South East Boundary Changes Part 9: Oxfordshire

by Jackie_South on July 20, 2012

The final county for our series on the Boundary Commission’s proposals for parliamentary constituencies in South East England is Oxfordshire.  The map below summarises the current constituencies and the margin by which the winning party won them in 2010.

The county’s seats consist of a rural ring of four safely Conservative constituencies around two marginal seats based on Oxford and Abingdon.  The changes proposed are relatively minor, as the county has sufficient electors to retain its current six constituencies and all exceed the new statutory minimum of 72,810.  However, population growth in the county has meant that two current seats exceed the statutory maximum of 80,473, and so some alterations have been necessary.

These proposals are shown in the map below, with the current boundaries in dark blue and the proposed ones in green.  Below, we look at each of the proposed seats in more detail.

Henley
The constituency of Henley is based around the small, affluent towns of Henley-on-Thames (home to the annual Royal Regatta) and Thame.  Henley-on-Thames is near the point where the three Thames Valley counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire meet and is also the location of Friar Park, George Harrison’s neo-Gothic mansion that he put up as collateral to fund the making of Life of Brian just so that he could get to see the finished film.  Eric Idle described it as “the most expensive cinema ticket in movie history”.

Thame is actually slightly larger than the titular Henley.  Robin Gibb’s medieval mansion was at Thame and he was buried there last month.

Beyond these towns, the constituency is largely rural, wrapping round the eastern side of Oxford.  The River Thames forms the southern and western boundary between Henley and Oxford, with a detour where the county boundary has been moved to put the Caversham area with Reading in Berkshire.  North of Oxford, the boundary roughly follows the River Cherwell, reaching almost as far north as Bicester.  The constituency includes Dorchester-on-Thames, now a small village but capital of Wessex in the seventh century and still an important religious centre until the dissolution of the monasteries.  Nearby is Berinsfield, built on the site of the air field from where Glenn Miller took his last fatal flight.

The constituency is safely Conservative.  Labour got within 10% in both 1945 and 1966, but the Liberal Democrats have been the second-placed party here since Michael Heseltine first became its MP in 1974.  In 2001, Heseltine bequeathed the seat to Boris Johnson, another politician famous for his blond locks.  After becoming mayor of London, Johnson in turn passed the constituency to the more staid John Howell at a 2008 by-election.  Howell’s majority in 2010 was 16,588 (31%) votes over the Liberal Democrats.

The current constituency is just large enough under the rules, but the need to shift voters from elsewhere have led to two additions being recommended by the Boundary Commission.  The first takes in rural areas to the south and east of Bicester, bringing the boundary to the ring-road surrounding that town.  Further south, Radley ward is transferred across the Thames from Oxford West and Abingdon, despite an absence of road bridges across this stretch of the Thames.

These changes would have increased the numerical majority in 2010 slightly, whilst decreasing the percentage lead slightly.  Our projection of that 2010 general election result based on the proposed boundaries is:

Banbury
Banbury, Oxfordshire’s second-largest town, lies in the north of the county: in fact it serves as a centre for communities in two other regions: Northamptonshire in the East Midlands and Warwickshire in the West Midlands.

The other major centre in the constituency is Bicester, the county’s fourth town.  It does not get billing in the constituency name despite being larger than Henley, Wantage or Witney.

The constituency’s most famous MP was Lord North, Tory Prime Minister for the 12 years covering the years of the American Revolution.  The seat was practically a North family in the eighteenth century, but returned Whig and Liberal MPs for most of the nineteenth.   The Conservatives won the seat back in 1922 and have held it ever since.  The current incumbent, Tony Baldry, has a 18,227 vote (32.4%) majority over the Liberal Democrats, with Labour 700 votes behind the Lib Dems.

Labour had managed to limit the majority to 4,737 (8.1%) in 1997, and had been regularly second before 2010.  Labour has six councillors (of the 41) in the constituency, five in Banbury and one in Bicester.  Of these six, three are in Banbury’s Ruscote ward, with its large Kraft plant.  The other 35 are all Conservatives.

Both Banbury and Bicester are (relatively) thriving, and so the constituency is now the largest in the county – at 84,063 electors well over the new statutory maximum.  As a result two rural wards to the south and east of Bicester are removed, although this will only marginally reduce the Conservative lead.   Our projection of that 2010 general election result based on the proposed boundaries is:

Wantage
The town of Wantage (birthplace of Alfred the Great) lies near the middle of the constituency, but is not its largest town.  The railway town of Didcot, with its massive power station that can be seen clearly from twenty miles away, is over twice the size.

The entirety of this constituency was part of Berkshire until the 1974 changes in county boundaries, and also includes the historic towns of Wallingford and Faringdon, as well as the Bronze Age Uffington White Horse on White Horse Hill, the highest point in the county.

The Liberal Democrats do best around Wantage itself and towards Abingdon, whilst Labour has councillors in Didcot, but the constituency is safely Conservative.

The constituency was created in 1983, and the Tories have won it in every election, with Ed Vaizey holding a 13,547 vote (24.1%) majority over the Liberal Democrats in 2010.  However, it was briefly held by Labour in 2005, when Vaizey’s predecessor Robert Jackson defected shortly before standing down at that year’s election.  Before its current creation, the constituency formed the majority of the Abingdon constituency held by Airey Neave until his murder.

No changes are proposed to the constituency.  The result in 2010 was:

Witney
David Cameron’s constituency of Witney is coterminous with the district of West Oxfordshire, covering much of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds.  Its towns are Witney itself, Carterton, Chipping Norton, Charlbury, Woodstock and Burford.  Brize Norton, the RAF’s main transport base, is in the constituency near Carterton.

The constituency has long had associations with affluence: Woodstock is home to Blenheim Palace and Chipping Norton is famous for the Chipping Norton set of otherwise London-based politicians, media moguls and celebrities.  It has even been known to host the annual AllThatsLeft board shindig.

The constituency was first created in 1983 from parts of the old Mid Oxon and Banbury seats and has been safely Conservative: the closest result was in 1997 when Labour squeezed the majority to 7,028 votes (12.4%).

However, Labour have held the seat, briefly, when the victor in that contest, Shaun Woodward, defected to Labour in 1999 before being found a safe seat in St Helens for the 2001 general election.  David Cameron owes his safe seat to this defection.

Woodward’s predecessor (and MP for Mid Oxon before that) was Douglas Hurd, who was home secretary and foreign secretary before deciding to stand down in 1997.

Since May, Labour has four councillors in the constituency: two in Chipping Norton and two in Witney.  The Liberal Democrats also have four, in Charlbury, Eynsham and Woodstock.  That still leaves 41 Conservatives on the council.

The constituency has a sufficient number of electors to avoid any changes being proposed.  David Cameron’s majority of 22,740 (39.4%) in 2010 is the largest in the seat to date:

Abingdon and Oxford North
Despite the change of name, this proposed constituency is similar to the current Oxford West and Abingdon seat.  Only two wards have changed hands, and despite the name change the proposed seat is more ‘Oxford’, less ‘north’ and less ‘Abingdon’ than the current one.

The current constituency has three parts.  First, there is the western side of Oxford, including part of the city centre and some colleges of the University.  This stretches north to Wolvercote and west to Botley, just across the borough boundary in the Vale of White Horse district.  The northern leg tends to be middle-class and academic, although the western Jericho and Osney ward is more working class.  See the ward maps for the Oxford constituency below for more detail.

The second element comes in the form of Oxfordshire’s third-largest town, Abingdon, to the south.  Abingdon was the county town of Berkshire until it was moved, along with the rest of the Vale of White Horse district, into Oxfordshire in 1974.

The third element is the large village of Kidlington to the north of Oxford in the Cherwell district.  Kidlington is home to Oxford’s privately-run airport.

The Liberal Democrats do well in the Oxford section, whilst the Conservatives are strong around Kidlington and parts of Abingdon.  Evan Harris won the seat from the Conservatives in 1997, thanks to those liberal middle-classes of Oxford.  He held it until 2010, when he unexpectedly lost to Conservative Nicola Blackwood.  Blackwood’s majority over Harris was a slender 176 votes (0.3%).

Why did Harris lose?  There were probably three factors.  The first was the national swing.  Secondly, the boundary changes in 2010 moved some of central Oxford from this seat to the Oxford East seat – both Carfax and Holywell wards were in Oxford West and Abingdon before that year, covering most of the university colleges.  Finally, those boundary changes and Labour’s unpopularity then with students persuaded the Lib Dems to throw all their efforts into winning Oxford East, and relied too heavily on Harris’ popularity to keep him in place.

The proposed boundary changes will help the Liberal Democrats with the second of those factors.  The proposals bring back in Carfax ward (covering the heart of the city centre) where Conservative support is weak and remove Radley ward, which also has a Lib Dem lead but more Conservative voters.    Our projection shows that this would have been enough to save Harris in 2010:

Oxford
This constituency is the successor of the current Oxford East constituency.  The name change is a little curious, as the constituency covers less of the city, and is therefore more ‘east’, than the current one.

As the ward map below shows, Oxford is contested locally by three parties, but not the Conservatives.  Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens contest the city, with the Liberal Democrats and Greens strongest in the middle-class and university-orientated areas to the north-west and centre.  The colleges of the University itself are most concentrated in Carfax and Holywell wards, whilst Headington is home to Oxford Brookes University.  Wrapped around these areas to the south, east and west is a horseshoe of Labour wards, centred on the former Morris Motors plant at Cowley and the deprived outlying council estate of Blackbird Leys.

With the boundary changes in 2010, Labour’s unpopularity with students at the time and tight 2005 result (Labour only beat the Lib Dems by 963 votes then), the Liberal Democrats thought they had a good chance to win the constituency.  They did not manage to pull it off, and Labour’s Andrew Smith increased his majority to 4,581 (8.9%).

Oxford East now has 81,644 voters, and so has to lose a ward in the boundary proposals.  This is Carfax ward in the city centre, and as our 2010 vote estimate per ward map below shows, this will serve to strengthen Labour’s position.

Our projection of that 2010 general election result based on the proposed boundaries is:

Conclusion
Unusually, it looks as if Oxfordshire is somewhere where the Conservatives do relatively less well.  The changes to the highly marginal Abingdon and Oxford North constituency are sufficient to notionally nudge it back into the Liberal Democrat column, although by a very small margin.  This will be the seat to watch in the constituency next time around.

Labour’s position against the Liberal Democrats is strengthened in the renamed Oxford seat.  The ring of four rural constituencies around those central seats remains safely Conservative.

The map below summarises the notional 2010 margins in each of the proposed constituencies.

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