have been taking on. “Not as much as I would’ve liked,” she said.
“People come to me and it’s been really hard because if you’re not an MP you don’t have access to the same resources. It feels though I’ve been letting people down.
“Jared has to take a lot of the blame, he chose to put himself forward and since then he’s chosen not to do the job. Having said that he’s obviously an acutely vulnerable individual who has been put into this position.”
But Ms Gordon said the saga had “corroded trust” in politicians, at a time when they were already suffering from low levels of confidence. And it is not just Mr O’Mara who has damaged
Labour’s reputation in Sheffield Hallam, it is also the Labour-run city council, who prompted mass protests against their controversial policy of felling thousands of street trees as part of a £2.2bn PFI contract.
“I think there’s a sense of being let down by Labour,” Ms Gordon said. “It’s not just about the trees, it’s about the way the council engaged with the protesters, they arrested people, it was ridiculous.”
But asked whether she was confident of a Lib Dem win, she cautiously added: “You can never underestimate the Labour Party, they have a strong vote.”
The test for Labour in Sheffield Hallam will be whether voters are happy to put aside the betrayal they felt at the hands of Mr O’Mara and put their trust in candidate Olivia Blake, a former Sheffield City Council deputy leader, or the national party.
Coun Blake, who knows the city well through her post as a councillor and is the daughter of Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake, said it was time to move on and she wanted to show constituents Mr O’Mara did not reflect the wider party.
She said: “This is the main reason I wanted to stand, I felt I could do a good job at representing people, I know what it means to be a good, hard-working representative and to put things right that are wrong.” While Coun Blake said Mr O’Mara should have resigned when he said he would, she felt the Lib Dems had taken advantage of his poor mental health.
She said: “I’m very concerned about the way people are treated, there is a point on being responsible and I do think the Lib Dems on some of their leaflets have pushed that. This is a man who has openly said he tried to take his own life.”
She added: “I certainly don’t believe in negative campaigning.”
The Yorkshire Post visited Mr O’Mara’s last registered office address, but was told he no longer used the space.
Coun Blake will be focusing on issues around public services, climate change, and Brexit in her election pitch. She said: “I want to listen to what [constituents’] issues are and try to understand where they are coming from. It’s about understanding local issues and making sure we are taking them on.”
Rhi Storer, a masters student at the University of Sheffield, will vote for Coun Blake but admitted Mr O’Mara had damaged the party she supported.
She said: “I’m a Labour supporter and coming to study here I can tell constituents are really frustrated they have not had any representation.”
Greg Ford, 27, considered himself a floating voter and although he had previously been registered in Rother Valley, finding a new home in Sheffield meant he felt his vote counted more.
He said: “I think my vote could make a difference this way around. [Jared O’Mara] should not have been allowed to stand in the first place, I don’t he was a fit and proper person to run.”
“A lot of people are disenchanted, we’re going to have to work very hard to get trust in elections again.”
Sitting on the edge of Labour-dominated Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam was held by the Conservatives for all but two years from 1885 to 1997.
One of the wealthiest constituencies in the North, it includes parts of the city centre as well as affluent villages and parts of the Peak District.
There are seven candidates in Mr O’Mara’s absence. The Conservatives have nominated Ian Walker, Natalie Thomas is up for the Greens, Terence McHale is standing for the Brexit Party and Ukip’s candidate is Michael Virgo. But the seat also initially had two independent candidates.
Mr O’Mara’s former office manager Gareth Arnold, who dramatically quit and turned his back on his boss earlier this year, announced his candidacy but then pulled out. Jen Selby, a rape survivor standing for the Women’s Equality Party to highlight the treatment of women, stood down in a pact with the Lib Dems.
But Liz Aspden, who runs the Harlequin pub in the city, remains. The 44-year-old said: “It was a very last minute decision, I grew up around Hallam, it’s somewhere I feel a very strong connection to.”
In 2017 she alleged bouncers at Mr O’Mara’s club gave her a black eye when they kicked her out for confronting him. But she said that was not the reason she wanted to stand.
She said: “A lot of people are disenchanted, we’re going to have to work very hard to get trust in elections again.”
While helping small businesses and tackling homelessness were on her list of priorities, Ms Aspden also feels the acceptance of trans people had gone to far, and said she would campaign to that effect.
This, she admits, would be controversial to some, and online she has been branded as transphobic, including by Mr Arnold.
“People are entitled to think I’m wrong,” she said. “And if people think standing up for vulnerable women and girls is a bad thing to do they should absolutely vote for someone else.”
Note: This article was amended on November 16 to make clear Mr O'Mara was not Momentum's first MP, but one of the first among a number elected in 2017. It was also made clear Momentum no longer backs Mr O'Mara.