The honey stone center of Chipping Norton and its surrounding wealthy villages were once renowned as the haunts of former Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as his wealth of powerful media and political allies. This might be the last place you expect to see the stirs of the anti-conservative Southern rebellion. But this month, it happened when the Cotswolds – along with nine others in Oxfordshire – rejected the Tories.
This week could see a rainbow progressive coalition – made up of Liberal Democrats, Labor and Greens – put the Tories in opposition for the first time in county history. It comes after an alliance of non-Tory councilors last week seized power in Cambridgeshire after the Tories lost control of the county – as well as the loss of the mayoral contest to Labor. The Blue Citadel in Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has also been violated, with the Tories losing their overall majority for the first time in more than 20 years.
These changes in voter behavior have received less attention than Labor’s ongoing struggles in some former Red Wall seats in the Midlands and North, but some pollsters believe the collapse of Tory strongholds in the south could pose the party to serious electoral problems. Professor Rob Ford of the University of Manchester argues that relatively affluent and well-educated voters are turning against the Tories in parts of the South East, reflecting the collapse of traditional class-based voting patterns since the referendum on the ‘EU. “The Conservatives risk falling into the same trap that New Labor did when it won in the south,” he said. “You are so excited about your progress in uncharted territory that you lose touch with your traditional heart.
“If the loyalty of Conservative voters is taken to breaking point, it could become quite dramatic.”
Victorious Chipping Norton County Councilor Geoff Saul is still coming to terms with his narrow 60-vote victory, which spans town and rural villages. “It’s a bit of a shock,” he said in the cramped back room of his law firm in the city. “It has been a secure Conservative seat for 15 years.”
However, the signs of change were there if you looked closely. Saul and his small group of party activists have been making patient progress for years. “When I first moved here [20 years ago], most of the other advisers were conservative. We now have three Labor District Councilors and 11 of the 16 City Councilors are Labor. Market towns have not been fertile ground for Labor, but we have switched to Chippy red.
There is plenty of evidence of this localized red wave, with job signs still adorning the Cotswold stone cottages and pretty flower gardens throughout the town. For some, there is pure jubilation. ” I am so happy. I just tweeted, ‘I’m having soup in the People’s Republic of Chipping Norton,’ said NHS coach Edwina Lawrence, 69, sitting outside a cafe on the main street. ” I am very happy. “
Workers can count on unionized workers, mainly in the public sector, and increasingly on professionals. “The cabins that were once reserved for tweed factory workers 100 years ago are now filled with college professors and teachers – that’s where I get a lot of votes,” Saul says.
Young graduates with progressive voting habits are also leaving cities like Oxford. ” [The result in Oxfordshire] goes against what’s happening in the rest of the country, but maybe it’s because of the move from Oxford, ”said Nicola Chadwick, 34 outside the city’s Midcounties Co-op , which has its roots in the organization of workers in the industrial revolution. “I just moved [from Oxford]. I voted Labor and Green. “
Meanwhile, the Conservative vote breaks for the progressive parties. Rachel Stringer, 30, who previously voted Conservative, has opted for Labor. “I lost faith in the Conservatives. Brexit had a big impact because I am anti-Brexit. I cried the day after the referendum, ”she said. “I thought I would never vote for Labor – it’s weird.
Other conservatives feel neglected and have switched to the Greens. “It was a protest vote with a heart,” says Tina Gibbons, as her spaniel waits at her feet. Her friend, Sarah Eve, also turned against the Conservatives: “[This town] was very high profile when we had David Cameron, but he’s been overlooked ever since ”
These painful upheavals for the ruling party were repeated across the county. The Lib Dems win eight advisers and the Greens three advisers. Tory board chief and LGA Welfare Board chairman Ian Hudspeth lost to Lib Dem opponent Andy Graham.
While local issues such as contentious property developments have played their part, it is understood that the changes underlying traditional voting patterns are making life more difficult for Tories in Oxfordshire.
The new and thoughtful leader of the Conservative group, Eddie Reeves, says: “It is completely understandable that the party is focusing on areas of growth. This will necessarily cause growing pains elsewhere. We are one of the unloved Tory counties. “
Tory Oxfordshire MPs such as John Howell in Henley and Victoria Prentis in Banbury, he adds, should not be complacent, he warns. “These majorities have been inflated by the achievement of Brexit and Corbyn’s fear factor. I could see them, a bit like a souffle, go away [down] in the next election, if there is a strong Labor challenger or Lib Dem, ”he said. “They are not as strong as they seem.”