Britain’s Next Election Could Be a Climate Change Culture War

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London (Parliament Politic Magazine) – A by-election in a London suburb has thrust environmental policy into the heart of political discourse in the UK, potentially transforming it into a crucial battleground in the upcoming general election. The Conservative party managed to narrowly retain the seat previously held by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, which he vacated upon resigning from parliament.

This victory has been portrayed as a triumph fueled by widespread public frustration with climate policies, specifically London’s ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez). The Ulez imposes a fee on drivers of the most polluting vehicles within a designated area.

Opposing Force Against the Ulez Policy

The victorious candidate strategically positioned himself as the opposing force against the Ulez policy, effectively capitalising on the local populace’s discontent. However, remarks from both the media and politicians indicate that the Uxbridge narrative signifies a fresh chapter in national politics, one that vilifies environmental policies.

Based on my research, it is evident that this development could potentially evolve into a significant battleground within the ongoing culture war, ultimately influencing the outcome of the upcoming election.

The Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), established by Boris Johnson during his tenure as the Mayor of London in 2015, encompasses the central region of the city. Within this restricted area, vehicles are required to adhere to specific emissions standards or face a fee of £12.50 for entry.

Generally, petrol cars registered after 2005 and diesel cars registered after 2015 meet these standards. The ULEZ primarily serves as a public health initiative, aiming to combat air pollution and promote the adoption of low-emission vehicles.

The expansion of the policy is set to take place in August 2023, encompassing London’s outer boroughs and covering an area 18 times larger than the original zone. This move has been met with legal disputes and public demonstrations, with blame being directed towards Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London.

Climate Change Culture Wars

The opposition to the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez) is deeply rooted in partisan politics. On a national scale, 59% of Conservatives express their disapproval towards Ulez schemes, while only 23% of Labour voters share the same sentiment. In the context of London, a staggering 72% of individuals who voted in favor of leaving the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum oppose the expansion of Ulez.

Interestingly, former Remain voters are evenly divided, with 44% supporting the policy and an equal percentage standing against it. This stark divide in opinion highlights the strong partisan nature of the opposition to Ulez.

According to my research, net-zero policies have become the latest focus of right-wing populism and culture wars in the United Kingdom. There is a growing narrative that connects concerns about the undemocratic nature and high costs of climate policies to matters such as Brexit, energy security, and the notion of a privileged “green elite.”

Last year, Nigel Farage advocated for a referendum on net-zero policies, which he claimed had been implemented without any public discussion. This narrative is clearly reflected in the opposition to the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez), despite the compelling evidence supporting its effectiveness.

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Green Policies

Remarkably, within just one year of the Ulez expansion throughout inner London, air pollution has significantly decreased. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the majority of vehicles in London’s outer boroughs already meet the Ulez standards, rendering them unaffected by the expansion.

However, videos depicting anti-Ulez protests reveal placards bearing the message “Stop the toxic air lie,” a cardboard coffin adorned with the word “democracy,” and demonstrators expressing grievances regarding the policy’s perceived lack of fairness and transparency.

Climate and public health measures have become entangled in wider ideological conflicts concerning political and economic agendas. These policies have emerged as a fertile battleground for those aiming to mobilize fresh support, drawing from groups whose daily lives are directly affected by these measures.

The Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) is not the initial environmental policy to encounter public opposition. Back in 2009, the United Kingdom witnessed a widespread campaign against the substitution of incandescent light bulbs with LEDs.

Furthermore, in recent times, there have been instances where bollards, which serve to designate low-traffic neighborhoods, were deliberately set ablaze. This opposition to such initiatives has also been exploited by conspiracy theorists who claim that climate policies aim to infringe upon personal freedoms.

Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.