Paul Wheeler: Sadiq Khan and London Labour have underestimated voters’ anger with their roads policies

Paul Wheeler: Sadiq Khan and London Labour have underestimated voters’ anger with their roads policies

Berlin is a paradise for progressives. Since the last days of the Berlin Wall it has attracted the liberal-minded of all nations. It is the only city in Europe that has a public holiday for International Women’s Day. When I lived there for a year there was a constant variety of protests and solidarity marches every weekend.

And yet in April 2023 the city elected a conservative Mayor – Kai Wegner of the Christian Democrats – for the first time in more than two decades. As with any election, there were many reasons for change, but it is significant that Wegner campaigned strongly on a promise to stand up for car drivers incensed by cyclists taking up road space. One of his first policy acts was to suspend plans for nearly 1,500 miles of cycle lanes to be added across the city by 2030. The city is now in uproar about it. But will Berlin 2023 be a forerunner of London 2024?

Discuss, as they say. The Labour Party is enjoying historic poll leads in the UK capital, but these relate to voting intentions in the next general election. Where the next election for Mayor of London is concerned, the picture is less clear cut, as was the outcome of the last one, in 2021. Against a distinctly lacklustre Tory candidate, these days known as Lord Bailey of Paddington, Sadiq Khan received 40 per cent of first preference votes compared to 35 per cent for his main opponent. His lead stretched to 10 points after second preferences were added, but such a transfer of votes will be not take place in 2024 due to the national government abolished the Supplementary Vote system and imposing First Past The Post (FPTP).

The potential consequences of this change were evident in the contest to be Mayor of Bedford held earlier this year, with the Tory candidate winning by 145 votes from the Liberal Democrat runner-up with just 33.1 per percent of the total vote. Could something similar happen in London next year? An opinion poll by Redfield and Wilton in June found support for Khan on 41 per cent and for an at that time unknown Conservative on 33 per cent – a good lead for Khan but not a huge one. And the poll came before the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election, when a surprise Conservative hold on a night of Labour triumph elsewhere put the forthcoming expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ ) to outer London centre stage.

The tragedy for London Labour is that what should have been the key piece of an ambitious public health strategy for the capital, on a par with the clean air legislation of the 1950s, has instead become the focus of bitter in-fighting with national Labour politicians and embedded in a wider debate about the cost of living. It has also provided a life line for London Tories.

London Labour would be unwise to think disquiet about roads policy in general is confined to the outer boroughs. The party’s surprising loss of Tower Hamlets Council at last year’s local elections can be partly attributed to many working-class drivers’ simmering resentment of restrictions and fines incurred due to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN) imposed without consultation during the pandemic, when their incomes were already under pressure.

Labour-run councils Merton and Wandsworth have created the own ULEZ vehicle scrappage schemes to augment the Mayor’s, and Labour Ealing has revised contentious LTNs. But, sadly, too many Labour councils and councillors across the city seem to have little understanding of the struggles of self-employed drivers, a shortcoming summed up by a Labour member in Greenwich pondering publicly why plumbers couldn’t use the bus service to do their jobs.

If the general and mayoral elections are held on the same date next year, 2 May, such considerations will be less helpful to the London’s and their mayoral candidate, Susan Hall. But if they are held on separate dates, things could be different.

The first worry for London Labour will be turnout, which fell from a record high 46 per cent in 2016, when Khan was first elected to 42 per cent in 2021. The lower the turnout, the worse it usually is for Labour and the danger could be greater if the ULEZ expansion gives a significant proportion of Londoners a big reason to vote against Khan. Another worry for Labour is that the Redfield & Wilton poll put the Green Party on seven per cent. Green supporters might be reluctant to “lend” their votes to Khan given environmentalists’ opposition to the Silvertown Tunnel.

The previous expansion of the ULEZ out to the North and South Circulars seemed to pass without controversy, so it can be hard to understand the depth of feeling stirred by its coming enlargement to the rest of Greater London. Poor public transport infrastructure is certainly part of the problem, and the prospect of a daily charge of £12.50 for using a car sits badly with cost of living concerns.

Of course, the charge won’t apply to the vast majority, but Tory campaigning has convinced many that they or their families will be impacted, even if their cars are ULEZ compliant. In comparison, the Mayor’s and TfL’s publicity campaigns have seemed tin eared and, as with the recent extension to the scrappage scheme, the result of panic rather than policy.

With eight months still to go to the mayoral election, a lot could change both regionally and nationally. Hall could prove as gaffe prone and incompetent as her predecessor, but it would be unwise for her opponents to rely on that. There is an urgent need for Khan and Labour in London to repair the relationship with the national party and to give Londoners reasons to vote for them rather than against them. It won’t be enough to turn it into a referendum on the record of the 13 years of a Tory national government when it could also be one on Sadiq’s eight years as Mayor.

Paul Wheeler writes about local politics. X/Twitter @paulw56. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s Substack. Thanks.

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