Drawing the wrong lessons from Uxbridge and South Ruislip – Simon Fletcher


“The by-election was won by the Tories by just 495 votes. The Greens secured just under double that number, with 893 votes. While the Tories used ULEZ to secure and motivate their base, Labour was unable to turn out more of its own vote.”

By Simon Fletcher

Labour’s failure to take Boris Johnson’s old seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip overnight has already turned into a blame game, with one report describing the fallout as a “Labour civil war”.

Sadiq Khan is in the sights of some – but so are green policies generally, with Khan’s air quality measure, the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) the springboard for wider criticism. Never letting a defeat go to waste, there is now a concerted effort to shuffle blame onto others – such as Khan – and to use Uxbridge as a lever to shift Labour’s policy rightwards on the environment.

First the blame game.  Some around the party’s leadership sought immediately to place the cause of defeat on Sadiq Khan and the London ULEZ.

Undoubtedly ULEZ is controversial. It is a London-wide policy, perceived differently in different parts of the city, overseen through city-wide government which has its own electoral mandate. A difficulty for Sadiq Khan is that he is trying to introduce a policy to correct London’s air quality, whilst being unable to radically expand public transport, punished by a Tory government ruthlessly squeezing transport funding and forcing him to raise fares.

However, the Labour leadership wishes to form the government and it has to take responsibility for its successes and defeats in Westminster elections.

To win, it is necessary to frame the election on your own terms – to frame the election around a question to which the answer is to vote for your party.

From the outset the Tory campaign sought to do one thing only, which was to motivate its base sufficiently to scrape through, on the issue of the ULEZ. Labour was less successful in framing the terms of the by-election. Throughout the election Labour ceded ground to the Tories’ media terms by feeding headlines about ULEZ: first through its candidate, Danny Beales, coming out against ULEZ, then the party leader Keir Starmer breathing more life into Beales’ position. Throughout the campaign, there was frequent background noise from the Labour camp about ULEZ. Rather than pointing the finger elsewhere the Labour leadership should face up to why – at a time of sharply declining household incomes – it did not more effectively seize control of the framing of the choice in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, allowing the Tories’ frame to dominate.

Uxbridge and South Ruislip is a seat Labour has never held. The swing was 6.7 per cent from the Conservatives to Labour, not quite enough to win. But there were more votes available to Labour. This was a lower turnout than the last time it was fought, at the general election. The by-election was won by the Tories by just 495 votes. The Greens secured just under double that number, with 893 votes. While the Tories used ULEZ to secure and motivate their base, Labour was unable to turn out more of its own vote. If it had done so, by motivating them (and therefore being better placed to pull over more of the Green vote too), Labour could have won. Instead Labour spent the run-up to the election persistently managing-down expectations of what it will do in government, reducing down optimism about the degree of change on offer and arguing that there is ‘no money.’

The New Statesman this week reported that the ‘share of 2019 Tory voters who are unhappy with Rishi Sunak is as numerous as the share of 2019 Labour supporters unhappy with Starmer – three in ten,’ arguing: ‘Starmer, who leads a party further ahead of the government than Cameron’s Tories ever were, is only satisfying just over half of former Labour voters, with 29 per cent disapproving.’ Swing matters and so does the enthusiasm of the base. Viewed in this way, Labour’s current orientation of taking many of its voters for granted means it is storing up problems.

The second feature of Uxbridge and Ruislip South is that the result – via ULEZ – is leading to a renewed attack on Labour’s green agenda, the aspect of Labour’s programme most distinct from the Tories’. It is also the one that is most consistently subject to negative pressure, internally and externally.

Following the Uxbridge and Ruislip South result, the Secretary of the right wing Labour First grouping tweeted: ‘I did warn about electoral impact of anti-car policies after the 2021 locals.’ A Labour source told HuffPost UK: ‘If Uxbridge helps us junk more crap then good.’

’The Times’ Patrick Maguire reported an adviser to the leadership saying, ‘Uxbridge conclusively strengthens Starmer’s position and will deliver a huge shot of reality into Labour policymakers – especially those who are driving green policies ahead of the public and expecting them to dig deep into their pockets to pay for them.’ That is code for watering down green policies and seeking to hobble those, including the shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband, who promote them. Once again, as on other policy fronts, every opportunity is being taken to minimise Labour’s programme.

Action on climate and air quality require a government committed to rapid investment and vast expansion of greener, cheaper alternatives across the board. Attempts to learn the wrong lessons from Uxbridge and Ruislip South should not be indulged.

Featured image: Labour canvassing session. credit Yorkshire & the Humber Labour Party

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