In Suburbia

James Butler

One of the Labour Party’s least attractive peculiarities is how restless it gets when deprived of opportunities for self-flagellation. Last Thursday’s by-elections saw the party achieve a staggering swing to overturn a 20,000-vote majority in Selby and Ainsty, and come tantalisingly close to taking Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where the Tory majority is now only 495. The Liberal Democrats trounced the Conservatives in Somerton and Frome, aided by some extremely efficient tactical voting. Labour could have greeted Friday morning simply by stressing the obvious – that the country is repulsed by the Conservatives, for whom these elections were a disaster – and reciting the usual pieties about the need to supplicate further in suburbia. Instead the party has erupted in hopeless overreaction, squawking witlessly about the danger posed by the party’s climate policies and briefing against the Labour mayor of London, portrayed by the leader’s office as an improbable climate radical. Amid the media noise, it is easy to forget how disastrous these elections were for the Conservatives.

The claim, made by Labour’s defeated Uxbridge candidate as well as sources close to Keir Starmer, is that the imminent expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) lost the seat for them. The ULEZ levies a daily charge on older, more polluting vehicles driving in an area due to expand from Inner to Greater London in August; the expansion will include Uxbridge. Sadiq Khan’s argument is not only ecological: four thousand Londoners die prematurely every year because of the city’s air quality. In a statement batting back anonymous criticism, the mayor called it an ‘issue of social justice and racial justice’: clean air is a ‘human right, not a privilege’. He has so far resisted pressure to delay the expansion.

It was cunning of Uxbridge Conservatives to make ULEZ their single-focus campaign issue: it is attractive to outer London voters, who often feel ignored in city-wide policy making, and it is one of very few aspects of the cost-of-living crisis the Tories can plausibly capitalise on. Like all measures yet to take effect, its shadow looms disproportionately: TfL surveillance data suggest that 90 per cent of cars driven in Outer London are compliant. Car ownership is low among the poorest households in London and outer boroughs such as Bromley and Croydon are badly affected by air pollution. On the other hand, the story isn’t as clear-cut as Khan’s defenders sometimes make it: public transport in the outer boroughs is patchy, and ULEZ charges will be a burden on poorer motorists. The mayor’s scrappage scheme ought to be supplemented more generously by central government. And it may seem like fiddling while Rome burns to expand ULEZ while the airport next door tries to add a third runway.

Even for a party as practised in self-recrimination as Labour, a collective implosion over a failure to win a seat they didn’t capture even under Blair – and which until recently seemed safe enough for a sitting Tory prime minister – seems foolish. Blaming Khan occludes misgivings in the party about the London regional office’s focusing on candidate selections rather than preparing for the by-election campaign; the failure to take Uxbridge is also a convenient pretext for attacks on climate policy in general and Ed Miliband in particular – against whom the Labour right nurses a pathological loathing.

But the broader electoral lessons being drawn by the Tory press and parts of the Labour Party are dubious. There are many seats like Selby or Somerton and few like Uxbridge: it is difficult to see an issue that the government could parlay into a national equivalent to ULEZ while ducking the blame for it. Net zero policies remain popular, and most voters think the government ought to be doing more – though commitment to this view is weaker than green-minded politicians might hope. Labour ought to take seriously the need to deepen that commitment, but the recent dilution of its pledges on climate spending is not a cheery omen.

The overreaction to the Uxbridge result is in keeping with Starmer’s impatience at internal disagreement, though the outright conflict with Khan is surprising: the mayor is one of England’s most prominent Labour politicians, and one of few actually in power. He is amenably technocratic; his instincts are far from radical. Starmer sometimes seems frustrated by the structure of the Labour Party, unhappy at being lumbered with the awkward representative bodies of a social democratic party – a complaint common among those who hanker after the ideological weightlessness of European centrism. In Starmer’s case, the hostility seems to extend to devolved bodies too.

Khan is not the first Labour mayor to experience friction from Starmer’s centralising drive: both Andy Burnham in Manchester and Jamie Driscoll in the North of Tyne (now standing for re-election as an independent) have felt it too. The issues on which Khan is farthest from Starmer – ULEZ and a stated desire for rent control powers – are unlikely to disappear with the arrival of a Labour government. The pressure for Khan to deliver has also increased: Conservative-imposed changes to the voting system mean he can no longer rely on anti-Tory second-choice transfers from Green and Liberal Democrat voters when he stands for re-election. It seems unwise, given that fact, for the national party to antagonise voters accustomed to voting elsewhere first.

The argument over ULEZ suggests a possible pattern for future climate politics. An abstract commitment to decarbonisation gets tested against the awkwardness and expense of putting it into practice. The costs don’t seem fair, because money’s tight and compliance looks expensive. The punitive element of the policy – the charge – feels more real than fuzzy promises of green jobs. But the controversy isn’t powered only by economics: as motoring lobbyists know, the association between driving and personal freedom is strong, even irrational. At anti-ULEZ protests, there are signs that say ‘Stop the Toxic Air Lie’, or warn that this (like all climate policies) is just another face of a general drive for social control. The racist conspiracy theories about Khan are never far away.

There are echoes here of the ramshackle basis of the gilets jaunes protests in France, and the mere fact of a global trend towards decarbonisation will not automatically diminish its political volatility. Few climate policies have aroused such concerted opposition, but few have yet had so concrete a consumer cost. Substantive decarbonisation will require both commitment and political skill. As Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter was the first to have air pollution cited on her death certificate, put it to Sky News: ‘Keir tells us he's going to bring in a new clean air act. How are you going to bring in a new clean air act, if you're wobbling over ULEZ?’

Any hopes that Labour might draw more sophisticated lessons about climate strategy, or a need to articulate a clearer political alternative, were scuppered at its National Policy Forum meeting over the weekend. The leader’s office arranged for the defeated Uxbridge candidate to open proceedings with an excoriation of the ULEZ policy. Starmer declared that he intended to offer the Tories no electoral hostages: motions on increasing the minimum wage, lifting the two-child benefit cap, defending the pension triple-lock and taking water into public ownership were all roundly defeated. Even a motion to fund Sure Start, a Blairite totem, fell. This marks the first real encroachment on the New Deal for Working People championed by Angela Rayner, the basis for her détente with Starmer. Unite, Labour’s largest union funder, rejected the final document; at Unite’s conference three weeks ago, Starmer had pledged – with lawyerly vagueness – to repeal anti-union legislation.

Starmer frequently says that he won’t make ‘uncosted’ commitments. He fears the electoral impact of popular stereotypes about Labour profligacy. But the latest retrenchment goes beyond patching electoral vulnerabilities. His Unite speech and a more recent tête-à-tête with Tony Blair stressed growth as the sine qua non of progressive politics. The implicit pitch is for a doctor’s mandate: to allow Starmer the latitude to restore economic growth, after which the party can pursue what it really wants.

But many of Britain’s crises – schools, hospitals, housing – are so acute that they cannot wait for the doctor to complete his work; it is difficult to see how any government can fix the economy without making significant long-term investment. Sometimes the promised £100 billion of green spending over a five-year parliament – down from £28 billion a year – is mooted as a means for such transformation, though it sits more and more incongruously with the party’s new outlook. Looking over the front pages which juxtaposed attacks on green policies with the wildfire disasters on Rhodes it was hard not to think of the old doctor’s joke: the operation was a success, but sadly the patient died.


  • 25 July 2023 at 2:10pm
    frmurphy98 says:
    Yes as a Newham resident this depiction of Khan as a clean air champion feels like gaslighting. He has seen voluminous evidence that his Silvertown Tunnel will kill children in London's poorest, most polluted borough for decades to come. He thinks that's a price well worth paying so more HGVs can thunder through.

  • 26 July 2023 at 6:42pm
    Ian Ross says:
    What strikes me most about Starmer's Labour Party is its timidity. It seems that there remains a belief that their massive poll lead is due to Tory voter disenchantment and simply positioning themselves as a competent alternative of more or less the same agenda will be enough to get them first past the post.
    I think this is misguided. Labour has the opportunity to provide the leadership which has been sorely lacking at least since 2016. Leadership is not about headline grabbing initiatives (40 new hospitals anybody?). It is about making difficult choices (though Starmer is yet to give an indication of what they maybe), not everything can be fixed at once. It also entails a coherent strategy to achieve the most important objectives. In other words dump the focus groups and get the experts together. I can understand why Starmer is reluctant to reveal his hand at this stage but if the approach is 'steady as she goes' our downward trajectory will continue.

    As Ken Clarke said on Radio 4 today Margaret Thatcher (whether you love or hate her) was able to transform the trajectory of Britain through her parliamentary majority.. He also made the point that one should take the tough and radical decisions in the first two years, allowing the rest of the lifetime of that parliament to see the results. I hope I will have some clarity on what he intends to do before Election Day.

  • 26 July 2023 at 10:15pm
    Simon Gulliver says:
    Are you not being a bit naive presenting this as Labour squabbling and squawking over ULEZ? Starmer has had a consistent policy of progressively jettisoning as many left-wing policies as he can and he was already wobbling on green issues well before the by-elections. The Labour leadership were very quick to lay blame on ULEZ as soon as they could, how convenient for their journey rightwards as green policies remain popular and not yet easily challenged.

    • 27 July 2023 at 11:45am
      cwritesstuff says: @ Simon Gulliver
      Is it that simple? ULEZ was a Boris Johnson policy and its extension was a requirement of the financial settlement imposed by Shapps - it's not easy to say something is left or right wing in those circs.

      I agree that Starmer showed incredibly poor judgment and the party incredibly poor messaging to have ended up in this position though.

  • 27 July 2023 at 8:24am
    Franczak Paul says:
    From what you say about the national policy forum, Labour in its current iteration has no ambition other than for power itself and is hoisted on its own petard of vague aspiration and costless positioning over identity politics. To spread its shadow as the only possible alternative to the Conservatives by polishing its Tory credentials is pragmatic and short termist. For Labour represents no one - certainly no class and no minority How it can reject one of the most popular policies to renationalise water is beyond me. In attempting being all things to all people except for the left, which is a rude word in Labour's lexicon, it will fail. When it fails it will open up the country to the rise of Faragists and more extreme elements.

    • 27 July 2023 at 11:48am
      cwritesstuff says: @ Franczak Paul
      To say Labour represents no one while being 20 points ahead in the polls is an interesting argument.

      On water nationalisation - it's easier to say things than actually do them. Clearly it never should have been nationalised and it has been a disaster to do so. However, nationalising it will either be very very expensive or potentially illegal. Those arguing to nationalise without compensation citing Northern Rock are incorrect as a matter of law - the situations are not analogous. They may be in due course, if a water company fails, but we are not there yet.

    • 27 July 2023 at 1:23pm
      Graucho says: @ cwritesstuff
      Mini budget. 100% tax on water company dividends. 100% tax on director's bonuses. Directive from the regulator that 100% of profits to be invested in pipe repair and sewage treatment. If they go bankrupt then buy them off the receiver at the knock down price.

    • 28 July 2023 at 10:07am
      Franczak Paul says: @ cwritesstuff
      Twenty per cent ahead in polls is not about representation is it? To renationalise water is what people want and they do not want compensation paid on the grounds that enough dividends have been paid which should have been reinviested. Change the law to ensure payment is not made. The fear is about lack of investmentt or withdrawal of investment -which is declining in ant event. The borader picture is tthat when people who do not believe they are being represented, as I do not and many young eople do not and those who cannot afford a mortgage or rent, theen something else rises to fill the gap - the far right usually, blaming the other while banking at Coutts.

  • 27 July 2023 at 9:17am
    bentoth says:
    Labour will form the next government. But it will be a shallow and worthless victory. For the first time in my life I will vote libdem or green.

    • 27 July 2023 at 11:50am
      cwritesstuff says: @ bentoth
      How do you know until they actually govern? I agree that they have gone too far in blandness and Ming vase strategies, but I also recall that the 1997 Labour government did some Tory spending things before going wild and doing progressive things.

    • 28 July 2023 at 10:08am
      Franczak Paul says: @ bentoth
      I agree with you).
      (I note a literal in my response above -'reinvested '

    • 28 July 2023 at 10:50am
      XopherO says: @ cwritesstuff
      Hmm. What progressive things in 13 years? Yes brought the NHS to its knees by following the Tory spending plans until late 1999 when the WHO report revealed the truth that the NHS was far from the best in the world - indeed, 19th. Blair then threw money without proper planning which increased the spend close to the EU average (but well below the leaders like France and Germany) without much improvement in outcomes (like perinatal mortality, cancer survival rates, which remained and remain among the worst in the G20) though waiting times were reduced - but waiting less time for what kind of treatment? He then used PFI to build/improve hospitals and schools etc leaving them in chronic debt which has come home to roost in recent years. He did not significantly improve on child poverty as he trumpeted in his manifesto. OK, minimum wage, but at one of the lowest rates in the EU compared to the cost of living (particularly housing - while not building much social housing) BTW, he increasingly looks more like Steve Bell's caricature every day to the point where it is no longer caricature - those eyes!

    • 28 July 2023 at 2:10pm
      joel says: @ XopherO
      That is going wild in centrist-neoliberal terms. The only wildness most people associate with New Labour is the unprovoked invasion of Iraq.

  • 27 July 2023 at 12:25pm
    Mick Mooney says:
    Starmer is scared of winning - he wouldn't know what to do if it happened - hence how he conspicuously chokes all the time on policy decisions. He is not enjoying himself out there. Beyond that, his narcissism leads him to desire to be the perfect victim, and no one can blame him when Labour loses. A Fred Perry kind of Hamlet, equipped with a political and legalistic cynicism suited for our times.

  • 27 July 2023 at 1:27pm
    Graucho says:
    Is ULEZ about clean air or raising revenue ? The polluting cars will still be driving around and into central London if the charge is paid. If it is about clean air then treble the charge and make the scrappage scheme generous enough to make it a no brainer to trade in for a cleaner model.

  • 27 July 2023 at 4:00pm
    XopherO says:
    I think blaming ULEZ was a way of covering up the real failings of Starmer's Labour, and surely Kahn realises this. A different narrative might have put the blame on a lack of policies, of coherence in general, the disillusionment of many stalwarts, the witch-hunting. Starmer looks like a man trapped in the headlights of his own intellectual emptiness. It is not a good look. Where is the confidence - wavering does not inspire anyone and shows on his face and in his demeanour.

  • 29 July 2023 at 4:57pm
    enfieldian says:
    Throughout its history, the Labour Party has only ever dared to attempt serious reforms when it was sure that there would be no serious resistance from the British ruling class. Thus in 1945, the Establishment clearly understood that “if you do not give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution.” So after 1951, Tory governments continued with full employment, council housing and the welfare state. And in any case, the 1945 reforms were carried out in the context of hanging onto Britain’s colonial Empire, secretly planning Britain’s nuclear “deterrent”, and founding, and becoming the most loyal member of, NATO. Need one spell out how the Blair years continued this pattern? And Blair had a healthy and painlessly taxable economy. Right now, the boss class have scant reason to fear revolution, and our financialised economy is in shit street. QED expect nothing from Labour.

  • 30 July 2023 at 8:20pm
    R v Buckland says:
    I agree, absolutely with James Butler, and have been saying the same to myself, and anybody I can find who is willing to listen. But what can those of us who are not stupid, and may even be a little intelligent do to encourage the Labour Party not to throw away the election. It seems they are very anxious to do this. A sort of unconscious suicide. Perhaps they’re frightened of gaining power at such a difficult time. Do they not realise that if they were more radical the whole of the voting public born after about 1990 will simply fall into their laps. All these younger people are very aware of the disasters facing them due to climate change, and are desperate to find a political voice somewhere.
    One would have thought Starmer was not a stupid man, but he seems to take no notice of what the scientists are extremely clear about. And if you can see further than the internal infantile feuding of Labour Party factions, then you are aware that much of the world is already very seriously impacted upon by global warming.
    It simply drives one to banging one’s head against the wall when one thinks that the tiny parochial concerns of a few outer London voters, would lead any serious person, let alone someone who considers themselves to be a leader, to turn against members of their own party, and to waterdown their commitment to doing whatever they can to reduce the production of CO2.
    One can’t help feeling from my position far away from London, that Starmer is embarrassed by actually being in a party that has any connection with something that we used to call socialism. Perhaps the last bit is unfair but I can’t help feeling it and being very upset about it.
    Richard Buckland. Ashburton. Devon. TQ13 7EJ

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