Taking the right lessons from the Uxbridge by-election and ULEZ
net zero transition transport Political Economy | 25/07/2023

Taking the right lessons from the Uxbridge by-election and ULEZ

Pandora Lefroy

Our Managing Partner for Insights and Strategy Pandora Lefroy takes a look at the lessons from the recent Uxbridge byelection. 

When you understand that mandating individual change is driving opposition to ULEZ, you can begin to understand how to make the case for change.

I study voters for a living. Their beliefs, their value systems and what matters to them. When I read media articles and commentators asserting “what the focus groups say”, I wince.

Too often when trying to understand the motivations of certain voter groups, it can be easy to focus on face value, and we end up missing the most important nuances and hidden insights. But right now, for those voters who are in the crosshairs of party strategists as the target voters of the next general election, one thing is brutally clear: the cost-of-living crisis is real, and nothing else takes priority right now. 

Stonehaven’s programme of research in swing seats – including our ongoing focus groups – has shown that if you want to communicate with and shape the reaction of these voters, you will lose the right to do so unless you understand this truth. As one swing voter in the North West of England put it:

“Costs are just spiralling everywhere. It does really impact you, and you have to keep reassessing things… It’s really stressful. You want to be focusing on other things, but you just have to focus on this all the time."

For these voters, there’s just no room for other priorities right now. 

The 3 key insights we've seen in our research

But there are other important insights that our research has uncovered as the dust settles on the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election result. This is the other part of my day job – the most exciting part – working out what to do with the findings and analysis we generate. And on this front, there are some key findings that our research has unearthed if you - like me - want to accelerate our transition to net zero.

  1. Policies that can be characterised as mandated change - mandating actions at the individual, rather than at a system-wide level - are hard to stomach for voters especially in the current climate. This is not exclusive to ULEZ, but applies to heat pumps and electric vehicles (EVs) too.On the whole, voters want to see action to tackle both climate and air pollution. This is clear from almost every poll we run. But the issue with mandated change for some is that voters feel they are having to make sacrifices that others are not being asked to make, prompting a sense of unfairness. There is too much stick and not enough carrot, when people are already struggling to get by.So while it might be appealing to argue, as many have in defence of the ULEZ expansion, that 9 out of 10 cars and 8 out of 10 vans are already compliant and therefore exempt from ULEZ, that data does not reflect the perceptions of voters. So as the debate rages on, it will not be enough to simply reiterate this statistic. Voters need to understand how this and other changes, are not just being imposed on them alone. That the change is part of a bigger programme, a more system-wide initiative.
  2. Policymakers must recognise the importance of the carrot. As we see in our modelling, there are votes to be won in climate and environmental policies. But too often the narrative around these policies focuses on the narrow prism of the environment alone. For some voters, climate and environmental improvement is enough to motivate action. But for a larger percentage of voters who we speak to, they need to understand the wider and more tangible benefits that any change will unlock for themselves, their families and their communities. Tata's flagship EV battery factory announcement last week was a perfect example of these benefits. This is the other side of the transition - an economic opportunity for the UK that has been catalysed by the shift to EVs. It has the potential to create thousands of jobs and build a new industry in an area that many believe has suffered from under investment for years. Voters want this. This is the gateway for wider and deeper support for a net-zero future.
  3. There is a narrative developing that political kick back to ULEZ equates to a weakening of support for the transition to net zero. This is not what the research tells us. Voters do need to be taken on a journey. They need to understand the benefits that can be secured through system-wide change, not only feel the burden of mandates. But with the right nuance and considerations, politicians and businesses will continue to attract support for policies and investments to help us meet net zero. 

There are many nuances that come through our data and insights on decarbonisation and net zero in the context of the looming election. To find out more, get in touch.

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