LONDON — “Sadiq Khan has lost Labour this election.”
Those were the words of the newly-elected Conservative MP in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. But it was also the conclusion drawn privately on Friday by some of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s allies.
Labour had been fighting to win two long-time Tory-voting constituencies in by-elections this week. It focused resources on the North Yorkshire seat of Selby and Ainsty, which the Tories were initially hopeful of holding. Labour succeeded there in burning through the 20,137 Tory majority — the biggest one they have ever overturned in a by-election.
Uxbridge and South Ruislip — a constituency on the outskirts of London that had been represented by Tory Boris Johnson before he quit — was seen as the easier target of the two. It had a relatively narrow 7,210 Conservative majority and demographic changes had been working in the opposition’s favor.
Internal Labour data in recent weeks suggested that they were on track to win it. There was no attempt to manage media expectations.
In the end, the Tories clung on by a microscopic 495-vote margin, with candidate Steve Tuckwell declared victor after a recount. The result — put down to local opposition to an anti-traffic policy called ULEZ — exposed divisions between Keir Starmer’s office and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Speaking to activists in Selby about the Uxbridge result, Starmer said on Friday: “We knew that ULEZ was going to be an issue and of course we all need to reflect on that, including the mayor.”
POLITICO spoke to Labour campaigners and officials as the dust settled on the fight. They were granted anonymity to speak frankly about what happened in the immediate aftermath of the campaign.
ULEZ, you lose
Ask a Labour MP what lost them Uxbridge and they will tell you: “ULEZ.”
ULEZ stands for Ultra-Low Emission Zone, the policy of charging the drivers of polluting vehicles in central London. It’s designed to combat pollution and clean up air in the capital — and is being expanded to the outskirts of the city, which includes Uxbridge.
Some Labour MPs and activists say the expansion, championed by Khan, became a cost-of-living issue for drivers living in the suburbs.
“It throws Sadiq’s judgement into some question,” a well-connected Labour activist who is allied to Starmer said. “He’s got to have some sort of explanation for why — even given his own election in May 2024 — he decided that this was the right time to start doing this, and then not selling it properly … It was badly timed policy and it’s been badly executed in comms terms.”
The same activist said there was widespread frustration in the grassroots that Starmer’s and Khan’s offices had spent days going back and forth about how to approach the ULEZ question in the by-election.
It meant that Labour’s candidate Danny Beales changed his stance during the crucial first weeks of the campaign. Asked for his views on ULEZ, Beales told ITV on June 13: “We all need cleaner air.”
But at a meeting on July 4, Beales changed tack and said it was “not the right time” to expand the scheme. By the final weekend of the campaign, Labour activists were told to hand constituents who brought up ULEZ a leaflet from Beales saying that he opposed it. Meanwhile, days before the vote, Khan hosted an event with three faith leaders to endorse the policy.
When asked whether he would now reconsider the expansion of ULEZ on Friday, Khan insisted it was the “right decision” to the BBC. “We do want to clean up the air in London, I think it’s a human right,” he said.
Khan’s administration is hoping the row will have blown over by the time he faces re-election next spring and it argues that many voters will realize they are not affected by ULEZ after it is implemented.
Asked whether the policy would affect him politically, Khan told the BBC: “The mayoral elections are next May — hopefully ULEZ will be expanded by the end of August.” A senior Labour Party official said Khan’s response to the result had been “tin-eared.”
But an ally of the London mayor said: “Winning Uxbridge and South Ruislip was always going to be a struggle for Labour. Labour hasn’t won this seat for five decades and Tony Blair didn’t even win it during the 1997 landslide. It is a disappointing result and Sadiq has been clear he is listening to Londoners and always looking at ways he can address their concerns.”
The first Starmer-allied Labour activist quoted above said: “This is a political problem and there’s no operational fix that could put it right. The [Labour by-election team] coped as well as they might have done with what they were given to play with.”
Elections, not selections
Not everyone agrees. The issue in Uxbridge is seen in some quarters as wider than just the ULEZ policy, and there are concerns the London Labour party has been too focused on factional issues rather than grassroots campaigning. Unusually, two extra highly-experienced regional organizers were drafted in to help with the campaign early on. Normally it is one organizer per by-election campaign.
A second Labour official said the party was not well-prepared for a by-election in the area despite the indications Johnson could resign. “The view amongst MPs, particularly London MPs, is quite unforgiving. Had the campaign been ready when the by-election was called we would have won. If we could take Selby from a standing start, why couldn’t we take Uxbridge?”
“Whatever concerns ULEZ raises, what’s more concerning [is] the London party’s ability to organize in the capital. Failing to deal with ULEZ is a symptom of that … The London region is way too focused on selections and not on winning elections,” they added, referring to the party’s unrelenting focus on controlling the selection of its parliamentary candidates.
A third Labour official agreed with the assessment above and said: “There did seem to be a lot of unhappiness at various points of the campaign about how it was being run … They seem happy to throw Sadiq under the bus for now, but where does that get them?”
From London to Manchester
The Uxbridge result put a spring in the Tory step on Friday morning and gave Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a reason to argue things were not as bad for his party at they seemed.
The Conservatives are now looking at how to replicate the success of what one senior Tory official called a “shit hot campaign” more widely.
Voter opposition to low-traffic zones could help the Tories in the London mayoral contest next spring but the party is looking to harness it in other parts of the country, such as Greater Manchester, the Tory official said.
YouGov polling on Friday afternoon found half of voters are opposed to ULEZ-style surcharges in their local area, up nine points from June 2021.
In Greater Manchester, the Labour mayor Andy Burnham has postponed a decision on a Clean Air Zone, which was originally due to be implemented in 2022. Tory MPs in the region have sought to paint the policy as “Burnham’s CAZ tax.”
“It’s an open sore because all the signs are still up on the roads,” one Labour MP said.
Some in Labour now fear that the Tories running Uxbridge-style campaigns in several parts of the country could throw up some unexpected results at the next general election — if not threaten the prospect of a Labour majority.