Saturday, October 21, 2006

Where have all the Tories gone?

In my favourite weekend paper, The Financial Times, the death of the Tory party is announced. Well, not a complete demise – paralysis is confined to certain limbs, in particular the North-East of England, you will be relieved / disappointed / utterly uninterested to learn. This is a media-take on a new report from those clever girls and boys at Unlock Democracy, which is Charter 88 for the Noughties.

As always, there are questions over methodology – the report may actually paint a rosier picture than is the case, as it is necessarily biased to the responses received: what about all those constituency parties that couldn’t even find someone to hold the pen? And I’m also interested to know why our own party was more active than the others in responding – a sign of our vitality or that LibDems are more naturally inclined politely to comply with requests for form-filling?

But what struck me is that, in this new political map of Britain, Oxford would seem to have ended up in the North-East. We live in a county which has Tory MPs for whom the adjectives 'high' and 'flying' could have been invented - not to forget Boris Johnson and Tony Baldry. But within that county exists a rosebud (for all you Citizen Kane fans) of a Tory-free haven. The Witney wonder (as you’ll remember, it’s wonder as in wonder what he stands for) really has a credibility problem in his own backyard. He may claim to be the Tory Blair – I think that title’s already taken, Dave – claiming to provide a Conservative party for all but here in his own county, his success is confined to the countryside.

There have been no Tory councillors representing Oxford wards or divisions for several years. The last time there was a Conservative, there was just one and she fled to Wales before her time was done. What’s more, there appears to be very little Tory party organisation in this city. Whenever there’s a by-election, they have to parachute in their activists, including the Leader of the County Council – and still they come third or fourth. Even the address of Oxford East's Conservative Party is at Watlington, some ten miles from the constituency.

The Leader of the County, known to his friends as Kaiser Keith, and incidentally my parents’ local councillor (he should be proud), would dearly like to make a break-through in the city. Quite understandably, considering the Conservative mandate to run the County has this credibility problem, being seen as the imposition of the shire on an unwilling urban centre. But, it seems, their party just can’t create the organisation here. And, in truth, they are not helping themselves by making foolish decisions that just increase Tory unpopularity in Oxford.

Now, those who pass for campaigning gurus among them may decide that they can do without the university town. After all, they’re gunning to win back control of the Vale of White Horse Council in 2007, which covers Abingdon and the surrounding area and they realise they have a fight on their hands as the LibDem administration has been successful and popular. Shrewd tactics might convince them to accept the status quo and leave Oxford a Tory-free zone where the occasional appearance of Mr Cameron is met with wry amusement. But that would be poor strategy for them: how can they convince the country that they can govern when even in Oxfordshire they’ve forgotten what it’s like to represent a city?

Unlock Democracy has provided interesting data, organised by regions of the country. But much more worrying for the Conservative party than losing their presence in any one particular geographical area is becoming aliens in one type of settlement – the cities that drive our economy and society. Personally, I would rather like to take on a serious Tory challenge here. But I’m not holding my breath.

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