By-elections produce warnings for Tories over power of tactical voting and for Labour over virtuous green policies – Brian Wilson

Right-wing Tories are already demanding that Rishi Sunak should tear up his party’s environmental commitments

Old habits die hard and my internal alarm clock woke me at 3am yesterday to find how the by-elections had gone. The Tories had narrowly held onto Boris Johnson’s seat in Uxbridge; the Liberal Democrat swept home in Somerset. A short snooze later, the picture greatly improved with Labour achieving a record swing in north Yorkshire to take a seat with a 20,000 Tory majority. For those of us who want progressive change throughout the UK, it was a decent night’s work.

There were two outstanding features; the first straightforward and highly ominous for the Tories. Tactical voting took place on a massive scale to get them out. In Somerset, the Labour vote fell to two per cent; in Selby, the Liberal Democrat vote was three per cent. Nobody has to instruct people in tactical voting or suggest some higher duty to behave in that way. Voters know the score and will act in pursuit of a perceived greater good unless they have an immovable party allegiance which is equally worthy of respect. The current imperative is to get the Tories out.

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The second early morning lesson was more complex but not necessarily bad news for Labour because it took the form of a warning which must be heard. Quite simply, many people will not vote to make themselves worse off just because the offer is wrapped up in a green agenda. This may be distressing for those who believe the environment trumps all but it is a political reality which needs to be recognised rather than derided by any party aspiring to government where, once elected, it can do useful things, not least for the environment.

For Labour not to win Uxbridge must have involved significant numbers of former Labour voters switching or abstaining in order to make a particular point. By common consent, that reason for acting against the national grain was the planned extension of the ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) to the whole of Greater London, of which Uxbridge is on the outer limits, 17 miles from Westminster.

Helpfully, the winning Tory candidate confirmed this: “Sadiq Khan lost Labour this election.” It might all be a bit unfair since the policy dates back to Boris Johnson as London Mayor, but who’s interested in history when faced with scrapping their valueless cars or paying £12.50 a day to use them?

Three London boroughs will go to court next month to contest the plan to vastly increase the zoned area. In principle, it is doubtless a virtuous measure. In practice, it appears as a substantial imposition on less well-off folk with older cars, already struggling to make ends meet. Which takes priority?

Uxbridge gave its own answer and there is now a danger that “green” measures will become the battleground of politics with the Tories clutching at a straw which this result offered them. After Uxbridge, it does not take Einstein to work out what Tory Central Office’s next move will be. They will go through every “green” policy commitment from Labour in order to pin on it a cost for consumers and the jobs at stake. Fact and fiction will be no barriers to the narrative spun. That has been happening already with Rishi Sunak a very willing messenger and is now destined to intensify.

Indeed, the ink was hardly dry on the results before right-wing Tories like the appalling Lord Frost were demanding that Sunak should tear up the Tories’ own environmental commitments. How much internal resistance will this meet as the cold light of a general election comes closer? The answer is “not a lot”.

Labour must have defences ready and the first lesson is not to walk into sucker punches which ULEZ expansion now looks like. Deputy party leader Angela Rayner promised yesterday to “get round a table” with Sadiq Khan. Maybe that should have happened sooner. To take the political sting out of the issue, there was surely room for comradely discussions around timescales.

In Scotland and other parts of the UK where oil and gas jobs are important, another sucker punch to be avoided stems from limiting the life of the North Sea prior to any credible route map towards the much-vaunted transition. Labour can deliver that transition but talking about “bans” has already put the cart before the horse and Keir Starmer should rapidly find a way to reverse that order.

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While Uxbridge was a warning which should be taken seriously, the bigger picture was positive for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats who are back as a serious political force in their areas of previous strength. That is not going to disintegrate within the space of the next year and a decent cohort of Lib Dems would be welcome.

Both the other by-elections were fought on the kind of national issues which will determine a general election. In that context, there was no consolation at all for the Tories. They were routed in seats that should have been impregnable.

It seemed ironic that the very smug Tory on TV, Johnny Mercer, should mock the youthful Labour winner in Selby for looking like someone out of The Inbetweeners sitcom. Would that not make it even more remarkable that solid Yorkshire citizens turned against the Tories in record-breaking numbers in order to get rid of them?

There is plenty political upheaval to come, and much of it may be in Scotland. A Labour victory next year continues to look likely but not certain. In due course, Scottish voters will have to decide which contribution to make to the outcome and thereby the prospects for radical change. Regardless of diversions, that choice will be between a Labour or Tory government. The likelihood is that Labour will need Scotland to win, just as Scotland needs Labour to win. It was ever so.



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