How Uxbridge emboldened the anti-climate-action Right

Earth has passed from a warming phase into an 'era of global boiling,' says the UN chief. Could there be a worst time to drag the existential climate crisis into party politics and debate about potential backsliding on environmental commitments?

Right-Wing Watch

Rhodes is on fire and people are literally fleeing for their lives from the result of climate change. Smoke from wildfires that raged through Canadian forests blanketed cities across North America where air quality alerts have been issued. Thousands of children are being treated for air pollution-associated respiratory conditions in London. Spanish farmers hit by severe drought plea for emergency help. The UN chief has said the Earth has passed from a warming phase into an ‘era of global boiling.’ Could there be a worst time to drag the existential climate crisis into party politics and debate about potential backsliding on environmental commitments?

The Times’ frontpage on July 23 said it all.

‘Tory retreat from green policies to woo voters,’ was the lead story, adjacent to another entitled: ‘Airlines lead scramble to help 19,000 flee Rhodes.’

‘Panic’ over climate policies was detonated in the wake of Uxbridge byelection. The Tories’ narrow retention of Boris Johnson’s former seat led to less environmentally minded MPs calling for an end to ‘very unpopular’ green policies.

The policy notably under attack is the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) scheme, whereby drivers of older, polluting cars are charged £12.50 a day to use their vehicle within the designated zone. Following the byelection, the bid to clean up Greater London’s air has become something of a wedge issue, and Rishi Sunak is facing growing pressure from right-wing, climate change sceptic Tory MPs to delay ULEZ plans as a means of winning over voters.

Talking to the BBC, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is a harsh critic of net zero targets, said the lesson of Uxbridge was that “high-cost green policies are not popular” and the party should delay moves on phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles.

During the Uxbridge byelection campaign, the Tories had exploited ULEZ as a big cost of living issue. In his victory speech, Steve Tuckwell, the constituency’s new MP, said it was the London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ‘damaging and costly ULEZ policy’ that cost Labour the election.

Former chief Brexit negotiator and Tory peer Lord Frost, who, in 2022, was criticised for joining the climate sceptic think-tank the Global Warming Policy, could not resist putting in his two pennies’ worth, making the absurd claim that ‘global warming is likely to be beneficial to the UK.’

Speaking in the House of Lords this week, he said: “We should dig in deeper and ask: what are the consequences of hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters?

“At the moment, seven times as many people die from cold as from heat in Britain. Rising temperatures are likely to be beneficial.”

At least Lord Frost is something of a political ‘has been’ who is no longer taken that seriously. More worrying perhaps are the views of the Tory candidate for London mayor, Susan Hall. Hall was selected last week to take on Labour incumbent Sadiq Khan at next year’s election. Labour has described her as a ‘hard-right politician.’ And her history on climate action is certainly concerning. As well as backing the reintroduction of fracking, and calling for net zero targets to be delayed, Hall has promoted articles online which spread climate science denial.

In July 2022, the London mayor hopeful shared an article on Twitter by Lord Frost for the Express, which called for the UK to drop its urgent dash to net zero. She tweeted:

“This man is full of common sense – net zero needs to be delayed and shale gas sought. Well said [David Frost]”.

These dangerous comments by leading Tory figures come despite government officials warning that air pollution is the ‘largest environmental risk to public health,’ and will cost the NHS around £1.6bn between 2017 and 2025. Meanwhile, right across Greater London, air pollution breaches guidelines set by the World Health Organisation. A separate report shows that the most deprived communities in London are more likely to live in the most polluted areas, with black and diaspora groups worst affected.

Additionally, evidence overwhelmingly shows ULEZ has been a success, having reduced harmful pollutions by 25 percent within the expanded area, compared with what they would have been without the policy coming into force. It is also predicted to prevent a million hospital admissions by 2050.

Nonetheless, so strong is the opposition to the expansion, that five Conservative-led councils had challenged the Labour Mayor’s policy. On July 28, the High Court ruled the ULEZ expansion as lawful.  Following what Khan hailed a ‘landmark decision,’ Tory MPs have called for Keir Starmer to ‘get off the fence’ and tell the London Mayor to axe the expansion.

Deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden said the High Court ruling was a “loss for hardworking people” in his constituency, which borders Greater London, adding: “Keir Starmer should tell his Mayor to abandon this unnecessary and unfair expansion.”

The backlash and incrimination of Labour also comes even though ULEZ was originally announced by Boris Johnson as London mayor. It was eventually introduced by his successor, Sadiq Khan, who was required to enforce it by the then transport secretary, Grant Shapps.

Once again proving at just how divided the Tories are, the prospect of climate policies being reassessed has caused alarm among some Conservatives. As the climate change cynics within the party call for the watering down of environmental policies in the wake of the Uxbridge result, ‘greener’ MPs are urging the PM to stick with net zero pledges, arguing the ULEZ byelection issue is irrelevant to the general election. Chris Skidmore, the Tory MP who led the recent net zero review of the UK’s climate goals, says the Uxbridge byelection might have become a ‘micro-referendum’ on the ULEZ expansion, but the policy was irrelevant in terms of a general election.

As the climate fallout rumbles on within Conservative ranks and the climate denialists attempt to whip up ULEZ outrage, backed up by an historically climate cynical Tory press, polls that consistently show Londoners overwhelmingly support the ULEZ expansion are ignored. Even in the outer boroughs, where reliance on vehicles is higher and where the expansion costs will be greatest, there is an even split on those for and against it. Separate polling shows that 57 percent of Tory voters who plan to switch to Labour think Sunak has not ‘gone far enough’ on tackling climate action. Alok Sharmer, Tory MP who chaired COP26 in Glasgow, told the Times that Conservatives who think the path to election success is to abandon green policies need to ‘smell the coffee.’

Right-Wing Watch spoke to a tradesman who commutes to London from Sevenoaks in Kent every day and will be affected by the expansion. Plumber Sham Jivani told me:

“It’s quite obvious we are in the middle of a climate crisis, and something needs to be done. We have had plenty of warning about ULEZ and the benefits it will bring to Londoners. I exchanged my diesel guzzler for a newer, unleaded vehicle, partly in preparation and mainly to do the right thing.”

Leo Murray, co-director of the climate charity Possible, notes how a ‘majority of Londoners support ULEZ and outer Londoners want cleaner air.’

“We can’t let basic public health policy be turned into a political football. Whatever the government of the day, they have to support mayors and councils in cleaning up our toxic air.

“Once we get this right, nobody will want to go back to how things were.”

And Murray is right in the sense that there is often aversion to new ideas and change, particularly when they involve people’s money. Such opposition however tends to subside when something is implemented and is successful. Remember when the London congestion charge was brought in? There was strong opposition to it. The Evening Standard led a long campaign against it. But 20 years on, and the charge has delivered huge progress in tackling toxic air by targeting the most polluting vehicles.

But for ULEZ opponents, the Uxbridge result is being used as bait to shout their green policy objections even louder. And such resistance transcends Tory boundaries, with both Conservative and Labour campaigners attributing the Tory victory to Khan’s decision to expand ULEZ.

Danny Beales, the Labour candidate in Uxbridge, pledged to put his “community first” and oppose the expansion. Beales’ calls were backed by three other Labour MPs in Greater London constituencies, urging for the policy to be delayed unless a more generous scrappage scheme is introduced to help motorists with the expense of more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Meanwhile an under pressure Starmer, who had already backed out of his commitment to invest in renewables, said the whole idea needs looking at again, and that the London mayor ‘needs to reflect’ on the policy following the Uxbridge result.

Starmer’s response has not chimed well with everyone. Sham Javani told me that he was disappointed that Starmer has retracted from some of his commitments to green policies and had blamed Sadiq Khan for “one close but failed election result which was a Tory stronghold anyway.”

Perversely, in what was otherwise a triumphant week for Labour having won its biggest ever byelection victory by overturning a 20,000 Tory majority in Selby and Ainsty, Uxbridge has drawn Labour’s internal affairs and political strategy into the spotlight.

And predictably, the Tory press foghorns, who love to stir up trouble for the opposition, particularly it seems over the party’s green strategies – with the Times’ recently alleging that Starmer said he ‘hates tree huggers,’ something the Labour leader has denied – have seized the opportunity to exaggerate reports of an ‘internal wobble’ around ULEZ within Labour ranks, while going all out for Sadiq Khan, whom they have long held in contempt.

‘Sadiq Khan handed ‘damning verdict’ on ULEZ after ‘humiliating’ Uxbridge defeat,’ splashed the Express. This is the same newspaper that earlier this year delighted in pontificating about Khan being warned that the ‘penny is dropping’ for Labour MPs over the ‘hated’ ULEZ expansion.

The Times was at it as well, crying: ‘Sadiq Khan ‘now listening’ on ULEZ after Keir Starmer piles on pressure,’ following the talks between the Labour leader and the London mayor after the byelection. As was the Telegraph, which mocked: ‘Starmer facing ULEZ revolt from London Labour MPs.’

But Labour’s loss in Uxbridge is likely to be less associated with the ULEZ policy than the Right are making out. One source who is close to Sadiq Khan, offered an alternative view, saying: “Winning Uxbridge and South Ruislip was always going to be a struggle for Labour.

“Labour hasn’t won this seat for five decades and Tony Blair didn’t even win it during the 1997 landslide.
“Sadiq has always been clear that expanding the ULEZ was a really difficult decision but necessary to save the lives of young and vulnerable Londoners.

“The issue of toxic air pollution damaging Londoners’ health is too big to ignore and the expansion will result in five million more Londoners breathing cleaner air.”

But concerningly, it seems the whir of panic over ULEZ is already having a potentially crushing impact on the race to clean up Britain’s air.  

Wanting to create a dividing line between the Tories and Labour on environmental issues ahead of the general election, Rishi Sunak has signalled he could delay or even abandon green policies that are said to put financial pressure on families. As such, his commitment to net zero is being questioned. On July 24, the Prime Minister said that he did not want to ‘hassle’ voters and that hitting Britain’s net zero carbon emissions target had to be done in a ‘proportionate’ way.

When pressed about whether he would stand up to Tory MPs who were calling on him to drop goals, including the proposed 2030 ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars, Sunak suggested he was paying attention to their concerns. “I’m standing up for the British people because I’m also cognisant that we’re living through a time at the moment where inflation is high,” he said.

The ease with which Sunak is willing to reassess climate pledges, makes you wonder how committed to climate change he was in the first place. After all, it didn’t feature in his top five priorities for government, and since becoming PM he has approved a new coal mine in Cumbria and has given the go ahead for a vast oil field in the North Sea.

With images of raging infernos sweeping across scorched landscapes around the world, it also makes you wonder what would need to happen for the climate denialists to finally admit they were wrong. London plunged underwater and deserted because of rising seas could get them to rethink. Maybe?

Meanwhile, a single byelection has sent the denialists into meltdown. But as we know from the polls, and general attitudes, voters typically aren’t buying into the whole climate-denying nonsense. The Rhodes wildfires should only cement this mindset.

In this sense, the Tories – and Labour – should be aware that dropping green policies may have political consequences, not just environmental ones.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Russian war criminals still (probably) have access to UK’s financial system, yet wretched Farage story still dominates the news

You would think (or perhaps hope) that news about the British government standing accused of having a ‘completely unrealistic’ approach to Russia’s murderous paramilitary group Wagner, which has made ‘it possible, if not probable’ that it has continued to benefit from access to London’s financial markets, would be a headline story across the media spectrum.

But no, the findings of a cross-party committee of MPs that the UK government under-estimated the dangerous growth of the Wagner mercenary group and posed a “serious national security threats to the UK and its allies,” received little reportage in the right-wing press.

Instead, they dedicated yet more publishing space to the wretched Farage bank account farce. The ‘woke’ banking shambles made it onto the front pages of the nationals EVERY day this week.  

The Financial Times was one of the few UK media outlets to grasp the importance of the Wagner story, noting how, in a hard-hitting report, the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee found that for “nearly 10 years, the government has underplayed and underestimated the Wagner network’s activities, as well as the security implications of its significant expansion.”

This, they added, made “it possible, if not probable, that Wagner-linked entities are continuing to benefit from access to the UK’s financial markets. The lack of certainty about this denotes a scandalous failure to exercise due diligence. At its worst, this could mean the UK is inadvertently undermining the efforts of our allies.”

The MPs’ report said that since 2014, Wagner has also likely to have provided political advice, media and disinformation campaigns, mineral extraction, or other security services in another 10 countries, including South Africa.

Other outlets, including the BBC and the Guardian, reported on the foreign affairs select committee’s findings, with the latter noting how the report called on the government to proscribe the Wagner group in the UK and to make a far more concerted effort to stop it using the City of London as a financial centre.

The Express and GB News’ touched upon the findings but didn’t dwell on the likelihood that Russia’s private army could have continued to access London financial markets.

As the findings related to Wagner (who’s operatives let’s not forget are accused of committing war crimes including murder, torture, and rape, and who have played a significant role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine) gets trivial media attention, Nigel Farage has scored a treble victory. Not only has he managed to get the CEO of NatWest fired (Alison Rose resigned over the Coutts accounts row so as good as being sacked) but, a day later, Peter Flaver, the head of Coutts became the second banking chief to resign over the closure of the GB News’ host’s accounts. Farage’s third victory? Managing to stoke up the whole ridiculous ‘woke capitalism’ issue.

The fact that the culture war fuelling media think (or like to portray) Farage’s war on woke banks as being more important than a bloodthirsty mercenary group still posing as a “serious national security threats” to the UK and its allies and probably having access to our financial markets, says everything about the state of our media.

Woke Bashing of the Week – 85-year-old Beano in the firing line for apparent ‘woke makeover’

Beano, the world’s longest running comic has turned 85. And to mark the milestone, it printed a special commemorative issue featuring appearances from a host of stars, including Stormzy, David Attenborough, and Harry Styles. The celebrities were selected by 3,000 children, who decided that footballer Marcus Rashford was the most inspirational star. Good choices kids!

But for the liberal-loathing, right-wing forces, Beano, like BlackRock, the Brownies, Disney World, and, of course, Coutts bank, has ‘gone woke.’ 

‘Menaces! Censors who rewrote Roald Dahl now take on the Beano with hijab-wearing artists and wheelchair-using scientists among gaggle of girls joining the Bash Street Kids (after Fatty and Spotty were also given ‘less pejorative’ names), splashed the Daily Mail.

The other ‘usual suspects’ were at it as well, derogatorily labelling the iconic comic as having a ‘woke makeover’ (The Express), and a woke ‘sensitivity readers’ overhaul (GB News).

At the centre of the sanctimonious howling is the comic’s favourite Bash Street Kids character ‘Fatty’ – real name, Frederick ‘Freddy’ Brown. The decision to revert ‘Freddy’ back to his actual name was made by Mike Stirling, editorial director of Beano Studios, in 2021. At the time, Stirling had said: “We’ve recently received a number of letters from kids asking us why Frederick Brown was called Fatty, by himself and his classmates. Although it’s always been used affectionately, and never pejoratively, we agreed it’s time it changed.”

Sounds sensible and reasonable, after all, times have moved on since the Sixties and Seventies, when the Bash Street Kids were societal stalwarts for many youngsters. As one comic fan had noted during a Facebook discussion on the issue: “Having a kid called Fatty isn’t really helpful in today’s climate… Loads of things that we took for granted in the ‘60’s wouldn’t fly today. Racism, sexism, bullying, smoking, no seatbelts. It’s great that we’re addressing them now.”

But for the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express, it produced vein-popping horror, which has, predictably, resurfaced on the comic’s 85th anniversary.

The same pearl-clutching furore erupted earlier this year when the Telegraph revealed the Roald Dahl collection was being tweaked for new editions, which the Express eagerly reminded of in its article on the Beano’s 85th anniversary:

“The changes [to Beano] were devised with the help of consultancy Inclusive Minds, which rewrote Roald Dahl’s books to remove material deemed offensive.”

But this statement is fundamentally wrong. Dahl’s much-loved books are not being rewritten, neither are the old Beano collections. I still have the original Roald Dahl collection, and no doubt comic fans still have, and can still get hold of, old Beano’s. Modern versions are simply being tweaked to cater for changes to language, and the different cultural values of children compared to their parents. The changes certainly haven’t destroyed childhoods, as the hyperbole-loving culture war obsessives would have us believe.

It also makes you wonder how many of the anti-woke, right-wing pontificators making ‘childhood destroying’ allegations, actually read the Beano in the first place. Or are they simply having a sputtering stab at another cherished pillar of British heritage that they really don’t know much about?

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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