From time to time my posts will focus on Oxford, the city I am presently pleased to call home! And I begin by not taking for granted that every reader knows the tactical situation on the ground, and who the contenders are in the next election.
Oxford is a very strange case in electoral politics, for the simple reason that the party that finished second in each of the last two elections was the Liberal Democrats – they had expected with ‘Clegg-mania’ to take Oxford East from Andrew Smith after a very close result in 2005, and to hold on to Oxford West & Abingdon, a seat they had held since 1997. In practice, Labour shored up their vote in Oxford East, and the Conservatives succeeded in taking Oxford West, albeit by the slimmest of majorities. Ordinarily you would therefore expect the Lib Dems to be the primary challengers in both seats as the nearest challenger to the incumbent MP (I’ll cover more on this in a separate post).
As I mentioned in my last post however, it is impossible to predict what will happen to the Lib Dem vote. While their support is collapsing nationally, there have already been signs in local elections that where there is the advantage of incumbency, they may be able to stubbornly cling on – nobody with sense is categorically ready to state how much support the Lib Dems will have in any given seat. That said – the seeming tactic for the Lib Dems is acknowledging their wider drop in support, and therefore their best use of limited resources is to concentrate on holding on to their current seats rather than trying to win new ones. With new candidates in both Oxford East and Oxford West, I am fairly certain that they will not be pushing as hard as they were in 2010 to win both seats, and that they will lose the better part of their vote. Below I have shown a projection of each seat, based on what it looks like if the Lib Dem vote in Oxford collapses roughly in line with the national figures (ie. just over half) and their former voters divide equally between all other parties except that of the sitting MP.
I’m not saying this is a prediction by any means – I’m expecting the Conservatives will lose some votes due to being in government, while even Labour’s seemingly dominant position in Oxford East may be threatened by the unpopularity of the Labour-led City Council. Instead I would draw attention to this fact – while we can confidently expect the respective incumbents (Andrew Smith MP and Nicola Blackwood MP) to pull in a strong vote, the collapse of the Lib Dem vote makes it less certain who their respective challenger will be. I would however draw a few conclusions:
1. The student vote is very much up-for-grabs – except for the Liberal Democrats. Until now the Lib Dems benefited from several student enticing attributes – being “none of the above”; opposing tuition fees; promising a new style of politics; and being genuine contenders for the win. I strongly suspect that the taint of government (and especially for left-leaning students, the taint of government with the Tories) and their about-face on tuition fees, students are not going to vote Lib Dem. Given the large student population in Oxford, I would say that scuppers their chances of winning Oxford East, and severely reduces their chances in Oxford West.
2. UKIP will at best be a spoiler vote. Their appeal, as elsewhere, will be to “none of the above” voters, and to angry Tories and Labour voters – but I think it is far more likely in Oxford that voters will vote to keep UKIP out, and there is no possibility of mass appeal.
3. Although the Greens have targeted Oxford East (at least according to the Guardian) I suspect they will be hard pressed to overturn Labour. Their strength at the local council level has mostly been based on being the primary opponent of the incumbent Labour councillor, and on persuading tired Labour voters to vote Green instead. Even if they can persuade significant numbers of Labour supporters to change their mind, they have to simultaneously hope that former Lib Dems do not vote Conservative or Labour instead.
4. It is not a shoe-in for the incumbents. I think Andrew Smith and Nicola Blackwood have the advantage of strong support bases and no obvious opponent, but the disadvantage that if their support splinters (to the Greens and UKIP respectively) then another party could sneak past them simply by shoring up 30% of the vote.
There is all to play for and I suspect that the winner in each constituency is going to be the party that gets the most boots on the ground and knocks on the most doors.