Net-Zero Transition News

Madano Election Hub - July by-elections and the role of, and impact on, the net zero debate

By Benedict Guilfoyle, Senior Account Executive, Net-Zero Transition
By Benedict Guilfoyle, Senior Account Executive, Net-Zero Transition

July’s by-election results from London, Yorkshire and Somerset demonstrate the mountain the Conservative Party has to climb if it is to persuade the electorate to give it another term at next year’s general election.

While the Tories’ slim victory in Uxbridge will soften the blow of defeats in Selby and Ainsty, and Somerton and Frome, Labour has a commanding lead in all national polls and, according to the latest YouGov polling (ahead of the by-elections), Rishi Sunak’s net favourability had sunk to -40, his lowest rating since becoming Prime Minister. Evidence also suggests that net zero is an increasingly significant issue for many voters, though often a contentious one, and will play an important role in manifesto development, and at the next general election.

The results

Uxbridge and South Ruislip

Labour will have been disappointed not to take Boris Johnson’s former seat, which has both symbolic significance and is a constituency Labour hopes to win next year based on current national polling. Voter anxiety over Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to expand the ULEZ zone overshadowed their campaign, and Steve Tuckwell, who will now take Johnson’s seat in parliament cannily labelled the vote a “referendum” on ULEZ.

The Uxbridge campaign gives a glimpse into potential Conservative tactics at the general election: a clear focus on what a Labour government would mean for voters’ cost of living. Earlier this week, the Conservatives named Susan Hall, who has focused on the ULEZ, as their candidate to oppose Sadiq Khan in May 2024. Angela Rayner has already hinted that Khan should rethink the policy, saying “The Uxbridge result shows that when you don’t listen to the voters, you don’t win elections.” Some in Labour are already concerned that the party is leaning too much into “green” issues, at the expense of core economic and cost-of-living concerns, and this result may reinforce those worries.

Selby and Ainsty

Labour’s victory in Selby and Ainsty was expected, but the overturning of a 20,135 Tory majority is significant. The 24-point swing vastly exceeds both the national 12-point swing the Labour Party needs for an overall majority at the next election and the 16-point swing suggested by recent polls.

Somerton and Frome

Somerton and Frome is the fourth seat the Lib Dems have taken from the Conservatives since 2019. The Conservatives failed to defend a 19,000-plus majority in a rural seat they have held since 2015.

The reasons why

The chaos of the Truss and Johnson governments had already put Labour well ahead in polls. Further discontent has steadily grown over the government’s inability to deliver significant progress on its five “missions”: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists, and stopping small boat migration. Local issues are of course always crucial. And, as the ULEZ debate in Uxbridge shows, some voters are sceptical towards the increased regulations – and costs – that some “green” measures are perceived to entail.

But the government’s lack of ambition and delivery on the net zero agenda has also played a part. Lord Goldsmith’s resigned last month, saying that the government was “simply uninterested” in the environment and just this week, over 100 companies, including Centrica and Amazon publicly voiced their frustrations at the UK’s inability to attract investment in the face of strong EU and US decarbonisation plans which have implemented coherent industrial strategies and linked them to net zero goals.

When the Conservative party loses the support of such a broad swathe of business, who worry about how consumers will perceive their own net zero credentials, a core element of its traditional support base looks weak . UK voters are increasingly concerned about climate change, and Labour’s publicly stated ambition for a “fairer, greener transition” seems to be resonating, but those concerns are increasingly competing against cost-of-living questions.

Looking ahead

Net zero will be a crucial battleground at the next general election. The electorate wants action on climate, but are worried about the potential costs of doing so. Business, worried about international competition for investment and jobs and skills, wants to see the UK capitalise on the opportunities net zero can present, through advanced manufacturing booms and clean, green growth. Today’s results should spur the government into devising a British response to the US Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s Net Zero Industry Act, which we have been promised will form a major part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

Despite the gloom, there are some glimmers of hope for Sunak’s administration. Inflation fell more than expected; Jaguar Land Rover announced a £4bn battery factory in a boost to the domestic car industry. The Conservatives have much to be proud of when it comes to net zero action. As Andrea Leadsom argued in the Times this week the expansion of offshore wind and the Contract for Difference scheme should be celebrated, but the party cannot rest on the laurels of past success, the transition to net zero is gathering significant pace and, in falling behind, the UK risks losing its ‘green halo.’

This, however, is not yet the death knell for the Conservative government. Victory in Uxbridge has provided Sunak with an important silver lining. There is still limited enthusiasm for the Labour party among the electorate; most polled suggest they are voting against the Tories, not for Labour. And Keir Starmer, who also has unimpressive personal polling rates, has his own discontent to deal with among the Labour backbenches amid U-turns on child benefit allowances and other matters. And the Lib Dems still need to convert highly localised campaigning into a compelling national vision to win big across the country.

UK politics is now on a general election footing, and net zero will remain a key area of debate for many voters. The government, and an under-resourced Labour Party in particular, are crying out for practical but ambitious plans from industry about how to develop policies that will support green growth. Explaining clearly the economic, as well as moral and climate, case for such policy measures, will be essential to businesses looking to government – current and future – to support their innovative technologies.