The Oxford Clarion general election preview

The Oxford Clarion general election preview
Expect Oxfordshire to be covered in bar charts at the election

You may think this is a bit early for a general election preview. No date has yet been announced. It will (almost certainly) be in 2024. Possibly November. Possibly earlier.

Yes – you may well think this is a bit early. But the political parties don’t.

For over a year, Oxfordshire’s politicians have been manoeuvring in anticipation of an election that will bring to an end the parliament of (deep breath) Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Jeremy Corbyn, coronavirus, and Brexit. More seats will change hands than at any time since 1997 – nationally, but very possibly in Oxfordshire too.

The constituencies themselves are changing, too. As a result of population growth, a new Bicester & Woodstock constituency has been carved out, picking up strongly Oxford-influenced towns from the more rural constituencies adjoining it.

With an unpopular national government, and no sign of the polls shifting, both Labour and the LibDems think they have a chance of taking seats from the Conservatives. But political commentators caution against assuming this is a done deal. As Jim Pickard of the FT writes (£):

When people talk to pollsters at this point in the cycle they are usually making a comment about the ruling party and whether they are doing a good or bad job. The closer you get to a general election, the more they start to ask a different question: do I prefer the alternatives, or not? Remember: many, many voters do not follow politics very closely outside of election campaigns. There is still a large slug of undecided voters who could — just possibly — come to the aid of Sunak’s Conservatives. Everyone remembers how, in the white heat of the election contest, Theresa May squandered a huge majority in 2017. They also know that Neil Kinnock’s Labour was far ahead in the polls in 1992 before that “lead” crumbled to dust.

This is an unpredictable election. How far will local issues influence the national picture? Will anti-Conservative voters be swept up in a wave of Starmer fever, or vote tactically for a local LibDem? How will digital campaigning affect voters – particularly hard-to-reach younger ones? Will there be a Farage return? And will there be an unexpected twist, like 2017’s “dementia tax” affair, that confounds the predictions?

What do the parties themselves say?

Traditionally, the largest parties proclaim that they are targeting every seat. This, of course, is nonsense.

Labour, unusually, have disclosed their targets. They have published a list of “non-battleground seats”, and you can’t win a battle where you don’t turn up to the battleground. In Oxfordshire, these are Bicester & Woodstock; Didcot & Wantage; Henley & Thame; Oxford West & Abingdon; and Witney. Even the most optimistic analysis doesn’t see Labour winning in these. That leaves two targets: their safe seat of Oxford East, and Banbury.

The Conservatives currently hold every county seat, only missing out on the two city seats of Oxford East and Oxford West & Abingdon. They will be hoping to hold their current four seats plus the new Bicester & Woodstock (largely created from areas they hold). But they are under no illusions that they can take them for granted. As Eddie Reeves, leader of the Conservative group on Oxfordshire County Council, wrote in ConservativeHome: “Traditionally gold-standard Conservative seats such as Banbury, Henley and Wantage could all go at the next election unless the party invests time and resource into them now. When seats go, they go en bloc.”

(Even for those who wouldn’t usually vote Conservative, we’d strongly recommend Cllr Reeves’ article, which is a clear-sighted assessment of Oxfordshire’s electoral landscape.)

The Liberal Democrats have not offered public hints, and the national party is keen to avoid the hubris of 2019. However, the Oxford Clarion understands that their candidates in the Henley & Thame, Bicester & Woodstock, Didcot & Wantage, and Witney constituencies have all received target seat training.

None of this stops local activists doing their bit. If you ask a Labour member whether they’re ceding Bicester & Woodstock to the LibDems, or a LibDem whether they’re passing on Banbury, the response will be an indignant “Of course not”. But you can guarantee that Labour won’t spend a pound in Bicester which could be put into Banbury instead.

What’s wrong with the predictions?

Glowing ball
Photo by Justin Clark / Unsplash

Recent years have seen an increase in seat-by-seat predictions from online pundits. The best known are those from YouGov and Martin Baxter’s Electoral Calculus, but there are others.

Election predictions were once calculated on the basis of Uniform National Swing (UNS). This assumes that the swing to/from each party is constant across the country. If this was ever accurate, it isn’t now. Recent years have seen differing regional swings – famously the Red Wall of northern constituencies, and now the Blue Wall of once-faithful Conservative shire counties such as Oxfordshire.

Instead, newer prediction models employ “regression” techniques. As well as asking people which party they’ll vote for, opinion pollsters also ask demographic questions: their level of education, their earnings, their family status. In a regression model, this information is then used to construct a fine-tuned prediction of how each social group, in each part of the country, is intending to vote. (You’ll sometimes hear this technique called MRP, for Multi-level Regression and Post-stratification.)

It sounds clever, and it is. What isn’t yet attested is how accurate it is at this stage in the cycle. Let’s take a look at Henley’s recent general election results, then see what Electoral Calculus is predicting right now.

  • 2005: 54% Con, 26% LD, 15% Lab, 3% Grn, 3% UKIP
  • 2010: 56% Con, 25% LD, 11% Lab, 3% Grn, 3% UKIP
  • 2015: 59% Con, 13% Lab, 11% LD, 11% UKIP, 7% Grn
  • 2017: 59% Con, 20% Lab, 15% LD, 3% Grn, 2% UKIP
  • 2019: 55% Con, 31% LD, 10% Lab, 5% Grn

And Electoral Calculus’s current prediction:

  • 30.3% Con, 29.7% LD, 19.2% Lab, 9.4% Grn, 10.6% Reform

We think there are two obvious problems with this.

First, the Reform figure. UKIP’s high water mark was 2015, when they scored 12.6% nationally and 11% in Henley. Electoral Calculus forecasts that Reform will match this. We think this is exceptionally unlikely. In 2015, Nigel Farage was rarely off the airwaves, two Conservative MPs had defected to the party, and the “European question” was much debated. None of that is true right now, and broadcasting rules mean the party will struggle for airtime in the campaign. Insofar as there is any Reform surge, and most poll-watchers think it’s overstated, it appears to be in its East Coast heartland and in northern Red Wall seats.

Second, the LibDem/Labour split. Electoral Calculus is suggesting that the LibDems’ vote share in Henley will go down from 31% in 2019 to 29.7%, presumably to Labour’s benefit. In 2019, the LibDems won just 11 seats nationally in what was generally acknowledged as a disastrous campaign under then-leader Jo Swinson. Today, the party has picked itself up, particularly in southern England: it already holds Chesham & Amersham, not far from Henley. We credit Henley’s voters with the smarts to work out where to tactically place their vote, but Electoral Calculus doesn’t.

The forecast looks even more curious when you consider the current local government situation. On South Oxfordshire District Council, the LibDems have 21 seats, and their partners in the Greens have 8. The Conservatives have 1. Labour have 3 – but they’re all in Didcot, which will be in the Didcot & Wantage constituency. Indeed, Labour didn’t stand more than a handful of candidates in the SODC 2023 elections.

People don’t necessarily vote the same way in national and local elections. But local elections are a strong indicator that voters are prepared to consider a party. They also point towards the strength of the activist base, which does swing elections. Come the general election, you can expect Henley’s doorsteps to be bombarded with LibDem leaflets proclaiming “Labour can’t win here”.

With this in mind, we think Electoral Calculus’s forecasts are (putting it politely) unrealistic for Oxfordshire, and any activist quoting them as evidence for voting one way or another is being disingenuous.

Other MRP models have their own distinct problems. YouGov’s latest has the rigour that you would expect from the highest-profile pollster, but in our view underestimates the opposition parties’ targeting nous (“vote efficiency”): we expect the gap between second and third parties in the rural seats to be greater than it predicts. The Stonehaven prediction is likewise more plausible than Electoral Calculus, but appears to struggle where there isn’t historic data – notably the Bicester & Woodstock constituency, but also in places where parties (by which we mean the Greens) have stood down previously. It also arguably underestimates tactical voting.

In short, we are not yet convinced that MRP models pass the “smell test” this far out from an election – though they may come into their own later in the campaign.

About our constituency summaries

The Notional 2019 line is the result at the last election if it had been fought on the new constituency boundaries – in other words, the baseline from which the parties are starting. These calculations are taken from the excellent work of Ben Walker at the New Statesman.

The YouGov MRP and Stonehaven MRP lines are the latest MRP forecasts from the two firms. We think these are more believable than Electoral Calculus, but they still come with a large health warning attached. Consider them as much entertainment as information.

The Election Maps UK line is a calculation by Election Maps UK as to how each constituency would vote if there were an election today (a “nowcast”). It uses a more traditional swing calculation and serves as a useful sense check to MRP forecasts.

The Clarion prediction is our finger-in-the-air reading of the way the constituency is currently going. We are months away from an election, and if we were able to make accurate predictions that far in advance, we’d be playing the Lottery more often. Again, treat this more as entertainment.

Oxford East

Current MP: Anneliese Dodds, Labour

This is a surefire hold for Labour, who have held the seat since 1987. Anneliese Dodds is chair of the national Labour Party, but remains anchored in Oxford politics through the work of the city Labour group.

The race for second place is more interesting, and could be any of three parties. The Conservatives have come second since 2015, but the Liberal Democrats performed strongly between 2001 and 2010, coming within 1000 votes of gaining the seat.

The Greens are increasingly strong in local government and fared well in 2015. They would love to come second, but even third would be an advance. The Conservatives are unlikely to devote much attention to this seat. David Henwood stood as an independent in 2019, winning 238 votes, and is expected to stand for the anti-LTN Independent Oxford Alliance this time. None of the independent groups on Oxford City Council have said they will stand a candidate, but don’t rule it out.

  • Candidates declared: Anneliese Dodds (Lab), Theo Jupp (LibDem), Sushila Dhall (Green), Lawrence Haar (Reform UK), Benjamin Adams (SDP)
  • Notional 2019: Lab 56.9%, Con 21.1%, LibDem 13.9%, Green 4.7%
  • YouGov MRP: Lab 54%, Con 15%, Green 13%, LibDem 12%
  • Stonehaven MRP: Lab 53.1%, Con 16.0%, Green 13.7%, LibDem 10.2%
  • Election Maps UK: Lab 65.4%, LibDem 10.8%, Green 10.7%, Con 7.3%
  • Clarion prediction: Labour hold

Oxford West & Abingdon

Current MP: Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat

Although Layla Moran only took this seat from the Conservatives in 2017, she increased her majority in 2019 on a bad night for the Liberal Democrats nationally. She has a high profile both in the constituency and as a national politician, regularly appearing on shows such as Question Time. It should be a comfortable hold for the LibDems.

The Greens stood aside in 2017 and 2019 but have selected an Abingdon councillor, Cheryl Briggs, to stand this time. The Conservatives have chosen Vinay Raniga, a Summertown dentist and a political leadership scholar at the Blavatnik School of Government, but regaining this seat seems like a distant dream for them.

  • Candidates declared: Layla Moran (LibDem), Vinay Raniga (Con), Cheryl Briggs (Green), James Gunn (Reform UK)
  • Notional 2019: LibDem 50.7%, Con 35%, Lab 12.2%
  • YouGov MRP: LibDem 45%, Lab 22%, Con 20%, Green 6%
  • Stonehaven MRP: LibDem 43.1%, Con 23.5%, Lab 18.4%, Green 7.1%
  • Election Maps UK: LibDem 53.5%, Lab 20.8%, Con 16.0%, Green 2.8%
  • Clarion prediction: LibDem hold


Current MP: Victoria Prentis, Conservative

This is Labour’s best chance of a gain in Oxfordshire, and we expect the party’s activists from Oxford and around the county to pile into the seat.

Boundary changes are favourable for Labour, gaining Chipping Norton (a party stronghold) and losing Bicester (mixed but broadly Con-leaning). The town of Banbury itself has long been a Con/Lab battleground but has swung to Labour recently. The deeply rural parts of the constituency remain dominated by the Conservatives though there have been some LibDem incursions in local government.

Labour has selected Sean Woodcock as their candidate. As a candidate at two previous elections and the group leader on Cherwell District Council, he knows the constituency better than most. A party moderate in keeping with Starmer’s Labour, he should be well placed to win over floating voters, though the failure to form a cross-party alliance on Cherwell may make a few LibDems and Greens think twice before putting a cross in the Labour box.

Victoria Prentis is an effective campaigner, well known in the constituency, and perhaps the best liked of Oxfordshire’s incumbent Conservatives. This will be a hard fought battle.

  • Candidates declared: Victoria Prentis (Con), Sean Woodcock (Lab), Elizabeth Adams (LibDem)
  • Notional 2019: Con 54.3%, Lab 25.9%, LibDem 16.8%, Green 3.0%
  • YouGov MRP: Lab 35%, Con 34%, LibDem 14%, Green 9%
  • Stonehaven MRP: Con 33.0%, Lab 31.5%, LibDem 15.8%, Green 10.3%
  • Election Maps UK: Lab 39.8%, Con 28.7%, LibDem 15.5%, Green 7.1%
  • Clarion prediction: Labour gain from Con

Henley & Thame

Current MP: John Howell, Conservative

Henley, the former seat of Boris Johnson and Michael Heseltine, has been held by the Conservatives since 1910. Few would have put money on it ever changing hands, but circumstances this time mean it’s not unthinkable.

John Howell is standing down, and the Conservative selection process has been mired in controversy. Big names such as Olympian rower James Cracknell and Johnson himself had been mooted, but Cracknell has since been selected for Colchester and, well, you know about Boris.

Neil Shastri-Hurst, the losing candidate at the North Shropshire by-election, also put his name forward, as did Will Hall, chair of the local Conservative association, and Boris Johnson’s former communications adviser Caroline Newton. The selection was abandoned in June after “breaches of procedure”, and the ever entertaining @TomorrowsMPs Twitter account reports a “toxic” atmosphere in the local party.

Freddie van Mierlo, the LibDem candidate and county councillor for Chalgrove, presumably can’t believe his luck. Outside the independent-minded town of Henley itself, the LibDems dominate local politics.

The LibDems’ task is to communicate to voters that they are the main challengers. If they can do that, they could be in with a chance for the first time since 1906. Expect bar charts.

  • Candidates declared: Freddie van Mierlo (LibDem), Jo Robb (Green), David Carpin (Reform UK)
  • Notional 2019: Con 54.5%, LibDem 31.1%, Lab 9.7%, Green 4.6%
  • YouGov MRP: LibDem 36%, Con 33%, Lab 17%, Green 6%
  • Stonehaven MRP: LibDem 33.2%, Con 32.0%, Lab 15.0%, Green 9.9%
  • Election Maps UK: LibDem 33.6%, Con 32.4%, Lab 14.8%, Green 9.6%
  • Clarion prediction: LibDem challenge but can’t call until Conservative selection

Didcot & Wantage

Current MP: David Johnston, Conservative

The Wantage constituency, renamed for this election, has a similar electoral history to Henley. Won by the Conservatives at every election since it was created in 1983, it passed to David Johnston with 50.2% of the vote in 2019, taking over from retiring MP Ed Vaizey.

Once again, the LibDems are dominant in local politics. On Vale of White Horse District Council, they have 34 seats, the other 4 being held by the Greens, and none by the Conservatives or Labour. The boundaries aren’t coterminous, and Labour does hold three Didcot seats across the district border in South Oxfordshire.

David Johnston will be standing again for the Conservatives, and Olly Glover for the LibDems. Expect the LibDems to major on their opposition to Thames Water’s proposed mega-reservoir, and their support for a rail station at Wantage & Grove. The Conservatives will seek to shore up support in Didcot by pointing out the faltering status of the HIF2 relief road.

  • Candidates declared: David Johnston (Con), Olly Glover (LibDem), Sam Casey-Rerhaye (Green), Kyn Pomlett (SDP)
  • Notional 2019: Con 49.8%, LibDem 32.2%, Lab 15.5%, Green 0.2%
  • YouGov MRP: LibDem 32%, Con 31%, Lab 24%, Green 5%
  • Stonehaven MRP: LibDem 36.2%, Con 30.4%, Lab 16.9%, Green 6.7%
  • Election Maps UK: LibDem 35.9%, Con 28.0%, Lab 23.2%, Green 2.4%
  • Clarion prediction: LibDem gain from Con

Bicester & Woodstock

New constituency

Any new constituency is keenly sought after by ambitious politicians. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have both selected rising stars in this interesting seat, a combination of Oxford commuter belt, fast-growing Bicester, and small villages.

The Conservatives have chosen Rupert Harrison, former Chief of Staff to George Osborne between 2006 and 2015, and now a portfolio manager at massive American investment firm BlackRock. He was head boy at Eton and, inevitably, studied PPE at Oxford.

For the LibDems, Calum Miller is a local councillor for Otmoor, formerly Cabinet Member for Finance on Oxfordshire County Council, and a fellow at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. Previously, he was a senior civil servant during the Con/LibDem coalition years – where he will have met Rupert Harrison. He stood down from his OCC post to concentrate on fighting this seat.

Locally, the LibDems are dominant in “orbital Oxford” settlements such as Eynsham, Woodstock, and Kidlington. Bicester itself has surprisingly fluid politics with a strong independent showing. The further flung rural areas are reliably Conservative and are likely to stay that way – but can Rishi Sunak convince people to turn out for his party rather than staying home?

A measure of how seriously the LibDems are taking this seat is that they’ve advertised for a full-time campaign organiser. The seat has already become the most leafleted in Oxfordshire, with the planned Botley West Solar Farm and London Road level crossing in Bicester the main local topics. But with two high-profile candidates, the debate is sure to broaden, and we will be amazed if the phrase “architect of austerity” doesn’t feature on at least one LibDem leaflet.

We don’t expect a strong push from Labour or the Greens, though the latter have local representation in Kidlington. Again, much will depend on whether the LibDems can convince Labour and Green supporters to come over to them. For Conservatives bracing for a tough election night, the real possibility of ‘Con Gain’ flashing up on the BBC coverage will be a big motivator.

A word of caution: with no historic polling to go on, pollsters’ predictions for this constituency will be especially volatile.

  • Candidates declared: Rupert Harrison (Con), Calum Miller (LibDem), Augustine Obodo (Reform UK)
  • Notional 2019: Con 53.3%, LibDem 27.2%, Lab 16.7%, Green 2.4%
  • YouGov MRP: LibDem 37%, Con 29%, Lab 20%, Green 5%
  • Stonehaven MRP: Con 31.2%, Lab 25.6%, LibDem 25.0%, Green 9.1%
  • Election Maps UK: Con 30.9%, LibDem 29.7%, Lab 24.8%, Green 5.7%
  • Clarion prediction: narrow LibDem win


Current MP: Robert Courts, Conservative

The Witney constituency has an eminent Conservative history – first held by Douglas Hurd, then David Cameron. But boundary changes make it unpredictable. The seat is losing Eynsham (LibDem) and Chipping Norton (Labour), and gaining Faringdon (LibDem-inclined). Even the incumbent MP Robert Courts’ Bladon home is no longer in the constituency.

Second place has alternated between the LibDems and Labour in recent years, but the LibDems pulled in front in 2019 and are already working this constituency hard. Their candidate is personable district councillor Charlie Maynard, a campaigner for reopening the railway to Witney and already making waves on the sewage issue. Labour have not yet selected a candidate, though they have a strong councillor pool in Witney itself (where they control the Town Council) and could pull a rabbit out of a hat. If both parties target the constituency, Robert Courts will almost certainly squeak through the middle to retain his seat.

Two wildcard candidates could nibble away at the Conservative vote. Richard Langridge, standing for Reform UK, is well known in Witney and has campaigned against new housing development. Barry Ingleton, the energetic admin of several local Facebook groups, is publicly weighing whether to stand. Neither will win but a few hundred votes could swing this seat.

  • Candidates declared: Robert Courts (Con), Charlie Maynard (LibDem), Richard Langridge (Reform UK)
  • Notional 2019: Con 55.1%, LibDem 29.8%, Lab 14.6%
  • YouGov MRP: Con 35%, Lab 27%, LibDem 23%, Green 5%
  • Stonehaven MRP: LibDem 35.1%, Con 32%, Lab 16.7%, Green 6.4%
  • Election Maps UK: Con 36.1%, LibDem 31.6%, Lab 21.3%, Green 1.7%
  • Clarion prediction: too close to call

MP portraits from, used under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.