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Sadiq Khan will survive the Ulez backlash, but Labour might not

'I'm alright, Keir.' Credit: Getty

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.

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Rob Britton
Rob Britton
10 months ago

It looks like vandalism and sabotage are going to make the scheme unworkable which is no bad thing. Ulez has reached a tipping point with the general public’s tolerance of all this green nonsense.

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
10 months ago

It looks like vandalism and sabotage are going to make the scheme unworkable which is no bad thing. Ulez has reached a tipping point with the general public’s tolerance of all this green nonsense.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
10 months ago

“You will own nothing” begins with your car.
Come the ban on petrol cars, then everybody who doesn’t have a private drive (many Londoners) on which to charge their car will be up the creek without a paddle. This is a feature, not a bug.
This is a Uniparty policy. There is a bit of noise from a few people on each side of the house, but both back it. Orders are coming from above. I doubt if it will have any effect on the next election because you will not be given a vote on it.
I’ve just watched an Owen Jones video where he predicts that everybody will have forgotten about this in a year. We’ll see. This seems a flashpoint to me in the coming war against authoritarian technocracy.

Last edited 10 months ago by Nik Jewell
Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
10 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

I wish the world could forget about Owen Jones in a year!

James Kirk
James Kirk
10 months ago

I already did. Now look what you’ve both done.

James Kirk
James Kirk
10 months ago

I already did. Now look what you’ve both done.

Dylan Blackhurst
Dylan Blackhurst
10 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

I wish the world could forget about Owen Jones in a year!

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
10 months ago

“You will own nothing” begins with your car.
Come the ban on petrol cars, then everybody who doesn’t have a private drive (many Londoners) on which to charge their car will be up the creek without a paddle. This is a feature, not a bug.
This is a Uniparty policy. There is a bit of noise from a few people on each side of the house, but both back it. Orders are coming from above. I doubt if it will have any effect on the next election because you will not be given a vote on it.
I’ve just watched an Owen Jones video where he predicts that everybody will have forgotten about this in a year. We’ll see. This seems a flashpoint to me in the coming war against authoritarian technocracy.

Last edited 10 months ago by Nik Jewell
Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

All our establishment politicians know that net zero means a massive degradation of the quality of life for everyone outside the elite. But they will lie about it quite consciously just as they’ve lied about everything since the Maastricht Treaty – Blair’s wars, the NHS, immigration – everything. The political class holds the wider population in contempt – yet at every election we surrender to their demand for more power because we’re distracted by their promise to alleviate our short term concerns. We need to wake up and start saying ‘no’.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
10 months ago

All our establishment politicians know that net zero means a massive degradation of the quality of life for everyone outside the elite. But they will lie about it quite consciously just as they’ve lied about everything since the Maastricht Treaty – Blair’s wars, the NHS, immigration – everything. The political class holds the wider population in contempt – yet at every election we surrender to their demand for more power because we’re distracted by their promise to alleviate our short term concerns. We need to wake up and start saying ‘no’.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
10 months ago

Even Khan admits that nine out of ten cars in the new zone are compliant. The number of non-compliant vehicles will naturally decrease over time. The problem, such as it is, will therefore naturally resolve itself over the next few years. Even if we make the generous assumption that there will be a 50% reduction in non-compliant journeys, the effect on air quality is clearly negligible.
Not to mention that the air in London is cleaner now than at any time in the past 250 years.

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
10 months ago

Yes but the goalposts will be moved to preserve revenues. This is all about raising cash so they will need to change the rules accordingly.

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
10 months ago

Yes but the goalposts will be moved to preserve revenues. This is all about raising cash so they will need to change the rules accordingly.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
10 months ago

Even Khan admits that nine out of ten cars in the new zone are compliant. The number of non-compliant vehicles will naturally decrease over time. The problem, such as it is, will therefore naturally resolve itself over the next few years. Even if we make the generous assumption that there will be a 50% reduction in non-compliant journeys, the effect on air quality is clearly negligible.
Not to mention that the air in London is cleaner now than at any time in the past 250 years.

Jennie C
Jennie C
10 months ago

Khan will survive for the reasons you have given but also because at the election next year the voters who oppose him will be split between Susan Hall and Howard Cox. A shame really as he has generally been quite useless for London including for inner London. But that’s just my tuppence worth. Inner London clearly (inexplicably) takes to him.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
10 months ago
Reply to  Jennie C

He has sneakily been reducing bus frequencies, particularly late night, for years.

Anthony Rice
Anthony Rice
10 months ago
Reply to  Jennie C

Maybe because there are 2 million of his co-religionists in London

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
10 months ago
Reply to  Jennie C

He has sneakily been reducing bus frequencies, particularly late night, for years.

Anthony Rice
Anthony Rice
10 months ago
Reply to  Jennie C

Maybe because there are 2 million of his co-religionists in London

Jennie C
Jennie C
10 months ago

Khan will survive for the reasons you have given but also because at the election next year the voters who oppose him will be split between Susan Hall and Howard Cox. A shame really as he has generally been quite useless for London including for inner London. But that’s just my tuppence worth. Inner London clearly (inexplicably) takes to him.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
10 months ago

The caption for that picture should be:
“Heads I win, Tails ULEZ”

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
10 months ago

The caption for that picture should be:
“Heads I win, Tails ULEZ”

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
10 months ago

The writer states that in the outer ring of London we “like” to drive. More accurately, we have to drive. You try getting round the London Borough of Hillingdon without a car from the 05.00 milk float to the 02.00 disco dancer. It can’t be done. We’ve just had a tree surgeon state they can’t come out and give us a quote – we need to send a video! We know another business that’s relocated from Hillingdon to Bucks, and an ambilance driver who rented locally, and has now relocated from Hillingdon Hospital to Wexham Park in Slough. Not practical and not affordable.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
10 months ago

The writer states that in the outer ring of London we “like” to drive. More accurately, we have to drive. You try getting round the London Borough of Hillingdon without a car from the 05.00 milk float to the 02.00 disco dancer. It can’t be done. We’ve just had a tree surgeon state they can’t come out and give us a quote – we need to send a video! We know another business that’s relocated from Hillingdon to Bucks, and an ambilance driver who rented locally, and has now relocated from Hillingdon Hospital to Wexham Park in Slough. Not practical and not affordable.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
10 months ago

‘The inner city has been covered by the rules for several years. It is also denser and *poorer*… 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’

I am no economist or scholar of population behaviour, but still I don’t buy at all that argument. Given that the people affected have old/er cars, it seems to me that it is the poorer ones who are going to be most affected. The exception is if you own, say, a 2014 diesel (bought perhaps, like I did, because the government told me to) which is just too old to be compliant, but you drive it seldom and don’t really want to sell (which you can’t) or scrap (as it is worth more than 2k).

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
10 months ago

‘The inner city has been covered by the rules for several years. It is also denser and *poorer*… 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’

I am no economist or scholar of population behaviour, but still I don’t buy at all that argument. Given that the people affected have old/er cars, it seems to me that it is the poorer ones who are going to be most affected. The exception is if you own, say, a 2014 diesel (bought perhaps, like I did, because the government told me to) which is just too old to be compliant, but you drive it seldom and don’t really want to sell (which you can’t) or scrap (as it is worth more than 2k).

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
10 months ago

I have no direct stake in the ULEZ row. However, I managed a team that devised the methods used to evaluate such policies more than 25 years ago and I have taught environmental economics for longer than that. On the basis of that experience I can say with confidence that the claims made for the ULEZ policy are complete rot and that the supposed benefits will never be seen.
One fundamental problem with the environmental epidemiology used in justifying such policies is that it tends to explain all ill-health or deaths several times over. It is easy to generate estimates that suggest air pollution causes more premature deaths in a city like London than total annual mortality. The problem is that the proper calibration of the statistical analysis – and estimates of true exposure – is never properly carried out because the headline figures are too convenient for proponents of such policies. Of course there is rarely or never any proper ex-post evaluation of existing interventions.
The other critical aspect is the standard aphorism in environmental economics: you can have either the money or the impact but not both. If they work, policies of this kind will generate practically no revenue in the medium term. So those looking for money to spend on public transport or whatever should look elsewhere very soon. Further, since it is very unlikely that the vehicles targeted account for more than a small portion of total air pollution, the impact on exposure to fine particles is likely to be very small as well. If, as some believe, tyre wear is a major contributor the policies are completely counterproductive since heavier electric vehicles will lead to higher exposure.
However, what can you expect from a third-rate politician (even by current debased standards) in a country that is unable to do anything competently?

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
10 months ago

I have no direct stake in the ULEZ row. However, I managed a team that devised the methods used to evaluate such policies more than 25 years ago and I have taught environmental economics for longer than that. On the basis of that experience I can say with confidence that the claims made for the ULEZ policy are complete rot and that the supposed benefits will never be seen.
One fundamental problem with the environmental epidemiology used in justifying such policies is that it tends to explain all ill-health or deaths several times over. It is easy to generate estimates that suggest air pollution causes more premature deaths in a city like London than total annual mortality. The problem is that the proper calibration of the statistical analysis – and estimates of true exposure – is never properly carried out because the headline figures are too convenient for proponents of such policies. Of course there is rarely or never any proper ex-post evaluation of existing interventions.
The other critical aspect is the standard aphorism in environmental economics: you can have either the money or the impact but not both. If they work, policies of this kind will generate practically no revenue in the medium term. So those looking for money to spend on public transport or whatever should look elsewhere very soon. Further, since it is very unlikely that the vehicles targeted account for more than a small portion of total air pollution, the impact on exposure to fine particles is likely to be very small as well. If, as some believe, tyre wear is a major contributor the policies are completely counterproductive since heavier electric vehicles will lead to higher exposure.
However, what can you expect from a third-rate politician (even by current debased standards) in a country that is unable to do anything competently?

N Satori
N Satori
10 months ago

I know people who voted for Sadiq Khan simply because they saw him as the opposite of a Tory. Sir Keir may well benefit from a similar reflex reaction – especially as Labour are pushing the “13 years of Tory failure” theme for all its worth.
If the opinion polls are right and huge numbers of people intend to vote for Starmer’s Labour party in 2024 I wonder what on earth they could be hoping for. A more abundant magic-money tree than Sunak’s perhaps? A magical NetZero – all the virtue and none of the pain? Magic pay rises and increases in state benefits which counter the rising cost of living yet have no effect on inflation and require no increased productivity. Or perhaps they long for nationalised public utilities which would never give militant public service unions a choke-hold on the economy.
As some Hollywood mogul famously said: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public.

James Kirk
James Kirk
10 months ago

If you vote for an inimical hostile Party and Mayor and run an old car you deserve a £12.50 charge. You are not paying £200-400 a month like the ‘compliant’. The new levelling up, Labour version.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago

Khan has to be rejected at the next Mayoral election otherwise the war on the motorist will intensify, this extension of the ULEZ to the GLA borders in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with just 9 months notice (the original Central London Zone although brought in 18 months early by Khan would have been 5 years from announcement to implementation) and without even the curtesy of being included in his manifesto is nothing short of immoral.
The fact that it will have negligable effect on air quality whilst having a major damaging effect on a significant minority of Londoners and those that live in the Counties around London, shows that to Khan his ego is the most important thing, I believe even the money is secondary to this.
With a view to voting him out there is a Parliamentary petition that needs supporting – Give everyone within the Home Counties a vote for London Mayor

j watson
j watson
10 months ago

I suspect that once most grasp they are unaffected and it’s only a relatively small cohort of older vehicles the emotion generated may dissipate. The estimates are 10% of those currently driving through new expanded zones. Diesel Vans pre 2015 likely fall foul of rules, but you need a car pre 2006 to trigger and there won’t be loads of those. Scrappage of £2k available, albeit you have to live in the zones. So if you are commuting in through the ULEZ you have to sort yourself out or pay the charge – but why should you be allowed to continue to excessively pollute an area you don’t live in?
It’ll settle. If Khan loses his successor won’t want to give up the income either, esp as TfL takings down.
We’ll adjust. There were howls when congestion charge was first introduced two decades ago.

Martin M
Martin M
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Scrappage of £2k available” I’ve never understood the British penchant for scrapping otherwise serviceable cars on “environmental grounds”. Surely it would be more sensible to donate them to a third-world country.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Strangely, I agree with you (must be a bad day).
I don’t live in London but when I visit I always think of the unknown cost of all that pollution on public health. Who knows how many cancers are caused by breathing in all that s*it every day? Who knows how NHS waiting lists could be reduced after 20 years of breathing clear air? Why is breathing London air not seen to be as bad as smoking? Why not ban London air from all public buildings – just like banning cigarette smoke?
Perhaps the last suggestion would be more difficult.

Martin M
Martin M
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Scrappage of £2k available” I’ve never understood the British penchant for scrapping otherwise serviceable cars on “environmental grounds”. Surely it would be more sensible to donate them to a third-world country.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
10 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Strangely, I agree with you (must be a bad day).
I don’t live in London but when I visit I always think of the unknown cost of all that pollution on public health. Who knows how many cancers are caused by breathing in all that s*it every day? Who knows how NHS waiting lists could be reduced after 20 years of breathing clear air? Why is breathing London air not seen to be as bad as smoking? Why not ban London air from all public buildings – just like banning cigarette smoke?
Perhaps the last suggestion would be more difficult.

j watson
j watson
10 months ago

I suspect that once most grasp they are unaffected and it’s only a relatively small cohort of older vehicles the emotion generated may dissipate. The estimates are 10% of those currently driving through new expanded zones. Diesel Vans pre 2015 likely fall foul of rules, but you need a car pre 2006 to trigger and there won’t be loads of those. Scrappage of £2k available, albeit you have to live in the zones. So if you are commuting in through the ULEZ you have to sort yourself out or pay the charge – but why should you be allowed to continue to excessively pollute an area you don’t live in?
It’ll settle. If Khan loses his successor won’t want to give up the income either, esp as TfL takings down.
We’ll adjust. There were howls when congestion charge was first introduced two decades ago.