In the wake of the Uxbridge by-election, Bryn Jones says Labour’s wobbling on green policies will not win it any votes
Imagine a football match in which one team is under the cosh for 90 minutes but then, in added time, scores an unlikely winner. Relieved supporters and sympathetic media interpret the game thus: it was a great win achieved through the strengths of the winning team. Now, consider the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. The Tories’ narrow 495-vote victory was straight away claimed as down to their campaign focus on opposition to the London Mayor’s planned expansion of his Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to outer boroughs like Hillingdon and Uxbridge. By the next day, the Labour leader was cautioning against pressing ahead with the existing ULEZ scheme. His shadow health minister was claiming that Starmer “doesn’t want it to go ahead”. Soon the media pack was expanding this alleged ULEZ issue into a potential retraction of climate change policies.
For top Tories, this was the wedge issue which could see their party claw back Labour’s poll lead: by posing as champions of the people against costly green policies penalising the ordinary person in their Ford Fiesta. Labour is clearly rattled by the “by-election that got away”. The Tories’ late winner in Hillingdon and Uxbridge has created an image of a resurgent party, winning back electors by rubbishing “green” policies. It also depicts an opposition prepared to back down when faced with electoral wobbles. There are two reasons for thinking that all this hoopla is based on false assumptions and mistaken facts.
Firstly, closer inspection shows the actual result is not so unexpected or significant, or necessarily attributable to anti-ULEZ anger. Compared to the General Election of 2019, turnout was almost halved, but Labour still retained almost 75% of its total from four years ago – unlike the Tories, who lost nearly 45% of their 2019 voters, mostly to abstentions. Disenchantment with Tory politics did not translate into a liking for Labour; but, equally, not many voters and abstainers opposed ULEZ enough to vote Tory. Just 186 votes went to the only emphatically anti-ULEZ candidate, Leo Phaure. For two weeks, Labour’s candidate, Danny Beales, was telling voters that the scheme’s extension should be postponed, but recanting didn’t do him much good. Indeed, Beales’s volte-face could have lost rather than gained him votes: the Green Party comfortably outdistanced the ULEZ-delaying Lib Dem candidate, who finished in third place.
In 2019, fringe and protest candidates garnered 480 votes. In 2023, these candidates went from eight to 13. Their combined vote went from 579 to 2,071 – easily enough to exceed the Tory majority had they voted Labour. These “distraction” candidates could have taken votes from both Labour and Tories. However, as by-elections normally focus discontent against the incumbent party of government (to “teach them a lesson”), the fringe candidates’ minor but cumulatively significant share of the vote suggests some anti-Tory protest went to them and not to Labour. The Tories’ cause was also helped by having a competent and well-known local candidate in South Ruislip councillor Steve Tuckwell. He had five years to build his profile as a community champion on local issues. He campaigned like an independent candidate, avoiding mentions of Rishi Sunak and the Tory logo on campaign materials – unlike the Tory candidate in Selby, who had but one month to publicise herself owing to the designated candidate pulling out in June 2023.
The second reason for doubting that Uxbridge was a vote against environmental and climate policies lies in the ULEZ policy itself. Low emissions zones are not meant to curb greenhouse gases. Compliant vehicles could still be powered by fossil fuels. The emissions need to reduce to cut the risks to human health, not to “save the planet”. Nitrogen dioxide and particulates from older petrol/diesel vehicles are proven causes of many serious medical conditions. In 2020, a coroner’s court ruled that nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah died from asthma caused by exposure to such emissions in Lewisham. LEZs and ULEZs are important for minimising such health hazards, but they only lower them. Current Government guidelines for LEZs originate from World Health Organisation calculations of safe emission levels. In 2021, the WHO lowered the safe level by 75%. So, official UK emissions criteria should be even lower, but Conservative governments have not amended the relevant regulations. In vox pops and phone-ins, residents from the Uxbridge constituency complained that a ULEZ extension especially penalises them because public transport is inadequate: Tube fares are too expensive, and there are no direct bus services from Uxbridge into central London. The by-election and ULEZ is not a bellwether for climate policies. It is a public health and transport emergency. Instead of conceding the Tory/mass media stigmatisation of ULEZ, Labour should be explaining and publicising this inconvenient truth: “Vote against emissions zones and put the health of you and your children at risk.”