Yes, but WHY the lack of #climate scrutiny? Or “the veto and what to do about it” #Manchester

My friend and colleague Chloe Jeffries has written a customarily brilliant blog post on the CEM website that explains what is not being discussed. but doesn’t actually answer the question “Why is there so little mention of the climate emergency in Manchester’s scrutiny committee work programmes?”

So I, in a personal capacity, (not as a core group member of CEM), am I’m going to offer an answer to the why question.

I think there are three words, hubris, obedience, and what links them is … fear.

Before we get there though, the first thing is to distinguish between the Council as a whole and those who actually run it. There are 96 Councillors, duly elected and a senior management team. It’s not as if they held a secret meeting, exhaustively mulled over the question “how should we respond to popular pressure for more scrutiny of climate decision-making and action?” and came to a reasoned and democratic decision to ignore it. That’s not how this works. What you have is a (very) small number of people who are currently able to exercise a veto against proposals for more scrutiny (and action) (1).

To understand what I’m talking about, you have to understand that in Manchester since 1996, we have one individual, Richard Leese who has been in charge and basically uncontested throughout (bar having to step aside briefly in 2010). Leese’s vision and modus operandi rule, and he is surrounded with flunkies and toadies, eyeing the chalice and circling the wagons (several metaphors were harmed in production of this blog post).

And his entire business model, if you want to call it that, is based on business, big business. It is not based on small and medium enterprises, it is based on attracting big business.

There has been, since 1990 a constant stream of sustainability and climate pronouncements, pledges, aspirational goals. But climate “policy” exists in Manchester insofar – and only insofar – as it’s part of the international marketing strategy. Above all else, Manchester must be “fit” for inward investment. Academics call this the “sustainability fix.”

Hubris

The hubris comes from Leese’s belief that like King Canute, he can hold back the tide. And you know what, he probably can, either for another few months, or even God help us for another four years (2). Leese’s actions indicate someone who believes that popular agitation for scrutiny and action don’t matter. It seems that he believes that he will suffer no reputational or more importantly, electoral consequences for continuing to do what he has done for the last 10-12 years, which is to bullshit, in the words of Hayley Stevenson..

And you know, he’s probably right. He’s an astute politician. He’s probably right. He should be wrong. If we lived in a better world he would be. You and I don’t live in that world.

Obedience

There are 95 other councillors: 1 Green, 1 Lib Dem and… 93 other Labour councillors, most of whom signed the emergency declaration in July 2019 (a handful were elected later). And most of those have since then, barely lifted a finger. And even those who have done something have not been treating this as an emergency.

And emergency is when you act like a scalded cat: nobody is acting like a scalded cat. So what are the different reasons? Could it be that some of them are really not bright enough to understand what the word emergency is? It has, maybe, too too many syllables for them?

Others are ambitious and know that if they step out of line, Richard will squash them like a bug. He’s done it before. And even now, in the (deep?) twilight of his career, he has that power.

And in between, you’ve got the ones who are well-meaning but feel now it’s not the right time, or they feel some visceral, weird, visceral loyalty to the tribe.

The reasons vary, but obedience is the final common pathway, as they say in the pathology business…

Cowards flinch, traitors sneer…

Fear

Besides the career-fear of the councillors (few of whom want to be known as awkward squad/disloyal/overly free-thinking), I think the fear is of what the legacy will be. If the assessment starts now, if people start looking at the actual carbon reductions (the Council’s are down to austerity, the city’s – such as they are – are due to the demise of coal as a power source), then not only might the Manchester model come under challenge, but the legacy will be tarnished. Those who created the conditions for the property boom, the prosperity for a few, don’t want to be remembered as the people who did nothing but spin on climate change. They do not want to be cursed by future generations. They want to keep writing the happy narrative.

So where we are right now – that Gramsci quote about morbid symptoms

No one’s willing to stand up to Richard and say, “mate, you’re yesterday’s man. Time to go.” Those with the powerful enough voice to do it are waiting for someone else to say it, because they know that – as per Heseltine – he who wields the knife seldom wears the crown.

So the impasse continues

Blatantly deliberate, deliberately blatant

The decision to prevent ANY scrutiny of climate needs to be seen in the broader context. It needs to be seen as another example of the (ab)use of absolute power. It’s a sequel (body count higher, deaths more elaborate) to Robert Nunney (new Green Councillor) being kept not just from Environment and Climate Scrutiny Committee, but his next two committees choices as well.

This is the same thing, a willingness to be brazen, to block everything that would add to scrutiny and dissident voices. In fact, it’s more than just brazen, it’s gleeful, revelling in power (while/perhaps because knowing it is much nearer its end than its beginning). It’s the equivalent of saying “yeah, of course we are screwing you. Because we can. Don’t like it? Get/stay used to it. Bwahahahahaha.”

My impression is that even if the work programmes of the Scrutiny Committees had been discussed in public (as they should have been), this would still be the case…

What is to be done?

While this horrific, contemptuous and contemptible veto is enraging, it’s also a sign to those that have worked so hard on getting better scrutiny (waves at CEM colleagues and allies) that they can be encouraged, even flattered.  Those in charge are having to exercise this power nakedly now, because they know any concessions, any half-measures will weaken them further.  Gone are the days of accommodation – they don’t feel safe enough to offer any olive branches any more… That’s something.

Elsewhere I’ve tried to talk about how we need to de-personalise this, to see it not as a case of one individual, but an ideology, folk wisdom now baked into the party and the bureaucracy. Despite everything I’ve done above…

We need to depersonalise this.

We need to think of this in terms of motivations rather than individual failings (though they are manifold and manifest). And the motivation is to protect a particular ideology, order of business (in every sense) and track record from scrutiny or challenge.

We need to think of this as a currently-successful veto being exercised by a small number of people. The motivations for that veto will persist, even when the personnel change, because the new personnel will be largely/equally wedded to the business-as-usual model.

What do we do? What we’ve always done: tell the truth, not because it will set us free. Not because it matters but because it’s the right thing.

But we have to do some serious stratgesing about raising the cost of exercising the veto, weakening the power of those who exercise the veto and strengthening (broadening, deepening) the size of the coalition(s) that understand the veto, its reasons, its weaknesses.

This is more than information-deficit model. This is more than tugging at the sleeves of a few councillors and begging them to be bolder or louder.

I do have some specific practical and implementable (I think) proposals for the coming months (and years), but I want to discuss them with folks first…

Meanwhile, remember –

  • There are veto actors.
  • They are protecting (as they see it) their power and their legacy.
  • The motivations for the veto are not hard to understand
  • These motivations will persist.
  • We need to act smart.

Footnote

(1) In some ways Manchester is like Australia – a large amount of agitation for better climate/environment policy, but a small self-interested group able to block any meaningful action. Fun times.

(2) Leese is up for re-election next year as a councillor in Crumpsall. So we might know in September, if he’s intending to stand down (but that would render him a lame duck). But of course, he could always call a last-minute resignation the day before election candidates are announced. This would not endear him to his Labour colleagues, of course… Alternatively, he may in fact, stand for reelection and serve (at least) another four years, or resign a year or two in. Speculation is as easy as it is pointless.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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