The Conservatives have held off Labour in the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election, vindicating their strategy of framing the contest as a referendum on Sadiq Khan’s planned expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) and demonstrating again the area’s historic reluctance to change its political colour.
The seat vacated by Boris Johnson after the Commons privileges committee found he had deliberately misled parliament had looked there for the taking by Labour’s Danny Beales, even though he needing to overturn a substantial 7,200 majority.
Yet even as Labour was climbing a far higher mountain to win Selby & Ainsty in North Yorkshire, local Tory councillor Steve Tuckwell retained the outer west London seat by a margin of 495 votes despite an anti-Tory swing of 7.5 per cent.
Both Tuckwell and Labour’s shadow justice secretary Steve Reed, the MP for Croydon North, said the ULEZ expansion plan had been central to the outcome. Tuckwell said in his victory speech that “Sadiq Khan has lost Labour this election” with his “damaging and costly ULEZ policy”, and Reed told the PA news agency it was clear that a lot of people “didn’t like the fact that ULEZ was going to cost people more to drive around at a time when there’s a cost of living crisis going on.”
The result also has echoes of previous Labour failures to capture Uxbridge, including at a 1997 by-election held shortly after Tony Blair’s landslide general election earlier that year. Previewing the by-election for On London last month, elections expert Lewis Baston noted the resilience of the Tory vote in last year’s Hillingdon Council elections and a core support in Uxbridge & South Ruislip that has been relatively little eroded by demographic changes in the area.
The salience of ULEZ is incongruous in the sense that vehicle registration trends in the area analysed by Transport for London suggest that close to 90 per cent of cars in the borough of Hillingdon as a whole comply with ULEZ standards, while 20 per cent of its households don’t have a car at all. The compliance rate for vans is much lower – though also probably rising, in 2022 it was only 58 per cent – but the number of such vehicles is much smaller.
Even so, the Uxbridge & South Ruislip result has shown the policy to have a formidable power to mobilise voters, which will encourage Susan Hall, the newly-selected Conservative candidate for London Mayor.
Congratulating Tuckwell on Twitter, Hall added, “Now we fight for the mayoralty”, and in an early morning statement, “Sadiq Khan and his disastrous ULEZ expansion have got to go. Next May, voters can make that happen and choose a better, brighter future for our city.”
The expansion is due to take effect from 29 August, some eight months before the election for London Mayor on 2 May, which might take the heat out of the issue. However, a legal challenge by five local authorities, including Hillingdon, could force a delay. A decision is expected by the end of this month.
Opinion polls about the ULEZ have indicated that Londoners favour the policy on the whole, but, especially in outer areas, have misgivings about Khan intending to enlarge it to cover the entirety of Greater London.
Steve Tuckwell was the man chosen to repair the damage done by former Mayor and ex-Prime Minister Johnson, and he has done so – narrowly but triumphantly.