Negotiating change in the Chambers

While Westminster politics is dominating our news cycles, twitter feeds and pub chats, Green wins at a local level are focused on the climate and social justice we need to see.

Here our councillor for Portobello/Craigmillar, Alys Mumford, reflects on what’s happened since the election of our biggest group of councillors in May.

So we’ve reached recess, after two months which felt simultaneously like they lasted all of two weeks, and two years.

In those two months we’ve seen three full council meetings (albeit with one of them only lasting for nine minutes), the forming of an administration (not us, alas), the setting up of committees, and our first pieces of case work. Here’s some reflections from me on how it’s all going so far.

Negotiating Admin(istration)

As one of the four members of the negotiating team immediately following the election – the others being the co-leaders of the Green Councillor Group, and a representative from the Branch Committee – it was straight in at the deep-end for me. And it was a bizarre experience to be talking about the future of the Council while also getting lost in the maze of the building between meetings (partly, this is due to us having to camp out in just one meeting room for all 10 of us because there wasn’t accessible accommodation waiting for us – read more from my brilliant colleague Cllr Kayleigh O’Neill in the Evening News and her blog post here).

Discussing plans to mitigate the £60m deficit in council budgets while trying to find a password that the council IT systems would accept – one of these was far more frustrating than the other – and debating who would convene Committees while not being entirely sure what they all did was an experience. Luckily, as well as knowing our own manifesto inside-out, I’m not (outwardly) afraid to be the person in the room asking the supposedly stupid questions. And, reassuringly, the answer to my questions about why something had to be done in a certain way was often “we’re not actually sure, let’s see if we can change it”.

While ultimately our negotiations came to nothing as Labour joined forces with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to create a ‘not-a-coalition coalition’ (read more about this in my piece in the Evening News here), it was an invaluable experience. We delved deeper into how to bring about the change we want to see in Edinburgh, we challenged other parties to explore ideas like co-convenership, and we built strong connections between the new councillor group and our amazing branch members.

Council weirdness

There’s no other way to say it, lots about the council is weird. From officers calling you ‘councillor’ the second you are elected, to the formality of Full Council proceedings, to the tea and coffee in the Members’ Room (are we allowed it? When does it appear? Where does it go? Nobody apparently knows). For someone like me – used to the closeness of activist groups, and always working in small charities – much of this stems from now working in one of the biggest corporations in the city. There is a huge infrastructure of staff and protocol underneath the work of the Council and its councillors, and I don’t doubt that a lot of this is absolutely the most sensible and efficient way to go about it, but it certainly takes a lot of getting used to.

And, of course, politics itself is very weird. I’m not one of those to think ‘can’t we just all get along’ – after all, people are dying as a result of Tory policies, and I have no interest in pretending to be on the same side as them – but I do find the political posturing quite tiresome. Full Council last week was a good example of political weirdness; on a motion about the massive shortfall in local authority funding, we were all agreed that more needed to be done to provide funding. The disagreement? Over who we should be telling this to. Should we be speaking to the Scottish Government, or to Westminster; who should carry the blame for lack of budgets? The answer, of course, is both – Westminster ultimately decides Scotland’s settlement, but Holyrood can also make different decisions about where it allocates funding, and what it allows councils to do in terms of revenue-raising. But instead of agreeing to lobby both governments for greater funding, we saw lots of speeches all essentially making the same case for a fair settlement, but aimed at different targets.

I’m sure I’ll get used to this in time, but I kind of hope I don’t ever stop finding it weird.

Making change

We’ve done a lot in our first couple of months as a group! Alongside all of the faff of office moves and electing our portfolio holders, we’ve been pushing for changes big and small in our committees and in Full Council.

In spite of what I said above about political posturing, there has actually been some good cross-party working. An example of this is my motion on gender budgeting. Originally taken to the Finance and Resources Committee, it was ‘no actioned’ by the Labour convener, meaning nothing could happen on it for the next six months (read more about that here). With the support of SNP colleagues on the committee, I was able to refer this to full council, and I was then able to work with the same Labour convener to amend the motion to something we both agreed with.

There is also lots of consensus around certain things, and one of the funny things about full council meeting is that motions which everyone agrees with can often slip through unnoticed, even if they make significant changes! You don’t vote against things, just amend them (even if that amendment is ‘delete everything and replace it with the opposite’), so if there aren’t amendments, there isn’t a discussion. The Green motion, put forward by Chas Booth, for the extension of bus lane hours made the front page of the Edinburgh Evening News, but could easily have been missed unless you were watching the webcast very closely. Green motions on flying the progress pride flag, supporting unpaid carers, and exploring solutions for the Rainbow Bridge in Leith also passed in this way.

Alongside these we also made progress around issues like installing sanitary bins in men’s toilets, ensuring meaningful youth participation, an accessibility commission, reducing drug deaths, cancelling school meal debt, better waste management, and ending harassment at abortion services. None of these things will happen overnight, but we have made good first steps towards change.

What’s next?

There is lots to do, and really challenging decisions ahead particularly as we are faced with the stark reality of diminished funding and ever-increasing poverty and inequality in the city. Not to mention the possibility of another General Election which wasn’t on the cards when I first sat down to write this.

But all in all, the past two months have made me excited about the potential we have to make real change for people in Edinburgh. Here’s to the next five years…