My top ten take aways from the last week’s political events
In a busy week for politics in the capital, what have we learnt from events and what might it mean for the looming Mayoral and General Election? Here are my top 10 takeaways from the turbulent last 7 days.
1. By-elections aren’t General Elections
Don’t over-interpret the Uxbridge result. Historically by-elections are head on collisions between national and highly local issues. By making Uxbridge a referendum on the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), it just tipped it in the Tories favour. In a contest between an unpopular national governing party and an unpopular local policy, it turned out ULEZ was the slightly more unpopular of the two.
2. Labour still made a lot of progress
Labour’s vote was up in Uxbridge and the Tory vote down. The 7% swing to Labour, repeated across London in a General Election, would see Tory marginals Hendon, Chipping Barnet, Chingford & Woodford Green, Wimbledon, Cities of London and Westminster all highly vulnerable - and Sadiq Khan comfortably re-elected Mayor.
3. But there’s life in the Tories yet
By winning Uxbridge, the Tories showed the colossal London Labour Party campaign machine is fallible. They’ll be buoyed by their success in exploiting Labour Party divisions and by the flap Keir Starmer’s team got into over ULEZ both during the campaign and in the immediate days afterwards. And Susan Hall will feel the result vindicates her focus on suburbs-friendly pro-motoring and anti-development policies.
That being said, repeating the Uxbridge strategy and fighting a General Election in a string of marginal seats around the edge of London by making them a referendum on ULEZ or another single issue of their choosing won’t be so easy for the Tories. All too often that single issue isn’t of their choosing and ends up being on the record of the incumbent government – with current polling suggesting public aren’t too happy, that doesn’t bode.
4. ULEZ expansion will go ahead
Ignore the weekend briefings - assuming all remaining legal hurdles are successfully negotiated, the ULEZ will expand on 29 August. Polling shows Londoners are consistently supportive and even the influential Evening Standard have in the past few days urged the Mayor to stand firm. Khan’s constituency is very different to Starmer’s – Uxbridge is but one of 73 parliamentary constituencies in Greater London that elects the Mayor and in no way can it be considered core Labour territory. Khan also knows that with changes to the electoral system next May (which ends second preferences, and moves to first past the post), he needs the votes of Lib Dems and Greens. His courting of these voters depends on pushing ahead with policies like ULEZ expansion.
5. ‘You gotta give ‘em hope!’
So said famous 1970s San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. A positive vision for the voters matters. Labour’s thin policy offer fuels people’s niggling concerns that the party and Keir Starmer don’t stand for much. And Uxbridge exposed the dangers of relying on the other side’s unpopularity to deliver election victory into your lap. This might spur Labour into fleshing out their offer in more detail.
6. London will be a sideshow
Labour winning the next election won’t be the answer to all London’s problems. The key electoral arithmetic is this – in order to win, Labour needs to win back the Red Wall seats lost in 2019 in the Midlands and the North. The campaign focus will be on what resonates most with those Red Wall voters. These won’t always align with London’s priorities and sometimes Labour might even go hard on London and its values in a similar way to the current Government as it is seen as a vote winner in some areas beyond the M25. As the dust settles on Uxbridge, ULEZ expansion will become more about the fear Starmer’s team have about the message it and similar policies sends to voters elsewhere in country, rather than the specific electoral impact within London.
7. But Starmer still needs London
Starmer’s team might not realise it, but they need a Khan victory next May to provide a crucial springboard into a General Election later in the year. A close result, or even a Khan loss, would be a major blow, seized on by the Tories and result in a major momentum switch. Given Starmer also needs the re-election of the fifty or so Labour MPs in London as they’ll form a crucial chunk of any future majority, he can’t casually assume the city is in the bag. Previous occasions when Labour took major parts of its core vote for granted led to electoral disaster in Scotland in 2015 and in the Red Wall in 2019.
8. Hopes for more devolution are evaporating
Those looking to a future Labour Government to decentralise large amounts of power away from Whitehall might be disappointed. Even before Uxbridge, there was a sense the party had started to row back on their ambitions, with Lisa Nandy ruling out fiscal devolution. Last week’s fallout over the Uxbridge defeat will have been a stark reminder to Starmer’s office that considerable power is in the hands of Metro Mayors and Khan, Burnham and the other operate outside of the growing grip the Labour Leader has over his party.
9. For ULEZ, see drugs, Green Belt and Brexit
ULEZ isn’t the only area where Labour nationally and in London might diverge. Khan has consistently said the Green Belt is sacred, but Starmer has said a future Labour Government would give councils powers to build new homes on it. On drugs, Khan has made more liberal noises while Starmer and his front bench quickly closed down any debate. With Brexit, Khan’s increasingly vocal criticisms of the impacts and warm noises about a closer relationship with the EU is in stark contrast to the Labour leader’s position. The challenge for Labour will be how to manage disagreements – ideally, cordially and behind closed doors – but as with the spat over ULEZ, there is no guarantee party disharmony doesn’t spill into the open.
10. Shoring up the suburbs
Michael Gove’s wide-ranging speech yesterday on housing and planning set out some of the key battlelines ahead. In his interview in the Sunday Telegraph ahead of the speech, Gove attacked Labour as the party of “suburban sprawl” who “want to devour the Green Belt”. This, plus the policy focus on building more homes in inner London, feels like a deliberate political intervention designed to shore up Tory support in the suburbs. Summing this up neatly in his speech, Gove said the policy announcements were about “Making sure we unlock all the potential of London’s urban centre – while also preserving the precious low-rise and richly green character of its suburbs such as Barnet and Bromley”.
Nick Bowes is Managing Director, Insight