EYEBROWS were raised when Julie Dore emerged as leader of the Labour group in Sheffield seven months ago in the wake of the death of Jan Wilson.
She had been a councillor for ten years but was not seen as a particularly high-profile figure and her elevation was seen in some quarters as a result of her coming largely unseen through a field of bigger hitters.
Since then, it’s been a “very, very busy” time, she says. At the same time as learning the leadership ropes, she has been trying to get to grips with the implications of the biggest spending cuts in decades and formulating the opposition’s strategy.
After May 5, Coun Dore could find herself with the job of putting that strategy into action.
No party currently has a majority but the Liberal Democrats have the most seats.
Predictions of a widespread reaction against the Lib Dems nationally, and specifically against Nick Clegg locally, suggest that Labour has every chance of regaining control of what was once regarded as one of its heartlands.
And that would see the Sheffield-born and bred mother-of-two thrust well and truly into the political spotlight.
Her critics question whether she has the skills and experience to lead such a big authority at such a fraught economic time.
A leader has to start somewhere, she responds, but it goes deeper than that, as far as she is concerned.
“I have been a leader in the community for ten years, I have been a senior manager (with Yorkshire Housing Association) and, importantly, I have lived a life. When people come to the council with a petition, I have got some experience of it.
“The problem with the Government at the moment is that there is a lack of life experience. I’m a listener, a collaborator, a co-operator.”
Coun Dore, aged 50, says she would stamp her own personality on the leadership, adopting a different style to Lib Dem leader Paul Scriven. “I think he’s far too domineering and controlling.”
Yet that doesn’t mean, she says, that she does not have the strength of character to take a decision and stick with it.
“There are going to be some difficult choices. I just have to be strong. But I wouldn’t hide anything. I would be perfectly honest. As far as possible, we’ll have a conversation with the electorate and when we have made the decision we’ll say why.
“I don’t know what shocks or surprises are in store. It’s a challenge but me and my team are up for it.”
Room for manoeuvre is very limited. After cuts of £80m this year, preparations will be have to be made for another £40m over the following 12 months to reflect swingeing reductions in Government grants.
With Labour in control, there would be no slamming on of the brakes.
In opposition, they outlined their priorities, and they would start to apply them, says Coun Dore.
Reallocating £2.4m from a Government fund to stimulate economic growth, Labour is pledging to spend £500,000 on encouraging the private sector to accept 100 apprentices between the ages of 16 and 19.
There is a promise to reinstate ten Police Community Support Officer posts and to restore some of the money to adult social care and the voluntary, community and faith sector – a sector “that is having a really bad deal at the moment”.
Culture is another priority. “I think, particularly in austere times, people want culture. It doesn’t have to be expensive. There were some great ideas as part of the City of Culture bid and we should pick up on them.”
Yet it’s a desire to work with the business community that is a recurring theme, as if to match and outstrip the Lib Dems’ claims to be making Sheffield a business-friendly city.
The Labour leader makes no bones about the need to pursue economic growth and jobs. “I understand businesses want to grow to create wealth but it also means jobs. Unemployment is going to be a big issue. If people are in work, they are spending in their local economy.”
Already Coun Dore has been meeting business leaders and has been thinking ahead in the event of a Labour victory.
“We would have a business summit as soon as possible so they can tell us what they want from the local authority. But I would also want a continuous dialogue. There may be things we can do, and who better to tell us?”
That’s not to take Labour success for granted at the local elections, she emphasises. “I don’t want to appear presumptuous but not to do some planning would be irresponsible.”
Not everybody is convinced she would carry the authority, expertise and acumen to steer the council during such perilous times.
She was criticised last month for holding back on the announcement of detailed spending plans, and for resisting the opportunity to defeat the Lib Dems in the annual budget debate, cited as evidence of political cowardice.
Her turn could come, though.
Julie Dore – leader of Sheffield City Council?
“I’d be humbled. I walk around the city thinking ‘My God, I’d be extremely powerful and influential’ but I also feel ‘What an achievement’.”
“Richard Caborn always says he wants to see a lad off the Manor get a Phd in engineering and work for Rolls-Royce. I want this lass off the Wybourn to be leader of the council! If that’s not aspirational, I don’t know what is. What a message for young people. You can do it!”
lThe current composition of the council is Liberal Democrat 41, Labour 40, Green two, Independent one.