The Labour party has won a by-election in Oxford’s Carfax ward, which is largely populated by students. Labour’s Alex Hollingsworth, a past City Councillor who ran unsuccessfully for the seat this May, won with 168 votes. The Liberal Democrats were second on 101 and the Green party third on 63 votes.
The by-election was triggered following the resignation of Labour city councillor Anne-Marie Canning in July, who cited personal reasons for her decision. Approximately 70% of Carfax Ward residents are students.
Each ward has two representatives on Oxford City Council and they are elected on an alternate basis, meaning that every two years there is an election for one seat. Anne-Marie Canning had won her seat in 2012, while the other seat was won by the Green party in May 2014.
Although students were allowed to register for postal votes overall turnout at the election was low, at around 8.6%. This is compared to a 37% turnout in the same ward last May. The May election saw a Green party candidate elected.
When previously asked about the timing of the by-election, Deputy Leader of Oxford City Council Ed Turner told Cherwell, “It would be completely unacceptable to leave students without a second ward councillor, especially at the crucial start of term period, and delaying the by-election would serve no useful purpose as the electoral register would be massively out of date until March. It would include last year’s finalists who no longer live in Oxford, but exclude first years. I would encourage any students keen to participate to apply for a postal vote.”
Nevertheless, the holding of the election outside of term-time has seen hostile reaction.
Tony Brett, a past Liberal Democrat councillor, commented, “I thank Anne-Marie Canning for her work for the people of Carfax and point out that her resignation did not automatically trigger a by-election – that requires a request from two voters anywhere in the City. That request came just days later from two known Labour supporters and Labour will have known exactly on which date that would cause the-by-election to happen… I believe Labour’s actions were a cynical way to disenfranchise the huge numbers of students (who I imagine they think all vote Green) who are registered to vote in Carfax ward but are away on long vacation.”
Adam Ramsay, Co-Editor of OurKingdom on Open Democracy and past full time campaigner with People & Planet, wrote “a ‘rotten borough’ election in Oxford has won Labour a councillor on the lowest turnout in British electoral history – robbing the Greens of a winnable seat. The by-election in a mainly student ward was timed for the summer vacation – disenfranchising 60% of voters.”
He also added “8.6% is apparently the lowest turnout in British electoral history. It provides no mandate at all.”
Student campaigner Nathan Akehurst has created a petition to ‘acknowledge that the Carfax by-election was against the spirit of democracy and step down.’ The petition calls for Alex Hollingsworth to stand down and run in a by-election during term term, and currently has almost a hundred supporters as well as the Oxford University Liberal Democrats. Nathan Akehurst told Cherwell “turnout and presence issues aside, big parties often use snap by-elections to concentrate resources and crowd out popular smaller parties and independents- this summer Oxford Labour alone have used the tactic three times.”
Green Group Leader and councillor Sam Hollick commented on the party’s website, “this was a ‘sham election’ engineered by Labour to maximise their chances of retaining their remaining seat in Carfax ward following their defeat by the full electorate in May. I feel most sorry for the disenfranchised majority of electors.”
However, OULC has defended the decision. It stated “the turnout was disappointing, but in order for all the new freshers and students returning to live in college after living out to be able to vote, the election would have had to have been held in December when the new electoral register is published. This would have deprived Carfax of representation for too long, and it is unfair to suggest that Anne-Marie Canning, Alex’s predecessor, should have continued for several months in a job she felt unable to fulfil to the best of her ability after moving to London. It is also good to have a councillor in place, rather than a vacancy, at the start of a new academic year so students have the most effective representation at this busy time.”