Last week’s by-election results show the climate is not the priority for voters.
Recent by-elections in Selby and Ainsty, Somerton and Frome, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip showed us three things: people have had enough of the Conservatives; efficient tactical voting will have a crucial role to play in the next election; and voters care more about their personal finances than the environment.
Lee Anderson, the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, has provided a flavour of how the Tories intend to campaign in the build up to next year’s General Election. Discussing how the Conservatives won in 2019, he stated: “It was Brexit, it was Boris, it was Corbyn”. He then added, “At the next election we haven’t got those three things so we’ll have to think of something else. It’ll probably be a mix of culture wars and trans debate.”
Despite losing a huge number of votes across the three seats, forfeiting a seat each to the Lib Dems and Labour, the Tories did have a minor victory in holding Boris Johnson’s former Greater London seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
We got a glimpse of how things may pan out in the next General Election. We saw that the Conservative campaigning machine is not intent on fueling itself on merit, perhaps because the past 13 years of Tory government has made the United Kingdom substantially worse off. Inflation is high, living standards are falling and public services are overwhelmed. Instead, they plan on stoking the fires by capitalising on the most polarising issues of today, from the trans debate to the way we treat refugees and the environment. The plan is clear to see: divide and rule.
It is sometimes difficult to understand why the climate continues to be a divisive issue. Much of the division is centred around high-profile protest groups like Just Stop Oil. Not only their methods, which are proving to be highly effective but understandably frustrating to the public, but division is also centred around their cause.
The IPCC and International Energy Agency (IEA) have made it explicitly clear that if we are to reach net zero global emissions by 2050 and to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, there should be no further investment in new oil and gas projects.
Similarly, on London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), the science is irrefutable. There are more than 4,000 premature deaths annually caused by poor air quality in the capital, and as many as 40,000 across the country. The quality of the air in our cities is not only a climate issue, but also one of public health and social justice. It is the least affluent Londoners who, on the whole, live in the areas with the lowest air quality.
Sadiq Khan’s decision to expand ULEZ into all London Boroughs is an example of genuine climate leadership. The first ULEZ was brought into Central London by then-mayor Boris Johnson. A report commissioned by City Hall and peer reviewed by Imperial College London shows that the policy has dramatically increased air quality in the areas where it operates. It is the kind of policy that is instinctively unpopular despite overwhelming scientific evidence in its favour, much like the decision to ban smoking indoors or mandate seatbelt use. Political leadership should be about taking the right decision in the face of all the available evidence, not always the most popular one.
Devoid of any kind of leadership acumen, Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, boasts of his plans to “max out” the UK’s North Sea oil reserves and to block Sadiq Khan’s plans to remove polluting vehicles from the streets of London.
The Tories campaigned in Uxbridge and South Ruislip by treating the by-election as a referendum on ULEZ, showing they are still adept at weaponizing contentious issues. They did it with Brexit, and will be fighting the next election tooth and nail with these same tactics.
It looks as though the Conservatives will present themselves as prioritising low taxes and dealing with the cost of living crisis over protecting the climate and striving to meet our own self-imposed net zero targets.
“The result in Uxbridge and South Ruislip shows that many voters still value their pennies over our planet.”
At a national level, Shapps has put out a series of tweets demonstrating his obsession with Just Stop Oil. He is wrongly trying to label the Labour Party as the political wing of Just Stop Oil to be deliberately provocative.
The environment has seemingly been earmarked as a culture war that the Tories are prepared to fight, presenting themselves as prioritising the cost of living crisis over environmental policies. As already highlighted by Zac Goldsmith’s recent resignation, Sunak is “uninterested” in the environment, however, one imagines that the thought of doing the seemingly impossible and winning the next election interests him greatly.
Ultimately, the Labour Party will believe that a winnable seat has been lost owing to their pro-climate policy. Keir Starmer has publicly admitted that they may need to look at the ULEZ policy again. The Tories, however, have retained a seat they otherwise would almost certainly have lost.
Starmer needs to stay resolute and support the mayor of London. He must not let the Tories and their puerile culture wars dictate his climate policy for him. Polling still strongly suggests that people overwhelmingly support pro-climate policies; around three quarters of people support the UK’s net zero targets, and over half think that the government should be doing more to tackle climate change.
The Tories are trying to paint the picture that improving our air quality and keeping fossil fuels in the ground are the more expensive options. This is patently untrue, but that won’t necessarily stop large swathes of the electorate from believing it. Whatever happened to that £350 million for the NHS, I wonder? This is a calculated political move from the Tories, intended to be polarising, and it may yield some success. The result in Uxbridge and South Ruislip shows that many voters still value their pennies over our planet.