The honey-stone centre of Chipping Norton and its affluent surrounding villages were once famed as the haunts of former PM David Cameron, along with his set of wealthy, powerful media and political allies. It is perhaps, then, the last place you would expect to witness the stirrings of anti-Tory southern rebellion. But this month it happened when the Cotswolds ward – along with nine others in Oxfordshire – rejected the Conservatives.
This week could see a rainbow, progressive coalition – made up of Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens – put the Conservatives into opposition for the first time in the county’s history. This comes after an alliance of non-Tory councillors last week took power in Cambridgeshire after the Conservatives lost control of the county – as well as losing the mayoral contest to Labour. The blue citadel of Tunbridge Wells borough council was also breached as the Conservatives lost their overall majority for the first time in more than 20 years.
These shifts in voter behaviour have received less attention than Labour’s ongoing struggles in some former red wall seats in the Midlands and the north, but some pollsters believe the crumbling of southern Tory strongholds could pose the party serious electoral problems. Professor Rob Ford of Manchester University argues that relatively affluent, well-educated voters are turning against the Tories in parts of the south-east, reflecting the breakdown of traditional, class-based voting patterns since the EU referendum. “The Conservatives risk falling into the same trap that New Labour did when it won in the south,” he says. “You get so excited about your advance in terrain that’s unfamiliar that you lose touch with your traditional heartlands.
“If the loyalties of Tory voters are stretched to breaking point, then it could get quite dramatic.”
Chipping Norton’s victorious Labour county councillor, Geoff Saul, is still coming to terms with his narrow 60-vote win, which encompasses the town and rural villages. “It’s a bit of a shock,” he said, in the cramped back room of his solicitor’s firm in the town. “It’s been a safe Conservative seat for 15 years.”
The signs of change were there if you looked closely, however. Saul and his small band of party activists have been patiently making inroads for years. “When I first moved here [20 years ago], most other councillors were Conservative. We’ve now got three Labour district councillors and 11 out of the 16 town councillors are Labour. Market towns have not been fertile territory for Labour, but we’ve turned Chippy red.”
There is plenty of evidence of this localised red surge, with Labour placards still adorning Cotswold-stone cottages and blooming, pretty gardens throughout the town. For some, there is pure jubilation. “I’m so pleased. I’ve just tweeted ‘I’m having soup in the people’s republic of Chipping Norton’,” says Edwina Lawrence, 69, an NHS coach, sitting outside a cafe on the High Street. “I’m very happy.”
Labour can count on unionised workers, mostly in the public sector, and increasingly professionals too. “The cottages that used to be for tweed mill workers 100 years ago are now full of university professors and teachers – that’s where I get lots of my votes,” says Saul.
Younger graduates with progressive voting habits are also moving from cities like Oxford. “[The result in Oxfordshire] goes against what is happening in the rest of the country, but maybe it is because of the move out of Oxford,” said Nicola Chadwick, 34outside the town’s Midcounties Co-operative, which has its roots in workers organising in the industrial revolution. “I’ve just moved [from Oxford]. I voted Labour and Green.”
Meanwhile, the Conservative vote is breaking for progressive parties. Rachel Stringer, 30, who previously always voted Tory, opted for Labour. “I’ve lost faith in the Tories. Brexit had a big impact because I’m anti-Brexit. I cried the morning after the referendum,” she says. “I thought I would never vote Labour – it’s bizarre.”
Other Conservatives feel overlooked and switched to the Greens. “It was a protest vote with a heart,” says Tina Gibbons, while her spaniel waits at her feet. Her friend, Sarah Eve, also turned against the Tories: “[This town] was very high-profile when we had David Cameron but it has been neglected since”
These painful upheavals for the ruling party were repeated across the county. The Lib Dems gaining eight councillors and the Greens three councillors. The Conservative leader of the council and chair of the LGA’s wellbeing board, Ian Hudspeth, lost to his Lib Dem opponent, Andy Graham.
While local issues such as contentious housing developments played their part, there is agreement that underlaying changes in traditional voting patterns are making life harder for the Conservatives in Oxfordshire.
The thoughtful new leader of the Conservative group, Eddie Reeves, says: “The party focus is quite understandably in growth areas. That will necessarily entail growing pains elsewhere. We are part of the unloved Tory shires.”
Oxfordshire Tory MPs such as John Howell in Henley and Victoria Prentis in Banbury, he adds,should not be complacent, he warns. “Those majorities were inflated by getting Brexit done and the Corbyn fear factor. I could well see them, a bit like a souffle, going [down] at the next election if there’s a strong Labour or Lib Dem challenger,” he says. “They are not as rock solid as they seem.”