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21 July 2023

Is Sadiq Khan’s re-election campaign in trouble?

Ulez is one of many reasons why securing a third term will be a challenge for the London mayor.

By Anoosh Chakelian

For months, national forecasts suggested Labour would comfortably win Uxbridge and South Ruislip from the Tories. The party has been specifically targeting Boris Johnson’s former seat (he resigned last month) on the outer fringes of west London since the 2019 general election. When the opportunity finally came at this week’s by-election, Labour failed. The Tories held the seat by a white-knuckle margin of 495 votes.

This is partly due to Ulez, the Ultra Low Emission Zone, a charge on the most polluting vehicles, announced by Johnson as London mayor in 2015 and introduced by his successor Sadiq Khan in 2019. In 2021, it was expanded to the north and south circular roads, and is due to cover all of Greater London (including Uxbridge) from this summer.

“There used to be more consensus on this issue,” said Leo Murray, co-director of the climate charity Possible, which researches public and political sentiment on traffic-restriction measures. “It was former Uxbridge MP Boris Johnson himself who first unfurled Ulez with fanfare in 2015 when he was mayor, and the independent Ken Livingstone [he rejoined the Labour Party in 2003] who brought in the original congestion charge.

“There’s a way through this where everyone wins. Everyone wants cleaner air. With a fully-funded scrappage scheme and investment in cheap, reliable public transport, we can make sure nobody is left behind in the transition to healthier cities.”

While the expansion of Ulez is supported across the capital as a whole, it’s not in seats such as Uxbridge. I grew up in Acton, in the west London borough of Ealing that neighbours Hillingdon – Uxbridge’s council. Life in these outer London places is more of a suburban, commuter-ish one. Residents are more likely to own cars than their inner-city neighbours, and the aesthetic is generally more privet hedges and gravel drives and retail parks.

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That’s why I wasn’t surprised Uxbridge and South Ruislip stuck with the Tories. With Uxbridge’s peace monument, rather than a war memorial, and non-conformist Protestant heritage, it’s an unusually enigmatic part of the capital. Dissent from consensus runs through its history. Unlike nearby bellwethers in Ealing, it neither switched to Labour in the 1997 landslide nor in a by-election that same year. Despite record wins in the capital in recent years, Labour hasn’t made significant gains on Hillingdon council – which it lost in 1998 and has never won back. And it lost neighbouring Harrow council to the Tories in last year’s local elections.

A complicating factor in outer west London politics is the sizeable British Indian population, where hostility to Khan has been stirred up by some figures looking to exploit Gujarati Hindu political preferences.

Yes, Uxbridge is harbouring major demographic changes (the classic London doughnut trend of absorbing younger, more diverse voters from the inner city), but I’ve found the political change slow when reporting there over the years. As John Randall, the Conservative peer and a well-known local who held the seat before Johnson, told me in 2019, “There’s a certain status quo feel about the place. It’s got a strange feel about it, it’s neither fish nor fowl.”

[See also: Would Boris Johnson have won in Uxbridge?]

Ulez, which would charge those who drive vehicles in Greater London that don’t meet emissions standards £12.50 a day, is seen by its opponents as an expensive imposition, but also an affront to freedom. It was the perfect excuse unsatisfied locals – many of whom, like their fellow by-election voters in Selby and Ainsty and Somerton and Frome, are disillusioned with the Tories – needed not to switch to Labour. The Conservative candidate, Steve Tuckwell, capitalised on this by turning the by-election into a referendum on Ulez. (In reality, fewer than one in ten cars seen driving in the expansion zone are non-compliant, according to Transport for London’s calculations.)

This all presents a challenge for Labour. Disgruntlement from within Keir Starmer’s camp against Khan – and the wider enthusiasm for a green transition among Labour figures such as the shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband – is crackling through the political ether. The Labour candidate in Uxbridge campaigned for Ulez to be delayed.

Khan, who won by a tighter margin than expected against a weak Conservative candidate in 2021, is due to run for a record third term as London Mayor next year. His tenure has not been easy; City Hall’s resources were drained by the pandemic, and since he was first elected in 2016, he has faced an uncooperative central government. (Indeed, a senior Transport for London source told me last year that the “urgency” to expand Ulez was financial rather than environmental.)

In response to the Uxbridge result, Khan has said he “continues to listen” and keeps “everything under review”, but I hear the Ulez policy is unlikely to change. “Sadiq has always been clear that expanding the Ulez was a really difficult decision, but necessary to save the lives of young and vulnerable Londoners,” a source close to the Mayor told me.

After (or if) the expanded zone takes effect at the end of August, as planned, the true test will be whether Londoners punish Khan at the next London mayoral election.

Insiders concede it will be a tougher fight than previous contests. The voting system is changing to first-past-the-post, so Khan can no longer hoover up second preferences (as he did last time), and photo ID will be required to vote (which young people and some ethnic minority groups are less likely to have). He will also be trying to persuade Londoners to reward a difficult record on other contentious devolved issues, such as the state of the Metropolitan Police, in addition to restricting car use. There are wildcards too: in Susan Hall, the Conservative Party has selected a candidate on the Tory right for the first time to run for City Hall.

As the Labour Party grapples with an internal row over green policy, Khan will be facing an increasingly tense political context. This is on top of an increase of racist hatred directed his way, according to a Greater London Authority report seen by the New Statesman. The analysis found that in March alone almost 10 per cent of all racialised abuse Khan received was bound up with opposition to Ulez. Other sources were related to Indian politics and support for Donald Trump (who the Mayor famously clashed with).

When the government-in-waiting is at odds with Labour politicians already governing, like its city mayors, it risks learning the wrong lessons from results such as the one in stubborn old Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

[See also: The Tories can take little consolation from their Uxbridge victory]

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