Voters are suspicious of electric cars because politicians let them down over diesel ones. It’s not just a question of price.

18 Aug

As most people know by now, a large part of the Government’s plans for Net Zero involves convincing the nation to drive electric cars. The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 – so the consumer doesn’t actually have much choice in the matter.

That being said, the Government is having a number of issues selling its vision to voters around the country. None of this was helped over the last two weeks when Allegra Stratton, the spokesperson for COP26, revealed to Times Radio that she drove – shock, horror! – a third-hand diesel Volkswagen Golf.

Soon after Alok Sharma, President of COP26, was asked what he drove – to which he also answered diesel. Despite his assurance that he does not “drive it very much”, this has not impressed the electric car lobby, nor those wondering why they should buy electric if COP26’s most famous faces aren’t on board.

As COP26 draws closer, the Government will have to get better at promoting electric cars, as well as countering objections to them. The most obvious worry consumers have is the expense. Buying a car isn’t cheap, after all, so people will feel anxious about having to switch (especially when there’s been so much talk about people having to replace their gas boilers).

Then there’s the charging issue, which Stratton hit upon in her interview. She said she needed a diesel vehicle to visit elderly relatives “200, 250 miles away”… sometimes with small children in the car. “They’re all journeys that I think would be at least one quite long stop to charge”, were her words – sentiment that many people will relate to.

One underrated concern in all this is whether electric cars are another government fad, as was the case with diesel in 2001. Many will remember the “dash for diesel” in this period, during which Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor, introduced a new system of tax for petrol-powered cars, in the name of environmentalism, and slashed duty on diesel and reduced company car taxes on this type of vehicle

It led to a four-fold increase in the number of diesels, which has since been associated with thousands of premature deaths a year. Confidential Treasury files have since shown that Tony Blair’s government was aware of the damage these cars do to air quality – yet pressed ahead, mainly because the optics would look bad (through penalising diesel drivers).

At the time the files were discovered, Edmund King, president of the AA, said “This will only heighten the sense of injustice felt by millions of people who bought their diesel cars in good faith”. And it’s this sentiment that takes us back to electric cars. A lot is being asked of the consumer, so they need reassurances that electric cars are here to stay.

As James Frayne, who writes for ConservativeHome and has spent a long time researching public attitudes to Net Zero, tells me: “Cars are integral to most workers’ daily lives and they’re expensive to buy and run. People therefore really pay attention to political comment on cars and mistakes have consequences. Politicians’ u-turn on diesels is seared into the public memory and undermined confidence that Governments will see Net Zero policies through.”

So the Government needs to sell electric cars – and their longevity too.