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Uxbridge By-Election: Lessons for Climate Friendly Policy

James Brinning
James Brinning

As the dust settles on another thrilling (at least for some!) by-election night, politicos and journalists alike are scrambling to decide what the results mean for each of the parties ahead of the fast-approaching General Election.  

While the (frankly) dreadful results for the Conservatives in Somerton and Frome, and Selby and Ainsty indicate a crushing defeat on the horizon, it’s clear they swam against the tide in Uxbridge, and successfully so. The Tories, it appears, mainly did this by turning it into a referendum on London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s plans to extend London’s Ultra Low Emissions Scheme (ULEZ) to the outer parts of the sprawling capital city.

Despite the inferences to be taken on a future General Election, many senior figures in Labour circles will be focusing on what this defeat means for their climate and environmental offer at the next election. There are some key things to note here.

You only have to take a brief glance at election materials from the Tories to notice that for them, it was all about ULEZ in Uxbridge. There were persistent murmurings from Labour HQ throughout the course of the campaign indicating that they were increasingly concerned about the effect of the policy on their prospects.

·      Some senior Labour figures are understandably also using ULEZ to explain the party’s defeat, and to expunge any sense that either Keir Starmer, or Labour’s policy agenda isn’t really cutting through. If press leaks are to be believed, some are using this result as another stick to change Labour’s plans on climate – having already watered the figure of £28bn a year investment in getting Britain to net-zero down.

·      There are, again, some key caveats here. The Uxbridge seat, since its creation in 2010, has never been a Labour seat. Labour came within 5,000 votes in Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 General Election, but the Tory majority increased to more than 7,000 in the next General Election two years later. You could, make the argument that the Tories have only just clung on in a safe seat and despite a Labour mayor introducing a deeply unpopular policy.

·      There are, also, it seems some disagreements (to put it mildly), between the offices of Ed Miliband and Keir Starmer. These dramatic, behind the scenes battles will not be new to any people in the Labour Party, given the Blair/Brown drama of the 2000s. But any criticism of Labour’s current policy on green investment will have to be viewed through this prism.

·      Perhaps the key point policy-wise is that this ULEZ extension is a very specific move, negatively affecting a very specific group of people. Most green policies will not have this specific targeted impact; but instead involve money from central government, or smaller ‘nudges’ into more climate friendly behaviour. Policies in Wales, like 20mph zones, while creating some criticism, are unlikely at this stage to cost anyone an election. We have also seen a similar ‘congestion charge’ policy for Cardiff pulled in previous years, but this (albeit re-packaged) is now back on the agenda.

·      It is also a risk to judge the appeal of climate friendly policy based off an election in one parliamentary constituency. At the last Local Elections in London, Labour still gained in Council areas it likely wasn’t expecting to (Barnett for example) while ULEZ was still an issue. And sensible money is still all on Sadiq Khan being returned for a historic third term as London’s Mayor.

·      What Labour have done well so far is to make their green investment pledges an issue of economic growth, and not purely an environmental issue. With UK economic growth stagnating further still, voters will be desperate for any ideas on how to kickstart the economy and positively ‘spun’ talk of a ‘green revolution’ will attract voters.  Starmer and Miliband have also linked their green investment plans to energy security; obviously a key issue currently and something that some voters feel the Tories have failed on.


But what does all this mean for green policies in the future?


One key takeaway is that developers and climate leaning politicians must understand that climate friendly policies can still be weaponised, even despite generally high levels of support among the population. Recent data suggests that 74% of UK adults are worried about climate change, placing it second only to the cost-of-living crisis (reported as a worry by 79% of UK adults). It’s easy to believe that while the public have turned a corner on these issues, every initiative will be met with support – it will not. Especially, it appears those that charge residents sizeable sums of money in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. 

Data from Transport for London indicates that 90% of cars owned by Londoners won’t even be subject to the ULEZ charge. Based off this figure, it is a sensible guess that many might have had their vote swayed in the false belief that they would be subject to the charge. This means developers and politicians need to stay wary to the threat of misinformation. The ULEZ factor in Uxbridge is likely symbolic of wider fault-lines amongst the population when it comes to climate action vs climate delay (or denial).

You only have to look at the furore that has developed amongst a certain section of the far-right in relation to so-called ’15 Minute Cities’ to note that even the most innocent of policies can be weaponised (deliberately or otherwise) by those who oppose them. With every growing influence of social media, this is unlikely to change any time soon, and as any political communications person will tell you; once you’re behind the curve on an argument like this, there is usually no coming back. Whether due to false information or the truth. Indeed, even Chris Skidmore, a Tory MP, has called out his own party in the wake of the by-election victory; claiming ULEZ is a Tory policy, and calling for honesty and transparency about the state of pollution in citiies. The problem is, you cannot rely on all politicians being this clear, especially with elections on the line.

Despite strong public support for climate initiatives, this result makes it clear that net-zero has to be achieved by bringing the public with you. 

For a bird's eye view.
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