How to fail and win at local politics

On 17 November, Joanna Wright, Green Councillor for Lambridge, put forward a carbon tax motion. She describes her experience, in which she stood as a sole Green Cllr in a Lib Dem dominated Council.

Bath
Cllr Joanna Wright

On a recent evening, a Green Councillor asked fellow Council members to support a carbon tax motion at a Council meeting. Despite putting forward a clear argument for a carbon tax, the majority of Councillors decided to amend the motion and vote in favour of a carbon pricing scheme instead. 

Such a scheme only equates to a different form of carbon trading. The Councillors who supported carbon pricing quickly turned from debating the motion to a range of personal attacks on the Green Councillor. After a vote, the majority won and a carbon pricing motion was supported and passed.

This is a brief description of events that took place at the Bath and North East Somerset Council (B&NES) meeting on 17 November. There are 54 Councillors at B&NES, of which 36 are Liberal Democrats and I am the sole Green, having left the Lib Dems in June 2021 to rejoin the Green Party. This carbon tax motion has highlighted to me why voting Green and getting Green politicians elected matters at every level of the political game.

The Green Party are currently championing a carbon tax and Green New Deal as a fair way to cut carbon emissions. Globally, economists widely support a comprehensive carbon tax with a citizen dividend, as it is recognised by leading economists that putting a price on the burning of fossil fuels by charging the highest emitters a carbon tax and then paying a dividend to the poorest is the most effective way to improve public health, provide affordable public transport, improve housing and buildings, and overall it is a fairer way to make change and keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The current rules allow coal plant owners to cut their emissions and then sell their allowance to someone else, thus creating the same carbon – just somewhere else.

Molly Scott Cato, the Green Party’s economic spokesperson, supports the carbon tax as a way of forcing a sea change in behaviour from the highest polluters. Many of us are aware of the power that the fossil fuel industry has and how the present carbon market is set up in such a way that it has become an easy tool for the fossil fuel lobbyists to put off and dilute the necessary changes needed to keep CO2 in the ground. The current rules allow coal plant owners to cut their emissions and then sell their allowance to someone else, thus creating the same carbon – just somewhere else. A carbon tax with a dividend is different, the carbon emitter is charged for their output, it cannot be sold on, and the income generated goes back to the poorest to invest in green technology and greener ways of living that do not emit carbon. In the UK alone, a carbon tax could generate £80bn a year in revenue. It would, according to Molly Scott Cato, ‘create a clear market signal’ and initiate action now to reduce the carbon in our atmosphere.

The role of all Green Party members is to address the climate crisis and enable positive and sustainable changes to happen. How and where we do that, and what it looks like, can take many shapes, from protesting to planting trees. As a sole Green Councillor, I use my role in a myriad of ways to highlight the need for climate and social justice and to bring green ideas and initiatives into view at a public and local Council level. We have seen how effective Carla Denyer’s climate emergency motion has been across the UK, encouraging residents, parishes and Councils to change how they think about global heating, as well as creating change and action at a local, regional and national level. A Council motion is a statement of intent and with it, hopefully, comes action.

In September this year, I was asked by a fellow Green member to put forward the carbon tax motion to a B&NEs Council meeting. This sounds simple enough. However, having left the Lib Dems, I was only too aware of how they are running the Council they currently control. This includes amending every motion at a Council meeting so that they can effectively ‘own’ it and can get good press coverage from it.

Two days before the Council meeting I received an email from the Liberal Democrats asking me to withdraw the carbon tax motion and 'remove the politics’.

As the sole Green, I already knew that to even get a motion into the Council chamber would require support from at least another Councillor. Alliances and working with other parties is key, however, due to my departure from the Lib Dem group I was only too aware that it would be unlikely that support from this group would be favourable. I decided to approach the local Labour group to second the carbon tax motion. Labour agreed. The motion was written up and sent to the politically neutral Democratic Services section of the Council, who checked to see if there was any cost or liability that could stop the Council from tabling it. There were no reasons for the carbon tax motion not to be taken forward, it essentially just asked local Councillors to support the tax and write letters to local MPs and central government. Due process was followed, and a week before the Council meeting, Democratic Services sent out the Council agenda and the carbon tax motion was item 16 on a wide range of items that included a report from the Standards Committee and a statement on the Council’s actions to reduce violence against women.

Two days before the Council meeting I received an email from the Liberal Democrats asking me to withdraw the carbon tax motion, ‘to remove the politics’ and ‘bring the resulting motion back to a future Council meeting’.

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Cllr Joanna Wright
Cllr Joanna Wright

As a former Lib Dem, I was aware that this tactic might be a game of predatory delay and kicking the motion into the long grass. But I already knew I had support from the Labour Party so that the motion would be tabled.

On the day of the Council meeting at midday, I received an email from Democratic Services with the amendments from the Lib Dem group to the carbon tax motion. Not only had they changed its name to ‘carbon pricing’, they had amended much of the wording throughout, changing the meaning of the motion and radically altering the request to central government and to the Conference of the Parties (COP).

As the mover of the motion I had several options:

  1. Withdraw the motion altogether from the agenda; 

 

  1. As the proposer, use my allotted five minutes and then withdraw the motion (technically allowed, but not good practice); 

 

  1. Table my motion and then accept the amendments; 

 

  1. Table the motion, not accept the amendments, recognise that the Lib Dems would then hold the motion, and vote against this motion;

 

  1. Table the motion, not accept the amendments, recognise that the Lib Dems would then hold the motion, and then be pragmatic and vote for the Lib Dems new motion.

Carbon pricing essentially calls for a trading scheme that’s been proven to favour the billionaires and corporations with windfall profits. This is not fair. It is not green, it is greenwashing.

When a local Council has one party with a large majority, the power that they wield in that space is enormous. Over the last few years, I have watched as motion upon motion has been withdrawn or completely rewritten to suit the Lib Dems. So I was only too aware of the approach that the Lib Dem ruling group would take once this motion went live in the chamber. I realised that this ruling group would probably decide to take the motion and possibly me apart. 

I opted for the last option because I think a carbon tax is needed, not carbon pricing. The economic argument for carbon pricing is poor, and however much bluster was used by the Lib Dems, their argument and amendment on carbon pricing essentially calls for a trading scheme that’s been proven to favour the billionaires and corporations with windfall profits, and punish the 99 per cent and poorest. This is not fair. It is not green, it is greenwashing.

The time frame of a Council motion was also stacked against me as a sole Green. The 36 Lib Dems could all get three minutes each to put their views – I would have only three minutes alone. I went with option five and proposed the carbon tax motion, with Labour seconding the motion. The amendments were tabled. I did not accept them. Numerous Lib Dems spoke against the carbon tax and in favour of carbon pricing, dismissing global economists, dismissing the Green Party. What surprised me most was how they used the moment to take apart not just the motion but me personally. The attacks towards me were finally questioned by a Labour Councillor who chastised the Chair and other Councillors, reminding them that should they speak to the motion itself, not attack the person presenting it. It was suggested that I make a formal complaint. 

Finally, as the proposer of the motion, I had three minutes to sum up the debate.

I ended the motion by saying that: “As the sole Green Cllr at B&NES I am aware that the Lib Dem majority will at all times be able to veto any motion I put forward. The need for political parties to cooperate to achieve the changes that need to happen does not seem to be forthcoming. I do not accept the amendments to this motion. But they will be passed, so I will be pragmatic about dealing with the consequences and will continue to advocate for a Carbon Tax.”

All I did on the 17th was plant a seed, a Green Party seed that believes the biggest polluters should be taxed and for this dividend to be shared out amongst the poorest.

Following the meeting, I was contacted by many residents who were appalled by the poor Chairing of the meeting and for the behaviour of the Lib Dem group towards me. I have subsequently written to the Council’s Monitoring Officer and asked the following questions:

When a motion is put forward does the proposer have to accept ‘minor amendments’ from other parties?

If the proposer does not accept ‘minor amendments’ from other parties, is it constitutional for those Councillors to directly attack the proposer?

Can you clarify how the constitution states how a motion can be changed? That is, if minor amendments significantly alter the meaning of the motion, is that an accepted amendment?

During the debate, if a Councillor is personally attacked and not the motion who is responsible for intervening? Is it the Chair, Deputy Chair or Monitoring Officer?

Who makes the judgement whether the attack is personal or not?

17 November was a brutal experience, but an experience worth having, because what it did was force local politicians and residents to think about what they believe in and what they do not. The climate and ecological emergency is forcing every one of us to think about new terms and use new language. Every conversation we have with these new words and ideas allows for everyone’s consciousness to expand and accept new ways of thinking, and this in turn will lead to shifts in politics and behaviour. All I did on the 17th was plant a seed, a Green Party seed that believes the biggest polluters should be taxed and for this dividend to be shared out amongst the poorest.