Cllr. Eddie Reeves is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Oxfordshire County Council and the councillor for Banbury Calthorpe. He is also an Executive member of Cherwell District Council and the Political Deputy Chairman of the North Oxfordshire Conservative Federation.
Westminster politics seems more faddish and less relevant than ever to Conservatives beyond SW1. Increasingly remote from everyday life – that uniquely British sense of ‘getting on with it’ (whatever one makes of ‘it’) – the voters, too, now know it. Reliable tribalism is breaking down and demographic changes, so propitious for us in recent elections, look decidedly less so in future.
Two questions besetting party strategists are “Is there an electoral crunch coming?” and, if so, “what can we do about it?”
The second of these questions is tantamount to asking: “What is the Conservative Party for in 2023?”
Let me confine myself instead to the first question, with a view to drawing a broader electoral lesson from my adoptive county of Oxfordshire.
So, are we facing an electoral crunch?
Well, if we are facing one now, it seems likely to consist of two crunches or, more correctly, a Southern Crumple and a Northern Crunch.
The crunchier component is easier to see. The Red Wall has steadily shifted towards the Conservatives since 2005. Indeed, but for a maladroit manifesto and insurgent Corbyn campaign, it might have been 2017 – not 2019 – that proved a landslide year. (As a proud Midlander, I should add that about a third of Boris’s Red Wall gains in 2019 were across the East and West Midlands. The Red Wall is more than ‘the North’.)
Just as the practice of politics is faddish, political commentary follows its fashions. Talk of Boris ‘bursting through the Red Wall’ in 2019 was modish, but overblown. Rather, a 15-year flushing of Red Wall seats and a deeper disparity in the parties’ national vote shares better accounts for his stunning success.
Compare the parties’ general election scores and the fog soon clears: an impressive 42.3 per cent for Theresa May in 2017 versus Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable 40 per cent, set against Boris’s stouter 43.6 per cent in 2019, dwarfing Corbyn’s meagre 32.1 per cent. Simply put, whilst 2019 saw Conservative votes stacked in similar numbers and in similar seats, Labour votes were not only harder to come by but less efficiently distributed.
So, that is the Northern Crunch awaiting us, if we do not get our acts together. But, what of the Southern Crumple?
Well, it depends on what one means by the Blue Wall. I worry that Conservative cognoscenti increasingly see it as a smattering of liberal, affluent and anti-Brexit seats across the South East of England. On such a definition, a Southern Crumple would be a lesser worry than a Northern Crunch, comprising no more than 10-12 constituencies and greatly eclipsed by the Red Wall at 48-52 seats.
I sincerely doubt that the Blue Wall is so narrow. Indeed, I suspect that it is much broader based on my observations of Oxfordshire’s politics which, I hazard, is the Blue Wall in Microcosm. It all comes back to the remorseless logic of First Part The Post (‘FPTP’): how votes are stacked and where they are spread is everything.
Since 2017, Oxfordshire has gone from great to egregious for Conservative candidates. Before Theresa May’s snap election, the county’s marginal seat of Oxford West & Abingdon was Conservative-held, all tiers of local government beyond the progressive fief of Oxford City Council were Conservative-run, with Oxfordshire County Council – traditionally, the hardest-fought of local government elections, given its one-quarter of Oxford divisions – just a seat shy of an overall Conservative majority.
Fast forward to today and the situation looks rather bleaker. We are 8,944 votes shy of wresting back Oxford West & Abingdon, have just one District Councillor across two of the county’s Southern-most districts and hold no majority in any Council chamber, save for my own Town Council in Banbury, which is up for election next year.
Not to put too fine a point on it, traditionally gold-standard Conservative seats such as Banbury, Henley and Wantage (the latter two, having been renamed Henley & Thame and Didcot & Wantage) could all go at the next election unless the party invests time and resource into them now. The party’s 80:20 strategy is misconceived, and Red and Blue Wallers in the know should start saying so.
The Law of the Crumple is this: when seats go, they go en bloc. The Southern Crumple could well follow our experience in Oxfordshire, where local losses have followed no discernible sequence and where only marginal increases in the stay-at-home Conservative vote allied to clearer tactical alternatives have spelt big losses.
The difficulty for party strategists, meanwhile, is this: will the Law of the Crumple see counties like Somerset, Surrey, Cambridgeshire and Gloucestershire with comparable suburban and peri-urban constituencies replicate these losses at a general election?
The sunny side is that we may yet be helped by our old friend, the squeeze message. In 2021, Oxfordshire delivered a ‘well hung’ Council: three parties of roughly equal size. However, by working to a clear strategy, we have – as of last month – seen the back of a ‘progressive’ coalition in County Hall, comprising Liberal Democrats, Labour, and the odd Green Councillor.
Looking ahead, we now have a very clear message to put to voters in 2025 when Oxfordshire next goes to the polls: vote Conservative for competence and clarity; vote anything else for omnishambles.