Labour’s inability to win Uxbridge and South Ruislip received attention for all of the wrong reasons – in terms of the next general election, it’s a poor guide. In this west London seat, Labour was in a deeply peculiar position for an opposition party – it was effectively a quasi-incumbent. The Conservatives successfully made the election into something which by-elections are often supposed to be but rarely are: a genuinely local contest; a referendum on a loathed local policy. It tells us little beyond the politics of outer London, and even then it isn’t clear that dislike of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) would translate to a general election.
By contrast Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome, where the Tories lost to Labour and the Lib Dems respectively, add to the corpus of evidence we’ve now had over two years. Brexit is no longer especially salient with regards to election outcomes in Leave constituencies (something we’d have found incredible only a few years ago). The Lib Dems are back in the south-west, Labour is again competitive in the sorts of seats where they have serially underperformed – semi-rural, older, with fewer graduates. We can see in election after election that there is willingness among non-Conservative voters to coalesce against the Tories, in any way necessary. These conditions echo the mid-1990s and spell potential disaster for Rishi Sunak.
But the fact that Labour has managed to convert one of the biggest triumphs in its electoral history into a period of bitter self-recrimination also tells you something about why Labour is perennially in opposition. In insisting that Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, rethink the expansion of Ulez (which charges £12.50 a day to drivers of older, more polluting vehicles), Labour appeared panicked. They gave the media all the more reason to focus on the Uxbridge contest. In truth, the reaction was as much about the internal dynamics of the Labour leadership as it was about the importance of the by-election result – with those in Keir Starmer’s office who have been long sceptical of the green agenda and its proponents (principally Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary) using the loss as a means of advancing their agenda.
We saw this in action over the weekend, as Starmer told Labour’s National Policy Forum: “In an election policy matters. And we’re doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet.” Although it’s hard to see how his promise to take a “bulldozer” to planning laws, or anything which could amount to genuine localism, could survive such a criterion, it is easy to see what he is doing. He and his team want, to use the strategist Lynton Crosby’s hoary old cliché, to “take the barnacles off the boat”. They live in perpetual terror that their lead is fragile, that any one policy might smash it.
Such caution is understandable. But there are risks in caution too. For a start, we’ve already seen how too dogged a pursuit of fiscal discipline can strain party unity. The Labour Party has appeared fractious and divided this last week, not principally over Ulez but the two-child benefit limit. Was that really a wise fight to have going into such a crucial by-election week? Starmer has always bet there is nowhere for the left to go, but there are potentially limits to that bet. Given there were less than 500 votes in it in Uxbridge, was Ulez really the only culprit? Or might some of the 1,000 people who voted Green have concluded they wanted to send Labour a message of their own?
For Labour to panic is dangerous for another reason too. Uxbridge has already amplified the voices of those on the Conservative right who believe Rishi Sunak should move more aggressively against environmental policies. Jacob Rees-Mogg went on the radio on Friday morning to urge Sunak to do exactly that, joined by the right-wing Sunday papers. There were already glimmers of this in these last months, with the Tories attacking Starmer’s policy on North Sea oil and gas extraction and fabricating links to Just Stop Oil.
Stand by for this agenda to be bundled together with an amorphous “war on woke”, in which “woke” will suddenly include anyone who is concerned the planet is burning. There already exists a media environment which is all too keen to hear, write and broadcast this agenda, and Sunak himself ought to be wary of this approach. I write this from Spain, where the mainstream centre-right Partido Popular (PP) has suffered by association with the far-right party Vox, which spouts exactly this fusion of climate-scepticism and culture wars. But there are risks for Labour in once again keeping its head down. If it says little to nothing about anything, the space may be filled with an agenda where Labour and Starmer are uncomfortable, at best.
It would also be to miss a historic opportunity. Progressive governments are making net-zero policies work for them as a means of crafting a bold agenda – see Joe Biden in the US or Anthony Albanese in Australia. It’s about how it’s done. There is a political world rapidly coming into view (and there has been some time) where the new major dividing line in British politics is on net-zero and the climate, with Labour in their favour and the Conservatives against. This shatters a previously wide consensus (albeit a shallow one). That Ulez (a public health policy, not a net-zero one) has caused such problems is a foretaste of that divide.
Consider the politics of the sale of new diesel and petrol cars being phased out altogether by 2030 (a government pledge), or the transition from gas boilers to heat pumps. I had thought that a new right-wing backlash against net-zero would take place when Labour was in government. It feels, suddenly, as if the thinking is that it’s potent enough (and Sunak desperate enough) for it to begin while Labour is in opposition.
But the answer for Labour is not to give up the fight, it is to urgently consider how to package and sell a green agenda that has the potential to create jobs and wealth. Labour’s task is to make it clear that this is a transition where the government will lead and pay – not ordinary voters, who remain concerned about climate change and who are looking to political leaders for answers and explanation. It is nearly always the case in British politics that the far-ish right is allowed to define the terms. It would be a disaster for Labour if they were allowed to fill the space on this biggest issue of our age.
As the disasters of climate change become clearer for all to see, Labour should be wary of deciding that the message of last Thursday was not to fight this battle. If it does, while it may technically have been the case that last week was a “score draw” across the parties, the rest of us will most definitely have lost.
[See also: Sadiq Khan is not your mate]