Manchester Green Party now has three councillors, making them the official opposition at Manchester City Council. They remain vastly outnumbered by Manchester Labour, which has 91 elected representatives. The Liberal Democrats have two.
At CEM, we want the ruling Labour group and the opposition parties to be better, for the sake of the city, and because we are living through a climate emergency where impacts are coming increasingly close to home. We are non-partisan.
This post is about what it takes to be a decent official opposition, given the political dynamics in Manchester. And more specifically, is the Manchester Green Party (MGP) up to the job?
Electoralism will not be enough
One possible answer here needs to be rejected as insufficient: electoralism. This answer would emphasise that the opposition parties are so outnumbered, that there’s little they can do. That the way forward is to get more Greens, or more Lib Dems, elected. In practice, a lot of political parties are geared to this electoral project, and that includes MGP.
Witness #LabourDoorstep, where candidates and party members put leaflets through letter-boxes, posing smiles on twitter in election season. See the yellow Lib Dem posters emerge in some wards, with witty phrases like vote April this May. Recognise the Green Party’s “target to win”, where limited capacity is focused on a specific ward (Woodhouse Park) with the aim of getting one more candidate on Council.
The parties mobilise their members during election seasons to get leaflets through letter- boxes with glossy pictures and vague statements that might win votes, or increase turnout. After the votes are counted, much of the membership is de-mobilised, leaving the elected councillors to get on with business.
The problem for small opposition parties pursuing electoralism is that the councillors may be left with minimal support during their time in office. That makes it hard for them to function as an effective opposition. Most members disappear and only show up again at the next election, if at all, leaving a skeleton crew.
After a long time in the wilderness, with zero councillors (2008-2021), MGP’s electoral focus finally paid off for them, two years in a row. But a singular focus on elections will undermine MGP’s potential.
Opposition councillors might not even complain about the electoralist dynamics. They may feel grateful to the members who selected them and leafleted for them, and feel unable to ask for more help. They may feel the need to keep party members on-side to maintain their chance of re-election: if, indeed, they are not just burnt-out by then.
Greens (and Lib Dems) benefit from Labour Group failings
The hegemonic size of the Labour group, by contrast, means that new councillors have more possibility of a support structure among themselves. But with big numbers comes the centrality of discipline, which is needed to contain factionalism. Labour councillors will be supported members of the tribe, provided they abide by ‘the rules’ that are policed by whips. Fall foul of those and disciplinary proceedings start.
The risk for Labour is that over-zealous discipline becomes bullying, or it gets tinged with racism. Discipline can lead to de-moralisation on the backbenches, which is arguably the point. But it can also lead to resignations, like in Ancoats and Beswick where Marcia Hutchinson stood down just six months after election, citing racist bullying. That created an opportunity for the Lib Dem Alan Good, who won the resulting by-election. And it can lead to defections, like in Hulme where Ekua Bayunu found a new home in the Green Party after stating she has spent a year fighting off bullying and harassment from the Labour Group.
Thus, the Green ranks have swelled a little. They gain official opposition status and some additional funding and privileges as a consequence. Astrid Johnson will be Leader of the Opposition. They can table motions at Council, with Lib Dem support, as it takes five councillors to do so (and Labour members are told not to back opposition motions).
Limited capacity means missed opportunities
The Green councillors remain just three, and three people will only have so much capacity. If they are going to be effective on a range of issues, including the climate emergency which they say they care deeply about, then they will need a party machine around them which does more than turn up in April and May for door-knocking season.
The opposition parties are unlikely to make major gains across the city for the foreseeable. But the climate emergency is already here. The city’s carbon budget, for example, is likely to be completely used up by 2027. An obsession with ‘get Greens elected’ is only just producing some small electoral returns; now the party must reckon with the privilege, and responsibility, of being the official opposition.
On its website, MGP celebrated this May’s election of its second councillor, Astrid Johnson, with one press release. There were then no website updates in the two months following. What a way to inspire the foot soldiers who had been helping to get Johnson elected in Woodhouse Park – woohoo we did it! And now silence. At the time of writing, the MGP home page still leads with a banner about the election, highlighting its manifesto and candidates, two and a half months after the event, ironically proclaiming ‘The Time is Now’. The next item on the MGP’s updates section is the recent news about Ekua Bayunu’s defection.
There is no shortage of material that MGP could have been pressuring the Council and the Labour party about. But for some reason, they have not publicised any of this on their website. They said very little about the stitch-up over cuts to the financial allowances for opposition groups: they left it to the Lib Dem John Leech (West Disbury) to protest in the chamber. CEM did a write-up, as did Manchester Climate Monthly (twice) There was an article in the Manchester Evening News about it. But MGP just released a couple of tweets, and that was it.
The public have little sympathy for politicians’ expenses woes, but there could have been a case made about the need for effective opposition work in a city of half a million people, where one party has held sway for decades. But MGP did not mount that case. This could be due to a lack of capacity in the party, or a strategic decision, or a lack of sufficient bravery.
It was a similar story in 2021, when the first elected green, Rob Nunney, was put on a scrutiny committee that was far from his first preference. Labour broke the convention which is that newly elected councillors are allowed to sit on the committee that is their first preference, or at least their second. Nunney and the party took the punishment without any serious protest. It was left to Marc Hudson, formerly of CEM, to publicise the toxic dynamics on the Manchester Climate Monthly website (where he has also published some commentary about what might make the Green Party effective in Manchester’s “challenging” political environment).
There are other historic examples of the Green Party’s inability to respond to hostility, with its apparently limited repertoire. We could speculate more about why this is. MGP members might know more. We leave it to the reader to come to their own conclusions.
Change remains possible
It is possible that Ekua Bayunu’s new membership of MGP will encourage a different approach. Bayunu is clearly not afraid of a run-in with powerful people in local politics, like former Council Leader Richard Leese whom she challenged for the Leadership, even if it comes with personal costs. Bayunu could add some steel. Already, MGP is posting social media clips of Bayunu in action in the Health Scrutiny Committee – something they had not been doing before – in this case highlighting Manchester Labour Secretary Pat Karney’s cruel dismissal of Bayunu’s concerns about his co-optation of the language of Black Lives Matter.
But will the status of being the official opposition galvanise the MGP in a way that really makes a difference? It remains to be seen whether the party can build serious strength in depth, behind its three councillors, outside of the door-knocking season.
We are writing at length about MGP here because our aim at CEM is to put pressure on institutions across Manchester to take the climate emergency seriously. Since our primary point of focus is Manchester City Council, we aim to keep a critical eye on the political parties that compete to elect councillors and that regulate councillor behaviours there.
At CEM, we work with councillors and citizens of any stripe to promote shared values and objectives, while remaining non-partisan. This won’t stop us from critiquing the political parties.* Playing nice just isn’t enough.
If you’ve got any comments about this article, you can leave them below, or email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
*For the record, two of the six current core group members of CEM are also Green Party members, and one core group member is in Labour.
Robbie is a core member of Climate Emergency Manchester.