On May 22nd, elections will be held for 50% of the seats on the Oxford City Council. A survey conducted by C+ has found that, whilst 61% of students plan to vote in the coming elections, only 15% would consider becoming a candidate. In light of this, and with a considerable number of current or former Oxford students running, C+ spoke to Labour’s Aled Jones and Eleanor Law, along with Maryam Ahmed and James Johnson of the Conservative Party, and Ruthi Brandt of the Green Party to discover why they’re running, and what we can expect from them.
Ahmed described herself as a “working class girl from an immigrant family”, going on to say that, ”I studied Engineering at Christ Church and now I’m doing a PhD at Wolfson.” She emphasised that, “I don’t mindlessly tow the party line. I’m a proud Conservative but I will applaud sensible policies and slap down stupid ones, regardless of party loyalty.
“Our Labour City Council is seriously lacking in common sense. This makes me angry and it should make you angry, too. I want to stand up for students and be the voice of reason and compassion on our City Council.”
Ruthi Brandt told C+ that, “ I came to Oxford to pursue a research degree in animal behaviour and during my time as a student I campaigned on issues ranging from wildlife conservation to climate change.” She claimed to be motivated by love, “I love this city, and have made it my home, but there are many things that need protecting and improving, and I want to be in a position to be able to do that.”
Eleanor Law, a third year at Hertford, explained that she was driven by a desire to counter the destructive work of national government. “I’m standing to be a councillor because l’m horrified by the cuts the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government have been making to our services, in particular the NHS, and their divisive, nasty and inaccurate attitude towards unemployed people and those receiving benefits.”
James Johnson of Brasenose said that he wanted to work to make the interface between students and the council more successful. “After living in Oxford for three and a half years, I’ve decided to stand as I feel there is a disconnect between students and the city council.”
Aled Jones, running for Labour, wants to use his student political experience on a bigger stage. He told C+, “As a previous chair of Oxford University Labour Club, I’ve seen first-hand the value that the Oxford City Council provide to the city, and it would be fantastic to be able to help provide that support to the students of Oxford as a councillor.”
Stuart O’Reilly is running for UKIP. “I’m a second year historian at Pembroke College and I’m standing as a candidate for Hinksey Park as I believe the Labour administrated City Council are making decisions that will prove to be disastrous for Oxford.”
Often there is, as James Johnson expressed, a “disconnect” between students and the city itself, so C+ set each of our candidates to the task of explaining why students ought to care about the upcoming elections.
Ruthi Brandt began by pointing out, “Students are part of this city. Even if they are in Oxford for only a few years the actions of the city council will have an affect on their lives here. And who knows, they might end up staying here after they graduate, like so many of us seem to do.”
Aled Jones agreed, saying that, “Students should vote in these elections because ultimately the decisions that the City Council make affect their lives, and it’s important that they use the voice they collectively possess. From housing opportunities to making cycling safer, students have an opportunity on the 22nd to vote and help to shape those decisions.”
A pattern in these responses became apparent as Stuart O’Reilly told C+, “Students should vote in these local elections as we are as much citizens of Oxford as those outside the university. Students make up a significant proportion of the city and are affected by many City Council policies.”
Maryam Ahmed turned on the current council, and suggested that students ought to vote in order to change the status quo. “You deserve to be represented by someone who has the courage to speak up for what’s right and actually get things done, rather than the current cohort of ineffectual pen-pushers running Oxford City Council.”
Eleanor Law combined these approaches, linking student participation in elections with greater influence in decisions. She told C+, “Students should vote in this election (and the European elections) because unless young people vote, the government has no incentive to deal with the issues and problems that young people and students face. Young people have been hit hard by the coalition government because they think they can get away with it because students won’t vote. Students need to vote to show that we do care, and that we are engaged with politics, and that we will not allow the government to destroy vital services.”
C+ then questioned how the candidates would proceed were they to be elected. Maryam Ahmed wants to know “why the Council has capped the number of rental properties in town, making the cost of living out skyrocket”, and “why the Council is planning to build student flats next to a noisy railway line, using us as sound buffers.”
In turn, Aled Jones focused on the homelessness issue which blights Oxford. He told C+, “As a local councillor I’d focus upon fighting the cuts to homelessness provision caused by the Tory-led County Council, working with student societies and organisations to ensure a better student experience in Oxford, and ensuring that affordable and quality housing is prioritised.”
He said he would also engage with closing the apparent council-student gap. “I would specifically focus on ensuring that the City Council have as close a relationship with students as possible; working with OUSU and other organisations, and would also run regular surgeries in student JCRs.”
Ruthi Brandt’s ambitions were, unsurprisingly, eco-friendly, “As a cyclist and an environmentalist, I want to greatly improve the cycling infrastructure in the city. Cycling should be made safer and easier to undertake, and more on-street bicycle parking should be available.
She went on to discuss planning projects such as the expansion to the Westgate centre. “I would like to make sure that these projects are properly thought through – that they are indeed beneficial to the city, sustainable (for example – we shouldn’t be building in the city’s green belt!) and connected to the needs of the whole city.”
The UKIP candidate Stuart O’Reilly echoed Brandt’s concern for the state of the city, this time focusing upon the Covered Market.
“The Covered Market is in real danger of losing its character as a space for local independent traders. He went on to criticise the fact thar “residents’ voices are not being listened to on issues such as the Port Meadow development. Homelessness was an issue which surfaced again, O’Reilly said, ”If elected I would make tackling the issue of homelessness the number one priority – current councillors seem more concerned with blaming each other than sitting down with all parties and coming to agreement on policies.”
James Johnson explained that he was concerned with the transparency and effectiveness of the council. “I want the city council to stand up for students, to be a visible and more effective voice for them and their concerns. The other Conservative candidates and I will work to help Oxford students across the board, particularly on housing and rents.”
Eleanor Law told us that she feels strongly about the Oxford housing situation. She told C+, “I will campaign for more affordable housing, as Oxford is currently the least affordable city in the country, and the high house prices have a knock on impact on rents, effecting both students and permanent residents. I would also continue to campaign for a living wage across the city, and oppose the cuts the Conservative County Council are making to resources for the homeless.”
In the survey conducted by C+, one anonymous respondent commented, “I think it is disappointing that many of those running for Oxford City Council have little or no interest in local politics but are motivated purely by ambition”. However, following an in-depth investigation by C+ into each of the candidates’ policies, it would seem that the upcoming elections have much more at stake.
Ahmed and Brandt are running in Carfax ward, O’Reilly in Hinksey Park, Jones in Holywell, and Law in Summertown.
This article has been amended to show that Labour won a by-election for the North ward of Oxford City Council in September 2013, so they hold both council seats for that ward.