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Keir Starmer
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Green policy should be the focus after the Conservative Uxbridge win

John Baron MP
August 10, 2023

Despite the predicted total wipe-out in the by-elections this month, the Conservatives managed to hang on to Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Such elections are a classic way of registering a fairly cost-free protest vote, and there is a long history of governments losing by-elections and then winning the seats back by General Elections. Given the circumstances of the by-elections regarding the incumbent Tories – the fact that Uxbridge remained blue has dominated the Westminster bubble.

As is also traditional for by-elections, the Uxbridge result is being dissected and interpreted by different people in many different ways. The Conservative effort put the expansion of the London Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) front and centre of their campaign, in an attempt, seemingly successfully, to turn the election into a referendum on this single issue.

This naturally put Labour into a fix, given the expansion of the ULEZ has been championed loudly by the Labour Mayor of London. Though the Labour candidate distanced himself from the ULEZ expansion, the row fed into Starmer’s recent discomfort with many in his party, both at Westminster and in the wider Labour movement, at his announcement that Labour would not abolish the two-child benefit limit.

One suspects that at some levels Starmer and his top lieutenants are quite pleased with these rows. They serve to remind Labour MPs and supporters alike of the seriousness required of those in government. To govern is to choose, and an incoming Labour government will have to make the difficult choices that all governments must. That will mean sometimes disappointing its supporters.

Starmer clearly sees that Labour has been in opposition for too long and has grown used to being a movement of protest rather than a party of action. This thought also lies behind his outspoken remarks against ‘Just Stop Oil’ protesters, which likewise surprised Labour supporters. As someone who aspires to be Prime Minister, he knows that if the time comes the public and business will turn to him when their daily lives are being hindered.

Starmer clearly sees that Labour has been in opposition for too long and has grown used to being a movement of protest rather than a party of action. Quote

Whilst Labour has been struggling with its head and its heart, the Conservatives have also been poring over the Uxbridge result. The centrality of ULEZ to the election win has given fresh impetus to those who believe that the green agenda is going too far, too fast, and is becoming an intolerable burden.

These voices point to the growth of ‘net zero’ scepticism on the continent, and it is impossible to deny that all over Europe there is a rise in such feelings as green enthusiasm collides with the practical measures and costs needed to achieve drastic carbon reductions. The Dutch Farmers-Citizen Movement draws its support from public outrage that Dutch cows are to be slaughtered to help the Netherlands reduce nitrogen emissions.

Yet, this may be the wrong message. It should not be surprising that, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, voters are disinclined to support measures which would make it worse. The Party Chairman, Greg Hands, was right to point out after the election that the ULEZ was being expanded with less than a year’s notice, leaving people little time to adjust and incurring unexpected expenses. By contrast, the 2030 ban on new petrol- or diesel-powered vehicles goes with the grain of human nature by giving people time to organically replace their vehicles and change their behaviour.

Conservatives should not forget that reducing emissions and working towards our net zero obligations is not only the right course of action but remains highly popular with voters. The Government is wise to continue to back North Sea oil exploration and production. This supports tens of thousands of well-paid jobs, especially in Scotland, as well as boosting energy security and avoiding the carbon costs of transporting hydrocarbons hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to the UK. Extraction in the North Sea is also under Britain’s exacting environmental standards, which are amongst the greenest in the world.

Conservatives should be at ease stressing that working towards our climate obligations does not mean the total eliminations of hydrocarbons, as organisations like ‘Just Stop Oil’ demand. The transition to renewables means oil and gas will continue to play important roles for decades to come. The ‘net’ in ‘net zero’ does not mean no hydrocarbons are used – just that they are offset when they do take place.

Meanwhile, the Government is right to keep pushing on wind and solar energy, and especially with nuclear energy. Small modular reactors have great potential and are, at the moment at least, a British success story. The Government must strain every sinew in signing off the designs and constructing prototypes as soon as possible – before the rest of the world steals a march on us. The limited fruits of the Mansion House Compact would be a good place to secure the necessary funding.

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John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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