The Observer view on how the climate crisis should not be used as a political football
Nothing feels as good as winning. Its been a long time since Labour enjoyed a victory as thumping as the one it scored this week in Selby and Ainsty, a once solidly Conservative patch of rural Yorkshire, and Keir Starmer deserves to savour the moment. In little over three years, he has transformed a defeated and despairing party into a government in waiting. There have been some deeply painful compromises along the way, but finally he can argue that they are starting to pay off. Ed Davey is equally entitled to be gleeful about recapturing Somerton and Frome for the Lib Dems, confirming that his party is well and truly back from the wilderness. The scale of tactical voting in both contests suggests that an iron resolve is forming among anti-Tory voters to do whatever it takes. Where they can run as insurgents against an unpopular government, progressives are riding high. But what happened in Uxbridge and South Ruislip suggests limits to that approach. After Boris Johnson slunk away in disgrace, many assumed his old seat was Labours for the taking. Instead, the Tories scraped back in by turning what could have been a referendum on their handling of the economy into a referendum on another incumbent: Londons mayor, Sadiq Khan , and his decision to extend the capitals ultra-low emission zone to outlying boroughs from August, forcing owners of older and more polluting vehicles to pay a 12.50 daily charge or buy new cars. Labour struggled to land its message about the punishing cost of living with voters who blamed their mayor for helping to push it up. Starmers suggestion that Khan should reflect on the unpopularity of Ulez, essentially a public rebuke, reveals deep frustration within the shadow cabinet at missing out by only a few hundred votes. But some take a deeper lesson from this ultimately very localised skirmish. The Uxbridge result has reopened smouldering arguments inside both main parties over how far to push green policies in the middle of a cost of living crisis. The case for cutting carbon emissions has never been more blindingly obvious in this summer of freak heatwaves around the globe. In the US state of Arizona, hospitals are treating patients suffering severe burns from contact with baking pavements. Forest fires are ravaging Greece , and Antarctic sea ice levels have fallen to record lows for July. We are terrifyingly close to the tipping point of which scientists have so long warned, and the frustration is that we know full well what to do about it. There is no alternative to transitioning as fast as humanly possible from fossil fuels to renewables, gas central heating to heat pumps and solar panels, and petrol or diesel cars to electric ones. (While Ulez and other clean air zones around the country are strictly speaking public health policies, designed to reduce deadly air pollution rather than carbon, they do nudge motorists to rethink their reliance on cars.) But some households simply cant afford the steep upfront costs of replacing cars and boilers, however much they want to. Politicians who ignore that hard reality will face a backlash. The climate emergency cries out for a non-partisan approach, with political parties pulling together in the national interest as they have over Ukraine. Instead, green policy risks being weaponised for political gain. Already, rightwing voices are urging Rishi Sunak to treat Uxbridge as the model for a Conservative fightback: scrap the planned ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, restart the war on woke, brand Labour the political wing of Just Stop Oil as the Cabinet minister for net zero, Grant Shapps, puts it. Its less a strategy for winning than for limiting Tory losses, while making the job of an incoming Labour government infinitely harder. For the risk of kicking the climate can down the road, as successive Conservative administrations have done, is that intervention must be more drastic to have the necessary effect. Changes that could have been eased in gently over the past 13 years may now need to happen more abruptly. But if anything, Uxbridge may make Starmer even warier of some of his shadow climate change secretary Ed Milibands more radical instincts. Tensions between green ultras and their more cautious shadow cabinet colleagues are hard to resolve because both sides have a point. The Milibandites are right that the climate emergency cannot be ducked, and that backsliding could open up the partys left flank to the Greens (who increased their vote share in all three byelections, potentially at Labours expense in Uxbridge). But the pragmatists are right that middle England is easily spooked by threats to their wallets or lifestyles. In Uxbridge, the Tories portrayed Ulez as a big city solution loftily imposed on a very different world; fine for Tesla drivers or young urbanites near a Tube stop, but less so for suburban families on the school run and the hard-pressed working classes. It wasnt just about the cost, but the sense that City Hall didnt understand. Reading too much into any byelection is always dangerous, and the lesson here for Labour is absolutely not to retreat on net zero. But it is to get the economics right which means more financial help for households replacing cars or boilers and, crucially, the tone. Sanctimony is deadly, when people are really struggling. Rishi Sunak should reflect on the legacy he wants to leave behind, much as Theresa May did when she used her final weeks in office to enshrine net zero targets in law. Our fragile planet must not be treated like a political football.