As this blog goes to press, there are fourteen weeks until voters across England and Wales go to the polls to determine the composition of their district councils. Local elections are infamous for their relatively low turnouts compared to General Elections, and in some cases for contests where one party enjoys seeming impenetrable dominance over local politics. Oxford has historically been perceived as one such city. Labour have controlled the City Council since 2008, there has been no significant opposition party since the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives haven’t had a single member on the Council since 2001. Despite this, I am convinced that 2016 is the year we will see the Conservatives breaking in to the Council.
As the 2015 General Election was not concurrent with any kind of local election, we do not enjoy the advantage Oxford voters enjoyed in 2012 of being able to see how each ward voted in the previous general election. Of necessity, some extrapolation from the raw results is necessary – the Greens for example attained 20% of the votes in the 2014 City Council elections, but only 11% at the 2015 General Election, not allowing a direct extrapolation from 2014 to 2015. This reflects a number of factors – the higher turnout for General Elections being one; voters voting differently for local and national elections being another. But using data available from electoralcalculus.co.uk we can infer what the results in local elections should have been (links available at the bottom of this post).
The map below shows the Oxford city council wards, with each area shaded according to the difference between the Conservatives and the party that finished first – a positive result meaning that the Tories finished first, a negative result indicating a swing required to win the ward. The eagle eyed of you will have noticed something very striking – that in 2015 the Conservatives won four of Oxford’s twenty-four wards: Holywell, North, St Margarets, and Wolvercote. Moreover, they came within striking distance of winning in Carfax and Summertown, and respectable distance in Headington Hill & Northway and Jericho and Osney.
That is just based on the raw extrapolations. In practice, we have to account for the fact that turnout is lower in local elections compared to national elections. This explains why the Greens and Lib Dems in particular have proven ‘urban guerrillas’ in local campaigns – they get a higher percentage of their committed vote out for local elections. 600 votes may not beat 1,000 in a general election turnout, but it may just beat that same party if they only get half of those 1,000 voters to turn out for a local election.
This means when considering potential Conservative strength in a ward, we actually need to compare the strength of the Conservatives in 2015, which shows the potential vote the party could mobilise if it turns out the entirety of their core vote, against the results for the other parties in 2014 resulting from a lower turnout in local elections. What happens if we compare the 2015 Conservative vote to the 2014 vote shares?
As you see in the map above, if the Tories persuaded every person who voted for them in 2015 to vote Tory in 2016, they would win a further five seats – Carfax, Cowley Marsh, Headington Hill & Northway, Lye Valley, and Summertown. It would leave the party needing only a 2% swing to take Cowley and Littlemore, and a 5% swing to take Jericho and Osney. That’s right – if the Tories mobilised the entirety of their vote, they would come within 5% of winning half the wards in Oxford!
All of which goes to show that it is a myth to suggest that the Tories cannot win in Oxford. To look purely at the 2014 data is to miss the narrative of the 2015 data. In the map below, you can see that if you only use the 2014 dataset (dark blue), the Tories are the nearest challengers in only seven wards. Using the 2015 dataset (lighter blue), the Tories either won or finished second in twelve wards – that’s half of the seats in the city! Moreover, four wards saw the anti-Labour vote split between the Conservatives and UKIP (with UKIP narrowly ahead – the purple wards), and two wards (in orange) saw the Liberal Democrats as the main opponents to Labour – no longer a given in the advent of their collapse as anything approaching a major political force.
We must of course note some caveats. In the absence of the actual breakdown of how wards voted, we are forced to rely on the electoral calculus calculations – they may well be erroneous. We also cannot control for factors like turnout, voters voting differently in local and general elections, or indeed for voters who have changed their minds in the intervening year. It is also entirely fair to observe that just because a theoretical Conservative vote exists, does not mean that it will necessarily be mobilised to come out and vote on 5th May 2016. I fully concede that just because the Conservatives could win these wards, does not mean that they will win these wards.
The point of the exercise however is not to predict how many seats each party would win. It is to demonstrate that based on the 2015 vote, the Conservatives must win seats for the City Council in 2016. Had local elections been held concurrently with the 2015 elections, the Tories would undoubtedly have done so. That Conservative vote has not gone away, and with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, and the genuine distaste for the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, the odds must be very good indeed for the Conservatives to elect several Councillors to Oxford City Council this year.
The data used to calculate these results is taken from the following web pages: