Labour candidate Andrew Smith’s win was all but expected.
Polling conducted prior to election day suggested the Lib Dems would win the seat, yet Smith increased Labour’s majority to more than 4,500, up from 938 in 2005.
Labour supporters point to higher turnout among Oxford East’s non-student residents – a demographic that typically tends to support Labour – as key to his victory. They have also proposed that his personal popularity was crucial to his success.
Alastair Strathern, Co-Chair of Oxford University Labour Club, said: “In the suburbs you meet many people, who, although they disagree with Andrew politically, warm to him personally.”
“If you take away the student vote you’re looking at a very safe seat for Andrew,” said Stephen Bush, another member of OULC.
Lib Dem supporters offered a different explanation for Smith’s win, arguing that Smith’s support of the 10p tax rate proves he is not in touch with the high number of Oxford East residents in poverty.
Steve Goddard, the Lib Dem candidate, blamed the voting system for his loss to Smith.
However, first past the post overemphasises the degree of support for Labour and the Conservatives against the Lib Dems at the national level, but has no effect on constituency-level results.
Goddard made the further point that “the 2010 general election saw a classic squeeze of the Lib Dems as people feared either a Tory or Labour government.”
Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Politics at Brasenose, agreed that the nature of the “two-and-a-half party system” was mostly to blame for the Lib Dems’ poor performance.
“The Lib Dem vote fell away as people decided the best way not to get Gordon Brown was to vote Conservative, and the best way not to get the Conservatives was to vote Labour,” Bogdanor said.
The Lib Dems attributed at least part of Smith’s triumph to Labour’s deeper pockets. Goddard said the Labour party has received extensive funding from national unions and business donors during the past few years, but the Lib Dems have failed to receive a similar amount of support.
“Sometimes you struggle when swimming against a national tide,” he said.
With the Oxford East and West constituencies combined, the Lib Dems won the most votes but captured neither seat.
Goddard said the discrepancy highlights the need for voting reform. Lib Dems have campaigned for equal constituency sizes, in part to offset this effect; it is likely that the governing Tory-Lib Dem coalition will introduce this in the coming Parliament.
“This underlines why it is so important we see reform in our voting system to give everybody a voice in parliament and a better representation of the nation’s views. Only fair votes will help secure a fairer country,” Goddard said.
Labour supporters also cite the Lib Dems’ leadership failure when in control of the council as a reason for their poor performance in Oxford East.
OULC campaigner Bush said: “Their name is mud when you go outside the centre of Oxford.”
Smith, who has been Labour MP for Oxford East since 1987, described the result as “remarkable”.
OULC co-chair Strathern said there was a mixture of “relief and elation when the results finally came through.”
Theories as to why the Lib Dems lost vary widely among students. Mek Mesfin, a first year PPEist said many students he knew voted Labour merely to avoid a hung parliament.
“People didn’t want to risk a coalition by voting Lib Dem,” Mesfin said.
Sam Kelly, a student at Corpus Christi, said many students disliked the association of the Lib Dems with Conservatives: “Tactical voting meant that Tories voted Lib Dem to prevent Labour winning the seat. Therefore, voting Lib Dem became associated with voting Conservative.”
Higher turnout at last week’s election than in previous years may account for Smith’s victory in Oxford East, given the constituency’s large number of working-class citizens who tend to vote Labour.
Analysts have pointed to the television debates, lively campaigns and high Lib Dem polls as reasons for the increase in turnout.
However, Lib Dem-favouring students tend to be less likely to vote than Labour-supporting long-term constituency residents.
The outcome in Oxford East failed to match national changes in voting patterns; Labour outperformed in Oxford East by a large margin, whilst the Lib Dems underperformed relative to their national performance.
Goddard said he remained optimistic despite his defeat. “Oxford Labour party have won round one, but there are many more rounds to go!” he said.