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28 July 2023

What does the Ulez court ruling mean for Labour?

Sadiq Khan is heralding “good news for London” but Labour HQ fears the outcome is bad for the party.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The London Mayor Sadiq Khan can proceed with the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), the High Court has ruled.

Following an appeal against the legality of expanding the scheme – which charges the most polluting vehicles £12.50 a day – it will now be rolled out across Greater London at the end of August.

Khan has called this “good news for London”. Labour failed to gain the outer London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip from the Conservatives in this month’s by-election, largely owing to local opposition to Ulez. But Khan sees the policy as vital for improving London’s air (and, privately, Transport for London’s diminished finances).

The decision is a blow to Labour HQ, which fears losing public support over expensive-sounding green policies in a cost-of-living crisis. Labour candidates in other outer London seats will be feeling precarious. Six to ten seats in and around London could be affected. Paul Bristow, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, a constituency way outside of London in Cambridgeshire, is already trying to suggest that Ulez could be extended to his patch.

Yet there was little likelihood the policy would be delayed or abandoned. Transport for Labour lost out on fares when passengers worked from home during the Covid-19 pandemic – and the rise of the hybrid working trend continues to hurt. Khan has also long been personally committed to improving air quality – he himself contracted asthma while training for the 2014 London marathon.

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The capital has a recent history of fights over car-use reduction – with Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge in 2003, the introduction of the first stage of Ulez in 2019 and its expansion around the north and south circulars in 2021. Despite vocal opposition, London has become a predominantly Labour city. Livingstone has since reflected that the smooth rollout of the congestion charge was the only thing in his entire political career that “turned out better than I expected”.

The question now is whether voters grow accustomed to the Ulez expansion by the mayoral election next May, or whether a significant electoral backlash is led by Susan Hall (the first mayoral candidate drawn from the Tory right), Conservative councils and MPs in the capital. The latter could become a model for Tory attacks on Labour’s green agenda at the next general election.

[See also: Charity chief: “We know it’s controversial but clean air zones work”]

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