After 25 (1) years of one guy in charge, Manchester City Council has a new Leader. Many (2) people have asked my incredibly informed opinion on what it does/might mean for climate policy in this city, so I’ve put fingers to keyboard. Think of this as a sequel to a February post about the end of Leese.
The TL:DR is this – the best horse to bet on is called “More of the same.” This is for both personal and, more structural reasons. Meanwhile, Manchester has blown 40 per cent of its carbon budget for the 21st century in the last three years, and nobody in power gives the smallest of shits.
In the rest of this piece I will toggle (okay, dodge) between these two, while also talking about “the agency problem” (there are two of them) and conclude with the obligatory but ultimately pointless “what is to be done/what could be done.”
There’s a song by – oh the irony – the Pretenders called Hymn to Her.(3) The lyrics are apposite –
And she will always carry on
Something is lost
But something is found
They will keep on speaking her name
Some stay the same
Same. On climate policy implementation, my money is on “some stay the same.”
The personal is political
Have a read of the post-election stenography by Confidentials about Bev Craig. It has nothing from her on climate.
It’s just NOT her “thing”. That’s allowed, of course, but let’s no be one of the pretenders who say it doesn’t matter.. When she was chair of Health Scrutiny Committee, an effort was made to get the Committee to look at the health implications of climate change. It failed. She did not use her power as chair to get it onto the agenda.
Sure, she will say the “right” and encouraging things to some councillors, and to some (Labour party-affiliated) activists. But more than this? I will believe it if I see it.
Why does this matter? Because in hierarchies, ambitious people take cues about what is important from their bosses. They try to make their bosses happy. If their bosses don’t care, they tend not to care- there’s no career-mileage in it. The personal is political.
The Political is personal
Mostly though – and this will not be popular, and will be derided as “ad hominem x 94,” the broader problem is not the new Leader (and remember, it was very nearly someone else) and what she does or does not prioritise.. The problem is the entrenched culture of the Labour Group and the Council employees the leaders have hired and promoted over the last (checks notes) several thousand years.
In the Council there is – with a few honorable exceptions – a culture of bluster, of brightsiding and gaslighting, of picking favourites (people who know how to cover things up, how to suppress bad news), of blameshifting onto individuals and onto “others”. It’s clear in scrutiny committee meetings especially, when rather than telling the unvarnished truth in reports or oral presentations, the senior officers and Executive members pretend everything is fine. Councillors interested in the basic facts are stonewalled and then quietly warned they are not helping their careers/position.
The culture in the Labour Group is the problem – Marcia Hutchinson’s open letter about the behaviour of the whips (still causing ructions, apparently) is a rare glimpse into the toxic morass of bullying and intimidation.
These are not fruitful grounds for the kinds of honest, searching and dynamic thinking about the status quo and ‘what next’ that Manchester needs, and perhaps – perhaps – deserves.
Follow the Money
Above all of this personality-based, “culture”-based horror sits the basic fact that Manchester has, since 1987, pursued a policy of “keep Central Government happy so they will send public investment our way and also that will mean we are more likely to pick up lots of private sector inward investment, especially international.”
The Marxist intellectuals reading this will go “yeah yeah, blah blah David Harvey, spatial fix.”
The ecologically minded intellectuals reading this will go “yeah yeah, blah blah While Jonas and Gibbs Sustainability Fix.”
That model “worked” very well for sections of Manchester. Manchester has beaten other Northern cities in the inward investment game, using sport, “culture” and an insanely stable political system to attract all sorts (libel laws are a thing, so I won’t name names). You see it in the property speculation, in the conspicuous consumption, etc etc. Go a couple of miles out of the city centre, and you see a different picture of Manchester’s “success”. Geographers will write you theses about spatial inequalities. Sociologists invent words that mean post-industrial disease.
The arrival of a new leader, after 25 years, changes this wounded strategy not one iota.
Brexit may have made it all more problematic, and the Tory shitshow generally even more problematic, but all the indications are that “the Council” doesn’t know any different, and doesn’t care to.
Again, remember, these people have been successful on their own terms, are unlikely to reflect. These people have also been through a hell of a five years – first Brexit, then the pandemic.
So, we’re more than half done. Let’s talk about “the agency problem” (4). There are two of these.
The Agency Problem (1)
The Manchester Climate Change “Agency” – actually a community interest company, not a statutory body – was set up in 2015 after the abject failure of the “Stakeholder Steering Group” which had run from 2010 to 2015 and achieved half of nothing.
The “Agency” has – after 3 national bids – finally appointed a new director. From within Manchester City Council itself. So, lots of fresh thinking there then.
It is advertising now for a deputy director (god, why) and has, like the steering group before it, achieved half of nothing.
Every six months or so it grudgingly turns up at a scrutiny committee meeting and blathers.
This year, it couldn’t even be bothered to hold a public AGM. This might have something to do with the fact that 40 per cent of the city’s carbon budget for the entire 21st century has been blown in the last 3 years alone.
The “Agency” has subcontracted out some “community engagement” work, and this is – from what I’ve heard – going terribly. Low low numbers at meetings (2 organisers, 2 residents, anyone) and generally meaningless drivel.
Meanwhile, the Climate Change “Partnership” has recently welcomed Manchester Airports Group into the fold. And guess what – suddenly any talk of reducing the growth of Manchester Airport Group is off the table. How very very odd.
A real Council Leader, who wanted to lead, who wanted to get something done, would boot the Airports Group out (yeah, like that is going to happen) and overhaul the Partnership, forcing it to be more than a figleaf. Not gonna happen.
The Agency Problem (2)
Over the last 3 years, with climate (relatively) high on the public agenda climate groups in Manchester have failed to meaningfully recruit and retain new members. They have failed to co-ordinate, they have failed to innovate. If they were not able to do these things with a throughput of new people, how likely is it they will succeed when other issues – food shortages, energy prices, evictions “etc” occupy the media and public attention?
Without co-ordinated, innovative, growing groups, who is going to put pressure on the leader, the Labour Group, the Labour Party more generally, the Council?
What is to be done?
What would need to change for there to be change? Well, everything. A non-complete list would look like this.
- Bev Craig would have to have many sleepless nights about the carbon budget blow out and what it will mean for her tenure (presumably she wants to be in the job ten years?). She would need to have some sort of epiphany, some sort of Damascene conversion
- The Labour Group (the 90 however many it is) of councillors would need to grow a brain and a spine and fall out of love with being whipped. Most of them seem to love it. They like the comfort of licking a boot, either having become habituated to the taste, or else they fantasise about one day being the goon actually wearing the boot.
- The Manchester Labour Party would have to have a Damascene conversion and realise that “blame the Tories” is excellent and accurate at a national level, but does not help achieve the things that need to be achieved (some of which can be achieved) at a local level. They would have to start selecting candidates who give a shit, or insisting that sitting councillors do their job of holding the Executive to account. Hmmm, good luck with that.
- We’d need a central government that matched all the wonderful words about net zero and industrial decarbonisation and levelling up with some coherent narratives and, gasp, actions. Having a look at recent pieces in the Grauniad (Simon Jenkins, the response to Johnson’s conference speech) this is not a safe horse to bet on.
- Enduring activist cultures of the smugosphere and emotacycle would have to be acknowledged and combatted, with the identification and cultivation of councillors who give a shit, while also massively strengthening citizen scrutiny of the Council/Agency/Partnership escalating failure.
The problem is not the individuals per se, or rather, the problem is the individuals en masse. The solution is counter power outside the Labour Group and indeed the Labour Party that forces them to behave. Building that counter power is the work of years, and with the partial exception of CEM and now the Green Party (sort of), that work is not, as far as I can see, being done.
What is likely to happen
Craig will pat various Labour-affiliated activists on the head and they will roll over. And she will have a year long honeymoon in general, where she can say “these things take time.”
The carbon budget concept will be abandoned, with blame pinned on central government. This will happen quietly, with much less fanfare than the announcement of the budget in 2018. Absolutely nothing will be learned.
Councillors who give a shit about climate change will burn out, give up.
Climate action groups will struggle after the farce that unfolds at Glasgow – they are already falling apart/under enormous stress. Either the event will be perceived by the public as a “success” in which case nobody will feel motivated to get involved, or it will be perceived as a failure, in which case nobody will feel motivated to get involved. The tactical/repertoire exhaustion will continue and many will simply wink out of existence, as they did in 2009-10.
I started this with a hopeful song. There’s another on “a change is gonna come – “ But maybe it won’t,. Maybe rather than Cooked, we are cooked.
(1) Minus that short break in 2010 which Is not spoken of in polite company
(2) Okay, as per the number of the footnote itself, two.
(3) We’ve already seen some truly embarrassing sycophantic tweets which are hymns to her, of course (crawling is an Olympic sport, here in Manchester).
(4) This is a little in-joke on my part. “The agency problem” is what beard-stroking Leninists trot out when they are laughing at liberals and progressives who are extolling the beauty of a better world via – probably – state regulation. “Ah yes,” Vladimir Staliniski says from the back row of the meeting hall” “But who is going to make this happen?” (Vladimir’s answer is his groupuscule, once it seizes state power).
The other week, I, and a few other environmentalists (mainly from the Chorlton ‘Save Ryebank Fields’ campaign) shouted at Richard Leese outside Central Library about MCC’s poor record on the environment. His response? MCC are planning to plant X thousand trees, more green space/parks blah, blah, blah. Now you may remember, Marc, that it is my contention that an organisation’s knowledge of, and concern for, the environment are both inversely proportional to that organisation’s propensity to plant trees. When I learned that Bev Craig had been elected as the new leader I googled her and learned that (a) the environment is fairly low down on her list of priorities and (b) she is planning to plant X thousand trees … Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?