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Uxbridge is not a reason for Labour to dump its climate commitments
ULEZ if you want to, Labour should not be for turning
There is nothing worse than pundits immediately jumping on a single by-election result and drawing bold conclusions about what this means for national politics. Except for when pundits use the result to claim, usually without much evidence, that it proves that all of their pre-existing opinions were actually correct.
And that’s why in this post I want to tell you about what the Uxbridge by-election means for national politics, and why the results actually prove that I’ve been right about politics all along.
Let’s start with the results. As we know now, the Conservatives managed to just about hold on to the seat by 500 votes, beating utterly rock-bottom expectations.
The reason for this narrow victory has been pinned squarely on the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) expansion, that will be imminently rolled out by Sadiq Khan. Uxbridge is basically the perfect fault line for this policy, as it is in outer London, but looks a lot more like the rest of the country, where many more people rely on cars to get around.
So as a result of this, some deeply flawed analysis has started to emerge.
Specifically, some Labour people are reportedly suggesting the result could be bad news for Labour’s bold climate commitments, and Ed Miliband’s job security, given he was the architect of those commitments.
I’ve no doubt that the next few days we’re going to see a steady drumbeat of pundits on the right sensing weakness, and using the talking point as a similar excuse to dump on Labour’s plan to spend £28bn a year on climate stuff by the end of the Parliament1. The argument is that voters have rejected ULEZ – therefore Labour’s proposed climate spending could be similarly toxic.
However, in my view this is total bullshit and a wild misread of the situation, once you actually think about it for more than a few seconds. And it would be insane for Labour to change course on its climate mission.
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What the anti-ULEZ vote actually means
The first thing to know about ULEZ expansion is that many of its defenders would explain the reason for the expansion as not anything to do with climate. It’s purportedly more narrowly about making the air in London cleaner. One of the inciting incidents for the policy was the tragic death of a 9 year old girl, where it was found pollution “made a material contribution” to her death.
This said, I don’t think this distinction matters all that much in this circumstance. It is both obvious and understandable why voters might conflate ULEZ expansion with climate concerns.
But even if we take “ULEZ hostility” as a direct proxy for “climate policy hostility”, the ULEZ policy and Labour’s climate plans are completely different things that people (will) feel in completely different ways.
ULEZ is a demand-side intervention. The idea is that by charging motorists £12.50 to drive into London, the fee will disincentivise unnecessary journeys, and make public transport a better choice by comparison. So in a sense, it is designed to be inconvenient and punitive. The goal is to make driving into London more annoying.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that it is wildly unpopular in car-owning outer London, especially given the way the charge is administered. Voters will literally see a line for a £12.50 charge on their bank statement every day that they drive. Of course that is aggravating2.
By contrast, Labour’s climate “mission” is a supply-side intervention. If you actually read the policy, it’s full of commitments to invest in renewable energy generation, insulating homes, carbon capture, green jobs and so on. It’s good shit.
But crucially, it isn’t a plan for more punitive interventions like the ULEZ. It isn’t telling us that we’re going to have to live more miserably, have less stuff, or be more inconvenienced for the greater good.
In fact, the driving motivation for Labour’s approach is not just climate, but economic growth. Meaning that if Labour is able to deliver it, the hope is that these climate inventions will make everyone richer. The goal isn’t to make everyone travel or consume less – it’s to do the opposite, and make us more materially wealthy.
Because as Uxbridge is indicative of, to do otherwise would probably be political suicide.
The O’Malleyist Agenda
Now for the “this thing that just happened proves my politics” bit.
I think Uxbridge is a useful microcosm of a tension that runs through the environmental movement. It is yet further evidence that the only route to actually doing anything about climate change is to take this O’Malleyist supply-side approach to climate policy. The alternative is not just undesirable in terms of material outcomes (people will be poorer) but because for most voters it will be politically unpalatable (because people don’t like being poorer).
As I’ve written before, people will not vote to make their lives worse. Policies that are punitive to the individual, that aim to reduce demand with a stick and not a carrot, are almost by definition politically costly. Extra taxes, reducing consumption and hectoring voters or implying they are morally at fault is a recipe for losing elections.
And sure, sometimes more coercive measures like the ULEZ may be justified from a doing-what-is-neccessary perspective. Politicians sometimes have to make hard decisions.
But doing unpopular things, even if they are necessary, obviously makes it harder for politicians to win elections or to win the support of the public.
And this means that demand-reducing measures like ULEZ carry a dual cost: They are less politically desirable for politicians to implement, making them less likely to happen in the first place. And they make the electoral coalition behind the ultimate cause (in this case climate change) weaker, as there are more political and real world costs to it.
And that’s why when it comes to climate, as well as other policy areas like housing, I’m an advocate of a ‘supply side’ approach to the politics.
As I’ve written numerous times before, if we want to create a Net Zero Britain, we actually have to build it, as per Labour’s very O’Malleyist ‘mission’. And to make Net Zero palatable, we need to pursue energy abundance, as a means of making energy cheaper and everyone materially better off. If energy was cheaper and we’d built out electric car infrastructure, and had even more expansive public transport, there wouldn’t be a need for a ULEZ in the first place, and the air would be cleaner anyway.
The good news for Labour out of Uxbridge then is that obviously, ULEZ toxicity is only an issue that affects London and its immediate environs3. And the even better news is that the Tories are now so terminally unpopular that it’s unlikely that it is only likely going to make a marginal impact to the party’s majority at the next election.
So it is important that Labour do not take the wrong lesson from Uxbridge, and remember that if they want to actually mitigate climate change in a politically palatable way, they need to build. ULEZ and the current climate mission are not the same, and Labour would be crazy to change course because of it.
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Inevitably cue Andrew Pierce for an absolutely brain-dead take.
If we imagine a world where it is was somehow possible to take the fee through general taxation, out of paycheques, I imagine it would be less psychologically abrasive.
The big irony of me writing this is that if I were Sadiq Khan, I’d still actually implement the ULEZ. Given the Mayor’s limited toolkit, it seems like the best of a bad bunch of options. Though in an ideal world, we’d be building Crossrail 2, extending the Bakerloo Line, expanding EV charging and all of that good supply-side stuff to shift incentives instead.