Coverage of local election results begins to gather pace on the evening of polling day, and peters out by roughly the close of the following weekend.
Unsurprisingly, it tends to focus on results from councils that change political control. But to get a fuller picture of what’s happened, one needs also to look at those that don’t. Hence this new fortnightly series on ConservativeHome.
Case study: Oxfordshire.
Control: No Overall Control.
Numbers: Conservatives 22, Liberal Democrats 21, Labour 15, Greens 3, Independent 2.
Change at last local elections: Conservatives -9, Liberal Democrats +8, Labour +1, Greens +3, Independents -2.
All out or thirds: All out
Background: This is a local authority where the Conservatives would normally be expected to be the dominant force – even in electorally difficult times. The political divide is between the City of Oxford – where Labour and the Lib Dems are strongest – and the rest of the county with its “safe” Conservative territory.
The six Parliamentary seats have included some illustrious Conservative representatives. Henley was represented by Boris Johnson – who took over from Michael Heseltine. Witney did have a Labour MP at one stage – but that was a result of Shaun Woodward’s defection so does not really count in the context of electoral analysis. Woodward succeeded Douglas Hurd and was succeeded by David Cameron. At the last General Election, in December 2019, both those constituencies were won by the Conservatives with comfortable majorities well into five figures – as were Banbury and Wantage. Of the other two seats, Oxford East was won by Labour with a large majority. However, the Oxford West and Abingdon result might have been seen as a warning for the Conservatives. Layla Moran not merely held the seat for the Lib Dems – but saw her majority increase from 816 to 8943. The Boundary Commission proposes an extra seat for the county – Bicester.
Another warning for the Conservatives came in the 2019 district council elections. The Lib Dems made big gains on South Oxfordshire and the Vale of the White Horse.
Oxfordshire County Council was created in 1973. During that time it has switched from being Conservative to long periods of No Overall Control – though even then usually still Conservative-led. There was a period in the 1980s when the political parties took it in turns to chair the different committees – in practice the bureaucrats being in charge without much political “interference.” The Conservatives have never been in opposition here before.
Results: Labour’s gain of Chipping Norton caught the attention of the media, as it seemed so incongruous – this is the wealthy area near where David Cameron lives (though the town has a Labour tradition). The Cotswold stone cottages with pretty gardens are “full of university professors”, the Labour councillor Geoff Saul declared adding: “That’s where I get lots of my votes.”
But the main story was of Conservative losses to the Liberal Democrats. Concerns over planning were the main factor. That is an issue for district councils rather than county councils. However, that was not a distinction that Lib Dem canvassers were entirely scrupulous about acknowledging during their doorstep conversations. The Lib Dems now lead the Council in a “progressive alliance” with the Labour Party and the Green Party. After decades as part of the establishment in the county, the Oxfordshire Conservatives must now adapt to becoming a resistance movement.