Labour Group change of climate?

A rare open discussion about how the Labour Group is run is important for climate activists to understand. Core group member Marc Hudson gives his two cents.

A newly elected councillor has published a scorching open letter about how Labour Group works.

Councillor Marcia Hutchinson (Ancoats and Beswick) has written about how councillors are disciplined for perceived infractions of (unwritten) rules, and called for the new leader of the Council to do better, with specific demands.

Predictably, rather than acknowledge the letter, or respond, the Labour Whips are playing a dead bat, hoping to starve the story of oxygen. 

Power never likes to have to (try to) justify itself, after all.

Why it matters for climate

You might dismiss this as more trivial backbiting, or being “process-obsessed”.  Surely the polar bears are more important? Surely we must “build” for the Glasgow demonstration…

Nope, this stuff matters.

I’ve been attending scrutiny committee meetings of Manchester City Council for over a decade. Throughout this time, with few exceptions, the quality of questioning of the council’s promise-delivery gap on climate change and recycling has been woeful. Scrutiny committees are excruciating – officers and Executive Members refuse to provide basic information, and constantly get away with it. They give non-answer replies, and the councillors who are supposed to be acting as watchdogs just sit there and take it.

Why?  There are some standard answers – 

Councillors are busy, councillors are not specialists, councillors are unable/unwilling to punch through the smoke and mirrors of the officers and the Executive Members.

But most of all, councillors are loyal to their party.  And in Manchester, for almost ten years now, there has been either no opposition councillors at all, or only enough to fill a phone box.

The suspicion has always been that those who were particularly interested in the issues (and there have been some) have been gagged.

I remember one particular councillor, in 2014, banging on the metaphorical table and saying that what the officers were producing was simply not good enough.  The officers came back, and the councillor banged on the table again – “Still Not Good Enough!!”

When the officers produced a third report – not really any better than the last two – the councillor was suddenly silent. Why?  Had a cat got her tongue? Or had the facts of life been explained – “that’s enough now, if you want to climb the greasy pole, you will shut up.” I can’t prove this, but when I put it to various councillors they didn’t exactly race to deny the possibility.

More recently CEM has been told by very reliable sources that councillors who tried to get decent scrutiny of the many many climate failings were threatened with disciplinary action.

What will happen

Will the Labour Group members, most of whom like the quiet life and are happy to do what they are told, act? It’s very unlikely.  Sadly for future generations, they seem to be in love with their chains.

Those who are more ambitious fear getting a reputation for free thought. As Shakespeare has Julius Caesar say

“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”

I expect that there will soon be a new leader who will have promised to “look into” greater transparency and change, but who will then get busy with something else. Even if this prediction turns out to be wrong, it is essential not to put too much hope in the idea that the “Labour Group will change”.

Let’s not fall into a misplaced expectation that many Labour Councillors will suddenly develop stiff spines and brilliant tongues of their own accord. Such false hope is disempowering. Instead, I think we (both CEM and others concerned about real climate action) need to think more about how to build external pressure.

What you could do

  • You can ask your three local councillors where they stand on Cllr Hutchinson’s much needed letter (if they reply at all, they will probably evade the question). If you don’t already know them, you can find their details by entering your postcode here 
  • Join in CEM’s work to try to create conditions for that external pressure – email us on
  • The Cocker Protocol

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