Three ways to hell: What do we learn about Manchester City Council?
There seem to be three possibilities for civil society organisations trying to get Manchester City Council to play a useful role in making this city greener or fairer in any meaningful sense.
Firstly , if they don’t like you or the ideas you are bringing forward (no matter how implementable and useful those ideas are) they will flat out ignore you. So, Climate Emergency Manchester (full disclosure – I am member of its core group) produced a report With Love and Rockets: What can we do, in Manchester, about the Climate Emergency before Christmas? By April 2020?” late last year. It was full of implementable ideas we and other individuals and groups came up with.
We sent it to the Council.
Two weeks later a letter was published in the MEN – even that didn’t get CEM an acknowledgement of its labour and ideas.
If you are “adopted” by the Council, there seem to be two possibilities
Firstly, Manchester City Council will draw you into what looks like their ‘decision making’ processes- they use you as a long-term fig leaf. The price of staying “inside” is twofold. First you have to defend their indefensible inaction. This will strip you of your morale, and – more importantly – your credibility with broader civil society. Secondly (and this is never explicitly stated), you must not activate your organisations supporters to apply pressure. The role that your organisation could and should have fulfilled- co-ordinating, galvanising, leading – will not be done
This – whether they want to admit it or not (and they don’t, of course) – is the experience of Manchester Friends of the Earth on climate change. Sure, there is the work on divestment, or fracking, but on the bread and butter issue of what is actually being done on climate change locally, in each of the ten local authority areas (as opposed to what is promised, or what credit is being taken for external factors that have lowered local emissions – austerity and the move from coal at a national level)- a deadly and deadening silence.
Secondly, they will use you as a temporary (though they don’t tell you this in advance) fig leaf, dropping you when the initiative you have poured your heart, soul and countless hours into becomes even potentially inconvenient. That is, they will let you do a whole lot of very hard work, use you relentlessly for publicity purposes, and as soon as there is even the slightest pushback, the slightest difficulty, they will drop you while claiming they haven’t.
This, I think (as an outside observer), has been the experience of the Levy Bee Network
All this betrays a total lack of ompetence and courage – and now the credibility – to be part of progressive society moves for a better world. Who in their right minds is going to want to work with the Council now? There must, surely, be councillors who are aghast at this latest cock-up. While they will not speak publicly, hopefully they are making their views very forcefully known behind the scenes. Fun fact – the Manchester Labour Party will at some point be having its AGM (maybe November now?) and various Executive Member roles are up for grabs.
And this, remember, is a Council made up of 93 nominally “Labour” politicians, a party that once – a very long time ago – was about changing things for the better.
Finally, this occasionally I get criticised – or hear second hand of criticism – for failing to “work with the Council.” Well, number one I tried (see 2008-2012, and even as late as 2014). But there is a big number two in all this – why would ANYONE want to with an machine that has three settings, that leaves you unused, useless or else used-up-and-spat-out?
What is to be done?
In the short term, those outraged by the Levy Bee Network cowardice should write to all the members of the Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee, calling for it to be raised as urgent business at the next NESC meeting on Weds 22nd July. You can find a list of the councillors, their emails and Twitter accounts here.
Longer-term – we as activists, campaigners, citizens need better skills and knowledge, better networks to collaborate and co-ordinate. The “Active Citizenship Toolkit” project for CEM (I am lead on it) is one way to do that. Groups that actually want to be better at what they do could have a long hard look at that and push past any excuses they have, and get in touch to be ‘crash test dummies’ for it.