The news that Labour has apparently scrapped its commitment to roll out clean air zones across the country is worrying if true. According to the Royal College of Physicians, air pollution is responsible for around 40,000 premature deaths and costs the UK over £20bn every year. It has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and dementia. Now is not the time to go soft on the causes of ill-health. Especially with the NHS in such a parlous state and critically underfunded.
Bad decisions based on misinformation
It would also be the result of lazy political analysis in the aftermath of the Uxbridge by-election where Labour lost by just 495 votes. Much has been made in the Murdoch press and beyond about how this result was a revolt against green policies and the rollout of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to outer London, but the situation is more nuanced than that. To start with, Labour needs to consider how much it created the problem by not selecting a local candidate. In contrast, the Conservatives didn’t meddle with the selection process and went with someone local, making a great deal about this when canvassing. That alone could have been worth the small number of votes that would have seen Labour over the line.
Secondly, there was the dither and delay in working out a line to take on the London ULEZ expansion, and whether to back Sadiq Khan, that made Labour look weak and divided. The fact that the Conservatives would use the ULEZ in the campaign was entirely predictable and should have been planned for.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we, and politicians in particular, don’t seem to have learnt the lessons of Brexit, where substantial mis-information campaigns were used to mislead the voters. An investigation by Valence Projects shows that a large amount of money was used to spread misinformation about ULEZ in the run up to the Uxbridge by-election. When you have Tesla owners worried about being charged in the London ULEZ (when only the most polluting vehicles pay, certainly not electric cars), this has clearly worked.
Yet worryingly, no political party has any plans to address these mis-information campaigns. Given their potential undermining of the democratic process, they should be the first thing in their sights, not public health which was the victim of the attack.
Therefore, the fallout to the result in Uxbridge, should have been very different to the way it is being played out now. A certain humility from Labour wouldn’t have gone amiss, to say they got their strategy wrong. Or to point the finger at the dark money being used to spread misinformation and influence elections, awash it seems in British politics, along with a plan to tackle it. But no, the victim in all of this, once again is the Great British public, who will see their health and well-being sacrificed for short term political gain and an unwillingness by politicians to stand up for the principles they claim to believe in. And this is all over a seat that in any ‘normal’ year Labour would not have got anywhere near winning.
Tackling pollution is popular
While this is not to say that there aren’t any issues with expanding London’s ULEZ, which Sadiq Khan has done his best to address, public health should not be sacrificed due to a vociferous minority. Polls have also repeatedly shown that tackling pollution and climate change is politically popular. Now is not the time to withdraw from your principles and while Labour says it remains committed to bringing in a Clear Air Act, the fear must be that that too will get watered down in the long term. That’s in addition to the further delay that implementing new legislation will result in, when people will have already suffered 14 years of illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide by the time of the next General Election.
After Brexit and the mess created by the last few Governments, people want to see strong and principled leadership. They don’t want more chaos and costs imposed on us by vested interests manipulating politicians. If Labour does proceed down this line it could ultimately be its undoing as the public will lose even more faith in politicians and democracy. In that situation we will all be the losers.
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