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Good morning. Although London’s ultra low emission zone is not the only clean air zone in the UK, it is the largest (even before Sadiq Khan’s decision to expand it to the whole of the capital), and it is also the most politically significant of the zones.
It is the only one where there is any prospect that a mayoral candidate supportive of the zone may be defeated by an opponent. It is also in the city with far and away the best public transport links. If you can’t have a clean air zone in London without a political backlash, you can’t have a clean air zone anywhere in the UK. It is also a preview of how the politics of congestion and road use charging will develop in the next parliament. Some thoughts on all that below.
The politics of pollution charging
The expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone is the Conservatives’ great source of solace at the moment, particularly ahead of next year’s mayoral election. Sadiq Khan is far and away the most vulnerable Labour incumbent.
How much is that to do with Ulez? Well, this is a map of the last election result, created by FT data editor Martin Stabe.
And here is the concentration of car users.
Sadiq Khan’s electoral coalition is not particularly dependent on people who might even theoretically be affected by the Ulez, which imposes a £12.50 daily charge on drivers of older and more polluting vehicles. In addition, 2021 was a very good year to be a Conservative candidate.
Now, it’s possible in my view that the Tories can win the London mayoral race. The biggest misconception in politics at the moment is that London is “a Labour city”. It has a large and reliable Conservative core vote and a large and reliable Labour vote, and if you look at elections in the capital, that Labour bloc is only a touch larger than the Conservative one.
But what London also has is many liberal voters and environmentally concerned ones. These are voters that David Cameron did a lot to attract, as did Boris Johnson in his first phase as mayor of London, but whom the modern Conservative party is not too bothered about.
In recent years that has mattered a great deal, because the supplementary vote system, under which voters get to pick a first and second preference, has meant that the first and second preferences of Greens and Liberal Democrats decisively shifted the last two mayoral elections towards Labour and Khan.
But because the mayoral election is now run under first past the post, that might not matter. Now it will probably come down to which party does the best job of getting its reliable core (Labour’s is about 35 per cent or thereabouts, the Conservatives somewhere around 30 per cent) out to vote.
New polling by Redfield and Wilton for Times Radio shows exactly that: a very close race between Khan and Susan Hall, with Khan narrowly ahead. (They also show that if Jeremy Corbyn were to run as an independent, he would tip the race towards Hall, but I don’t think this is a hypothetical worth thinking about: what’s more important is that the two major parties have bases of around equivalent size and that the race to be mayor is finely balanced.)
Yes, the Conservative party has hobbled itself by not picking Paul Scully, the minister for London, who stood for the nomination, and by failing to entice any higher-profile potential candidates, such as Justine Greening, Ed Vaizey or Rory Stewart. But that strong, reliable core vote gives Hall a good chance.
Yes, Hall is on the right of the Conservative party, praised Liz Truss’s Budget and Donald Trump, both of which are not great assets to have in a candidate. But she starts with 30 per cent of the vote just by dint of having the word “Conservative” by her name on the ballot and it is Khan who has the job of persuading Liberal Democrat and Green voters that they have to back him for fear of something worse. If the Conservatives keep their own candidate out of the spotlight and just focus on turning out their reliable voters, they very much can win the London mayoralty.
I just don’t think that the road to Tory victory runs through Ulez, and the idea that it does is based on faulty assumptions about previous elections in London. It helped Boris Johnson in 2008 that turnout rose in outer London, which some at the time attributed to the extension of the congestion charge, but looking back, turnout for the London mayoral election has increased steadily over time. The Conservatives’ big asset in this poll is that Khan is short on achievements. Frankly if he wins, it will be because people who would otherwise vote Green think that Ulez is on the ballot, rather than because the traditional Tory core vote is exercised by Ulez.
But in politics, what political parties believe works matters as much as what actually works. Opposition to Ulez is seen as a powerful card by influential Conservatives and as such, opposition to Ulez will be the order of the day.
Regardless of what happens in London next year, and in the general election — whether next year or in January 2025 — I think whoever ends up in opposition is going to take a sharp turn against road charging. Why? Because the adoption of electric vehicles — something that has more to do with technological improvement than the government’s 2030 target to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars — is going to put further downward reduction on the amount that the government raises in fuel duty.
Whatever new tax either Jeremy Hunt or Rachel Reeves ends up introducing, opposing road charging will be superficially attractive for the opposition, particularly if it is believed to have contributed to the result in the London mayoralty. Whether you live in London or not, this election is going to shape how the two parties think about this policy area, not just in the capital but across the UK.
Now try this
I saw Past Lives at the cinema last night. It’s a wonderfully acted, written and directed love story. It’s just 100 minutes long but the final third felt at times much longer: in a good way. A love story that stays with you. Our interview with the director is here, and Jonathan Romney’s review is here. However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.