The trendy London metropolitanites at Fabian HQ have doubtless been blissfully unaware of a mammoth political struggle which has been unfolding over the past few weeks in the streets of Oxford. What else could explain the complete absence of any Next Left commentary - well, until now - on the city council by-election in the hotly contested seat of Headington Hill and Northway (HHN)?
HHN is in the Oxford East constituency held by Andrew Smith for Labour. At the last general election Andrew's majority fell from around 10,000 to (if memory serves) around 1,000, with the Lib Dems in second-place. I recall pacing the streets of Headington Hill with my Labour leaflets taunted at almost every step by lurid orange Lib Dem posters in the windows.
City council seats in HHN have often been narrow fights between Labour and the Lib Dems, with the Lib Dems often getting the edge. However, in the city council elections last year, Maureen Christian took back a HHN city council seat for Labour. Indeed, bucking the national trend, Labour gained 4 council seats in Oxford - not enough for overall control, but enough to make Labour the largest single party on the council. One interesting feature of the race in HHN was that the Lib Dems were actually beaten into third place, coming behind a very energetic young Tory candidate called Mark Borja.
After many years of great service to the community, Maureen sadly died in February, making a by-election necessary. Labour selected Roy Darke as its candidate, Mark Borja reentered the fray, and the stage was set for a tough three-way fight between the main parties. (The Greens were also involved - I'll get to them later.)
I did some pacing of the streets and Labour leaflet dropping, but I really had no idea how the race would turn out. I had a shock when my neighbours across the street erected a placard in their garden for the Tory candidate. And then another Tory poster appeared in a window down the street. The Tories had come a close second in 2008. Was this the big breakthrough moment, the moment in which the Tories would get their first city council seat in Oxford for...well, a very long time?
No. Labour won with an increased majority.
I'm not an expert on election dynamics, but my reading of the situation over the two city council elections is that the revival of the Tories has actually split the anti-Labour vote in HHN. Some of the Lib Dem vote has gone their way, knocking out the Lib Dem competition to Labour; but not enough for the Tories to catch up with Labour. So Labour wins. (Not automatically of course - there's a lot of hard work to get the vote out!)
The news from HHN is obviously good for Labour in that it means Labour consolidates its leading position on the city council. But does it also offer some tentative clues as to how things might work out at the next general election? Will a Tory revival cut into the Lib Dem vote in Oxford East, so helping the Labour candidate? If I were a Lib Dem, this would be my concern.
I promised to mention the Greens. They had a terrific candidate, Katherine Wedell, and her 62 votes really don't do her justice. I watched the progress of her campaign very closely. I had no choice - she's my wife.