Rather than their historic 20,000+ majority-busting victory in Selby and Ainsty, the Labour Party has allowed the political spotlight to be shone on the Conservatives’ surprise victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, with potentially dangerous knock-on effects for the net zero agenda.

The Conservatives held on in outer London by fewer than 500 votes, a victory which has been attributed to their campaign’s laser-focus on London’s ULEZ expansion policy – aimed at improving air quality in the city, but painted as a tone-deaf tax increase at a time of a cost of living crisis.

Despite the fact the original ULEZ was introduced by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor and that the expansion has been mandated by central government, not Sadiq Khan, Labour has lost control of the narrative and failed to capitalise on their unprecedented victory in North Yorkshire. 

What should have been a few days of media focusing on a double by-election loss, instead we have seen days of Labour introspection and, worse still, widespread calls to water down green policy. Labour has truly lost control of the narrative.

Conservative critics of net zero have also spotted their opportunity and seized upon the result to call for the Government to ditch or water down its climate commitments, such as the 2030 ban on selling new vehicles with combustion engines or energy efficiency measures in rented homes. These measures are ‘unpopular [and] expensive’, according to Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg. ‘We are looking at unpopular stuff that’s not really delivering’, said a Government source in the Times. These forces have long been operating in the background but have now sensed their opportunity.

These arguments are disingenuous and misguided.

If ditching green policies is a ‘vote winner’, what is the offer to the 84% of voters who are concerned about climate change? Indeed, the fact that the environment is the third-biggest issue listed by voters suggests that bolder action is needed, not a retreat.

The lesson from Uxbridge and South Ruislip is not that we should scrap policy which is both popular and necessary (just look at the situation in Southern Europe, America and China if you are in any doubt). It is that we should be thinking about how we design, communicate and implement policies aimed at a green transition, particularly where they have a cost to the public.

The lesson here is not that voters in Outer London don’t care about air quality, nor that the public recognise the need to transition to net zero.

Almost all voters want to improve air quality and tackle the threats of climate change, but they also will protect their own interests where necessary and will expect Government to support some of the difficult financial choices ahead.

The recent Net Zero All-Party Parliamentary Group Myth-Busting Report and 2023 Climate Change Committee Progress Report have both stressed the need for a communications strategy to scale up the necessary infrastructure and to implement policy which makes greener choices affordable, convenient and equitable – a call that has been proven right by the reaction over the past few days.

Net zero will not just happen organically at the individual or household level – it is an economic transformation with huge economic potential that will touch all parts of our lives, but it does not have to be painful or lower quality of life. In fact, a previous retreat from green policy – David Cameron’s ‘cut the green cr*p’ – left us vulnerable to the energy crisis and costed households up £150 a year.

Thankfully, Conservative proponents of net zero have also mobilised in response. 

The Conservative Environment Network, which boasts 150 Tory MPs, has warned Sunak not to drop green policies, saying they ‘will lower people’s bills, create jobs and win investment’, while a cross-party group of Parliamentarians, including recently resigned Minister Zac Goldsmith, said that ‘backing away from green policies would be catastrophic for the economy’. 

The Labour Party, which has previously leaned heavily into the economic and social justice angles to net zero transition (last year’s Conference slogan was ‘A Fairer, Greener Future’), is now said to be looking again at how it frames green policies in a bed to fend off Conservative attack lines and avoid their policies ending up on Conservative election leaflets. They have already delayed their £28bn a year Green Prosperity Fund, by far their biggest spending pledge, amid Rachel Reeves’ iron grip on spending.

But net zero is not a choice, it is an inevitability. The politicisation of carbon reduction could not only set back the UK’s world leadership on climate issues, but lose vital economic ground in shaping the future world economy to the USA and EU, particularly in light of the Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s response.

What we need now is strong political leadership from both major parties. It will be necessary to take the population on this journey, making the case for the benefits to the planet, the economy, and people’s lives. 

Net zero is not something that can fit neatly into a 5-year plan or a single parliament, it is the defining issue of our age.

It is something that will – must – happen, and we need our politics and politicians to be up to the task. There are difficult choices ahead and we cannot afford any delay.

If 500 votes in outer London is enough to stop us, sadly it says we are not there yet.