Friday 27 March 2009

Labour wins in Oxford!

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.


Sunder Katwala said...


Congratulations. Does your wife's green candidacy create a dilemma, from a democratic republican perspective in particular?

Stuart White said...

Kathy's Green candidacy is a regular event in the political life of New Marston, Oxford. It makes for a democratic republican household, characterised by lots of healthy debate over what best promotes the common good. I have recruited our 5-year old son, Isaac, for leafleting purposes: I find that his winsome smile disarms members of the electorate who would otherwise berate me for being from Labour....

Jock Coats said...

To be fair Stuart, the Lib Dems have "got the edge" precisely once in that ward and its nearest predecessor before 2002. And that once has also been the only time we've got better than third - it has always been the Tories' number one target in Oxford East and they have, excepting that once, always come in second.

Indeed it was the last place in Oxford the Tories actually won a seat - in 2000, albeit the resulting councillor (probably very traumatized by being the only, and pretty hopeless, Tory councillor on the council) did a disappearing act after 18 months and turned up in Wales - see what I mean about traumatised!

Given that history of it being a "traditional" third for the Lib Dems, what you say about share of the vote is also wrong I believe. Our share increased by more than even yours on last year (whilst admitting the train wreck in my campaign your ethically dubious personal attack leaflet caused) both at the expense of the Tories.

Had the Tories won, ironically, I believe Andrew could have taken more comfort, because your analysis would probably have been right in taking votes from the Lib Dems, and since the Tories are such a long way behind in Oxford East as a constituency, that could only have done more to increase Steve Goddard's second place margin behind Andrew whilst probably not being enough to propel the Tories from third to first.

Steve only needs a tiny couple of hundred votes to beat Andrew once the central wards are counted in the General Election, so improving by 0.4% over Labour on average over the whole of the constituency would lose him the seat IMO.

Anonymous said...

Quality ending. Sorry to hear she got only that many votes. These days I'd vote Green!

Sunder Katwala said...

the debate rages ... what would really clarify this for us trendy metropolitan head office types would be if you would each produce contradictory bar charts to make and then exaggerate the strongest part of your claims.

Roy Darke said...

I was the successful Labour candidate in HHN on Thursday last. The majority was the largest achieved in the ward (boundary redrawn in 2002). The campaign and success show a number of factors lying behind Labour's success. First, that there is no substitute for hard work on the doorstep and telling people what they can expect from a candidate. Second, that honesty pays (some LD supporters said they were appalled by the lies and negativity of the LD campaign literature). Record is important (Coats talks of a local Conservative councillor who did little work in the ward yet his own party has a sitting lazy County Councillor here who is rarely seen locally).
Jock also says that Labour's campaign literature last year included an 'ethically dubious personal attack'. Is he really saying that views he professes openly on the internet about drug legalisation is a matter that he would want to keep from the electorate? We are back to honesty and judgement as factors in politics and candidacy.

Sunder Katwala said...


Congratulations on your election victory on Thursday. If we may have heard a little less of Stuart on Next Left recently, it was clearly in a good cause. Stuart's clip shows the majority over the Conservatives rose from 37 to 105, which is impressive in what was clearly a closely fought race. What was the swing?

It sounds to me as though we have the 2009 Labour candidate and the 2008 LibDem candidate here in the comments. So perhaps it is a shame that the valiant Greens have so far been represented only by a (non-politically supportive) spouse.

Sunder Katwala said...

I hope my advocacy of the Alternative Vote for general elections might be useful to the White-Wedell household, as well as to progressive politics more broadly. And PR for local government too.

Stuart White said...

Thanks to Jock and Roy for their contributions - my impression of the seat being a Lib Dem/Labour marginal might well be exaggerated by the swing to the Lib Dems in the 2005 general election, so I'm happy to stand (at least partially) corrected on that. Roy is also right, of course, that Labour wouldn't have held on without a lot of work on the streets to make the case and get the vote out.

On the 'ethically dubious' leaflet in last year's campaign: the basic facts are that Jock blogged on drug legalization (favouring it) and the local Labour party then ran a leaflet advertising his views. As Roy knows, I did have criticisms of the leaflet. However, it didn't in any way misrepresent Jock's views. When I discussed the issue with a senior Lib Dem councillor in Manchester (the way one does) she thought that it was a perfectly legitimate line of attack for Labour to take. The sad fact is that all parties sometimes 'go negative' in local elections - it has even been known for the Lib Dems to do so.

Kathy - the Green candidate - is currently out of town, but she may have something to say when she gets back. The Greens hold 7 seats on the city council in Oxford, but their support is quite concentrated in specific areas and they have found it hard to break out into the wider city.

Kathy and I would be delirious if there was AV or another form of preferential voting so that the red-green alliance we have in our household (!) could develop politically.