August 29, 2023 - 4:00pm

Today, Sadiq Khan’s expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) comes into operation. Despite legal and political challenges, the London Mayor has managed to roll out the broadening of the scheme which sees older, more polluting vehicles penalised for coming into the capital. Now, those with non-compliant vehicles will pay £12.50 a day to cross the boundary. 

Ulez D-Day is unlikely to be the end of the political controversy. The Tories made it a central plank of their successful fight in the Uxbridge by-election, and mayoral candidate Susan Hall has been a vocal opponent of the scheme. There’s a good chance it will be exploited further to try to punish Labour in the suburban fringes of London and other cities. 

The political geography of the capital amplifies this fight. The Tories have long followed a “doughnut” strategy in the capital, winning votes in the very rich centre (Chelsea, Fulham, Westminster and the City) and the suburban outer circle, while largely ignoring the inner city in between. The expansion of Ulez largely plays into this. 

The inner city has been covered by the rules for several years. It is also denser and poorer, meaning public transport is both more widely available and better used. These voters are unlikely to be riled by the extension, and polling suggests that they are in favour of it. The outer ring is very different — spread out, semi-detached and economically separated from the centre; people like to drive, and often dip in and out of the periphery of the new zone. They are the ones who will be most affected by these charges, along with those in Home Counties towns outside of the Mayor’s jurisdiction.

As in Uxbridge, this offers a chance for Labour’s opponents. In these boroughs, both the Tories and the Lib Dems have used Ulez as a wedge issue against Khan’s party. They have challenged the evidence behind the charges, and highlighted the impact on both the poor and essential workers who are forced to cross the boundary for work. The two parties have used petitions and parliamentary motions to try and combat the roll-out of Ulez.

This presents a predicament for Labour. Though their inner-London voters are often ambivalent about the charges, and care deeply about air pollution, a large percentage elsewhere tend to be pro-car and against such charges. This division makes it harder for Labour in peripheral seats such as Chingford and Woodford Green (1,262 majority) that the party is looking to win at the next general election. 

Outside of the capital and its edges, there could be further impacts for the party. Beyond its local resonance, Ulez has been national news. This is partly due to the usual dominance of London stories, but it has also helped frame a debate in which Labour looks to be abandoning motorists. Painting the party as one of restrictions, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, congestion fees and pay-per-mile charges suits the electoral agenda of the other parties. 

The narrative can be conjured that supporting Labour involves embracing these restrictions on cars. The Ulez bogeyman may be deployed in other cities and stoke the same political divisions — but with the added power that other places are far more car-dependent than London. This creates an edge for both Tories and Lib Dems in areas around the country where Ulez is known about but perhaps not fully understood. 

Khan will likely be untroubled by opposition to the scheme. The Tories are unpopular nationally and even weaker in London. He should glide to a third term. His clampdown on polluting vehicles, however, could cause problems for his party — both on the edges of the city and across the country.

John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.