After Manchester’s local elections – what now for climate activism? 

On Friday 6th May we learned of Manchester’s local election results, and just as the dust settles, the business of Council meetings and decision-making will resume. Climate Emergency Manchester are holding a meeting on Thursday 12th May at 6.30pm at the Ducie Arms to discuss the elections, and where climate activism can go from here

Who won and who lost in Manchester’s elections? 

Manchester is a Labour stronghold, and this was reinforced as the party won 30 out of 32 seats. The only exceptions were in West Didsbury, where the Liberal Democrat John Leech retained his seat, and in Woodhouse Park, where the Green Party’s Astrid Johnson was elected. Labour now has 91 councillors. The Lib Dems and the Greens both have two. 

In practice this means that the Labour party controls Council decision making processes and forms most of its own opposition, such that there is. Backbench Labour councillors may take a stand on some issues, but they are constrained by party loyalty and the discipline of the Manchester Labour group. The Greens and the Lib Dems only have so much capacity to scrutinise the Council. They remain vastly outnumbered. 

What does this mean for the climate?

The (Labour) Council declared a climate emergency in 2019, but then did not take enough actions to make that declaration meaningful. The Council also set a carbon budget for the city, promising that Manchester would lead the way. Now that the carbon budget is going up in smoke, everybody is supposed to go quiet about it. Without effective opposition, promises are easily broken, and nobody is held accountable. The Council is free to gaslight its residents into thinking the climate crisis is being properly addressed locally, when it really isn’t. In this city of more than half a million people, climate activists are needed to keep tabs on the Council, to provide scrutiny and pressure which would otherwise be absent. 

Lobbying electoral candidates about climate pledges: how did it go, and what did we learn?

In the 2021 elections, we at CEM chased candidates from all different wards, asking if they would back simple pledges that promote honesty about the city’s carbon budget, robust scrutiny of the climate emergency, and consistent attention to the issue by the Council Executive. Lots of candidates backed these pledges, including several Labour candidates who then got elected. 

This year, we asked our supporters to contact the candidates standing in their ward, to make this a more bottom-up process. On the plus side, this helps build relationships between people who care about climate change and the people who would be their locally elected representative. On the down side, many candidates were not contacted about the pledges at all. Many candidates supported the pledges, but no contacted Labour candidate said yes to all three. Just one elected councillor backed the pledges this year – Astrid Johnson of the Green Party. 

 From elections to Council processes … how can we put pressure on the local authority to do better?

This will require a range of tactics centred around embarrassing the Council into doing better and not failing so badly. This can include getting knowledgeable about how the Council functions, to figure out how to exert pressure on it. On this, see our beginner’s guide to Manchester City Council and the climate emergency

Another tool is to use Freedom of Information requests to find out about what has, and has not, been done about important issues – then letting the public and the media know via blogs and press releases. For this, we have an upcoming training event about holding public authorities to account using the Freedom of Information Act

The Council also has six scrutiny committees in which backbench councillors can potentially ask difficult questions to the ‘big cheeses’ of the Council – that’s the Council Officers (employees of the council, responsible for different operations) and members of the Executive (Labour party councillors who take on a portfolio). The scrutiny committees tackle important issues, but the committee meetings often struggle to provide effective, you know, scrutiny. So we at CEM have been scrutinising the scrutiny meetings, via Team Scrutiny. And who said climate activism wasn’t fun?!

What issues should the scrutiny committees of Manchester City Council address? What must be on their work plans for the next municipal year?

The most obviously important scrutiny committee in Manchester City Council covers climate change and the environment explicitly. When this committee was set up – after thousands of people signed our official petition calling for it to be set up – we were promised that the climate emergency would not become siloed, but would be considered across all committees. Yet when we observe the committees in action, they rarely talk about the climate emergency at all, and when they do so, the scrutiny is often superficial. 

The committees’ remits – economy, resources and governance, children and young people, communities and equalities, and health – all have important implications for how the city responds to climate change in terms of cutting emissions and making adaptations. 

The scrutiny committees will soon meet to decide on a work plan for the next municipal year. Last year, we wrote to the chairs of the committees and gave them suggestions about what they could productively scrutinise in the months ahead. Some of those suggestions did get discussed in committees, including items on Manchester airport, school streets, and links between climate and health.

This year, there will be lots of new scrutiny chairs (names not yet known). It is also the first start of a municipal year under the new Council Leader, Bev Craig, who has a chance to put a stamp on the shape and make-up of scrutiny committees. Part of the idea behind meeting at the Ducie on Thursday 12th is to gather suggestions for what should go into the scrutiny work plans, so that we can write to the new chairs later this month. 

So what next? 

Responding to the climate crisis is a long, difficult game. We need to build a stronger movement that can put pressure on a wide range of institutions. At CEM, we put a lot of focus on Manchester City Council, which is an important site of struggle among many. If you’d like to meet up with some of us and hear more about these struggles and potentially get more involved, come along if you can to the Ducie on Thursday 12th May at 6.30pm, or reach out to us via email contact@climateemergencymanchester.net  

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