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A person inserting a petrol or diesel pump into the side of a black car.

The Conservatives have seized on cars as a political wedge – it’s a bet on public turning against climate action

“Talking about freedom, sat in Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover” read the UK prime minister’s tweet in July 2023. Earlier that day in an interview with The Telegraph newspaper, Rishi Sunak had declared that the Conservative Party he leads are “on the side of motorists”, and he spent the days after attacking the opposition Labour Party for its supposed “anti-motorist” stance.

This is not the first time politicians have used cars to sell themselves to voters. In the UK, the most obvious parallel is with the 1997 general election, when both Labour and the Conservatives fought over “Mondeo man”, the archetype of a lower-middle-class and mostly male voter who both parties deemed important in swaying the outcome of elections.

Naming this category of voters by the car they drive is no accident. Since the early 20th century, the car has symbolised a diverse set of social values: freedom and progress, but also power and status. The cultural and economic importance of cars may have waned, but they remain important enough for politicians to use for electoral gain.

Sunak has revived this notion of motorists being the voters that really count in a clear signal of the Conservatives’ campaign strategy in the 2024 general election. This throwback to 1997, when the car’s place in society was still relatively secure, is a gamble. And it reveals a new tactic from the political right to maintain relevance as the climate crisis unfolds.

What’s changed since 1997?

The mid-1990s saw a wave of protests against road building. Immediately before the 1997 election, they produced their iconic figure, Swampy, who stayed for a week in an underground tunnel to prevent diggers from accessing the construction site.

In the lead-up to 2023, there has similarly been a lot of direct action by protesters against cars. The first Extinction Rebellion protest entailed closing five bridges in London. Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain have blocked motorways.

Then, as now, a Conservative government lurching from crisis to crisis has sought popular issues to revive its fortunes. In 1997, the Tories were embroiled in a series of corruption scandals and nurturing an internal war over the EU. The parallels with their situation today require no explanation.

But there are important differences. It’s striking how little reinforcement of the “voters as car drivers” rhetoric there has been since 1997. Both parties have introduced and promoted steadily more ambitious action on climate change, in ways that have had knock-on effects for explicitly pro-car strategies.

Successive governments (both Labour and Conservative) have introduced:

Because of these changes, Sunak’s championing of motorists today works differently to the Mondeo man appeal in 1997. Then, both major parties agreed on the social and economic value of the car and sought to sideline and undermine the road protest campaigns. Both shored up this pro-car ideology and competed over who could best serve it.

Two pro-car parties

In practice, there remains little difference between the two parties on the question of cars. Both assume that society will continue to be dominated by cars, but both have introduced enough (modest) policies to limit car use and promote alternatives. To actively promote cars now requires a clearer affirmation and creates the possibility of using it as a wedge issue to attack the opposition with.

These attempts are largely ridiculous. Labour is more or less still as pro-car as the Tories (hence the absurdity of trying to claim Labour is on the side of Just Stop Oil), and partly because many of the initiatives now being attacked by Sunak were themselves developed and promoted by the Conservatives, most notably the ultra low emissions zone, which was Boris Johnson’s idea.

A rural road with cars passing a blue sign declaring an ultra low emission zone four miles ahead.
Ultra low emission zones were introduced to counter dangerous levels of air pollution in urban centres. EPA-EFE/Neil Hall

Sunak’s pro-car rhetoric is explicitly nostalgic. To reclaim the Conservatives as the party of motorists, Sunak must return to Margaret Thatcher and sit in her Rover, recalling a golden age that must be restored.

This rhetoric also borrows from populists undermining climate policy more generally, because the political logic of promoting cars is now one of backlash which claims “the people” have lost out from the various anti-car initiatives of both parties. Sunak takes his cues from the Net Zero Scrutiny Group and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Fuel, coalitions of MPs that attack climate action in UK politics.

If the Conservatives continue with this line of attack against Labour through to the next election, that poll will be about the future of Britain’s climate strategy. After all, more ambitious climate action demands reducing reliance on cars.

It is not clear if Sunak’s pro-car nostalgia will work. But whether or not it does will reveal a lot about the necessary conditions for attaining more aggressive climate action, which will inevitably involve changes in how people live their lives – from the transport they use and how often, as well as in many other areas.

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