Labour still looks set to win next general election, but Uxbridge result is reminder there's still work to do - Ian Swanson
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Labour still looks set to win the next UK general election despite failing to take Boris Johnson’s former seat in last week's by-elections.
The Tories lost two of the three contests, all of which were in what had been safe Tory seats. Labour scored a record-breaking victory in the North Yorkshire seat of Selby and Ainsty, overturning a 20,000 majority with a swing of 23.7 per cent. And the Lib Dems seized Somerton and Frome in Somerset on an even bigger swing of 29 per cent, converting the previous Tory majority of 19,000 into a Lib Dem one of 11,000. But Labour narrowly missed out on the former prime minister’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency in outer London, where the Tories squeaked home by just 495 votes.
There's no mistaking the trend which means the Tories are in trouble. But the Uxbridge result gave Rishi Sunak the opportunity to insist the general election, expected next year, was “not a done deal”. And indeed it isn't. No-one knows that better than Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. He is now talked of by most commentators as the next prime minister but, only too well aware of previous electoral disappointments, Sir Keir is taking nothing for granted.
If last Thursday’s by-elections had produced a clean sweep of Tory defeats the danger is that some in Labour could have begun to feel complacent, Voters might even have started to assume that a Labour general election victory was inevitable and they need not bother to vote. The Tories’ survival in Uxbridge prevented any premature triumphalism by Labour and reminded the party it needs to keep working to gain people’s trust and support.
Both the Tory victor in Uxbridge and Sir Keir have said they believe the result there was down to London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) – ironically first introduced by none other than Boris Johnson – and Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to extend it to cover all of Greater London. Sir Keir's comment that the Mayor should “reflect on that” has been taken by some as code for saying the extension should be halted. But Sadiq Khan has defended the policy, which means the drivers of the most polluting vehicles paying £12.50 a day to take their car into the zone. He reasonably observed: “Nobody will accept drinking dirty water, why accept dirty air?"
Environmentalists fear both Labour and the Conservatives could now start rowing back on their green commitments – not just Ulez, but perhaps also the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. That surely would be a gross over-reaction to a by-election result which could have been different if just 248 votes had been cast another way.
Policies which threaten to restrict people’s use of their cars often provoke a strong reaction – as shown by Edinburgh’s 2005 referendum rejecting a congestion charge. But Labour should find ways to mitigate the effect of Ulez on less well-off motorists rather than ditch the policy altogether, which would send a very bad message in these climate-conscious times.
As the general election looms closer, Labour will come under a lot of pressure on many of its policies and it will take wise judgement to manage the tensions over plans which are unpopular with some but still “the right thing to do”.