Ahead of Thursday’s Environment and Climate Change “Scrutiny” Committee meeting, at which climate change seems to be on the agenda (spoiler: it isn’t, really), Marc Hudson of the core group steps back and looks at the bigger picture, asking what scrutiny is for, and who – in Manchester – is going to have to do it…
Before we get into the details (and there are a lot of them), we need to step back and ask “what is scrutiny FOR?” I was going to go WAY back – and maybe another time I will – to the foundations of the industrial revolution, and then – later – democracy. But we are closer to the climate apocalypses (in fact, some people in this planet are already in them) than we quite realise, and therefore I will cut to the chase.
It’s this: Actually smart people know they are not all that smart. Smart people (as opposed to the glib, aggressive types that are bred by our current political system) know that they could well be wrong, and that it therefore pays to have someone making sure you are not fooling yourself. All systems should have checks and balances, to protect from arrogance, hubris, good old-fashioned stupidity.
The great American scientist Carl Sagan said “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Scrutiny, is part of that “monitory democracy” that political scientists talk about. The point being that elected leaders are not going to volunteer that they made mistakes, that things haven’t turned out well. Neither are civil servants, whose careers depend on an air of gentle competence (the entire TV series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were based on puncturing this arrogance).
So, in a Westminster system, so the theory goes, scrutiny, performed by backbench parliamentarians, by a vibrant and eagle-eyed media (to which whistleblowers can leak documents etc) and by a vibrant civil society, made up of organisations that are not owned by/controlled by the state and the dominant political parties, is crucial. Without it, all manner of prolonged failure can be swept under the rug, kept in dark places. Mistakes unacknowledged, unlearnt from, repeated. Scrutiny is there to offer course corrections, to show where things haven’t worked but could be made right.
Scrutiny is, in effect, absent in Manchester. Yes, there are six scrutiny committees (more than in other councils, as some chairs of committees will proudly/defensively tell you). Yes they meet regularly and seem to go into great detail about this or that minor detail. As Chomsky points out, “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” You see this all the time in scrutiny, with people getting exercised and aerated about minor points, while the big disasters pass them by.
But scrutiny is, in effect, absent in Manchester. It has been, at least on climate change, for a very long time. In September it was quietly sorta-conceded (you had to reinterpret some numbers) that 40 per cent of the entire carbon budget for the 21st century has been used in the last three years.
In a functioning democracy, with functioning scrutiny, this would have been front page news. This would have lead to extraordinary meetings. The following month, pretty much the entire agenda of all six scrutiny committees would have been “how do we start to respond to this enormous failure? Why have existing policies not worked? When should we have known that these policies were not working? Why has the scrutiny failed thus far? What can we do to get less far off track?”
In Manchester, none of this has happened. There is only one of the six scrutiny committees even looking at climate change, the one that has to. And (as will be discussed in future posts in this series), the reports to be scrutinised there have literally not a single mention of the the carbon budget blowout.
In Manchester, scrutiny has long been a ritual, a meaningless soothing pantomime (oh yes it is). The leadership of the Council don’t want scrutiny. The Executive Members seem to resent it. Neither they nor the officers who write the reports bring problems to have an open airing in the hope of better suggestions. The bad news is always buried (or simply excluded), and everyone is brightsided, or “circumstances beyond our control” (the Tory government is, understandably, a favourite villain) blamed.
Most (but not all) backbench councillors are either willing to turn up and sign the attendance register, maybe ask a question or two about streetlighting or dogshit and say job well done. The few persistent ones (and they do exist) are warned that they are damaging their careers. They risk deselection if they displease powerful people within their own party. And their own party controls all six committees.
So, what, in the absence of an opposition party with more than one of the 96 council seats, what is it for?
It’s there because it has to be, and because it gives the impression that we live in something approaching a democracy.
Reports – often inadequate, are brought to councillors, who spend time and energy trying to ferret out information, usually in vain.#
But on climate, not a single councillor on Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny has said “hang on. We have blown 40 per cent of the carbon budget for the entire 21st century in the last three years. We need a series of emergency reports about this. We need to hear from the head of the Agency, the head of the “partnership” prominent members of the partnership, the Exec for Environment, the Leader, the EVERYONE, about this. Or else we are wasting our time here, and we are dooming future generations.”
Not one of them said this.
And so, on Thursday, there will be discussion of waste (something that a dedicated climate scrutiny committee should NOT be looking at, as Climate Emergency Manchester argued while campaigning for a dedicated climate committee) and then some deeply flawed and even more deeply irrelevant reports, which no doubt will be pored over. They are there to distract, and at this they excel… We will come to them in separate blog posts to follow..
And what does this mean for citizens?
I have come to believe that it means that citizens are going to have to do pretty much ALL of the job that the Labour councillors, either uninterested or careerist or overwhelmed, cannot – actually WILL not – do. Citizens, working together, are going to have to not just nudge, cajole, provide with questions (and yes, all those things matter), but citizens are going to have to actually do what the councillors are elected and paid to do – keep the Executive and senior officers from hiding failure behind a blizzard of words and graphs.
But citizens can’t just be stuck in the scrutiny meetings. Citizens are going to have to be out there in the real world explaining to Joe and Jane Public what is at stake, what the Executive and officers are doing to hide their failiures, what can and must be done differently if the city is to have any chance of playing its role to reduce the impacts of climate change.
This work is probably doomed to failure, but how else are citizens with freedom of speech, assembly and information supposed to respond to the escalating crises that face us?
If you want to get involved in this work, there is lots of it. But we as Climate Emergency Manchester have been doing it for years. You don’t have to invent the wheel you will be broken on. And you WON’T be broken on the wheel. We will make sure that you don’t get given too big a job, or too boring or pointless a job. We will take care of you. We will teach you new skills, use your existing ones, learn from you. We will respect your limited time, energy, ability to stare into the horrifying maw that is local “democracy.”
Believe it or not, it’s actually quite “fun” in a weird kinda way.
Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, a few words about the Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee before we get into the agenda.
Firstly, this committee should not exist. There should have been a seventh scrutiny committee, dedicated purely to the Climate Emergency. By simply rebranding the existing Neighbourhoods and Environment Scrutiny Committee, the Council has demonstrated that it doesn’t care, that it doesn’t get the scale and scope of the problem facing it. In ten years time, people will look back in sheer disbelief. Even in the rebranding, by putting Environment ahead of the Climate Emergency, and refusing to use the word “emergency” the Council is trying to normalise, to reduce, to soothe.
Secondly, this committee is made up entirely – by choice – of Labour councillors. With a couple of honourable exceptions, Labour councillors have proven themselves more loyal to their party (and their position) than their city. There was a new councillor elected to the Council this year, a Green, Robert Nunney. It is customary for new councillors to be given their first choice of scrutiny committee to sit on. Nunney chose Environment and Climate Change. The Labour leadership, in a naked display of outright contempt for custom and practice – and the interests of the city – did not let Nunney sit on this committee (nor, for that matter, his second or third choice). To quote from a letter published in the Manchester Evening News after this grotesque act of vandalism
“Rather than explain this departure from long-accepted practice, Labour’s Pat Karney went on an irrelevant and incoherent personal tirade against Leech.
His immature petulant rant brought the Labour party – and the Labour movement – into disrepute
The decision Karney was trying to distract everyone from, is bad for Labour, bad for the City, bad for future generations. Not because Robert Nunney or the Greens have all the answers. Of course they don’t, none of us does.
It’s bad because the signal it sends is of a Labour Group circling the wagons, filling its ears with wax, clamping its eyes shut and shouting “NA NA NA NA can’t hear you”.
The citizens of Manchester, including those future generations, need and deserve better than what is being offered.”
In the five months since that decision, there is no sign of a once-promised reconsideration. The scrutiny committee remains absent of (constructively) dissident political voices.
And of course, when setting up this “new” committee, Labour also chose not to add scientists and others who might provide other perspectives (other scrutiny committees have co-opted members).
A leadership committed to eagle-eyed scrutiny from informed people, in the interests of good policy and policy implementation so that Manchester play its part in fighting climate change would have behaved very very differently.
Next up: a series of blog posts about the individual “reports” coming to Environment and Climate Change…