ULEZ: A Political Culture War That Has Exposed The Weaknesses Of Both Sides 

London skyline with air pollution amongst buildings.
Photo by Mario La Pergola on Unsplash

London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s recent announcement, that goes against Labour leader Starmer’s worries, looks to expand ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zones), which would expand the scope of a tax scheme that targets cars which do not meet the required emission standard in London. In an effort to keep London’s air cleaner, if your car is deemed too harmful to the environment, the car will be taxed. If your vehicle doesn’t meet the ULEZ emissions standards and isn’t exempt, you need to pay a £12.50 daily charge to drive within the specific London zone, with Khan planning on expanding these zones so more people are taxed. This decision has split the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, down the middle, and has ignited a sort of culture war over ULEZ’s place in our current cost-of-living climate.

I do not need to tell you that the current state of British politics is grim. Seemingly every day we are bombarded with political scandal and disappointment, from both the Conservative and Labour sides. These two parties have never felt more distant, with both Rishi Sunak and Kier Starmer realising that they cannot rest on the assumption that their main voter base will reliably turn up for them. The two men’s political strategies have never felt more opposite. Sunak looks to benefit our global economic standing, announcing new licenses for oil drilling in the North Sea (how this is supposed to benefit our apparent push towards net zero carbon emissions is beyond me). Starmer is more focused on home policy, like his recent doubling down on the two-child benefit cap (maybe he is going too far the other way to improve his weak political image and unfairly targeting children). 

Despite these differing strategies, one key battleground is proving to be a surprising link between the two parties: ULEZ and the push towards battling the ongoing climate crisis. ULEZ has been highly debated amongst people from both sides of the political aisle. Whilst on the surface it may seem like just another tax for Sunak to condemn and for Starmer to quiver his lip at, ULEZ is proving to be a sticking point with both men, aligning their concerns about how this will affect the cost of living, and crucially, how this will affect their votes for the election next year. 

ULEZ And The Cost Of Living Crisis

At the centre of everyone’s minds is the continuing cost of living crisis. It is the thing on everyone’s lips and the thing that every politician is eager to throw into a debate to back up their point. This is for a reason, as interest rates rise again, and families are struggling to pay bills. Intersecting with this is the climate emergency, something that needs to be tackled but politicians are too scared to ignite a culture war that sees people complaining about spending extra money when they have not got it. 

ULEZ has uncovered both Sunak and Starmer’s central weaknesses. Starmer backing down to Khan is another example of his inability to stand up for himself, something that everyone including myself cites as a sign of weakness in a politician. His inability to play politics, to disrupt what needs disrupting and command the attention necessary to steer our country out of its current state is yet to be seen. On the other side, Sunak has never seemed more out of touch with the current moment, his new oil licences proving that he is too focused on scoring political points with his economist Conservative voters than listening to public climate outcry. Both men are desperate to score political points but are also too scared to lose any to make any sudden unpopular moves.  

A ULEZ Impasse

This means that both parties are at a standstill on ULEZ, both pushing forward with their own brand of politics that is proving unpopular to both those who oppose ULEZ and those who agree with it. Starmer cannot show too much support because we all know Khan defied him to get it through, and Sunak going against it is playing into the Conservative out-of-touch rich stereotype that is losing them polling points.  

The cost of living crisis holds up this issue. Right now, Labour seems to be playing it better, but then again, Conservative voters do not want to be taxed, and if they show on-the-fence voters that Labour will cost you more money, they might get them to vote Conservative. It is yet unclear how far people are willing to go to sacrifice the environment in favour of their money. Without this information, both parties are metaphorically stuck.    

I am on both sides. I agree that ULEZ is a good thing, the environmental crisis is not going to be solved without some pieces of harsh legislature that are bound to upset people. Consider it a necessary evil to a wider issue. However, everyone is feeling the pinch of the cost of living, and there are no signs that it is going to slow down any time soon. There is no right answer to this, but if either party stands a chance at winning this fickle battle, they need to unpick the nuances of the line between environmental cost and the cost of living. It is an impossible battle to win, and this is a perfect way to sum up the current state of politics: two roads that both lead to unpredictable destinations, led by two people who are clueless as to what their voters really want.  

Political Reporting On The Issue: Ed Milliband

In a recent piece for The Guardian, Ed Miliband said that ‘While Labour focuses on lower bills and good jobs, the Tories have decided to double down on their disastrous mistakes – lurching desperately towards a culture war on climate, seeking to upend the climate consensus of the last 15 years.’ This sentiment on the surface, much like the issue itself, seems cut and dry. Just another politician shooting shots at the opposition. But this is the exact problem, and reason why ULEZ is proving to be so contentious. Miliband seems to overlook the fact that we are all locked into a culture war on climate, Conservative and Labour alike. Starmer is wrapped up in a culture war within his own party. As reported by The Independent, Starmer urged Khan to ‘reflect’ on ULEZ following their inability to win the Uxbridge seat in the recent by-election.  

It is clear, therefore, that as both sides scramble to implement big changes that they think both their voter bases will support, even if in Labour’s case this goes against the very man who leads them, nobody really knows what to do. The ship is sinking, and all anybody can worry about is how many polling points they can grab onto as they go under. This is not the kind of position we need to be in if we are going to fight both pressing issues. Nobody is saying that these are easy problems to solve. But what they have done is expose in the most damning way we have seen our main parties’ lack of control over the situation at hand.  

A Universal Message

For a long time, it has seemed in the mainstream press that whilst the Conservatives bumble along, causing scandal after scandal, Labour is here to save us from the dwindling reign of the Conservatives. Whilst on some level this is true, and Starmer does offer a fresh alternative despite his weaknesses, ULEZ has shown that at the end of the day, politicians do as politicians do, even down to the tone-deaf way they report on the current issues, as seen plainly in the Miliband piece. Miliband is too wrapped up in the political point-scoring battle to see that Labour is also failing to provide substantial defence.

Right now, we need an end to this culture war, and whilst I am unable to say when or how it can be solved, I can report on a universal truth that is important to remember come election day. No matter the party or their message, every politician is wrapped up in the noise of the culture war and nobody really knows what to do. Right now more than ever we are in desperate need of someone who does.  

Words by James Evenden 

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