The 2018 Oxford City Council elections are coming up on 3rd May, which will see the election of a new councillor in each of the city’s 14 wards. We sat down with three Oxford University students running for council, to speak to them about their candidacy, their aims, and their experiences so far in the world of politics.
Alexander Curtis, Conservative
Curtis is not inexperienced when it comes to electioneering – he was elected in 2015, aged just eighteen, to his town council. Just one month later, he found himself elected as Deputy Chairman of the Welwyn branch of the Conservative Party, and eventually progressedF to being made Mayor of the branch just earlier this year. In this role he has worked on a number of issues, including HIV.
Curtis admits that it took some time for him to find his political home, moving his allegiance between the major parties and between political ideologies. “I even went through a libertarian stage,” he remarked with some humour, “but I grew up”. Indeed, he had no difficulty explaining to me now why he was standing as a Conservative: “I’m a Conservative…because I see our society as organic. I believe in change when change is necessary, but I don’t believe in change for change’s sake.”
I asked Curtis what changes he would like to see made by the Council. His response, an emphatic “Where to start!”. “Oxford is interesting because you’ve got different challenges here”. He immediately began speaking at length about homelessness in Oxford. “The City Council has failed to do something about [homelessness]” despite a real potential for them to do more.” He told me that the Council firstly lacks sufficient hostel beds to accommodate the vast number of rough sleepers in the city. “The city Council owns homes, a lot of shops, even a farm. These sorts of assets could be made use of potentially for helping the homeless.”
Another issue Curtis seemed keen to tackle if elected is the lack of affordable housing in the city, which he suggested was a factor in Oxford’s homelessness crisis. “Air pollution in the city centre is awful…and that impacts students, that impacts the homeless, and anyone who visits”. He comments, “I don’t think the Council is helping by building a massive multi-storey carpark,” referring to the construction of a new carpark to accommodate the Westgate shopping centre, which he says will just invite more cars into the city centre. He also believes the city’s recycling system needs modernising: “Oxford City Council has recycling rates below every other authority in Oxfordshire; that’s bad.” He also expressed an interest in looking into Oxford’s cycling and transport infrastructure.
It’s all well and good working for oneself… but what good is there for your community in doing that?
When I asked about Curtis’ experience as a student campaigner, our conversation moved to his relationship with OUCA. “I’ve never held a position in OUCA myself. There are many reasons for that.” However, he went on to emphasise that they are an important campaigning force for the Tories in Oxford. He explains, “I’ve been looking to get a different thing out of my experience at this university, particularly with regards to politics, than what a lot of these groups are geared to.”
When I asked Curtis for his favourite Tory leader, he was reluctant to name one: “Do I have to have one?” He later explained his reluctance: “If I say Macmillan people will think I’m boring, if I say Thatcher people will think I’m illiberal!” He explains that he likes different aspects of many of the Party’s past leaders, saying that he finds Thatcher “empowering, in the sense that she was the first female Prime Minister and she didn’t come from the conventional upper-middle class background of historical Conservative leaders”, while also giving notable mentions to both Churchill and Macmillan.
Moving onto Brexit, Curtis expressed confidence in both our future post-Brexit, and in Theresa May’s handling of the transition. “It is both in our interests, and those of the EU, for the deal to work”, he states. Regarding the future of the Irish border, he accepted that the issue is “difficult” but remained confident that “a solution will be found that is mutually agreeable”. He suggested that much of the progress may not be made until close to the deadline: “The EU is an institution which has always held its cards close to its chest.”
Finn Conway, Liberal Democrats
Finn Conway, a classics student from Balliol College, is the Liberal Democrat candidate for the central Oxford ward of Holywell in the upcoming City Council elections. Both President-elect of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats and Finance Officer for Young Liberals, Conway describes his priorities as threefold: housing, homelessness and the EU. In Holywell, a 90% student ward, argues Conway, the former is manifested most acutely in terms of rent pricing. The Liberal Democrats obtained statistics from universities that revealed that 17,000 students faced rent arrears in 2017. Consequently, for Conway, ensuring that students, as a minimum, are ‘having enough money to survive and do your degree’, is a pressing concern.
When it comes to the EU referendum, Conway admits that his most controversial opinion might be ‘that we should cancel Brexit’. Describing the decision to leave the European Union as ‘crap’, as Oxford relies heavily on the single market, Conway believes it is part of the responsibility of local government to raise awareness for the potential ramifications of Brexit. Conscientious local government, as envisaged by Conway, ‘should be making a fuss!’.
Yet it is the perennial problem of homelessness that is perhaps the centre-ground of Conway’s campaign. Characterising the increase in official rough sleepers since his arrival in Oxford (31 to 66) as ‘quite staggering’. Conway is himself a member of Oxford homelessness charity ‘On Your Doorstep’ and believes that is the intersection of individual, charitable and political activism that holds the key to effective change. Working with the charity, Conway helped raise awareness about the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which gives police the power to arrest any person found begging or sleeping rough in public, and subsequently, local MP Layla Moran came out in support of its repeal.
The trouble with a lot of student politics is a lot fo talk, but no action
Ultimately, Conway seems to define himself as a pragmatic politician. Arguing that the primary issue with student politics is its tendency towards showboating, without simultaneously effecting change, he is a strong advocate for the practicality of his party’s homelessness policy, which involves re-allocating the budget to provide more money for support services and opposing the implementation of spikes to stop people sleeping rough. Additionally, in a City Council where the Labour Party holds 36 of the 48 wards, Conway seems to realise that the extent of his role may be to act as strong opposition to a ‘supermajority’ and foregrounds the necessity of asking the difficult questions. ‘Why are you cutting homeless support services? Why are you fining homeless people? Why are you taking their sleeping bags?’
What does Conway ask of you? Not to throw away his leaflets.
Adam Ellison, Labour
Experienced campaigner Adam John Ellison, History and Politics student from Magdalen College, has given up the distribution of others’ leaflets for his own through his decision to run as the Labour candidate in the Wolvercote ward. An active OULC member and volunteer with On Your Doorstep, Ellison intends to use this, as well as his experience campaigning for Oxford Labour, to his advantage during the election. Although Wolvercote doesn’t traditionally yield a Labour victory, Ellison is unfazed. For him, anything he does to ‘further engage people, to get Labour’s message across, and to get more people involved in local politics’ is ‘a victory’.
His decision to stand stems from his personal investment in local issues; having lived in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire his entire life, Ellison is ‘committed to the area’, and ‘cares passionately about local issues’, and as such is able to offer some quite practical and specific solutions. A key issue Ellison recognises is the City Council’s failure to adequately maintain roads, an issue which is ‘both a quality of life issue and very much a safety issue’. To address this, he promises to be a strong voice on the Council, noting that although ‘we’re going to have to fight with Oxford City Council’ to get funding, ‘if the right arguments are made’ then it’s more than achievable.
If we are being represented as elected officials as well as voters, then our voice isn’t just being heard, it’s being projected into the political arenas
What strikes me as Ellison’s biggest goal if elected is encouraging ‘more democracy’ on the Council, and cultivating ‘more direct discussion with voters’, as, he concludes, ultimately, on the Council ‘you’re not there representing you, you’re representing your voters’. He sees improving communication as a direct and viable way to ameliorate the controversy regarding the new Swan School opening in North Oxford (where there is concern about catchment area), as well as a way to improve the experience of voters who feel ‘despondent… with politics and party politics’. Ellison clearly feels very strongly about the alienation of individuals from local politics, remarking that although ‘the rain isn’t fun’, the worst part of campaigning is meeting people who feel ‘forgotten’ by local politics, ‘it’s what’s so sad about that that makes me want to try and turn it around’.
In a very similar way, Ellison also raises the importance of youth involvement in local politics. He notes Labour’s unprecedented increase in support in the 2017 General Election as evidence of ‘the changes that occur’ when the youth vote is mobilised. But, further to this, Ellison urges politically engaged students to get actively involved in local politics themselves; ‘if we are being represented as elected officials as well as voters, then our voice isn’t just being heard, it’s being projected into the political arenas’.
Throughout our interview, Ellison emphasises his primary concern for the individual, and genuine passion for social justice. His closing remarks mirror these concerns quite poignantly; a plea for individuals’ ‘no matter your political affiliation’ to help combat homelessness – ‘the number one issue that we should be focussing on right now’ – and request for young people to ‘stay engaged in politics wherever you can’.