The first full Council meeting after the local elections featured a debate about members’ allowances for opposition work at Manchester City Council. You can watch this for yourself on the video recording from 1:15:00 and read our account below.
The Council voted in favour of the recommendations of an independent remuneration panel at the meeting, but not without protest from Lib Dem Cllr John Leech (West Didsbury). Speaking to the Council chamber, Leech said:
“I suppose I should start by congratulating the Labour Party for successfully achieving their aim of making it increasingly difficult for the opposition to hold them to account by disproportionately reducing the support to opposition members by a whopping 48%.
“I suppose it’s not altogether surprising given that the panel was clearly not fully independent. It didn’t take very long to find a comment from one member of the panel on social media from the 4th of May, when he retweeted ‘Good luck to all Labour candidates in Stockport and beyond tomorrow. Thanks also to all activists and volunteers, let’s keep our town red.’ That doesn’t sound very independent to me.”
Leech furthermore claimed the independent panel’s report was inaccurate when it stated that no opposition member had provided evidence to the panel, “given that I gave evidence [to it] for a good hour and a half.”
The Labour party tried to unseat Leech during May’s election in West Didsbury ward, and their failure to do so will no doubt be a disappointment to many in Manchester’s dominant Labour group, including those who personally dislike the former MP and those who would rather not have him in the opposition.
Challenging the Labour Group is already difficult, given their vast numerical superiority among Manchester City Council members, but opposition would have been even harder without Leech, as the other three opposition councillors are comparatively inexperienced (1).
At full Council, Leech used his knowledge of precedent to claim the reduction of opposition allowances went against convention. He said: “It’s also very disappointing that the Labour Party chose to break the long-standing tradition of cross party consensus on allowances for councillors, and even more disappointing that it was done simply to try and make it more difficult for the opposition to hold them to account.”
Response by Bev Craig
The Leader of the Council and Labour Group Leader Bev Craig (Burnage) replied to Leech. Craig said: “We have a long standing position of accepting recommendations of independent remuneration panels, and we don’t intend to break that.”
Bev Craig pointed out that it was not a good look to have an argument about members’ allowances, which could look petty, especially when so many Manchester residents are struggling with the cost of living. Indeed, both Leech and Craig prefaced their comments by saying they would rather not be talking about this at all.
Bev Craig indicated that Labour would support the recommendations in full, stating: “There is considerable evidence in the independent remuneration report that reassures me that this has been done in a balanced way, with appendices that compare Manchester to four cities, to comparable cities and towns, and that seeks to satisfy the issue of fairness. And I would suggest that any additional questions around process and around accuracy be directed at the city solicitor.”
What this means for opposition in Manchester City Council
Anyone who engages in politics in Manchester ought to know that the Labour group’s dominance in the city is substantial. Opposition is difficult. When the allowances for the outnumbered opposition are cut so severely – and these really are big cuts, we’ve looked at the figures – then questions have to be raised, even if this looks petty to the public.
Councillors overall are not well paid, and most supplement their income with a second part-time job, unless they can secure a special position with an allowance tied to the responsibility. Cuts to these allowances can make a difference to the affordability of proper engagement with Council business. In Manchester’s situation, with so few opposition councillors, allowances are arguably more important for opposition groups than in other places where one party’s dominance is less complete. [See also our guide to Manchester City Council and Climate Change, for beginners]
The independence of the remuneration committee is always questionable. Does committee member Kev Lucas now regret retweeting Stockport Constituency Labour Party on the eve of the local elections? The panel did provide justification for bringing opposition allowances more in line with other councils, but it’s pretty concerning that they forgot to mention meeting Leech for 90 minutes+, especially when it is the allowance that he used to draw that they then proposed to cut!
On the other hand, the remuneration committee’s proposals have been timely in setting out a procedure for sharing the reduced opposition allowances between two party groups of equal size, which is the situation that the Lib Dems and Greens now find themselves in, with two councillors each.
The Lib Dems have made their displeasure at the cuts plain, via John Leech’s intervention. We have yet to hear much from the Manchester Green Party on the issue(2). Perhaps the Greens think raising pay issues looks bad. But they have a right to be bitter, as the Labour group abandoned precedent last year when denying Green Cllr Rob Nunney a seat on his preferred scrutiny committee (environment and climate change), which new councillors should be allowed. There were minimal protests from the Greens back then, and this year we have heard little from them on this issue. With only two Councillors, the Greens will only have so much voice – but they will also need to practice using it.
Scrutiny committees will meet next week to determine their work plans. Climate Emergency Manchester met recently to discuss what these committees should be planning for the months ahead, keeping in mind that we are still in a climate emergency, in case anyone had forgotten. Expect to see more information about this from us on Monday 23rd May.
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(1) Manchester’s other opposition Cllrs were all elected within the last year – they are the Green Party’s Robert Nunney and Astrid Johnson (both Woodhouse Park) and Lib Dem Alan Good (Ancoats and Beswick). John Leech has been a Cllr since 2016.
(2) Manchester Green Party Co-Chair Scott Robinson tweeted about this on Friday 20th May.
Robbie is a core member of Climate Emergency Manchester.