Why does Manchester City Council get away with breaking quite so many of its climate promises, including the simple one where the Executive Member for the Environment promised to set up a blog?
This rant lists structural reasons, personal/personnel reasons and for the failure of scrutiny, before turning to ‘what is to be done’. Please feel free to comment, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Structural reasons (Long-term and global)
a) Neoliberalism gets blamed for everything, so let’s start with that. At a national level, since the 1970s, the ‘market’ has become the measure of all things. And climate change, as a ‘market failure’ (TM Nick Stern) is not something economists and their ideological slaves, the bureaucrats and politicians, like to think about
b) The hollowing out of the local state. Thatcher gets blamed (rightly) for that, so let’s continue with that. Local government has become a shell, basically a delivery mechanism for national policies and a shield dented into virtual oblivion. Manchester City Council ran the white flag up in the second half of the 80s, and it’s been fluttering above Albert Square ever since.
c) The collapse of the media that was supposed to perform a ‘watch-dog’ role. When was the last time the Manchester Evening News, or BBC North West, ‘broke’ a significant story about Manchester City Council. Anyone? They don’t send anyone to scrutiny meetings (no money to do so) and they rely on press releases and ‘leaks’ (yeah, right). It’s churnalism, basically.
d) The coming of the One Party State – the collapse of a local political opposition
As recently as 2010 the Liberal Democrats had a third of the Council seats. I am not saying this was necessarily a Good Thing, but at least there was some sort of criticism. Yes, often misplaced or ill-informed, but it was there. The Greens, a long long time ago, had a councillor. Nowt since. So you have 96 Labour councillors. A 9 member Executive that rules them all, and jostling for preferment among the rest, whose future rests in making the right noises and not embarrassing The Party.
e) The lack of social movement organisations that monitor or challenge. Manchester’s environmental scene has basically imploded. It looked busy a few years ago (e.g. in 2007-2010) but most of those groups are now inactive, and the few that are left basically don’t say boo to the goose or get their acts together (and yes, that includes the ones the author tried to set up). The focus is always on some event in London, or further afield, and mobilising is usually a substitute for movement-building. There’s currently a very small ‘buzz’ (or drone?’) around Paris, but unless a miracle happens, that will dissipate, because the same mistakes are being made.
Westminster-style democracy is supposed to work like this: you have an executive made up of big beasts from the party that has the most seats. They work with the permanent bureaucracy to deliver what they want (which may or may not match what they promised). Hubris and incompetence are kept in check by the close surveillance not just of their own back-benchers, but by the official opposition, by the media, and by civil society groups (unions, thinktanks, charities, etc) from without. So a rough sort of ‘wisdom of crowds’ keeps from anything TOO stupid from happening. Yes, there is the occasional outbreak of crude hegemony or group think, but overall, this is the best of all possible worlds.
But Manchester has no opposition party, no media, no civil society.
f) The nature of Manchester City Council; When did the powerful ever welcome long-term and detailed scrutiny? When did the ‘confident’ ever welcome people who said ‘you’re not keeping your promises, your plans are unrealistic, your bureaucracies clumsy at best’? It may have happened, somewhere, somewhen. But in Manchester? Really?
People become councillors for different reasons. Basically they fall into three categories
- The ambitious who see it as a stepping stone to Bigger Things. Well, they might occasionally bang on the table, but they’re never going to undertake sustained campaigns of questioning the Executive and the bureaucracy. That would be a Career Limiting Move. And the ambitious are not into CLMs
- The “I can change the system from withins.” They do exist. It can take them a while to learn better.
- The rest. People who are doing it for the money (£16,000 isn’t much, but it isn’t nothing), for the status (not nothing) or for the business contacts. Or just want to make the world a better place, be part of the dented shield.
(People shift between these categories of course!)
There are two crucial things for our purposes, in terms of sustained, detailed and brave scrutiny of Manchester’s climate debacles.
Firstly, very few of the people who are currently engaged in council “climate politics” (for want of a better phrase) were actively engaged in 2009. Some weren’t councillors back then, or were councillors but had no interest in or involvement in the issues. It’s hard for them to understand just how wide the (widening) gap is between rhetoric and reality
Secondly, climate change is but one issue among MANY. Thanks to the Tories trying (successfully) to roll back the welfare state, councillors spend huge amounts of limited time and energy try to help people that David Cameron, Ian Duncan Smith and the rest are trying to stuff down the cracks.
Is the issue the issue?
Some say that climate change is too complex for our pretty little heads, too complex for the current structure of scrutiny.
- I don’t see a lot of decent scrutiny being done on OTHER issues. It’s not like climate change is an outlier, the only thing that isn’t getting attention.
- Also, it’s actually NOT very complex. Manchester City Council made a lot of concrete promises in 2009 and 2010, and some more since then. And it is evidently breaking them. Yes, the bureaucrats and the executive spin and wiggle and wriggle, and shift baselines where and when they can, and promise reports and not deliver. But so what, that’s normal. That’s not hard to spot. In the words of Sven Lindqvist “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”
What is to be done?
So, it’s easy enough to make a list of What Manchester City Council COULD Do. I did it last year, in a report that went out last year under the catchy title “The Scrutiny Mutiny.”
The point is, Manchester City Council will NOT do these things. Or rather, they won’t do them soon, and they won’t do them without a fight so fierce that it will probably leave us exhausted and demoralised (and therefore defeated.)
So, “we” (1) have to do these things(2).
- Who is we? You dear reader, and whoever else you and I can rope in.
- Or at least, those items that we think a) we can do fairly easily and b) will increase OUR power.
We could start by
- Figuring out what items really really matter to us. My personal vote is for ‘resilience rightly understood- class-race-gender-age-aware disaster preparedness and the (lack of) ward plans around climate change. We should be starting to take actions ourselves BEFORE hassling the Council to help us (because they won’t, not quickly anyway).
- Building teams of people who know what skills each other have, what skills and knowledge each other WANT, and going from there. That would be novice lines etc.
- Attending scrutiny committees (especially Neighbourhoods) and writing/filming/tweeting about them with verve, clarity, accuracy and all necessary cynicism (plus a bit more).
We need to be thinking
- How can we do this without dying of boredom or wanting to kill ourselves in despair?
- In what ways can people too busy or just-plain-sensible to set foot in Castle Greyskull to get involved (and how can we learn from their skills and knowledge) and stay involved (how can we share our skills and knowledge, and maybe even score some wins).
Meanwhile, the Green Party could actually put the sterling work of those brave enough to attend the horrorshows in the Town Hall not on a basically hidden page of their website, but front and centre. If folks are doing the hard work, they should be rewarded.