Starmer calls for reflection on by-election impact of Ulez expansion

Senior Labour figures cited the widening of the scheme as responsible for the party narrowly missing out on winning Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Dominic McGrath
Friday 21 July 2023 14:53 BST
Sir Keir Starmer said the Uxbridge constituency was always going to be ‘tough’ (Danny Lawson/PA)
Sir Keir Starmer said the Uxbridge constituency was always going to be ‘tough’ (Danny Lawson/PA) (PA Wire)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Sadiq Khan has been urged by party leader Sir Keir Starmer to “reflect” on his Ulez scheme after senior party figures blamed the expansion of the charge on high-pollution vehicles for the failure to take Boris Johnson’s former seat.

The London Mayor said he was ready to listen to Londoners in the aftermath of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, after the Conservatives clung on to the seat by a couple of hundred votes by tapping in to anger over the scheme.

Senior party figures were quick to cite the Khan-backed scheme as responsible for Labour narrowly missing out on winning, as Sir Keir said there needed to be some reflection in the aftermath of the vote, name-checking the party’s mayor in the capital.

“We didn’t take it in 1997 when we had a landslide Labour victory. And Ulez was the reason we didn’t win there yesterday,” he said.

“We know that. We heard that on the doors. And we’ve all got to reflect on that, including the mayor.”

“We’ve got to look at the result. The mayor needs to reflect. And it’s too early to say what should happen next.”

The former prime minister held the west London seat with a majority of 7,210 in 2019 but the Tories retained it by just 495 votes over Labour in Thursday’s vote triggered by Mr Johnson’s resignation.

New Conservative MP Steve Tuckwell’s victory was the one piece of good news for Rishi Sunak after his party lost the former safe seats of Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome.

Mr Khan was standing by the Ulez scheme on Friday although he said that he would keep monitoring the policy amid the backlash.

“The decision to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone was a tough one, but it’s the right one. Why? Because every year across our city, roughly speaking 4,000 people die prematurely. There are children with stunted lungs forever, adults with a whole host of health issues,” he told the BBC.

“We do want to clean up the air in London, I think it is a human right, not a privilege.”

He added: “We are going to carry on listening, we are going to carry on monitoring the policy, monitoring take-up.

“Of course I am disappointed that this seat, that’s never been Labour in my lifetime, didn’t go Labour last night. Obviously I welcome the 7% swing to Labour in this outer London seat, but we are determined to clean up the air in London.”

Pressed on whether opposition to Ulez could cost Labour the mayoral and general elections, he stressed the urgent need to clean the capital’s air.

“We are going to listen to Londoners. Londoners are struggling through this cost-of-living crisis but Londoners are also suffering the consequences of air pollution.”

“This is an issue of social justice and racial justice, but I recognise that there are some Londoners worried about Ulez. That is why we have widened the eligibility and provided record support for Londoners.

“It’s just a shame the Government has not given us a penny of support towards the scrappage scheme.”

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner and frontbencher Steve Reed were among those blaming Ulez for the failure to take the west London constituency in the hours after the results came in.

The Conservatives have looked to Uxbridge as the one piece of good news on an otherwise terrible night and will hope the focus on local issues can help them at the general election.

Some MPs and peers on the right of the party argued that the campaign shows the a need for rethink on tax and net zero, with former party chairman Sir Jake Berry tweeting: “This result shows when Conservatives campaign on lowering taxes, we win.”

Mr Tuckwell told reporters after his victory: “My campaign has been incredibly single-minded and it’s really been in complete opposition to Ulez from the outset.

“That’s not me saying that, it’s not me that called the referendum on Ulez. It is the people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.”

Labour candidate Danny Beales had expressed his reservations about the policy, stating that the timing was not appropriate for expanding the £12.50 daily charge on cars that do not meet emissions standards.

The failure to overturn the Tory majority in the seat was dubbed “Uloss” by a party insider in a sign of the unease at Mr Khan’s plan.

Mr Tuckwell received 13,965 votes to Mr Beales’s 13,470 to claim the constituency for the Tories.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner and frontbencher Steve Reed were among those blaming Ulez for the failure to take the west London constituency.

Labour’s shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry dismissed the prospect of the “single issue” Tory success being replicated across the country at a general election.

But she told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme that the party leadership wanted Mr Khan to “look at it again”.

“It’s very difficult because Sadiq is right that the air quality in London is terrible. And I speak as somebody who was diagnosed with asthma at the beginning of this week,” she said.

“I think it’s the right policy. I suspect it’s the way it’s being done, and I hope that Sadiq will look at it again, I know that we’re asking him to.”

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