Interview with Green Party secretary David Mottram

Interview with David Mottram, Manchester Green Party Secretary. Friday March 23rd 2012

What has Manchester City Council done right on climate change since 2008?
I know that when the Call to Action work was developed, there was some responsiveness to the campaign “Call to Real Action” – there was some sort of positive response and engagement. And no doubt it was right to take up the theme as a priority for the local authority. But, I guess, my perception is it’s downhill all the way from there. My bigger concern – and maybe this will come out later – is that I think the local authority runs, and its wider policies and politics is pretty detrimental to our interests in developing a sustainable city. So, whatever they say in “Manchester: A Certain Future”, the issues are not so much there as in everything else they’re doing.

That’s our next question – what have they done wrong? – so if you’d like to give us a couple of specifics, that you think are particularly detrimental.
Well, the Airport employment development [Airport City] – all of this is wrong. Weighting development to the airport as opposed to what I would argue for, which is a Manchester Green Deal, that relates to the whole city. Rather than trying to produce something like a large out-of-town employment development based on an airport. That seems to me to be completely wrong.

Well … what should be done with the Airport? Should it be sold off? Should its expansion be frozen? Should it be shrunk? What should happen?
Well, inevitably the local authority is in the position of being a major stakeholder in British aviation because the local authorities own Manchester Airport Group. So I don’t have the simple instant solution from the City Council, but my view from containing airport development … obviously I don’t support airport expansion because I support a recasting of transport policy and away from air. But there are particular problems about the management of the airport. So for example, Manchester being complicit in owning other airports and pursuing the corporate development of the Airport Group is not right.

How would the city of Manchester look different under a Green Party administration? What would people see differently, how would they know they were living in a city where the Greens were in political power?
I suppose if the question is answered in terms of a … time to develop a response – say if you had ten years of a Green-run city, then physically it needs to look differently. If you sat in those workshops at the Stakeholder event last week, we tried a visioning exercise for instance, and people [came up with] the same things. “greener, quieter, lots of bicycles, lots of space for pedestrian, cafes” “people interacting…” Those things, about a calmer, neighbourhood-based city, a city that looks green – everybody is going to agree on. The question is what strategic framework is it given. So, what have we got in terms of jobs in Manchester, who’s moving around Manchester, where are they going, how are they going. Those are going to be the real strategic things local authorities are going to have got to get to grips with. So it’s both. It would look different. You’ve got to put more life into neighbourhoods, not closing neighbourhood services and trying to centralise services and shrink them. We need more public services delivered more locally, but in the framework of a city whose transport system is, whose energy use is quite different, whose employment market is seen quite differently.

And how would Manchester City Council behave differently with a Green Party administration?
Well here you can confront me with the fact that there is a Green-led local authority, which is Brighton and Hove; a local authority which has to operate within the framework that is Local Government now, in England, which is an appalling decline compared to the power local authority had decades ago. So the absence, in my book, of a real democracy, in other words a local authority that can raise its own money, a local authority that’s elected on a fair electoral system so there is a diversity of representation

So in a sense, to me, local authorities are hog-tied, and that is going to be true whichever local authority [administration] it is. The issues are national, it’s about saying “it’s essential to our political health as a society that our local government has more powers, more autonomy, more choices they can exercise. But at the moment, local authorities – and this will be true for a minority Green administration as it is in Brighton, local authorities are left with the responsibility for managing within a budget framework that they can’t determine. And they are often managing central government programmes – they’re delivering programmes locally, they’re not shaping the programmes. So, these are problems of national politics, and what I’d want to a green local authority to do is to model the way we could do things better, of course, and be a catalyst for change locally. But of course I accept that framework is going to remain very antithetical to much of what we would want.

Do you welcome Manchester’s success in getting the “Deal for Cities” recently – I mean, Greater Manchester, the combined authority.
I think there is a case for a combined authority. There’s been a debate, over the years of what constitutes the local authorities in Manchester. In some sense, you have to say, if you’re looking at a living city, the fact that the City of Manchester doesn’t include Prestwich, doesn’t include Sale, doesn’t include Heaton Chapel – these areas in neighbouring local authorities, which have a very close identity of interest with neighbouring parts of the City of Manchester, means that the sub-regional framework is really important. And the fact is that when transport is run at the county-wide level, we need some county-wide political authority. So I can’t oppose measures towards a Greater Manchester authority. The question will be the democratic control of such an authority. We used to have such a thing as the county. It was abolished in 1986.

[NB It’s not Mr Mottram’s fault he mis-understood the question – it was poorly phrased. I was referring to this. ]

Given that you are going to be very very lucky to have more than 5 or 6 seats in the next decade – maybe you’ll disagree with that – in a Council with 96 elected members, how else are you going to try to influence the political landscape of Manchester?
We’ve had this debate in the Manchester Green Party, and my sense of the weakness of the Manchester Green Party is that it’s fallen into a trap of usually being very narrowly electoralist. We are an electoral political party, but the only way we will build a party and make it significantly stronger in Manchester, I think, is by combining local electoral work with creating much more presence for the Party, much more profile We need to use the media, we need to campaign in our own name on green issues, and get coverage for that, and get profile for in the city. So that when we work on local campaigns, whether it’s in Hulme, or Levenshulme or Chorlton – wherever it is – those local campaigns have some resonance because people know what the Manchester Green Party stands for city-wide, and we are seen to be doing something city-wide. We have a strategy now to work jointly on electoral work and on independent campaigning. The question now is for us to apply the resources and do it.

Which leads neatly into the next question; What, in your view, are some of the tensions between a political party and the wider “green” movement it is attempting to represent, and how is Manchester Green Party dealing with those tensions?
I think one of the issues for the Green Party is there can be a comfort zone of feeling that we are part of a green movement and somehow we are the electoral face of a green movement which is either big organisations like Friends of the Earth or else small community-based green projects, and somehow that’s it. But the Green Party is only going to have a real political impact if it convinces people that its policies on the economy and the environment are also related to policies on equality and poverty. In a sense we have to occupy a bigger political space. So, from our point of view, we’ve got to try and open out and build relationships with other people who are on the left who are not our traditional friends and personal friends within environmental, trade and ecology organisations.

What about the tension between idealism and realpolitik; politics is about compromise, and I sometimes get the sense that people in the Green Party are interested in taking a pure political position that is sometimes costs them the ability to make alliances – they make the best the enemy of the good.
This issue came up in Liverpool at our party conference at the end of February. It happened the day after the Brighton and Hove Green Party had just had their budget voted down by a combination of the majority parties in Brighton – Labour and Conservatives combined. And there was a debate at that conference and within the Party between people who thought that the Greens should have voted against the budget put through by Labour and the Conservatives [and] withdrawn from the leadership of the council, to preserve the purity of having been voted down on their budget. Actually, the Green group in Brighton, and the Conference, didn’t support that view. They said that substantially, the budget that was put through by the votes of Labour, Conservative and Greens – once the Greens’ own budget was lost – was still essentially the Green budget. In other words, without getting into too much complication here – Greens had tried to set a council tax rise of 3.5%, which was 1 percent in excess of the government limit. There would have been penalties in the coming financial year, but they argued… that extra one percent was voted down. Greens then voted with the other parties for the maximum allowable council tax rise of 2.5 percent. And the argument was the budget of £750m that the Green leadership had written, in widespread consultation with the people of Brighton and Hove, with trades unions, with openings to the other parties, was essentially their budget. So they didn’t walk away, they then voted for the second best, and got on with running the council. This has meant adapting some council services – they protected fully, for example, budgets for children and young people. So that is an example of the party getting to grips with having some political responsibility to exercise.

What’s the biggest mistake the Manchester Green Party has made in the last few years?
I will be frank, and I am new as the Secretary of the Manchester Green Party, and newly involved, and I think the trap became – the mistake was – to elide the difference between the Manchester Green Party and the Hulme Green Party, and to focus a political priority on electoral work in Hulme, when there was some evidence that that was not proving effective, that we weren’t going to gain other seats. We now don’t have a councillor in Hulme. We now have a broader view of how we need to work in the city. We’re not a group of independents. We’re not just independents standing in a ward to make a ward green. It’s about the city, and we got preoccupied with Hulme. With all respect to the good work that was done by committed individuals, the electoral evidence was we weren’t’ going anywhere in Hulme [even] if we focused all our resources there. It needed to be part of a wider picture.

What’s the biggest success that the Manchester Green Party’s had in the last few years?
I think political parties have to constantly remake themselves. People come and go, people get involved in politics and move on. And I think we have grown in size, and along with the national Green Party, we are beginning to bring in people who don’t fit the usual stereotype. We have an increasing mixed membership. So for example, our new chair, Chris, has a professional background in Social Housing. He’s a trade unionist. For instance, I didn’t come from a background of environmentalism. I was involved in lesbian and gay equality campaigning in the 1970s and 1980s, and a member of the Labour Party. And I think it is essential that those people who no longer have a home in the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats, for instance, actually find a full role they can play in the Green Party with other people who have been there throughout who are concerned – in personal priority terms – with environment, ecology, trade justice, climate change

We’re on the home stretch- three more questions – how does the Manchester Green Party learn from its mistakes? What processes do you have to go through, identify why they happened and how to do it differently next time?
I think we’re very weak on that. Our constitution provides for a couple of to have a policy and strategy day annually, at the mid-point of the year. It will be held in May or June of this year, as in each year. And I would say the last two years, we’ve really been getting to grips with an annual review, and I think we have been realistic and we have changed direction. The thing I alluded to earlier, the idea of a dual strategy – of electoral work and campaigning – was something that came out of the strategy day last year. And it reflects what we’ve learnt about the limits of pure electoral work in local government wards.

But I think in general terms, we remain quite difficult about learning from things that go wrong. I don’t think we’re unusual in that.

No, we’ve yet to encounter anyone who’s particularly good at learning from mistakes, and that includes us. You have to make the same mistake over and over and over again, and then see a better way, before you’ll change, or even consider it.
Outside of the standard things that people do when they join any political party – leafleting, lobbying, engaging in factional disputes – what other sorts of things would someone joining the Manchester Green Party be able to get involved in?
I think I’d put it almost the other way around. We conducted a members’ survey last year, which I suppose you could say was an attempt to try to learn what we were doing right and doing wrong. One of the things that came out quite strongly was that we shouldn’t think in terms of people joining the Green Party to do work that people with a narrower ,more political, focus might have – the leafleting, the canvassing, the speaking, the professional activity we need as a Party to fulfill. I think actually [we] should turn it around the other way and say what we need to do is invite people into the Green Party who are going to a social framework, a sort of cultural space, so that we can relate to each other as people, spend time together and actually allow people to join on their terms. If people bring professional skills, as a graphic designer, or somebody able to work in the media, for example, that’s great, we need those skills, those possibilities from people. But I think we need to see it more widely. It’s not so much what the people bring, but it’s will they actually join in a dialogue with us, and simply get involved in the debate and help the people who do want more [political activity]. I think we should accept that political parties have a range of people. They have the core of people who try to exercise some leadership and take on roles that need to be fulfilled. But we also need, essentially, the other people who will join in, and participate to the degree they can.

Anything else you’d like to tell us? Anything we haven’t asked you that you wish we had, or anything we haven’t asked you that you were afraid we were going to ask you?
I was afraid you were going to ask me lots of questions about carbon emissions targets and international agreements on climate change and I would fail to have the answers and that would touch on something that I think is really important – that we’ve got to hold onto the people who are committed to do something about climate change, and not make it like a test of the degree of science understanding you have, or how well-read you are on international sources of the debates. That’s not what it’s about.

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