Why the Conservatives MUST win in Oxford this year

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.

2015 Projection

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?

2014 Projection

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.

City Council Map - 2nd Place

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:
http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/cgi-bin/seatdetails.pl?seat=Oxford%20East
http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/cgi-bin/seatdetails.pl?seat=Oxford%20West%20and%20Abingdon

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9 comments

  1. Mark Senior · January 29, 2016

    Self Delusional nonsense . I remember 2008 when the Conservatives made a major effort to break through on Oxford City Council and several people saying they were certain to do so . They ended up very close second in 2 Labour and 3 Lib Dem wards . By 2014 they were nowhere near winning in any of these wards and in for example North ward and fallen into 4th .
    If they want to win in Oxford , the Conservatives need to pick 1 or at most 2 wards and concentrate on them for 2 or 3 years with a designated serious local candidate . This serious dedication of effort is beyond the inclinations of Oxford Conservatives

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    • Dan Stafford · January 29, 2016

      Thanks for the feedback Mark. I would be doing myself no favours if I understated or underestimated the challenge the party faces to win a seat. The purpose of the article is not to say a Conservative win is a foregone conclusion, but to rebut the fallacy that Conservatives cannot win in Oxford. The projected figures indicated that we would have won wards in 2015 – which ought to serve as impetus to ensure we get our vote out in 2016!

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      • Mark Senior · January 29, 2016

        Dan , you cannot assume that because someone voted Conservative at a GE they will also vote Conservative ( if they vote at all ) that they will do so in a local election . Look at the results in for example Eastleigh last May where the Conservatives won the parliamentary seat but many of the same voters voted Lib Dem in the concurrent local elections . I suspect but admit I have no evidence that if there had been local elections in Oxford last May a similar phenomena would have happened .

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      • Dan Stafford · January 29, 2016

        As the article itself acknowledges – we are at the mercy of the Electoral Calculus projections. Of necessity any subsequent interpretations would be subjective – in terms of whether voters would have voted differently at the local level (if at all) and whether voters would turn out.
        As I hope I have taken pains to set out – the projections are not predictions. It simply shows that there are voters in Oxford who are prepared to vote Conservative, and that if they turn out several Oxford wards are winnable. It doesn’t minimise the challenge of persuading them to turn out and vote – every political activist knows the pain and cost involved in that! But it does correct the assumption that it is impossible for the Tories to win in Oxford.

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  2. Mark Senior · January 29, 2016

    As for Electoral Calculus , look at their results for Eastleigh . They have the Conservatives winning every single ward in Eastleigh BC in the GE and compare that to the real local election results for the local elections on the same day . The Lib Dems won 12 wards to the Conservatives just 2 .. Clearest possible evidence that the Conservative GE vote is not convertible into local election vote .
    Now are these voters really Conservative or really Lib Dem or really and more likely they are not committed voters to either party .

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  3. Mark Senior · January 31, 2016

    For further evidence that Conservative GE votes are not convertible to local election votes even in elections held on the same day let alone in lower turnout years look at the results from Bath . A Conservative lead of around 3,800 in the GE , A Lib Dem lead of over 1,000 in the local elections in the wards making up the Bath parliamentary seat .
    Clearly in 2016 there was a substantial number of voters voting Conservative at the GE and Lib Dem in the local elections and Oxford would have been no different had local elections been held in 2016 .

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    • Dan Stafford · January 31, 2016

      Hi Mark,
      I think you are right to advise caution with the Electoral Calculus figures – but the fact is that we don’t actually have any other projections to account for the respective vote in Oxford East and Oxford West. It may well be inaccurate, but at least the projections are not informed by partisan assumptions.
      I also don’t dispute that there could well be Lib Dems and Greens who voted differently for the General Election. I think the two key points are: (1) the only way we can project what that looks like is through a subjective assumption; and (2) the key thing is not that they definitely would vote Conservative at the local level, but that they HAVE voted Conservative. That is to say – the urban myth is that there is no Conservative vote in Oxford. The vote clearly exists, and the task at hand is to persuade them to stick with the Tories in local elections.

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  4. Mark Senior · May 6, 2016

    Oxford result zero Conservatives elected . Will say no more

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    • Dan Stafford · May 6, 2016

      Entirely fair comment. Astonished by strength of Labour landslide today – all parties (including Greens and Lib Dems) have been caught off guard by strength of this performance.

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