Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Will Oxford get Tory Councillors by the back door?

As anyone at all conversant with the politics of Oxford can tell you, this city is one of Britain’s many Tory-free zones. The Conservative party repeatedly poll fourth across Oxford. This leaves us with a County Council which is run by a party which has no representation at any level in the capital of the shire it claims to represent. But might that be about to change?

Of course, I’m not imagining that the Conservatives are going to storm to victory in the good clean fight of an election. We don’t have elections here this May. And recent by-elections haven’t shown any improvement in the Tories’ performance – quite the opposite: all the more effort they put in, the lower their vote goes. This is much to the chagrin of the Leader of the County, the councillor known as Kaiser Keith. He’s an intelligent, amiable but incorrigibly unreconstructed Tory: the sort of person who thinks that Jeremy Clarkson is a real man, and who imagines wearing a pound sign in his lapel will be some sort of talisman against progress.

Kaiser Keith is acutely aware of the perceived injustice of rural Conservatives lording it over a Tory-free city. And if he can’t change the electors, perhaps he’ll have more luck with those who’ve been elected. For there are rumours flying that there may be at least one city councillor willing to defect to Mr Cameron’s party.

Since last May, there has been one Independent councillor, a former LibDem. It is apparently an open secret that he has been in talks with Kaiser K. The rumours seem to be even more persistent than those of a few years ago which had it that the same councillor was about to defect to either Labour or the Greens. Those predictions came to nothing then and perhaps the same is the case now. After all, the Leader of the County might shrewdly have calculated that getting a lone councillor on the City is not much of a coup.

But, that one Independent is now a group: he has been joined by a councillor I genuinely like and respect. And, within weeks (and just before I left the country last month), the two Independents have been photographed giving the Leader and Deputy of the County a tour of part of the city-centre. Personally, I’m surprised that Keith needed the introduction and I wonder how long it will be before he asks to get to know the other 95% of the city. But, let’s not be churlish: it’s brave of him even to hint at such a political romance in public. The question now is: will this apparent flirtation actually be consummated? Will Oxford’s smallest political group rush to offer up the cherished cherry of their Independence? Or, considering the Tories’ poor reputation, will they not don the blue rosette until after the next elections that they have to fight?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fears for Two Tiers -- Part II

I said yesterday that Labour councillors were feeling sore. But their aches would seem to have nothing on those of Oxford East’s present MP, Andrew Smith.

This is the only way to explain his outburst in yesterday’s local rag. Under the banner ‘Unitary bid was wrong’, Mr Smith opines that Oxford should have put in a totally different bid from that which was submitted.

Hold on – this is the bid which had cross-party support in Oxford, was signed by the Leader of the Labour Group and was described as ‘excellent’ by at least one leading Labour councillor. It is also the bid which Mr Smith claimed to be promoting in the corridors of Whitehall.

There was no sign in the past months that Smith was out of step with his local Labour party, no hint that he would have advised the Council to have acted differently.

On the contrary, he was telling his comrades that his chats with his former Cabinet colleagues were winning the day and that he’d been assured Oxford would be on the shortlist. So, Mr Smith must now look at himself in the mirror and feel he’s got a face like an omlette.

The result is that he’s tying himself up in all sorts of verbal contortions. He’s now singing the praise of the ‘excellent’ County Council – I wonder if he’ll join the campaign launched in the same issue of the Oxford Mail by a long-term Labour County Councillor to get the Leader of the County a knighthood (Arise, Sir Kaiser K).

He’s also saying that the city should have gone it alone in its unitary bid, without talking to the other districts or having the vision to look beyond its own boundaries. What a recipe for constructive joint working and sound financing of improved services that would have proven! Probably best that you keep your thoughts to yourself, Andrew.

It seems to be a case of ‘blame anyone but me’. Andrew Smith isn’t doing himself any favours. It would be much better if he were man enough to shoulder responsibility and admit he’d failed. Indeed, if he had any good grace, he would apologise to the city that he’s let down, but I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Fears for Two Tiers

So, I’ve been away for a few weeks and return to find there are not many happy Labour faces round the Town Hall. They’ve been let down by their own government, again.

What was at stake? Some would say nothing other than the future of Oxford. The City Council had put in a bid for Oxford to become a unitary authority. The hope of breaking free of County Hall shimmered like a glimpse of the Promised Land. But, last week, the hope lost its gloss as Ms Kelly announced that we had not made the shortlist of contenders for unitary status.

Others have already had their say on the decision itself. I want to concentrate on its political fallout. For there are, indeed, good reasons for Labour to be glum.

The most obvious reason is one that we all can share: if the big chiefs of New Labour continue to be bent on wrecking the two tier system of local government, then further down the line might we end up with a unitary Oxfordshire County Council? Shudder at the thought: County Hall is so out of touch with the needs and desires of the county’s capital, their march on the city would be less welcome than the arrival of the Greeks at the gates of Troy.

But councillors of the New Labour persuasion aren’t worried just about that. The disappointment of the decision is more bitter for them because they were so convinced that their friends in high places would be able to win the day for our bid. They must feel let down not just by their own government but even by their own MP. Ex-cabinet minister Andrew Smith had, it is clear, offered to act the Fairy God-Mother, promised they could all go to the ball, waved his wand – and failed to work any magic. Looked at objectively, a failure of persuasive skills on Smith’s part is hardly revelation of a previously unnoticed character flaw, but Labour locally seemed to have unbending faith in him right up to the last minute.

But it wasn’t just idealism that led them to share our support for the bid. I hope they won’t mind me mentioning that they saw it as part of their political gameplan. They anticipate a general election in 2008 and hoped for all-out elections for the new unitary on the same day as the parliamentary vote. They have reached a conclusion which recent electoral history makes unavoidable: to achieve an outright majority in Oxford’s council demands all seats being up at one time. The political map of Oxford is too complex to hold out much hope of Labour being able to sweep the board when only half the seats on the council are contested. To jump from 18 to at least 25 councillors in one election of 24 seats would demand that all the other parties had a very bad day. On the other hand, if all seats were up at the same time, with the increased turn-out of a general election, then maybe, just maybe (Labour thought) they may be able to return to their unfettered majority of 2002.

So, if you pass a Labour councillor and see a tear in their eye, don’t be perplexed: Mr Smith’s failure and Ms Kelly’s decision have, on Labour’s calculations, condemned Oxford to a future of hung councils. It’s brought them down to earth with a bump as painful as the heaviest drunken slip on the stairs.