Daniel Stafford is Chairman of Oxford Conservative Association. He works in the city as Head of Fundraising and Communications for a national charity.
It always comes as a shock to those living outside Oxford to discover the Conservatives haven’t won a seat on the City Council since 2001. Oxford may seem a political anomaly in the blue shires of Oxfordshire, but the city bears comparable challenges to London, particularly in terms of a younger, more-transient, and internationalist electorate.
Labour has governed virtually uninterrupted for decades, occasionally troubled by brief insurgencies from the Liberal Democrats and Green Party. Even today, the so-called ‘opposition’ fail to offer any meaningful resistance to Labour, and for no wonder – they are so closely aligned that city politics is more a case of asking if you want your socialism medium-rare or well-done, rather than asking the more useful question of whether there might be a more sensible alternative.
The seeming absence of electoral threat enables Labour to feel they can act with impunity. Two-tiered government in Oxfordshire has provided a convenient bogeyman in the Conservative-led County Council. As elsewhere in England, the County has borne far higher expenditure challenges compared to the City Council, and despite the excellent work of Ian Hudspeth and his team, Labour use distraction tactics to complain about the County Council rather than defend their own record.
What is less surprising, but nevertheless equally shocking, are the consequences of this absence of sensible Conservative involvement in the town hall. In the 2018 district elections, Labour won 18 of the 24 wards in Oxford. In eleven of those wards Labour finished more than 30 per cent ahead of their nearest challengers. With such comfortable majorities, councillors who are supposed to reflect their communities and respond to their concerns are instead completely insulated from public opinion.
Proof of such insulation has been starkly seen in how Labour have handled three senior Councillors bringing their role into disrepute. Rhe former council leader, John Tanner, was subject to a complaint from Oxford Conservatives when he branded homeless people ‘a disgrace’ in 2017. Despite investigation, the Council’s standards committee did not find Cllr Tanner at fault; hardly a surprise given the party’s stranglehold on the committee. Shortly after the 2018 elections, recently re-elected councillor for Lye Valley, Ben Lloyd Shogbesan, was revealed to have made several disgraceful posts on social media, including material that was anti-Semitic. Cllr Shogbesan was restored the party whip after the standards committee decided that he wasn’t a councillor on a 24-7 basis, and had shown willingness to make amends for his posts.
Two incidents may seem unfortunate in isolation, but in early March, Deputy Mayor, Sajjad Malik, was given a 28-day domestic violence protection order at Oxford Magistrates’ Court. Despite being suspended by the Council leader, Cllr Susan Brown, he has not been expelled from the party, and remains both a sitting Councillor and Deputy Mayor. Whatever words Labour may say to the contrary at present, their track record shows greater inclination to pull ranks around their councillors, rather than insist that those who disgrace their office, party, and city, should resign.
Labour deafness is sadly not limited to the conduct of their councillors. In the past five years they have ignored resident protests about a new link-road right next to a children’s playground in the Northway estate; failed to build sufficient affordable housing at the new Westgate shopping complex; and recently overturned a Planning Committee decision regarding the site of a new school in Marston, despite strong and vocal opposition from local residents.
All of this could perhaps be forgiven if the Council was in any way effective, but lamentably for Oxford’s residents the Council talks a better game than it delivers. Oxford is officially the least affordable city in the UK; unsurprising when an ‘affordable’ three bedroom home in the new Barton Park estate came in at £595,000. Oxford has built consistently fewer affordable homes than the surrounding Conservative-led districts, and despite Labour’s long tenure in the town hall, desperate poverty remains entrenched in estates such as Blackbird Leys, Littlemore, and Barton.
We are determined that this should change. As the new Chairman of Oxford Conservatives, I have set up a Parliamentary petition calling for recall petitions to be introduced for local councillors, and challenged local party leaders to endorse it as well. This small measure may well go some way to restoring the faith of voters in democratic measures, not just in Oxford but also in other districts where councillors fail to behave honourably.
This is obviously not enough in itself; the only thing that will change the complacent, technocratic, and unresponsive culture at Oxford town hall will be the election of a significant Conservative team to hold the Council to account. Oxford is not a unique case – many other opposition dominated areas across the county urgently need a Conservative alternative articulated to voters. But it surely right and necessary that this fight should be won. Many political leaders pass through Oxford colleges, but so too do influencers in culture, business, and the media. Right now, the message they will hear is that it is absurd to be anything other than left-of-centre. Oxford’s voters don’t agree, and over the next two years it is our intention to make sure that their voice is heard.