For most of us, the last few years haven’t been a time for optimism in politics. There are a lot of students who feel unrepresented in the dramatic lurches that the country has been taking toward a right wing ‘Little England’. There are, of course, plenty of reasons for pessimism. Over the past few years Britain has voted to leave the European Union, potentially threatening Britain’s economic stability and certainly threatening the futures of the thousands of EU nationals who live in Oxford. Moreover, we have seen seven years of austerity measures fail to bring down the national debt at all—in fact it has more than doubled—while the worst off in our society are suffering.
The instinctive response to this is to listen to any voices that promise a change of course. It’s true that we have a Conservative government and a Conservative County Council which have imposed devastating cuts to public services—surely anything is better than that? Suddenly, everything is framed as oppositional—if you are not currently in government, you can ‘oppose’. And if you can oppose the same thing, then you stand for the same thing. Thus we are all ‘progressives’.
But we need to remember that not all ‘progressive’ parties are the same, and not every ‘progressive’ vote will create a more inclusive, equal and open society. Just because the parties of the left and centre are all in opposition doesn’t mean they don’t still stand for something – or have records in office to show what they would actually do.
I’d never joined, campaigned, or voted for a political party before coming to uni, but I’ve been convinced that for the sake of our futures and that of the worst off in our society there is one obvious choice. I’m going to be voting for a Labour government and Labour councillors for one simple reason – it makes a difference, to us and our communities.
Let’s take the County Council elections on 4 May. In these elections there will realistically be two parties which can form the main opposition to the Conservative leadership or even deny them the majority—Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This election will be vital, for among other reasons the Conservatives have put together a proposal to make Oxfordshire a unitary authority, abolishing the Labour majority Oxford City Council. Make no mistake, Oxford is very different to the rest of the county, which is a sea of Middle England blue on electoral maps, and this measure is designed to ensure public services in Oxford are forever Tory-run. What’s the response of the opposition parties? Labour are against, Lib Dems in favour.
Who runs our public services does matter. At the local level Labour councillors still make a difference in protecting frontline services and improving affordability of housing. While many students won’t know what’s being done by each of the different levels of local government, the difference is stark. The Labour-run Oxford City Council has been able to keep almost all frontline services open despite severe budget cuts. Indeed, its homelessness budget has increased to £1.7 million in the last year, while the County Council has cut its homelessness services to roughly nil, closing all its shelters in Oxford and leaving the homelessness rate to skyrocket.
This is a record matched across the country. Labour councils build an average of 2,577 new homes every year (Oxford has recently set up a local housing company backed by local authority finance to provide more affordable homes), while Tory councils build only 1,679—and Liberal Democrat councils even fewer. And, while many Lib Dems are I’m sure honest in the reforms they propose, they remain the party which was in a government under which NHS spending entered its longest ever sustained reduction in spending as a percentage of GDP, a government under which tuition fees trebled, and a government in which the number of rough sleepers doubled across the country and the number of people reliant on food banks went from the tens of thousands to the millions.
In Oxford, we’ll have a choice in these local elections as to what voice we send to represent us in the County Council. And while we may be driven by desperation to seek ‘progressive change’ in whatever form, the narrative that ‘all progressives are the same’ poses tremendous dangers.
This is not the time to believe rhetoric over reality. There are other choices, but this is equally not the time for protest votes; it’s too important for that. To save Oxford’s city council and what remains of its public services, to help the homeless and make Oxford more affordable, and to provide a strong opposition to Tory leadership who can be trusted to actually oppose, there need to be one particular ‘progressive’ party in the County Council—and I believe that party is Labour. On 4 May, make your vote count.