Chipping Norton’s latest Labour & Co-operative councillor, Rob Evans, says his election earlier this month is in a long tradition of Labour and Co-operative politics in West Oxfordshire.
May 3rd saw some stunning successes for Labour, and amongst the sweetest were three Labour gains in Cameron’s Witney heartland. For the first time in more than 20 years, Labour dented the Tories’ overwhelming dominance of West Oxfordshire District Council with Duncan Enright and Andrew Coles winning seats in Witney town and myself in Chipping Norton. They now join Eve Coles, also a Chipping Norton Labour and Co-operative Councillor, who has been transformed overnight from a socialist lone ranger on the Council to Group Leader of a gang of four. It was a good night for co-operators as three of the four councillors are Labour and Co-operative.
This turnaround started 16 months ago when Duncan Enright captured a Witney Town Council seat from an absent Tory who fell foul of the attendance rules. He then retained it against a determined Tory backlash with a much increased majority last May.
So what lies behind this success?
Most commentators and, it has to be admitted, even local party members, believe this is unproductive territory for us. But it is too easy to stereotype the Oxfordshire Cotswolds – we are still looking for cups of Earl Grey tea that the Guardian claimed were common fare in Chipping Norton tea shops in an otherwise excellent recent article.
As victor in Chipping Norton, I’m not at all surprised that the local electorate rejected ‘the set’. Although Cameron is fond of boasting that he shops regularly at Sainsbury’s in Chippy [why not the Co-op, Dave?] none of his other buddies live in or are ever seen in the town.
The true Chipping Norton has a long and radical tradition as a working Cotswold town, having come here in 1973 to teach History. Isoon discovered its local history dominated by 300 years of radical protest from the Levellers, still celebrated annually in Burford, 18c. anti-enclosure and anti-police riots, the ‘Ascott Martyrs’ leading to Joseph Arch’s Agricultural Union in 1873 and a bitter strike on the eve of the First World War about union recognition at the local Bliss textile mill. I recall all the town’s three District Councillors being Labour in the 1970s and, as well as being one of a number of former Labour Mayors, Dave Barbour and I myself held the County Council seat for Chipping Norton for twenty years from 1985-2005.
It is high time we reclaimed our recent history and challenged this cosy Cotswold image of a forever blue Chipping Norton.
But history is never nostalgia to the labour movement. It is a living tradition and one of Chipping Norton’s great successes in recent years is as the home to the Phone Co-op employing 60 people and constantly increasing its national profile and array of entrepreneurial awards. The town’s retail trade was once dominated by the Co-op and a plan to double the current Midcounties Co-operative Food Store in the town centre has been vying with a proposed Sainsbury’s out of town supermarket. Fortunately, following a well organised grassroots campaign, the Sainsbury’s proposal, although strongly supported by one Conservative councillor, was turned down by the planning committee, though an appeal is still possible. I campaigned openly for the Co-op expansion as the key to a Portas-style rejuvenation of the town centre, where many retailers are understandably anxious following Osborne’s recent budget.
Top of Labour’s local agenda are more jobs and employment sites in the town to counteract the loss a few years ago of the Parker Knoll furniture factory and the prospect of more housing. The vision remains to retain Chippy as a ‘working Cotswold town’, not a sleepy dormitory for some London set.
But what can four Labour councillors achieve when the Tories still have 41 out of 49 District Council seats?
On election night, the Tory leader went into overdrive, falsely suggesting ‘undemocratic pacts with the Lib Dems’ and acting as if the ‘worse excesses of the French Revolution’ were about to strike West Oxfordshire. Perhaps this might be because Duncan Enright, after a single-handed campaign for Fair Trade on Witney Town Council, and in the teeth of unanimous Tory opposition, managed to swing opinion so that Witney became the 1000th town to achieve Fair Trade status worldwide.
But there are painful challenges in West Oxfordshire as Eve Coles, Labour’s lone councillor for over a decade, has always pointed out.
The affluent image belies the fact that there have always been real pockets of rural poverty in Cameron’s constituency and the recession is biting in the market towns. Residents are already suffering from the austerity cuts, the loss of tax credits, the increasing cost of childcare to say nothing of the ‘granny tax’ and other measures to come. A District Council that boasts year-in and year-out of a zero council tax rise and which mishandled its Icelandic investment has clearly not been protecting its residents against the privatisation and diminution of local services.
At least there will now be some alternative voices in the council chamber and we shall insist on more openness and campaign for viable co-operative solutions where services and facilities are under threat. After all, Cameron briefly flirted with such ideas but did not seem to have the staying power. We invite you to watch this space!