If you live in an area where elections are happening this year, someone you know will probably complain: “I had a politician knocking on my door the other day. It’s typical – they only ever show up when they want your vote!” Indeed, you may not only agree with the sentiment, but have expressed it yourself!
I’m returning to political blogging with a series of short blogs on my experience of standing for election as a new parent. I am persuaded that politics does not need to be as confusing and mysterious as it seems to most people – and I hope sharing my experience this year will de-mystify what it looks like to stand for elected office, and help make politics more accessible. I’ll also be candidly addressing what it is like to campaign as the parent to a young child – a whole new challenge for me!
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.
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: