Dave Hill: Free school meals could trump ULEZ for Sadiq Khan

Dave Hill: Free school meals could trump ULEZ for Sadiq Khan

It has long been my unfashionable suspicion that the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to cover all of Greater London will turn out to be more bark than electoral bite. Yes, it is a significant issue. Yes, it might take a mouthful out of Sadiq Khan’s support. But the excited expectation of Conservatives and their media allies that the race for City Hall would be a referendum on the policy has always struck me as optimistic.

Lyndon Johnson’s observation that the first rule of politics is to learn how to count appears applicable: even two years ago only 14 per cent of cars (and falling) registered in the capital weren’t ULEZ compliant – that in a city where over 40 per cent of households don’t have a motor vehicle at all.

You do the maths. And even though anti-ULEZ fury will motivate opponents of Khan, including some not directly affected by the scheme, the numbers don’t stack up high enough to imply they will lead to a shock victory for Susan Hall on 2 May.

Survation’s recent poll for ITV London found the ULEZ was the top concern of only six per cent of voters. By contrast, 41 per cent picked the cost of living as the most important in deciding how they will vote. Which brings us to free school meals.

Providing funds to ensure that one is offered to every primary school child in London every day has been a flagship policy of Mayor Khan, highlighted for the 1.1 million followers of his X/Twitter feed and doubtless noted by the parents of getting on for 300,000 London youngsters who no longer have to stump up dinner money.

Yet media interest in this initiative has been tiny by comparison with the orgy of indignation aimed at the ULEZ. And until On London got together with Redfield and Wilton, no opinion poll had measured Londoners’ feelings about the policy. The result was pretty striking: 70 per cent support it (31 per cent “strongly”) compared with just 13 per cent who oppose it (five percent strongly).

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We need to be cautious about comparing this resounding backing with the same poll’s findings about the ULEZ. Different types of question about the latter produced different types of answer, including one which can be taken as showing more dislike of its enlargement to the edge of London than enthusiasm for it.

But the most directly comparable question, one simply asking about the ULEZ as a whole, detected significantly more support than opposition, by 50 per cent (19 per cent strongly) to 31 per cent (18 per cent strongly).

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We don’t yet have a figure about how free school meals ranks as an electoral issue for Londoners, as we do for the ULEZ. And both policies relate to the wider cost of living theme, helping or hitting different groups of Londoners in different ways, and in some cases doing both.

But what Redfield and Wilton’s poll emphatically shows is that Khan’s free school meals policy, despite receiving far less media attention, is well-regarded by a very large majority of Londoners. Meanwhile Hall continues to make scrapping the ULEZ expansion a top-line pledge and criticises the free school meals programme – an initiative that is doing Khan’s re-election hopes no harm at all.

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