Much has already been written and said about the result of the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election, most of it focused on the impact of the upcoming expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone. This could be bad news for Sadiq Khan, but not necessarily for the reason you might expect.
Both Labour and Conservative politicians claimed the result proves the policy is a vote loser. Angela Rayner said it showed the pitfalls of not “listening to voters”. Sir Keir Starmer has urged the Mayor to “reflect” on the policy. Government minister Grant Shapps believes it proves the Conservatives can win in London, and Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall believes opposing ULEZ expansion will be key to winning next year’s race for City Hall. For his part, Khan remains committed to his pledge.
But saying the ULEZ expansion plan produced a bad result for Labour is itself open to question. And Labour’s rebukes of the capital’s Labour Mayor could point to wider ramifications for London and the future of its devolved government.
Let’s look at what actually happened in Thursday’s trio of parliamentary by-elections. The governing Conservatives did terribly elsewhere and less terribly in Uxbridge & South Ruislip. A swing of 6.7 percent was not enough for a Labour victory there, but although the Tories clung on to the seat, their previous majority of 7,210 was reduced to just 495. They clung on rather than winning decisively.
The issue of ULEZ expansion clearly played a part in their survival. It was central to their campaign, and newly-elected MP Steve Tuckwell’s victory speech cited it as the main reason for his success.
But there are important caveats. Labour candidate Danny Beales also adopted an anti-expansion stance, so this was not quite a straightforward matter of “the Conservatives versus the ULEZ”. Dedicated anti-ULEZ independents ran, but accumulated just a handful of votes between them. And Tuckwell was a solid local candidate who ran a campaign almost entirely devoid of mentions of national issues. He should get some personal credit too.
There is also the political character of the area to consider. The last Labour parliamentary victory in a seat containing Uxbridge was in 1966. Lewis Baston’s excellent preview analysis of the current constituency showed that it might be difficult for Labour to take this time.
That this was former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s seat may have influenced the result in unusual ways. Turnout was low, at 46 per cent. The group of oddballs that tend to compete in any election garnering national coverage stood. From the sometimes-amusing Count Binface to the frankly quite dull Laurence Fox, those candidates won collectively over a thousand votes. Under other circumstances, they might have been cast differently and even changed the final result.
So was this really a single-issue election whose outcome damned the ULEZ expansion irrevocably? Or could it be the case that we saw a local campaign resulting in traditional Conservative voters continuing to vote Conservative, albeit in smaller numbers than previously? The Labour candidate attracted nearly 5,000 fewer votes than in 2019, but the Conservative lost more than double that amount.
None of this is to say that ULEZ was not a significant factor, just that it would be a mistake to assume from the Uxbridge & South Ruislip outcome that hammering ULEZ is, in and of itself, a guaranteed route to Conservative victory.
Sadiq Khan may actually view today as a good day. He and his team have surely calculated that ULEZ expansion will not be unpopular with Londoners as a whole when it comes to his election day in May, and that when it comes into effect on 29 August – barring a successful legal challenge – it will directly affect so few vehicles, and therefore voters, that things can only calm down as time goes by. He is also right that most of the poorest Londoners do not own cars at all. Additionally, those it will affect will disproportionately also be those unlikely to vote for him anyway.
But there is also a reason for Khan to worry. Labour’s national leadership seems to have accepted the view that this policy is a vote loser. Senior party figures have either claimed that a better scrappage scheme is needed, or that it is simply “not the time” for such a policy. And their suggestion that Khan is not listening to voters is alarming.
The Labour Mayor and the Labour leadership have different interests in the issue. Khan would argue that his policy shows he has been listening very closely to his electorate of Londoners as a whole. Starmer and his team have the different priority of gaining individual parliamentary seats all over the country, notably including Tory marginals in outer London which the ULEZ is set to encompass.
But more fundamentally worryingly for London is the wider context in which Starmer’s and Rayner’s comments were made. Labour’s national leadership is reportedly increasingly uncomfortable with devolution. With polling consistently suggesting a Labour government is on its way, Khan has warmly anticipated working with a Starmer national administration should he win a third term as Mayor. But Starmer’s remarks about the ULEZ suggest he might have to adjust to a new reality.
The Labour leader and his team are said to be concerned about the autonomy and lack of message discipline Labour’s big city Mayors enjoy. Despite early commitments to further devolution, the party in government looks as if it may well lean away from increasing the autonomy of Mayors and towards reigning it in instead. That would be a mistake, for capital and country alike.
Jack Brown is is lecturer in London Studies at King’s College and author of The London Problem. Twitter: Jack Brown and On London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s Substack.