One of the​ Labour Party’s least attractive peculiarities is its restlessness when deprived of opportunities for self-flagellation. Last week’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 – and reciting the usual pieties about the need to supplicate further in suburbia. Instead the party erupted in hopeless overreaction, squawking about the danger posed by the party’s climate policies and briefing against the Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, 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 scheme, instituted by the mayor, levies a daily charge on older, more polluting vehicles; the expansion will take in outer London boroughs, including Uxbridge. Khan’s argument isn’t only ecological: thousands of Londoners die prematurely each year because of the city’s poor air quality. In a statement after the by-election, Khan 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 campaign issue: outer London voters often feel ignored in city-wide policymaking, most of them have cars (though not the poorest) and Ulez is one of few aspects of the cost of living crisis on which the Tories can plausibly capitalise. The scheme’s unpopularity appears not to have been affected by data suggesting that 90 per cent of cars in outer London are compliant. But the story isn’t as clear-cut as Khan’s defenders would like to claim: public transport in the outer boroughs is patchy, and for those who have to pay it, the daily charge of £12.50 will be a burden. The mayor’s scrappage scheme ought to be supplemented more generously by central government. And it all looks a bit like fiddling while Rome burns given that Heathrow is trying to add a third runway next door.

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 was safe enough for a sitting Tory prime minister – seems foolish. Blaming Khan occludes misgivings in the party about the decision of the London regional office to focus on candidate selections for next year’s election rather than preparing for the by-election; the failure to take Uxbridge is also a convenient pretext for attacks on climate policy in general and Ed Miliband in particular – for whom the Labour right nurses a special loathing. Khan’s successful defeat of a legal challenge to Ulez from five (Tory) outer London boroughs has so far brought only more criticism from his own party.

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 hard to identify 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 wish. Labour ought to take seriously the need to deepen that commitment, but the recent dilution of its pledges on climate spending is not an encouraging omen.

The overreaction to the Uxbridge result is in keeping with Starmer’s impatience at internal disagreement, but the outright conflict with Khan is surprising: he 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 isn’t the first Labour mayor to experience some 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 furthest from Starmer – Ulez and 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 next year. 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 comes up 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, like all climate policies, this 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 then few have yet had a discrete consumer cost. Substantive decarbonisation will require both commitment and political skill. As Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter was the first person 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 the 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, I’m told, 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 often 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 addressing vulnerabilities. In his Unite speech and in a recent conversation with Tony Blair, he 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 can’t wait for the doctor to complete his work, and 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 Labour’s new vision. Looking over the front pages of the newspapers, which juxtaposed attacks on green policies with the wildfires in the Mediterranean, it was hard not to think of the old doctor’s joke: the operation was a success, but sadly the patient died.

28 July

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