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Labour must ‘learn lesson’ of Tories using Ulez attack in by-election – Starmer

The Labour leader said there was ‘something very wrong’ when a party policy was on ‘each and every Tory leaflet’ in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Patrick Daly
Saturday 22 July 2023 13:18 BST
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said ‘something is very wrong’ when a party policy is on every Tory election leaflet (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said ‘something is very wrong’ when a party policy is on every Tory election leaflet (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Sir Keir Starmer has warned that Labour must “learn the lesson” of seeing a party policy used against it following a narrow defeat in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election.

The Labour leader said there was “something very wrong” when a party policy was on “each and every Tory leaflet” following attacks on London mayor Sadiq Khan’s plan to expand the capital’s ultra low emission zone (Ulez), which applies a charge for the most polluting vehicles.

Addressing the party’s national policy forum in Nottingham, Sir Keir said that, while the by-election win in Selby and Ainsty should give Labour “every reason to be confident” ahead of a general election, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip result demonstrated that there “is still a long way to go”.

We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

Labour overturned a 20,000 majority to win the Selby seat in north Yorkshire with a 23.7 percentage points swing away from the Conservatives – the second largest produced by Labour at a by-election since 1945.

But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives hanging on in Boris Johnson’s old Uxbridge seat has sparked debates within both the Tories and Labour on their green policy stance.

Sir Keir told the forum on Saturday: “That result in Uxbridge demonstrates there is never any reason to be complacent and never a reason to rest on our laurels.

“It is a reminder that in an election, policy matters.

“We are doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet.

“We’ve got to face up to that and to learn the lesson.”

The Opposition leader urged the forum, which is debating potential manifesto ideas, to stay “disciplined” as he warned that the Tories were likely to seize on rogue policies during next year’s likely general election campaign.

Following the byelection result in west London on Friday, Sir Keir said City Hall’s Mr Khan should “reflect” on the expansion of Ulez after new Tory MP Steve Tuckwell painted the vote as a referendum on the toll.

Labour candidate Danny Beales, who cut the Tory majority from 7,200 to less than 500 votes, had called for Ulez’s expansion to every London borough to be delayed during the campaign.

According to HuffPost, Mr Beales told Labour’s policy forum that the environmental proposal designed to cut air pollution “is bad policy”.

Mr Khan plans next month, pending a court challenge, to widen the £12.50 daily charge for cars which fail to meet emissions standards to beyond the capital’s north and south circular roads.

Mr Beales reportedly told the conference that “a single policy cut us off at the knees” and “acted as a dead-weight” when canvassing for votes ahead of Thursday’s polling day.

“You cannot tell working people you are laser-focused on the cost of living, on the difficulties facing them, on making life easier and then also penalise them simply for driving their car to work,” Mr Beales reportedly said.

Mr Khan’s team said nine out of 10 cars driving in outer London were already compliant with Ulez regulations and would not be charged.

A source close to the Labour mayor said winning Uxbridge “was always going to be a struggle”, pointing out that Sir Tony Blair did not turn it over during his 1997 landslide.

“It is a disappointing result and Sadiq has been clear he is listening to Londoners following this by-election,” the source told PA news agency.

“Sadiq has always said that expanding the Ulez was a really difficult decision, but necessary to save the lives of young and vulnerable Londoners.”

Following the Uxbridge win, Conservative Party leader Mr Sunak is facing calls from members of his party to water down pledges designed to help the UK meet its pledge of having a net zero carbon economy by 2050.

Tory MP Craig Mackinlay, chairman of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, has suggested delaying the ban on new petrol and diesel cars, pushing it back “at least” five years to 2035.

Health minister Maria Caulfield said the Tory Government was committed to a mixed energy economy — with both new oil and gas licences being approved, along with moves to develop renewable energy — as she swerved questions on whether policies such as the phasing out of gas boilers by 2035 should be postponed.

While Mr Sunak avoided a triple by-election defeat, the ruling party saw heavy losses inflicted by voters in what were once considered safe seats.

As well as losing in Selby, the Tories also came second in Somerton and Frome, with the Liberal Democrats turning a 19,000 blue majority into an 11,000-vote cushion for new MP Sarah Dyke.

Mr Sunak, according to an ally of the Prime Minister quoted in The Times, is preparing to approach the lead-up to next year’s likely election with “more political edge” in recognition that “substantive issues”, such as Ulez in Uxbridge, can help the Tories to win.

The newspaper said Mr Sunak is planning to focus on “divisive” issues, such as crime, cracking down on small boats of migrants arriving in Britain, and transgender rights, to claw back ground on Labour, with Sir Keir’s outfit well ahead in opinion polls.

Ms Caulfield said the by-election results suggested there was “no appetite” among the electorate for a Starmer premiership, and showed instead that Tory voters were “angry” with how her party had governed.

She told Sky News: “What we saw in Somerton and Frome and in Selby and Ainsty is that actually, the Liberal and Labour votes only went up by two or three thousand and the majority of Conservative voters did not switch to those other parties – they just stayed at home.

“That tells me that our Conservative voters don’t really want the other parties, they are just angry with us, sending us a message and wanting us to be a Conservative Party.

“It has been difficult over the last few years. We’ve had war in Europe, a pandemic that has meant we’ve had to spend in ways that Conservatives traditionally wouldn’t.

“I think once they see that we’re able to get the economy back on track, deal with the migrant issue, tackle the NHS waiting lists, they are waiting for us to be able to deliver.

“And I think you may see a very different result come the general election.”

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