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24 July 2023

Labour’s reckoning over Ulez

Brexit may have been resolved, but the conditions for populism have not.

By Freddie Hayward

Global warming will dominate the government’s policy over the next few decades. The UK is legally bound to decarbonise the economy by 2050 – a Herculean feat that will require billions of pounds of investment. Yet it rarely dominates political debate. Much like foreign policy, it’s an issue around which the two main parties broadly coalesce. Both commit to net zero. Both want to see renewables assume a greater place in our energy system. As Anoosh notes, Boris Johnson was the London mayor who introduced the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) in the first place. Labour’s approach is more ambitious, of course. But moderate, uneven progress on emissions has been an unacknowledged merit of the past 13 years of Tory rule.

That consensus could now shift. Labour’s narrow loss in last week’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, Johnson’s old constituency, has elicited a reckoning within both parties over their climate policies. There are those in Labour who blame London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Ulez scheme – morning, Sadiq – for the by-election loss. Keir Starmer has called for Khan to reflect on the policy. “We would have won Uxbridge if it wasn’t for Ulez,” one senior Labour source told me. Before Uxbridge, Labour had already diluted its £28bn-a-year green prosperity plan and reoriented the policy’s justification towards jobs and energy security. That shift is gathering momentum. As a shadow cabinet minister told me: “[The defeat] won’t change the scale of our climate ambition, but it will have an impact on framing.”

Labour seems to be dumbing down its climate pledges rather than winning people over through a contestation of ideas. That may work in the short run. But in the long run, given net zero must be delivered, it could play into the populists’ hands. Climate policy has been the bête noire for Nigel Farage types for a while. And when the boisterous right in British politics starts speaking, you should start listening – lest you look as David Cameron later did after he dismissed Ukip as a bunch of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists” in 2006. If the transition to net zero can be framed as a punitive burden for the individual, at a time when politics is defined by stagnation and falling wages, then it can be politicised in a way we have not yet seen. Antipathy towards Just Stop Oil could be a mere prelude to a bigger backlash. It’s true that polling suggests most people support climate action – and for that matter, support Ulez – but as the years preceding the Brexit referendum show, a noisy minority can exercise undue influence over the direction of British politics. Brexit may have been resolved, but the conditions for populism have not.

Khan will hope that once Ulez is expanded in late August most Londoners will realise they aren’t affected and will forget the policy by the mayoral election next year. That may happen. But the broader battle over net zero continues.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

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[See also: Sadiq Khan is not your mate]

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