After an hour of advertising for HS2, we got what we came for. The small and intrepid(1) band that ventured into Manchester Town Hall to witness “democracy” did indeed get to see what passes for democracy in action today.
It was a meeting of Full Council. For years this has been a three-ring circus. Real decisions are made in the meetings of the 9-member Executive (or rather, before them). Full Council, which all Council members are expected to attend unless they’ve got a damned good excuse (a death in the family, a holiday in the United States), is an opportunity for ambitious junior politicians to score points, raise their profile and maybe get their name in the Manchester Evening News. Given Labour’s not-quite-yet absolute stranglehold, it can only be thus.
In January this year, Professor Kevin Anderson gave a presentation on climate change to them all. That’s all safely forgotten now though, as the very expensive toy-train set that is HS2 got almost an hour’s worth of advertorial.
Then, around 11ish, after declarations of interest, it was down to business. And the business that we had come for was the signing off of the “Clean and Green [sic] Places” initiative. This is £14.5 million pounds of airport windfall money that the Council COULD consult on how to spend. Instead they’ve dreamed up (on two sides of A4) a very loosely-defined scheme that will enable money to be disbursed to interested groups without too many hoops being jumped through. (And one of their own ideas is “smart bins” that send a text message to the street cleaner saying “I’m full, come and empty me.”) Anyone would think there were council elections coming up, eh?
There was almost no discussion at all of this item, such is the speed and size of the red rubberstamp. Councillor Mary Di Mauro (Lib Dem, Northenden) had had her hand up to speak about the motion, but the Mayor seemed not to have seen her and the motion was “agreed.” After a few moments confusion and conferring on the top table, she was allowed to speak.
She said that the windfall was a tremendous opportunity to consult and engage, and that the failure to consult was a glaring example of of decision-making taking place in secret, behind close-doors. Where, she asked, was the accountability, the scrutiny.
She cited ward co-ordination and the cash-grant system as modes by which the Council could have engaged citizens, and found the “different priorities in different wards.” She pointed to Northenden, (her ward, where she will be trying to hold onto her seat in May next year) as an example of where local activists would want to keep their library open.
The most jeering (including a highly-excited Councillor Karney on his feet, pointing his finger!) came when Councillor Di Mauro suggested that this was “an opportunity to consult, engage and make yourselves more popular.”
Now, no doubt the more, um, tribal, Labour councillors would simply say that they were reacting with derision to a lecture on popularity from a Liberal Democrat. After all, since Nick Clegg decided to trade his credibility for a limo in 2010, no Liberal Democrat has come within a hundred gazillion miles of holding on to a Council seat in Manchester. Oblivion for all who tried.
The more nuanced and far-sighted councillors (2) , the ones who have read their Freud, might wonder if the strength of the anger was the sign that the Liberal Democrat had struck a nerve, had said something that councillors don’t want to admit, especially to themselves. These councillors would move beyond the fact that Labour have 86 of the 96 seats, and in all likelihood all 96 after next May. They would remind themselves that these elections are often won on a derisory turnout, and are anyway largely a referendum on national issues (those with longer memories will remember the beating that Labour took in Manchester after the invasion of Iraq in 2003).
They will factor in the anger and resentment and understandable cynicism that non-voters have towards the political classes and the Punch-and-Judy on display today.
Some of them might even realise that in five or ten years time, when they are running the show, their credibility and “soft power” will be diminished by the sorts of cack-handed and high-handed decisions being made now…
They would perhaps even go so far as to read Angela Eagle MPs fine words in her recent speech “Building a Better Politics” about re-engaging and reconnecting with citizens. But they will not, as yet, stand out and be counted in public.
But I digress; as did Council Leader Richard Leese, in his response. He gave some entirely predictable responses (3), including the ‘we are having to close libraries because of the unfair burden of cuts by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government’ line. He also claimed that the idea “came from the people” and the “councillors.” This is very interesting and not quite perhaps what a constituency Labour Party in the south of the city might entirely agree with. Still, the Labour councillors who were against the idea at Labour Group on September 10th (and since) showed their customary (not to say admirable) discipline in keeping poker faces in public. The outbreak of potential-democracy was, sadly, still-born.
Next stop? The Ask the People of Manchester campaign will continue, trying to get 4,000 signatures by Monday 18th November, and so cause a debate in the next full council on Wednesday 4th December on however much of the money has not been disbursed. You can sign the petition here, if you’ve not already signed it. To be eligible you have to live, work or study within the boundaries of Manchester City Council…
(1) At the beginning we followed councillors up the stairs and into the extension. We were then told that we actually had to go downstairs and through the extension (even though we could much more easily have walked along the hallowed ground to the back of the chamber then up a flight of stairs).
So down we went, accompanied by a helpful member of Council staff. When we got to the glass doors of the extension opposite, a tall G4S guy (beard, shaven head) told her that we would all have to sign in. So we were trooped along a corridor, where she investigated further.
We didn’t, in fact, have to sign in, and made it up to the public gallery after a total delay of about 10 mins.
This would have been TREMENDOUSLY intimidating and disheartening to a “normal” member of the public, or anyone on their own.
What is G4S told about full council and people’s right to attend? Is it part of their morning briefing on those days? We shall find out…
(2) They do exist. They tend not to be the ones who leave comments on the Manchester Climate Monthly blog, but they do exist. I’ve even had some civil and constructive conversations with some of them!!
(3) saying that the Lib Dems say one thing in the press and one thing in the Council chamber. This is curious, given that Richard Leese has had occasion to berate the Manchester Evening News in the past. Surely he does not believe everything he reads there? I asked Councillor Simon Wheale about the same allegation made at Executive on September 11th.
“And Councillor Nigel Murphy, the Exec for the Environment said that the Lib Dems say one thing in the press and another in Executive in relation to this matter. What do you think he meant, and what’s your response?
[Laughs] I’ve absolutely no idea what he meant, because everybody’s been saying exactly the same thing, which is that the community should drive this process….”