“For every person you meet who has sympathy or is a massive fan, you also find one who is frustrated with how things have panned out, how Covid was dealt with, Partygate etcetera,” says Danny Beales, Labour’s candidate for the forthcoming by-election in Uxbridge & South Ruislip. “There are certainly people who like him, but I also meet some who are very, very aggrieved about what happened, who lost families during Covid and have a really deep sense of anger and hatred.”
Boris Johnson still has a political presence in the constituency he has now formally departed, having read the report of the House of Commons privileges committee and been displeased. But it will not, according to Beales (pictured), make a difference either way to his hopes of capturing the seat for Labour, and by so doing making a big statement about his party’s progress towards forming the next government.
The fallen PM is “probably a net neutral” as a factor in his contest against a yet-to-be-selected new Tory opponent, he says, and claims other issues, more prosaic but more important, will decide the outcome at the western edge of the city Johnson once led as Mayor.
Beales describes his primary task as speaking to voters about those things – the health service, the cost of living, and so on. “People have a sense that it’s not working – the country is not working. Everything feels more difficult, every process of government they interact with feels log jammed and broken. What people are saying is that change would be a good thing. The challenge for us as Labour is convincing them that we are that change”.
Johnson won in 2019 by 7,210 votes from his Corbynite Labour challenger. The Liberal Democrats and Greens mustered 4,116 votes between them, underlining that anti-Tory tactical voting such as was seen in last month’s local elections across England won’t be enough for Beales. “We need to win over people who haven’t voted Labour before,” he says.
As Lewis Baston has shown, this piece of outer west London has a habit of looking likely to swing from blue to red yet not quite doing it. And although the signs are encouraging for Beales, a Camden councillor and cabinet member for that borough’s council house-building programme but born and brought up locally, the complex demographics of the area and its stubbornly Tory history mean victory is definitely not guaranteed.
“It isn’t going to be a landslide in this by-election,” he stresses. “No candidate will walk into office. You’ve got to really work hard and fight for every vote.”
He is encouraged, though, by Labour’s performance at the 2022 council elections. The borough of Hillingdon, into which Uxbridge & South Ruislip falls, remained Tory-run, not for the first time confounding predictions that it would fall to Labour. Nonetheless, the gap was closed and there were seats gains in wards where Beales will need to do well.
Along with the pressing bread-and-butter national issues being raised on doorsteps – Beales says he has spoken to about 5,000 people since December, when he was picked to fight the seat – Sadiq Khan’s planned expansion of London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone from 29 August has often been raised. Could local opposition to the Labour Mayor’s high-profile policy be a problem for the Labour parliamentary candidate when the by-election comes, probably in July?
Beales stops short of expressing support for Khan’s specific proposal, limiting himself to recognising “the rationale for trying to transition to less polluting vehicles in the city to improve air quality” and that “Hillingdon has some of the worst air quality in London” while emphasising that decisions about the ULEZ are the Mayor’s to make, not the local MP’s.
His job would be to “represent local people” on the matter, and they hold a range of views. “I hear people who are very concerned about air quality, people who have kids or whom themselves have had asthma,” he says, but also “people who are frustrated with the policy and its impact on them personally, or people they know.”
He says he recognises that the minority of households in a majority car-owning constituency whose vehicles aren’t ULEZ compliant won’t welcome the prospect of buying a different one or facing a daily charge of £12.50. But he also welcomes Khan’s recent widening of eligibility for his scrappage scheme and re-states the point the Mayor and other London Labour politicians have repeatedly made about the national government declining to put extra money in to it, while funding such schemes in other cities.
Central to the Beales pitch to Uxbridge & South Ruislip’s voters is that he would represent them far more diligently than Johnson did from 2015, when he won the seat at the general election of that year. No doubt whoever the Conservatives choose as their new candidate will make his or her own claim to be a champion of local people and their concerns. It could be a close-run thing.
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