Sasha Mills speaks to Michael O’Connor, a student at Balliol studying for a master’s in philosophy, who is running in this year’s County Council Elections for the University Parks Ward who is also a member of the last standing Oxford team in this year’s University Challenge.
SM: I thought I would start by asking how you got into politics in the first place. Not everyone does this kind of thing, you know?
MOC: I obviously have a general political interest in things like climate change, or homelessness in the city. All these things just matter to me.
In terms of why local government specifically, my parents live in London. And in 2018, I happened to live next door to the local Labour Party campaign coordinator. And one day I bumped into him, and he said, “Do you want to come knocking on doors?” And I sort of said, “Yeah, okay!”
And I ended up spending a lot of time knocking on doors for three counsellors. And they just seemed like really wonderful people who cared about even [the] very boring bits of local politics, which wasn’t something I knew that much about. There’s something that’s very attractive about knowing a community well, quite aside from the broader things that you can do in local politics, there’s also just the fact that talking to people, doing things for them on that close, local level is just very rewarding.
And then there’s also the fact that in this particular situation, where there’s a pandemic on, Labour are looking for candidates and when there’s a Tory government at Westminster that isn’t doing very much on climate change. And when you do walk through the city every day, or when you’re driving into the city, you see the marks of inequality. Or you go from Greater Leys to Central Oxford, and there’s a 15-year life expectancy difference, or you walk to the city centre – and it’s not unfamiliar as somebody who has lived in London and been at the centre of London – but you do see people who just don’t have homes on the streets.
So, it’s a sort of cocktail of those things.
SM: You’re obviously running as a Labour candidate. How does what you do relate to what people tend to think of as ‘Labour,’ which is Labour in Westminster, Keir Starmer, etc.
MOC: Hmm, well, I guess there is quite a difference between local politics and national politics. But equally, there’s substantial value overlap. The National Party cares about addressing issues like climate change, it cares about making sure that we live in a country where everybody has a home, everybody has an opportunity.
So in that sense, there’s a link, but local councils are, I would say, quite autonomous to some degree. And that is a good thing, insofar as it means that when there’s a government at Westminster, that isn’t doing as much as you’d like on certain issues, local government can still do its own thing. Obviously the local government has to balance its budget. Other than council tax, it doesn’t have the same powers of taxation.
There is that fundamental value overlap. But then [it’s also] a powerful site of change in its own right, and has that degree of autonomy.
SM: How do you think the University Parks fit into what’s going on at the county level? And what do you think are the issues that are most pressing specifically in this area?
MOC: The city council deals with housing planning, waste collection, leisure, it’s technically responsible for things like homelessness and the environment, but it has to work very close to the county council on them. And the county council [is] just education, social services, transport, etc.
And the University Parks division of the county council is basically just the very centre of Oxford, and some residential areas a bit North. So the only thing that it directly influences in that area is transport. But that’s critically important at the moment, because many of the city’s plans to reduce emissions and make Oxford greener and more livable hinge on cooperation from the county council in that area.
But also, you have a vote on all issues on the county council. So anything that it deals with from, education, to social services, all fall within that sort of purview. And especially because University Parks is mostly student-y, it kind of gives you licence to rove further, and to take a more ideals based approach.
SM: How do you think that student politics and the political scenes in unis, like Oxford, fits into the national scene? And also that kind of links into, how do you think the best way of representing students will be in the county council? So it’s kind of a two-part question, one that’s kind of ideological and slightly wishy-washy. How do students fit into politics? Do they fit into politics all the time? I’m not convinced that they do.
MOC: In Oxford itself, there’s student politics in terms of, OULC and OULD, and that sort of thing. There’s Oxford SU, the JCRs, and there’s also the great activist campaigns – Oxford Worker Justice, Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, Oxford Fair Living Wage Campaign. And then things like It Happens Here, which exist in pretty much every university.
Oxford [University] is quite crucial to the visual life of the city as a whole, because the university is such a big part of the city. It employs so many people, it’s so big and wealthy. So anything that they can do, together with, say, the SU, to change how the university works, inevitably has effects in the city, like efforts made for the living wage.
The activist groups in Oxford SU and JCRs are important because they influence the university and the university has an influence on how the city council operates. And these little activist groups can often exert influence within, say, the labour group on the council. Lots of counsellors work closely with them.
In terms of where students fit in more generally, they have lots of time on their hands, and they care about lots of things. And so it’s often in student groups or people in further education [that] really powerful ideas come out. That’s as true in Oxford as anywhere else.
I guess that because students don’t have set places of residence, they switch from one place to another – they’re only at University for three years – they don’t necessarily see that much of the whole city. And they’re hard to canvas: you can’t walk down the road and knock on their doors, especially if they’re in colleges. They do perhaps tend to be sidelined by big parties trying to get votes.
And University Parks, for instance, the turnout is often very low indeed, like 20-30% or something. Even in , when there’s a general election, the local elections turnout still wasn’t huge in these Central wards. So the product of that is that maybe their voices don’t get heard as much as they might be.
SM: It seems like, from what I read in your campaign materials, that climate change and climate policy [is] the heart of what you want to work on. What do you think the best would be the best policies for Labour to be pushing for on a national level? And what do you think can happen in Oxford further to the initiatives that are already ongoing?
MOC: Well, I don’t want to commit myself too far, because I’m really not an expert. I mean, I should say that one of the reasons why I’m emphasising say climate change [is] you want to give people something that you can actually do. And Oxford is taking great measures on the environment. The county council is sort of getting in the way.
So, I can say, if you vote Labour, this is something we can give you. This is something we will give you. And it resonates with students who are not necessarily in Oxford for the long term, [and] care about lots of different issues. But climate change is one that just hits home because it affects everybody everywhere.
Setting a target can be self-fulfilling, [and] if you set an ambitious target, you then change your policy to meet the ambitious targets. Merely setting the target already has an effect. So just an ambitious Net Zero target, probably combined with the kind of Green New Deal that was being sold a couple of years back, and [that] Keir Starmer committed to in running for leader, something along those lines.
Oxford is already sort of over a decade or more ahead in its targets. And it’s not just its targets, they’re actually meeting them, the council will go Net Zero at the end of this year. And one of the best things Oxford’s ever done is had a climate assembly a couple of years ago, which just got together with lots of ordinary people who gave them lots of information about the climate. And then said, “What do you think we should do?”, and the overwhelming consensus was ‘the climate crisis is a huge issue and Oxford needs to do as much as possible and go as fast as it can’.
And the city’s policies have reflected that. Recently, as well as its main budget, it had a whole climate budget, increasing funding by  million pounds per year, with 50 million pounds towards insulating homes and all these different measures.
SM: There is a really massive contrast between this enormously wealthy University, and then the poorer parts of the city. What do you think are the long term changes that need to happen in order to address this wildly imbalance situation in the city?
MOC: There’s a really interesting reflection by Danny Dorling, a Professor of Geography at Oxford, who grew up in Oxford, on how Oxford has changed, and how it’s always been unequal. But the inequality, as in so many other parts of the country, has accelerated, and become even more geographically divided.
The real inequality is between the north of Oxford and then the East, especially areas like the Leys out beyond Temple Cowley, where the car factories still are. And the problem with trying to resolve inequalities like that is that there is no single thing behind them all. I guess one of the central issues is housing and poor quality of housing, food poverty, fuel poverty, high rent payments, all these things that play into that.
I mean, the city council announced last year a plan to build 11,000 New Homes, and had a very active [plans] for the past five years or so on food poverty and fuel poverty, the former of which is mostly modelled on the ones that they have in Bristol, and it’s championed the Oxford living wage.
And those sorts of things have had an effect. I think in 2015, there were several Oxford areas in the bottom decile of most deprived areas in the country. And then 63 of the 83 areas into which Oxford’s divided improved, according to the government’s indices of deprivation, between 2015 and 2019. So something’s clearly having an effect.
But equally, there is still that big educational and income inequality, and that massive life expectancy difference between, I mean, the far north of my division, life expectancy is late 80s, and might even be 90. And then some parts, sort of in the east of Oxford, just beyond the and around the ring road, it’s 15 years below that.
So in terms of what can actually be done, one of the key things is housing, it’s building more homes, it’s improving the homes already there, it’s doing things like improving the efficiency of those homes, because if they’re not well insulated, then that means higher energy bills, and that leads to fuel poverty. And that also ties in with the environmental agenda; they mesh quite neatly.
Danny Dorling’s essay is about the University in relation to the inequality in the city. Oxford hasn’t built many schools in the past 50 years. And he says it wouldn’t be that hard for, say, a College to give up a playing field for a new school. And you look at things like for instance in the living wage, the University recently signed up as a living wage employer. But I mean, as Cherwell recently wrote, many colleges are not still not paying the living wage. The University can’t abdicate its responsibility on that front. Because it exists in the city.
SM: So we’re going to wrap up by talking about University Challenge. How did you even end up doing that? How does it work? I don’t understand it to be honest.
MOC: Usually, if you’re a JCR president, you get an email from a producer at University Challenge around September every year. And it is (laughs), a quiz show I should clarify.
And a couple of years before I joined Balliol, a Balliol team won it. And one of the remaining team members was there when I was in first year. And I took the test and got on the team, but then we didn’t get on TV.
And then last year, [I] did it again for the third time, my third year, and we got on. And I suppose that, clearly, you’re not somebody that watches University Challenge, but for a certain small segment of the country – I was sort of aware of it. I knew Balliol had won it and I’d watched a couple of series quite closely.
And it’s one of those things that’s just very enjoyable to be on. I mean, it’s such a nice home for all those useless bits of information that you have buried in your head. I was on it with four people from Balliol […]. We did our first first sort of sets of filming a few months ago, and then everything stopped because of lockdown. So to film the rest of the rounds, we journeyed up to the studios in the middle of the long pandemic months.
It’s quite surreal, we checked into a Holiday Inn in Manchester and sort of got into the studio with these great big glass screens between us (laughs).
The Oxfordshire County Council Elections are taking place on the 6th of May, and the deadline for voting registration is the 19th of April. You can find out more about the election here.
Image Credit: Michael O’Connor