“I really think the people of Uxbridge don’t like to be taken for a ride,” said John Randall, speaking with an authority based on long experience.
Randall was the surprise Conservative winner, by 3,766 votes, in the Uxbridge by-election in July 1997. The sitting Conservative MP, Sir Michael Shersby, had died unexpectedly seven days after returning to the 1997 general election with a majority of only 724.
Labor was expected to take the seat but had a fearful row over the selection of candidates. “They got pretty desperate at the end,” Randall told ConHome. Tony Blair, newly elected in Labour’s landslide victory in May 1997, broke with convention that prime ministers did not campaign in by-elections and came down to talk, and Peter Mandelson went down to Uxbridge and made futile efforts to rescue the bell.
In by-elections due to take place this Thursday in Uxbridge and South Ruislip (the boundaries were changed before the 2010 general election), Labor is also in trouble.
This time the problem is ULEZ, the Ultra Low Emission Zone that Sadiq Khan has decided will expand to the outer districts from August 29.
In Uxbridge (which is in London’s most westerly borough of Hillingdon) this is deeply unpopular. Randall, who was campaigning at midday on Saturday outside Uxbridge station at the end of the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines, wore a “Stop ULEZ” badge, as did his fellow Conservatives, including party candidate Steve Tuckwell.
There was nothing about this group to show that they were conservative, a point that was only buried in the leaflets they were handing out.
The Labor candidate, Danny Beales, was also not seen walking up the High Street past Uxbridge station, wearing a Labor cockade.
The fashion for local candidates has gone so far that they no longer advertise their membership in national parties.
Beales was born in the local hospital and grew up in the local area, but suffers the handicap of being a councilor in Camden, central London.
A nurse sitting with her husband drinking coffee said: “The biggest problem is ULEZ. I retired from the NHS after 49 years. What about caregivers who can no longer visit?”
The people of Uxbridge tend not to conform to media stereotypes, for example that the NHS is in an unbearable state of crisis. The nurse said, “If I had my time again, I would do the same job again. I love my job.” As she walks through Uxbridge, she is often greeted by former patients of hers.
How will you vote in the by-elections? “Until Jeremy Corbyn, I was Labour,” he said. “The workers took care of schools, hospitals and the elderly.
“But the party has changed now and I’m afraid I don’t have confidence in them. Keir Starmer did not want to come out and actually confronted Sadiq Khan (on ULEZ) in a TV interview, when asked about him.
“Boris as an MP for Hillingdon had done well. We have new schools and a new hospital.”
The by-election was triggered by the resignation from the House of Commons of Boris Johnson, who in 2015 succeeded Randall as MP, and returned in 2019 with a majority of 7,210.
It was impossible, on Calle Mayor, to forget the ULEZ theme. A candidate named NoUlezLeo performed anti-ULEZ songs outside the Pavilions shopping centre, while a hundred meters closer to the station, Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, broadcast from a loudspeaker mounted in his dilapidated Vauxhall Cavalier: “Vote for me, Piers Corbyn, your best hope to stop ULEZ.”
By-elections are an opportunity for voters to protest, and in Uxbridge there seems to be a greater desire to protest against Khan’s transit plan than against Rishi Sunak.
Residents of Uxbridge (abolished as a borough in 1965, when it became part of the London Borough of Hillingdon and Greater London) tend not to consider themselves Londoners.
“I’m a Middlesex person,” declared one woman. The tide of suburban housing swept along the subway lines, engulfing old settlements but not destroying old loyalties.
ULEZ is a trendy metropolitan idea that will force everyone in Uxbridge with a non-qualifying car to pay £12.50 a day to use it.
A retired printer said: “I wouldn’t like to see a change around here. It’s a decent enough place to live. It’s a shame Mr. Johnson had such an arrogant streak to get sucked in. Too bad we don’t have a local man yet, Mr. Randall.
A woman smoking at the back of the Pavilions shopping center said: “I just want Boris back. I really like him. He has personality and was visible at Uxbridge.
“In fact, he visited people’s workplaces. She came to where I work (as a credit manager). I liked him for all the things he did during lockdown, even though he broke the rules, but who didn’t?
“We wouldn’t have had the Covid flat tire if it wasn’t for him. If he ever ran again, I would vote for him. We all want him back.”
Will you vote Conservative on Thursday? “Well, reluctantly,” she said. “I’ve always voted Conservative, but I’m not sure if I will this time.”
Another woman said: “They shouldn’t have gotten rid of Boris. I said I wouldn’t vote for them anymore after what they did to Boris. But now I’m thinking we have to keep Labor out.”
But a third woman, sitting on a bench with her husband, said: “We’ve always voted Conservative, but this time we’re not going to vote. We are completely upset with the way the Conservatives have behaved of late.
“I’m afraid Johnson is totally leaning on HS2.”
“It has been a terrible disappointment,” her husband agreed. “He could have been the best prime minister since Churchill and Thatcher. He has not lived up to expectations.”
“I’m a ULEZ fan,” said a man sitting on a bench in the High Street. “I have been in London and the air quality is bad. You see it on the news, kids growing up getting lung diseases.
“I think the Labor Party will get my vote. I always think we need to share things, and that’s the Labor philosophy.”
A young man born in the Netherlands, who has lived in England for seven years, said he will vote for the party that is most immigrant-friendly.
Seventeen candidates are running for the by-election on Thursday. A courteous man from Southend who goes by the name “77 Joseph” told ConHome: “God is preparing me to become the future Archbishop of Canterbury, the future King and the future Pope.”
If Labor wins at Uxbridge, Khan will treat the result as an endorsement of ULEZ. But what catches the attention of the townspeople is their refusal to accept the opinions of others.
In 1972, a previous Conservative MP for Uxbridge, Charles Curran, died, and the party was expected to lose the resulting by-election, instead staying there, but losing the seemingly safer seat of Sutton & Cheam to the Liberals. .
Uxbridge is a small-c conservative place that often refuses to conform to metropolitan expectations, and may do so again on Thursday.