Oxford’s Tories: how low can you go (and still say no to PR)?

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2006

I’ve now had chance to do a little bit of number crunching on last week’s election results in Oxford. Here comes the science…

In Oxford East, there will be 19 city wards at the next general election (the two central, mainly student, wards come in owing to boundary changes). Here are the scores on the doors, with figures for 2004 in brackets:

Labour = 35.1% (33.3%) + 1.8%
Lib Dem = 28.0% (26.3%) +1.7%
Green = 19.1% (17.4%) +1.7%
Tory = 10.5% (16.5%) -6%
IWCA = 5.5% (5.4%) +0.1%
Others = 2.3% (1.0%) +1.3%

It’s clear the big losers from last Thursday in Oxford East was the Tory Party, their vote slumping by 6% compared to two years ago, when these exact same seats were last contested. Interestingly, their vote seems to have been pretty equally shared out between the three largest parties here: Labour, Lib Dems and Greens all recorded rises of a little less than 2%.

The Tories will maintain this drop in support is because they failed to put up candidates in seven of the 19 wards, inevitably depressing their vote – a highly self-fulfilling prophesy.

And, in fairness, I’ve done the math: their average vote share in those seats where they could be bothered to field a candidate was 16.8%, very marginally up on 2004’s 16.5%. (Though you would expect this figure to be higher if you decline to fight seats where you don’t have a chance; I don’t suppose contesting the two Blackbird Leys seats would have done much for that average.)

For a fairer comparison of the ‘Cameron bounce’ in Oxford, his back-yard, let’s look across to the west of the city – which was represented by a Conservative MP as recently as nine years ago.

There will be 5 city wards in Oxford West & Abingdon, the seat of Evan Harris, at the next general election. Here’s what happened last week, again compared with 2004 in brackets:

Lib Dem = 42.8% (41.2%) +1.6%
Green = 22.7% (23.2%) -0.5%
Labour = 17.7% (14.4%) +3.3%
Tory = 16.8% (20.5%) -3.7%

Not only did the Tories vote slump in Oxford West by almost 4%, but they were overtaken by the Labour Party – on the day of one of its worst ever election performances! – to become the fourth party on both sides of the City. A truly wretched performance.

Finally – just for a bit of fun – let’s have a look at what happens if we merge the East and West, and form a single Oxford City, and elect the 48-seat Council according to proportional representation.

The figures, below, show the parties’ respective cross-city shares of the vote, what number of seats this would entitle them to, and the difference compared with what last Thursday’s first-past-the-post election produced:

Lib Dem = 32% (15 seats) -4
Labour = 31% (15) -2
Green = 20% (10) +2
Tory = 12% (6) +6
IWCA = 5% (2) -2
Other = 1% (0) no change

The big losers under a fairer system in Oxford would be the Lib Dems, down four seats on the 19 we currently have, and putting us level with Labour. The Greens would edge up a little, some reward for their evenly spread popularity in Oxford West; while the real winners would be the Tories, who would have become a party group on the Council for the first time in a decade.

The worry, if such an outcome were to come to pass, would be that the City would end up paralysed. In reality, I don’t think this would happen: the parties would have to compromise, negotiate and trade, given that none of them had won a plurality of votes, and since none of them would wish to kop the blame for failing the people of Oxford through their obstinacy. With the greater stability that proportional representation fosters, the parties would be more willing to make a go of a ‘ministry of all the talents’.

And, of course – even better in my view – if there were an elected mayor able to make sense of it all, and take ultimate responsibility for the strategic direction of the city, the voters would not only have enhanced democracy, but better, more transparent accountability as well.

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I went one step further. If we elected STV members in area committee sized wards you could achieve near proportionality across the council – to within about 10% of everyone’s vote. In fact Labour gain one at the expense of the Tories – so it would work out at Con 5, Green 10, Labour 16, Lib Dem 15, IWCA 2.

But I think you could usefully tie in a request for PR with support for unitary status.

by Jock Coats on May 8, 2006 at 9:19 pm. Reply #

Surely what you demonstrate is the best argument against PR. You talk of ‘greater stability’ – dictatorships have greater stability but I don’t think you’d support that. Essentially PR would reduce democracy as the same coalitions would form whatever the result making it hard for the electorate to kick people out. Also a ‘ministry of all talents’ would make it more difficult to achieve transparency and be clear as to who is responsible for decision making. What PR would do is permenantly ensure that the governance of the city would be decided in back room deals rather than at the ballot box. Incidently, how do you maintain the link between councillor and ward? Surely the most important role of a councillor.

Glad to get that off my chest – now I can get back to my essay.

by Kieran on May 8, 2006 at 10:28 pm. Reply #

It is certainly true, I would have thought, that a system like STV reduces the power of parties, which would be no bad thing. One would be unlikely ever to elect the whole city council in a single city-wide ballot. As I point out, our area committees are large enough areas to enable pretty decent proportionality, yet certainly small enough for local figures to form local connections and support bases.

I don’t think, under STV, these “backroom deals” would be quite as obscure as you think, as individual candidates have to promote their particular pitches and so, for example, an area that was a Tory-Lib Dem battle ground might be more likely to return Lib Dem councillors who have expressed a wish to work with the Tories.

But the main point that PR naysayers don’t seem to touch is that the first past the post system is fundamentally undemocratic. It is simple fact that some 60%+ of the votes cast were wasted votes, opinions that count for nothing at all. I’d rather be able to go to someone who represents my opinions better over a slightly larger area than someone whose politics I can’t stand having to represent me because they happen to represent a particular narrower area that I live in.

by Jock Coats on May 8, 2006 at 10:56 pm. Reply #

But PR is also undemocratic in that it can lead to perpetual participation in government regardless of their support. Also those who vote for parties outside the coalition have wasted their vote. I’ll give you an example under the current FPTP system. In Leeds there is a Tory/LD/Green coalition, yet Labour has the most seats (40-26-24). How is it democratic that the party with the most votes is not in control? This would only be worse under PR. Also if negotiations take place between the parties after the election then people can get programmes they don’t agree with.

I don’t deny that there aren’t problems with FPTP but there are also problems with PR. What it comes down to is what you see the purpose of elections to be, produce a government or represent people.

by Kieran on May 9, 2006 at 12:04 am. Reply #

Kieran, I don’t see how is it undemocratic that the biggest party doesn’t participate to the administration/government. I live myself in a country with a PR, and practically always the parties participating to the governing coalition were supported in all by the majority of the voters.

The fact that the biggest party (or the second biggest) doesn’t participate to the governing coalition doesn’t mean, that the coalition wouldn’t be supported by the majority.

by Anonymous on May 9, 2006 at 5:08 am. Reply #

Also, the fact that a party has the most councillors doesn’t have to mean it got the most votes. For instance, Labour retained its majority in Haringey, while taking fewer votes than the Lib Dems.

by Noorderling on May 9, 2006 at 9:23 am. Reply #

Kieran – PR is also undemocratic in that it can lead to perpetual participation in government regardless of their support

I don’t undertsand this point – under PR, that “perpetual participation” will only continue if the parties involved continue to enjoy 50%+ of public support.

It is still quite possible to remove unpopular governments/coalitions under PR: you simply have to persuade a majority of people that they should be kicked out.

It’s called democracy!

by Stephen Tall on May 9, 2006 at 9:49 am. Reply #

I think that he might mean that in certain countries one of the parties is in a position, that it is always in the coalition, because the other parties can’t co-operate with the other (for instance a centrist party might be most of the time in the coalition, because leftist parties prefer it over rightist parties and rightist parties prefer it over leftist parties).

It might be, that for this reason a certain party spends more time in the government, but my experience is, that in the end the voters will get tired of it, it will lose the elections and either it will retire in the opposition or its support will wear out and it will disappear.

by Anonymous on May 9, 2006 at 5:53 pm. Reply #

I happen to think that in a democracy parties with the greatest amount of public support should not be excluded from power. Also although the sum of the parties support in a PR coalition may have majority support that does not mean that the coalition itself has majority support as inevitably in a coaltion parties will agree to things that go against their manifesto. It is eminently possible for the public to kick a coaliton out of power only to find that one or more of the parties in that coalition remain in government. An example would be Germany where the SPD remained in govt after the election, despite being rejected by the voters. Infact the coalition there is formed by the two parties who had the biggest drop in support. This is the problem with PR – it leads to politicians rather than the people making decisions. It is the politicians deciding which formation a coalition will take rather than the people. In Germany it was the politicians rather than the people that decided whether the govt was formed by the SPD/CDU, SPD/FPD/Greens, CDU/FPD/Greens or the SPF/Greens/Left party. Yes there are advantages to PR but there are also many disadvantages.

by Kieran on May 10, 2006 at 10:47 am. Reply #

I disagree with this analysis of the German election.

“the coalition there is formed by the two parties who had the biggest drop in support”

I’m not sure what this is supposed to prove. Labour had the biggest drop in support at the last UK general elections and still formed the government under FPTP.

“the SPD remained in govt after the election, despite being rejected by the voters”

But the voters didn’t reject the SPD. In fact their vote was so close to the Christian Democrats that they could have easily got more seats that the CDU under FPTP, if their vote happened to be spread more efficiently across the country. This scenario with the party with less votes getting more seats has happened several times in the UK.

When the campaign started the voters were expected to reject the SPD, it is true. More precisely, they were expected to reject the left wing parties, as PR works more on the level of coalitions than parties. This is also true of FPTP, but the coalitions are at least explicity out there in PR for voters for decide which part of them should have the upper hand, rather than the shadowy behind-the-scenes Old Labour vs New Labour, Blairite vs Brownite and Economic Liberal vs Social Liberal struggles that FPTP encourages by making smaller parties unviable. But back to Germany, if voters had rejected the left as expected there would have been a CDU/FPD coalition, no problem. But instead voters went neither left nor right, so the centrist grand coalition actually reflects the desires of the German people. Which is quite important in a democracy. If at the next election they decide a leftwards or rightwards movement is now desirable then in all probability either the CDU or the SDP will be shut out and be unable to form a government.


by Anonymous on May 10, 2006 at 11:22 am. Reply #

Oxford dos not need PR, what would happen is the major pearties would be subject to the whims of minor parties – as in Isreal
see http://www.oxfordprospect.co.uk/Editorial.htm#PR_Inaction_
Oxford needs an elected Mayor as the Oxford Times Leader said last Friday ‘bang heads together’.

by Nicholas on May 13, 2006 at 3:43 pm. Reply #

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