I now get to enjoy, in the finest tradition of Paddy Ashdown and the 2015 exit poll, the pleasure of eating one’s words. As readers will recall, I asserted with some confidence that Oxford’s Conservatives simply had to break their 15 year duck and finally get someone elected on to the City Council. The results of last Thursday’s poll (neatly collated and summarised here on Wikipedia) make something of a mockery of that prediction, as Labour steamrollered every opposition party to take 75 per cent of the council’s seats, and the Conservatives fell short.
Part of the reason I’m involved in politics is to encourage others to follow suit, which means being honest about some of my experiences. So I admit that my first reaction was to think “if I just delete my prediction, then it never existed.” That however achieves precisely nothing, and sends entirely the wrong message. By posting this message, I want to live out what I said in my Oxford Mail article on how we should address the Rhodes Must Fall camapign – that we should engage constructively with our mistakes rather than wear a mask of perfectionism. To pretend that one is infalliable, or hold to the view that you can only serve others if you appear spotless is to give way to false pride and hypocrisy, and to discourage those who correctly see their own shortcomings from serving in public life.
So let me make a few short points with regard to my article. The first is that it was never meant to be a prediction. The aim and intent of the article was to challenge an assumption: that Conservatives could never win in Oxford. I make no apologies for my own bias – I am a Conservative and it is only natural that I will argue the positive case for my party, knowing full well that the case against us is being cheerfully and noisily articulated elsewhere. Knowing my own bias, I will always warn friends seeking my advice that they are getting my opinion, and always encourage everyone to enquire for themselves. So as such, the article was not an academic prediction of how the 2016 results should go, but rather articulating the viewpoint that Conservatives ought to be able to win seats in Oxford.
[I would add as an aside that as one actively campaigning in the Oxford elections, it would have been most unwise for me to have shared everything I knew or suspected in my post. That’s only to be expected!]
Secondly, I will serve myself up a large slice of humble pie: my viewpoint was wrong. I am not in the position to comment on our relatively poor turnout in our most promising wards in the Oxford West constituency, but in Oxford East the Labour Party completely flattened everyone. The bar chart below shows the numerical turnout for each party in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
As you see, Labour have progressively increased their turnout in local elections since 2012. The Liberal Democrats have been slowly growing since their car-crash election of 2012. The Conservatives and Greens however, only managed to turn out their 2012 vote, leaving them to lose ground to Labour. My assumption of a Conservative breakthrough rested upon the Conservative vote turning out, while the remaining parties’ vote would fall, in keeping with local election trends. Credit has to be due to Oxford Labour that they successfully mobilised their vote, and left every other party looking foolish.
Finally, I nevertheless maintain that my assumption is not entirely wrong. The Conservatives only got 3,165 votes across East Oxford, a full 6,911 less than they got 12 months previously at the 2015 General Election. As I said above – my viewpoint presumed that the Tories would turn out. As the bar chart below shows, pretty much every major party suffered a reduction in the numerical vote cast for them:
Shrewd commentators on my original article made some pertinent observations – that we couldn’t necessarily trust the data from Electoral Calculus (a point I had already conceded); but more importantly that not all voters turn out for local elections, and some voters will vote differently between national and local contests. The data above bears that out – the two major national parties both took a hit, but Labour could afford to lose almost half their vote and still win at a canter. The Tories suffered much more for losing their ‘casual’ supporters. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile have two hard-working Councillors in East Oxford – Ruth Wilkinson in Headington, and Roz Smith who represents Headington & Quarry on the County Council. I strongly suspect the increased Liberal Democrat vote is a combination of Tories voting tactically for these candidates as the ‘not Labour’ option; Liberals who tactically voted for another party in 2015; and voters who have forgiven the Lib Dems for the coalition government.The poor Greens meanwhile are paying the price for not breaking through last year as they had hoped.
So I own my mistake – my assumption that the Conservatives would win in Oxford did not account for voters failing to turn out, or for voters voting differently between local and national contests. There are voters in Oxford who have voted Conservative before, but did not do so on 5th May 2016; not least the 6,911 who voted for Melanie Magee in May 2015 and did not vote Conservative this time around. I do not have an easy answer for that.
No-one should underestimate how well Labour did to get their vote out across the whole of Oxford; nor the dedication shown by the Liberal Democrats to successfully defend their wards. There is no simple solution that explains why Conservatives stayed at home, nor conclusive proof that it will definitely change. I still maintain my conviction however that there is a Conservative vote to mobilised in Oxford, and that with the right campaign there is no good reason why the party should not be able to hold seats on Oxford City Council. There are no simple answers, which means for myself and my party colleagues we have the task of asking the difficult questions that will illuminate the way to success.