Universities are still hostile to the Tories
In the days of Sir Maurice Bowra, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, it would have been hard to imagine Oxford as being anything other than a Conservative stronghold. Academics, students, and college servants were all overwhelmingly Conservative in their sympathies, and Conservatives dominated the City Council. Sadly, that has all changed. Mark Seniorâ€™s description of the Conservatives as a â€œminor partyâ€ in the City is all too true. The Conservatives donâ€™t have a single councillor, and nor did they even come close to winning a seat on May 5th. They are the fifth party in Oxford, behind the Greens and something called the Independent Working Class Association.
In most areas dominated by universities, the situation is similar. There are no Conservative councillors in Cambridge, although they did manage to win 22% of the vote in May, and achieved close second places in two wards. In Manchester, there is not a single Conservative councillor. In Sheffield Hallam, Conservative until 1997, there are two out of twelve. Bristol West, once safely Conservative, is now dominated by Liberal Democrat councillors. In the student-dominated Headingley ward of Leeds, the Conservative vote is derisory.
There are a few shafts of sunlight for the Conservatives. They gained a seat in Pennsylvania ward, Exeter, and came a strong second in Duryard, both wards dominated by Exeter University. Across Bristol as a whole, they managed to come first in terms of vote share in May, although Clifton and Cotham wards were uncontested this year. But overall, itâ€™s clear that the best way of killing off the Conservative vote in any area is to build a university there.
In a way this is puzzling, as Universities like Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge, and Exeter have large and active Conservative associations. Nor are students anything like as left-wing, in general, as they are often portrayed (most are not particularly interested in politics). But there is no doubt that academics, and university workers, who are much more likely to vote locally than undergraduates, are now well to the left of the population as a whole in their politics. The local elections in May suggest that the Conservatives have made no headway among this section of the population at all, or indeed, among “Guardian Man and Woman” voters generally, in places like Twickenham and Hornsey & Wood Green.
This is hardly an exclusively British phenomenon. In the United States, and Australia, areas dominated by universities are also very strongly left-wing in their political sympathies.
Last night saw three by-elections:-
Harrow LBC: Harrow Weald. Lib Dem 1,288; Conservative 1,088; Labour 295; Green 74. Lib Dem gain from Conservative. This is a very good result for the Lib Dems as it enables them to form a group on Harrow Council. Harrow Weald was for a long time, a Lib Dem stronghold, and it was perhaps surprising that the Conservatives should have taken all three seats in May.
Statford DC: Alcester. Conservative 798; Lib Dem 638; Labour 54. Conservative gain from Lib Dem. A very strong Conservative performance, in a council which the Lib Dems seemed set to capture before 2003.
Elmbridge DC: Walton Central. Resident 656; Conservative 482; Lib Dem 115; Labour 53. Resident Hold.
Sean Fear is a London Conservative activist and writes a weekly column on local elections.