Uxbridge was not just an anti-green protest: It was the sour spirit of Brexit revived

Aditya Chakrabortty

You can still see the precise moment this summer when politics slid off-script and in a new direction. It occurs in a video that opens in an old gym, where a returning officer is enjoying his big moment. Uxbridge in July, and the drama over who succeeds Boris Johnson as local MP is reaching its climax. The mood is less election night, more exhausted carnival: centre stage stands Count Binface; up front is the Monster Raving lunatic, almost hidden under his stetson – and here comes Laurence Fox, braced to lose yet another deposit.
Off to one side stand the two main men. They make an odd pairing: Labour’s Danny Beales, young, slim and stiff-backed, side by side with his Tory rival, Steve Tuckwell, who is some 20 years older. Both look queasy as the officer reads the numbers. By a tiny margin, the reds have lost. A government on death row, Johnson in disgrace, the buoyancy of Keir Starmer: none of it has been enough. Triumphant, the new Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip takes the mic. “The pundits expected Labour to win big here but our community came together,” begins Tuckwell, wearing the mahogany tan of someone who has pounded streets all summer. “This wasn’t the campaign Labour expected.”
I’ll say. According to the bookies, Starmer’s team went in to this election with odds that would be the envy of Pyongyang. Now the party is still in bitter recrimination and the newspapers have given full ventilation to the leadership’s explanation of what went awry. Suitably briefed, the same press that called Uxbridge wrong are now convinced they know what happened: this was the revolt of the drivers, protesting a daily charge of £12.50 on those with older, more polluting motors. By extending the ultra low emission zone (Ulez) from inner London to its suburbs, the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, lost his own party that crucial poll.
Before, the issue was barely on the radar; now it is all-important. For this piece, the Guardian tallied up mentions of Ulez in the national press: over the first six months of this year it made a total of 405 appearances. In just 11 days after the result, it came up 332 times, including in many columns sneering at environmental policies and talking reverently of “motorists” as if they were some endangered native tribe. No wonder Rishi Sunak began this week dressing up as the motorists’ friend, before retreating to his chopper. But why have the papers focused on Labour’s alibi for why they lost, rather than ask the Tories how, despite everything, they won? Why is the gospel delivered from Westminster, while the view from the ground goes ignored? For this piece, I spoke to local activists on the Tory and Labour sides, and the story they tell is very different from that spun by the party bosses. Ulez features heavily, to be sure – but so does a disaffection with mainstream politics that smells very similar to the odour that permeated the Brexit referendum. The key divide in this story is between Westminster and local politics. Time and again, Tory activists began the account of their victory with the freedom to choose their candidate. How they got so much say in a closely watched byelection still mystifies them (“Maybe CCHQ [Conservative campaign headquarters] thought the seat was already lost,” says one). However, in Tuckwell, they picked neither a star performer nor a political veteran – but someone born and bred in the area, who has raised a family there and even led a local scout troop.
Labour’s story is the exact opposite, as Norrette Moore will tell you. A member of the party since Tony Blair was prime minister, she has written two detailed, careful pieces about how the entire campaign was rigged by bureaucrats in Westminster. Before she and other local members had even been told about the selection last November, she says the party insiders had briefed journalists, while would-be candidates from outside the area already had their websites up. Rather than let the local party pick through the applicants, the bureaucrats presented members with a list. They then dissolved the entire selection committee – apparently because local members organising a Christmas food bank had sent an email thanking one of the hopeful applicants. Instead, Labour managers imposed Danny Beales, who had been born locally but lived and built a political career in central London. Among Uxbridge members, he’d been picked by only one ward out of seven. “Command and control” is how a mayoral adviser in Greater Manchester this week referred to Starmer’s management style. It certainly applies to Uxbridge – and to many constituencies besides, where the party’s top bureaucrats gift safe seats to their favourites from London – even if that means blocking or barring the local person who would otherwise get through. In Sedgefield, the chair of the local party was blocked – leading to 13 local party officers quitting. A former Labour councillor from Haringey, partly responsible for the disastrous Haringey Development Vehicle, was chosen. In Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, it will be a councillor from Lewisham. Norwich North will be represented by a red rosette from Southwark. Nadine Dorries’ seat of Mid Bedfordshire will be contested by a Bank of England worker from Walthamstow. South Thanet, Wycombe, Stevenage, Northampton North … the list stretches on and on. Parachutes for the boys and girls!
For the Tories in Uxbridge, their thirtysomething opponent from inner London was a gift. Their leaflets pretended the byelection was “Camden Danny” v “Hillingdon Steve”. Labour’s propaganda depicted their man in a suit stood outside public buildings – all stats and antiseptic. The Tories showed Tuckwell in stonewashed blue jeans having a pint in a local beer garden. As part of the same strategy, they didn’t just attack Ulez, they forged it into a weapon of cultural mistrust: your rights, their diktat. Barely mentioning Sunak, their leaflets read as if Khan ran the country, snatching away police stations and hospitals. “These people from Hackney and Lewisham have a one-size-fits-all mindset,” is how local Tory chair Richard Mills explains the thinking. “They live in £1.5m homes and think they know what’s best for outer London.” Mills works in finance, which makes his class politics as convincing as Sunak pulling a pint. If you think this sounds like the resentful anti-politics of Brexit, then you’re right. The borough of Hillingdon, in which Uxbridge sits, is after all one of the few outposts of London that in 2016 voted to leave. And just as the EU referendum was never really about Europe, so this referendum on Ulez (as Tuckwell himself dubbed it) wasn’t about green policies. It was a revival of that same chippiness about an out-of-touch politico-managerial elite – only this time not in Brussels but in zone 2. At just the point when the state is at its biggest in 70 years, the Tories in Uxbridge tapped into an anti-politician message.
Labour meanwhile continued to ignore its local members. Moore and others were invited to join a WhatsApp group to discuss Beales’ run. But she says she couldn’t post anything in it – that was the sole prerogative of the admins – so she left. How much input did local members have in their own election? “As far as I’m aware, none,” she says. “We were just fodder.” The morning of the result, and just a few hours after that video, Moore WhatsApped a Labour colleague. “Sad day,” she began and listed everything her side had had going for it: the Tories in meltdown, Labour throwing money and activists at the seat … even the gloriously warm sunshine. “By rights it should be a landslide.”