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.