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24 July 2023

A Ulez U-turn could land Sadiq Khan in greater danger

It would be electorally and financially risky for the mayor to reverse the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Since Labour lost the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election to the Conservatives on 20 July, it has been in turmoil over Ulez. The Ultra Low Emission Zone, which imposes a £12.50 daily charge on the most polluting vehicles, is about to be expanded by Sadiq Khan across Greater London. The Labour leadership fears this policy will colour voters’ opinions about how it would act in office, given the Mayor of London is a rare, high-profile example of a Labour politician in power.

It’s unlikely Ulez will be reversed, I’ve heard. Transport for London, which has been drained of resources by the increase in home-working and hard-balled by successive Conservative administrations, needs the money.

But there’s a reason beyond finances why a U-turn would be a mistake. The politics are not straightforward. Mainstream media coverage may suggest that Ulez is deeply unpopular, and among certain voters in seats such as Uxbridge, it is. But across the capital as a whole, more people support it than not.

Khan does not derive his support from outer London Tory boroughs, and he needs his base onside. The mayoral electoral system is changing from a proportional one to first-past-the-post, so he can no longer rely on the second preferences of Green and Lib Dem voters. He will have to persuade them to vote for him next year. Notably, in the Uxbridge by-election, the Greens finished third with 893 votes – more than the Conservative majority of 495.

London Labour MPs and councillors increasingly fear that voters will feel taken for granted and turn to alternatives, such as the Greens. I’ve heard some warn that London could be the site of the next “Scotpocalypse” or “Red Wall”, with Labour haemorrhaging votes to the Greens and Lib Dems, as it did to the SNP in 2015 and the Conservatives in 2019. This makes it politically rational to maintain policies such as Ulez, which signal to such voters that Labour is still a progressive party – even if some lose out for the sake of the poorest in society (who are less likely to drive).

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Electoral history suggests traffic-calming and car-restricting measures in the capital are not necessarily punished at the ballot box. After introducing the congestion charge in his first term, Ken Livingstone was re-elected as mayor in 2004. Khan himself was re-elected in 2021, having imposed the original Ultra Low Emission Zone (announced by Boris Johnson in 2015) in 2019.

There was also “no observable relationship” between London councillors’ stances on low-traffic neighbourhoods (another anti-motorist measure that has attracted a vocal backlash) and their electoral showing at London’s local elections last year, according to Possible, a climate charity that researches public sentiment on traffic-calming schemes.

City Hall insiders argue that Khan’s car-reducing instincts are already accounted for: anger in certain corners has been rising for years, yet Labour triumphed at the local London elections in 2022. There is also hope that the zeal of Ulez opposition will dampen once the policy is in place, not least as it affects just one in ten vehicles in Greater London (though the proportion may be higher in Uxbridge specifically).

[See also: Labour’s reckoning over Ulez]

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