Does engaging with (local) politics make any difference?

Asking our MP to support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. Photo by Tamsin Bishton

This is a question I ask myself a lot these days. When so much feels broken and / or inadequate in our political system, is there really any point in trying to engage with our elected officials? Outside the voting booth, do citizens have any influence at all in how policy actually gets implemented?

It’s not a theoretical question. Over the last two or three years I’ve got pretty involved in climate activism and trying to raise the alarm and get our national government to act now. That’s involved everything from getting arrested just outside Downing Street for trying to put up a (rather small) gazebo for people to rest in and shelter from torrential rain in during Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019, to quietly unfurling a banner on Hove seafront during lockdown in an effort to persuade my local MP to support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill in parliament. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, we’ve still got a chaotic, contradictory and ineffective mess at a national level where we should have urgent, creative policy to tackle the climate emergency. And my local MP tells me that he broadly agrees with the intention of the CEE Bill, but because of some kind of opaque political etiquette as a shadow cabinet minister he can’t join the growing number of other MPs of all political persuassions who publicly support a cross-party Private Members Bill. Or something like that. See what I mean about broken and/or inadequate. But there’s still time for things to change. I cling to hope.

Thinking more local — Brighton and Hove’s Carbon Neutral 2030 programme

In between this kind of attention-grabbing, hands-on stuff, I’ve also been working more quietly to support efforts to build awareness and engagement in Brighton and Hove with the local council’s climate planning and policy — or the Carbon Neutral 2030 Programme as it is branded.

This effort feels much more personal. Especially when I look at the Climate Central flood map for where I live. This (below) is what is likely to happen to my neighbourhood by 2050. The red is where the new water level will be. (If you live near the sea, take a look how things look in your neck of the woods. Then take a look at Bangladesh and Vietnam and consider the future of your fellow humans who live there.)

The seas are already rising. If we don’t get carbon emissions to zero rapidly, much worse is to come. The Climate Change Commission says that “Local authorities have powers or influence over roughly a third of emissions in their local areas”. Brighton and Hove Council’s Carbon Neutral plan points out: “The council is working hard to reduce its own corporate carbon emissions, but in total these contribute less than 2% of the city’s emissions. The carbon neutral 2030 target is a city-wide one and needs participation from residents, schools, businesses and institutions across the city.”

Whichever way you cut it, this surely feels like “moonshot” territory for our local authority and our community — and something that just won’t happen unless every single person in the city gets their head around the challenge, the consequences of failure, and understand the positive and inspiring role they can play in helping to get the (non-fossil-fuelled) rocket to the moon (and back).

How can we make this happen as a city?

Doing that second bit — the citizen engagement — is also a really big job. And it seems to me that our political system — built as it is on making “the other side” look incompetent, out of touch, like a bunch of zealots, anti-car, anti-cyclist, anti-business, uncaring, unrealistic etc. etc. — doesn’t stand much chance of enabling the shared understanding and consensus across the whole of our community that is going to be needed if we’re going to do this thing.

So that’s why I and others have been sitting in zoom meetings and sharing ideas, writing emails, organising online events with our MPs and councillors and generally doing what we can to talk to our local politicians and ask them: how are we going to do this — and how can we help?

Asking helpful questions

In October last year I asked Phelim MacCafferty, leader of the council, this question directly in a meeting of the council’s Policy & Resources Committee. You can hear his answer (and the answer to a question from a fellow citizen about energy policy) on this video (12mins13). Or you can read it here. In summary: “Everyone has a part to play in helping make clear the challenges we face but also the things we can do to overcome this. A key next step in the council’s sustainability and climate action work is to build stronger engagement with the people of Brighton & Hove. We need to do this in order to encourage more individual action, to raise public awareness and to be transparent and accountable about progress towards our goals.”

It’s the first time I’ve ever engaged so directly with my local council and the people who are making decisions that will influence the futures of everyone who lives here. It felt helpful. Not because it makes me feel like I’ve got the ear of the people in power and can bend them to my will. That’s not what I want from the political system. But because it felt like I was reminding my elected representatives that we exist outside the polling booth and that we really care about the carbon neutral plan — and how it’s going to actually happen. This is something that isn’t about politics in my opinion.

I’ll be honest, sometimes it feels like I’ve turned into one of those people I used to laugh at when I was younger — a green-biro-wielding pain in the arse. The sort of person Jackie Weaver sighs about as she logs in to zoom. But the alternative is looking away from the challenge, waiting for someone else to sort it out while the seas keep rising. And that feels much, much worse.

To come back to the question I started with — does engaging with (local) politics work? I honestly don’t know. Asking questions of the people who are there to represent us and our best interests feels like a worthwhile and reasonable thing to do, though. I’d definitely recommend it over passive resignation.

Why not ask question of your own?

Maybe you fancy giving it a go, too? If you live in Brighton and Hove, me and some fellow citizens have created a shared resource to help. This doc has all the dates of council meetings coming up in 2022 and information about how to submit a question. It’s actually remarkably easy — just an email (no green biro required) — and the meetings happen online so you don’t even have to go to Hove Town Hall to ask it. Worth a try?

If you live elsewhere, every council has a democratic services team and will allow access and questions to most if not all committee meetings. Has your council got a climate plan yet? How’s it going to make it work on the ground? Worth asking a question or two?

(This article was first published on LinkedIn on 27 January 2022.)

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Partner and Founder at Wilsome, research and strategy for those who are making their own path

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Tamsin Bishton

Tamsin Bishton

Partner and Founder at Wilsome, research and strategy for those who are making their own path

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