What, if anything, should we learn from Uxbridge?

Despite the historic win in Selby, the result in Uxbridge and South Ruislip is disappointing. Labour had a fantastic candidate in Danny Beales, with a moving personal story and a proven record – even saving a police station in the middle of the campaign. It had a huge surge of activists on the ground coupled with the dismay and disappointment many feel with the Conservatives and their former MP and Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

What it didn’t have though, was a convincing answer on the only issue on the minds of the voters – the imminent expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez) into the area.

This is being seen as the primary reason we fell short (and only just, the Conservative Majority has gone from 7000 to 450). Harder evidence is required to know if it was the issue that really made the difference, but when canvassing on Thursday with our friends at Labour to Win, the feeling of unease among voters was palpable.

As you can imagine, the ‘take’ merchants are plying their trade on both conventional and social media, arguing the result shows that Labour either should or shouldn’t abandon its environmental commitments.

The truth is what happened in Uxbridge is not really a transferrable situation and it shouldn’t affect wider policy.  But there have been some interesting conversations about how the Party should communicate its wider climate policy to avoid running into trouble again especially when it comes to the Tories effectively framing environmental issues as a local democracy and social justice issue.

There’s value in these conversations but sometimes a focus on the communication of a policy can obscure the real issues. “If we just spin it right people will accept this unpopular thing” doesn’t engage with the causes of the unpopularity.

My analysis is that the issue is not exclusively about the comms, but also the content of the policy. To put it even more simply, it’s not about communication – it’s about compensation.

I will admit that the origin of this idea is anecdotal. I had an, as they say, forthright conversation with a gentleman standing as an anti-Ulez candidate while out canvassing yesterday. Among other things, he accused us Labour canvassers of not caring about the impact on low-income working people of the policy.

The logic is simple and probably correct, poorer people drive older cars. Older cars are more polluting and more likely not to be Ulez compliant. The outcome then is regressive, with poorer people disproportionately affected.

This made us all uncomfortable, and the lines we were given – that Labour would look at a £30m car scrappage scheme in Birmingham for inspiration – were not much of a salve, nor very convincing to voters.

In fact, for reasons I don’t fully understand there wasn’t much briefing on the existing scrappage scheme. Up to £2000 is available from TFL for people in receipt of certain benefits who scrap their polluting car to enable them to buy a less damaging one.

£110m has been allocated for this, which at the highest payout would equal 55,000 cars. In reality the scheme is more complex than this, with graded payout available for different kinds of vehicles – more for vans for example – so the final figure is hard to calculate.

On the face of it, there seem to be a couple of issues with this. According to the RAC once Ulez expansion is completed around 700,000 cars in London will not be compliant . The scheme is designed only to support those who need it, but we must ask if it has the scale to support them all.

The other is the value of the scrappage. At the time of writing, there were only 1,670 cars within 50 miles of central London for sale on Autotrader that are likely to meet the Ulez standards (according to the RAC this for a petrol car means it should have been registered since 2005 ) at less than £2000.

So, it seems likely a low-income household is left with the choice of paying £12/day or spending money they do not have to replace their car – even with the mitigation TFL have put in place.

We all know this is for an important cause, but it should stick in our throats that it seems likely that the poorest are most affected – especially as they are less likely to pollute in other ways such as through flights for foreign holidays and business trips.

So perhaps the lesson of Uxbridge, if there is one, is that where green policies impact disproportionately on the worst off we need proper mitigation, at scale, in place and ready to go before the harms are even felt. This would provide the security that Labour is trying to put at the heart of its agenda.

The problem is that this will be expensive. As we have heard this week there is ‘no money left’. My rejoinder would be that these mitigation measures could be a way to kickstart our green economy.

If, for example, this Ulez situation had happened in Germany it’s easy to imagine the government giving out vouchers for a greener Volkswagen, manufactured in Germany. There are many reasons why we can’t yet do these kinds of things, which support our people and our domestic industries but that is where our ambition should be.

Ultimately the result in Uxbridge shouldn’t bend the arc of history. But there is a warning in there, not about whether we should do the green transition – but how.

For more on green investment see ‘Two key principles for Labour policy: ‘invest to grow’ and ‘invest to save’ in Lord Roger Liddle’s recent speech: Prospects for a Keir Starmer premiership: what he can achieve and what stands in his way.