“There is a God,” declares one Oxford Labour councillor after the announcement of Witney South and Central, in a stuffily crowded sports hall in Abingdon. “We threw everything we could at that one.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prevailing atmosphere among Labour party candidates and activists at the Oxfordshire County Council vote count isn’t one of optimism: Witney South is one of the biggest success of the day, with Labour’s Laura Price increasing her majority from a slim ten votes in 2013 to over a hundred. With losses in Banbury and gains in the city of Oxford, the Labour group has suffered a net loss of only one of the fifteen seats they won in the last election.
The Liberal Democrats, increasing their overall share of the vote, have made important gains in Abingdon, where Layla Moran hopes to unseat Nicola Blackwood in the general election in June. The ruling Conservatives undoubtedly hoped to gain at least the one extra seat they needed for a working majority—their palpable frustration at the prospect of another four years of a hung council, coupled with the loss of deputy group leader Rodney Rose (Charlbury and Wychwood), and council cabinet member for transport David Nimmo Smith (Henley), as well as their failure to take Abingdon East from the Lib Dems, has made it a disappointing day for what is still by far the biggest party in Oxfordshire.
None of the Oxford undergraduates standing in this election have become county councillors, though the Lib Dems’ Lucinda Chamberlain (University Parks) and Labour’s Lucas Bertholdi-Saad (Wolvercote & Summertown) have both increased their parties’ share of the vote in their respective divisions. Labour party candidate (and Jesus College history tutor) Emma Turnbull has won an impressive victory in the University Parks division, which includes most of the central Oxford colleges. With Brasenose student Lucinda Chamberlain in second place, fighting a campaign focused in the university community clearly pays off in the biggest student division in the county, unseating the incumbent Greens and winning Labour a 300-vote majority.
If there’s any cross-party mood in this hall, it’s the urgency with which these results are regarded by candidates and activists who, mid-campaign, found themselves fighting a very different kind of election.
“The election became entangled with the general election,” said former Green councillor David Williams, accounting for his defeat by Labour’s Helen Evans in Iffley Fields. For local party campaigners, these elections were a trial run, a warm-up. The results augur well for Anneliese Dodds’ chances of holding Oxford East for Labour in June, and perhaps for the Lib Dems’ campaign in Oxford West & Abingdon. Attitudes towards the election are shown here in microcosm: the Tories comfortably sure of winning, the Lib Dems’ expecting a revival with a campaign centred around Brexit. UKIP are, with only double-digit results in some divisions, out of action almost completely.
Labour’s strategy is one of defence. There may be little optimism, but there’s even fewer signs of resignation and defeatism. Despite these unexpectedly good results in target seats, few campaigners in the local party or university Labour club will take much time to celebrate. “Labour are the best party to represent young people. What we’ve done in Oxford, to ensure almost all students now have Labour councillors, we now need to do across the country in the next five weeks,” says OULC co-chair Tom Zagoria. “On Monday we’ll be back on the doorstep.”