Municipal climate campaigns and the unions

Richard Hatcher examines the role trade unions can play in municipal partnerships to tackle the climate emergency.


In August 2020 the TUC published a 75 page report called Voice and place: how to plan fair and successful paths to net zero emissions. It said:

‘An intelligent, sustainable industrial policy with a focus on delivering high employment standards at national level is necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about a just transition across the whole country. This policy must be complemented at the regional, sub-regional and local levels. […] Combined authorities, local councils and LEPs should work with other local actors to articulate the need for greater government investment in infrastructure, especially green infrastructure, and define what works best for those areas, including through recovery panels. Community and workforce representatives can ensure that infrastructure and regeneration is delivered in a way that meets genuine need and enhances wellbeing in those communities.’

The report quotes a trade unionist: “In terms of just transition and what it means, that phrase ‘nothing about us without us’ is the guiding principle.”

Trade union involvement in municipal climate partnerships is also government policy. On 14 July this year the government’s independent Green Jobs Taskforce launched its final report. It forms part of the government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. The Taskforce has 17 members including representatives of industry and academia, and Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary of the TUC. The 82 page report has numerous references to the need for partnership at the local level, including with trade unions. For example:

‘Recommendation 5

The government should establish a UK-wide body with national representation to ensure momentum and coherence on workforce transition, including progress in delivery. The national body should be supported by local transition bodies to ensure effective place-based strategies for the transition…

• At the local level, membership should generally include industry, local government, unions, skills, and economic development bodies…’

What does this mean in practice? What involvement do the trade unions have in municipal partnerships to tackle the climate emergency? I have looked at the Council-led climate campaigns in 7 cities in England, all with Labour Councils.


The Leeds Climate Commission was established in 2017 and was the first climate commission. It describes itself as ‘an independent voice in the city, providing authoritative advice on steps towards a low carbon, climate resilient future so as to inform policies and shape the actions of local organisations and stakeholders.’ It has 18 members: 5 Leeds City Council (1 Councillor, 4 officers), 8 from business, 3 academics, 1 Hospital, 1 Friends of the Earth, but no trade union representative.


Manchester Climate Change Partnership has more than 60 members from a wide range of sectors such as universities, hospitals, registered housing providers and Manchester City FC.  Its Board has 16 members. 8 are employers including the Chair (the Manchester Office Leader of Arup the global engineering company) and 2 are from Manchester City Council (1 Councillor, 1 officer). There is no union member.


Sheffield’s Green City Partnership Board has 14 members. 4 are from business including Amey and Veolia, 5 from the Council (1 Councillor, 4 officers), 2 from universities, and 1 from the Sheffield Climate Alliance. There is no union representative. Sheffield Climate Alliance (which is currently changing its name to South Yorkshire Climate Alliance) says ‘Our Climate Alliance facilitates collaborative work between businesses, trade unions, faith bodies, community-based organisations, student groups and schools, and the general public.’ On its website are the logos of 33 groups, including XR, but none from trade unions.


In 2020 the Council announced that ‘Eighteen members have been appointed to the new Bristol ‘One City’ Environmental Sustainability Board.‘ The Board has 18 members, including the Mayor, the city council and business representatives, but no union representative.


Following the launch of the citywide charter for sustainable carbon neutrality through the Green Partnership, the Council launched its ‘Carbon Neutral Nottingham 2020 – 2028 Action Plan’ in June 2020. The Nottingham Green Partnership ‘is charged with addressing the Green Nottingham aims and agenda as set out in the Nottingham Plan…’  Its Chair is an employer. It includes the Council’s Cabinet member for Energy and Sustainability. The rest are ‘Senior representatives from Nottingham City partners’, of which 18 are listed, from business and a range of bodies. But there is no mention of a trade union representative.  


The exclusion of representatives of the unions from municipal climate partnerships seems to be the common approach taken by City leaderships in England. But unlike the other Councils Leicester City Council has not set up a partnership board. Leicester’s Climate Emergency Strategy April 2020 – March 2023 says that ‘The development of this strategy and the accompanying action plan have been supported and shaped through a huge number of conversations and discussions under the umbrella of Leicester’s Climate Emergency Conversation’. But there is no mention of participation by trade unions, and in fact the word ‘union’ doesn’t appear in the 57 page document.


The pattern across cities in England, if the evidence from the 6 cities above is typical, appears to be of the exclusion of trade union representation from municipal climate partnerships. What is also striking is that I can find no evidence of campaigns by the local trade union movements in these cities to be represented on these local municipal climate emergency partnerships.

There is however one exception in the cities I looked at: Birmingham.  Birmingham City Council set up its Route to Zero Climate Emergency Taskforce in October 2019 and it met regularly until it was replaced this year by a Climate Assembly meeting just three times a year. The Taskforce comprised a social partnership model, chaired by a Cabinet member, with 38 members including councillors from all the local authority parties, business representatives including the Local Enterprise Partnership and the Chambers of Commerce, academics, and several climate organisations including Youth Strike for Climate and Climate Action Network West Midlands (CANWM) (of which I was one of the alternating members).

The Taskforce also included a trade union representative, invited significantly not from the union movement in Birmingham, nor from Birmingham Trades Council, whose request to be represented was rejected by the Council, but from the Midlands TUC. This body has its office in Birmingham but it covers the area from the Welsh border to the Wash. MTUC has only a Regional Secretary and two other officers and it appointed as its main representative at Taskforce meetings the West Midlands Regional Secretary of the FBU. He was not a regular attendee, in fact he did not attend any of the final four Taskforce meetings where the Climate Action Plan was finalised.

How can we explain why Labour Councils are either excluding or marginalising local unions in their climate strategies?

I’ve found Jonathan Davies’ writing particularly useful in answering this question. He is director of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University. He doesn’t write about climate, he writes about how the local state governs in the context of austerity. I am drawing here on his co-authored 2018 article ‘Why is austerity governable? A Gramscian urban regime analysis of Leicester, UK’ and his 2021 book Between Realism and Revolt. (All quotes below are from the 2018 article, which is available free online.) [1]

The article poses the question: how can we explain why Labour Councils are against austerity but deliver it? Davies’ answer begins with Gramsci. States, markets, and civil society constitute a contradictory totality. ‘A Gramscian state of hegemony is accomplished, schematically, when a durable alliance of class forces wins control of economic, political, cultural, and ideological levers of power and thereby exercises leadership across the governmental and societal realms’, through a combination of coercion and consent. At the urban scale, ‘different combinations of actors mobilize a variety of material and ideological resources to produce more or less durable governing arrangements. These urban regimes entail the construction and management of multiple coalitions of various combinations of state, market and civil society bodies and interests.’ Davies doesn’t refer to municipal climate partnerships but they are a case in point.

For Labour Councils this process is shaped by two historical experiences. One is ‘the decline of militant trade unionism as industries were liquidated and struggles to defend them were defeated under the Thatcher government’. The other is ‘the Thatcherite crackdown on elected local government and its consequences for local political autonomy. Municipal socialism, a short-lived militant strategy for resisting fiscal retrenchment, ran concurrently with the great union battles of the early 1980s.’ It culminated in the defeat of the struggle against rate-capping. This led to greater centralised control of local government, which was continued under Blair’s ‘New Labour’.

‘By the early 1990s, the bitter lessons of the 1980s had become inscribed in the “new realist” strategies of Labour authorities across the UK, as they sought rapprochement with business leaders and government to drive the urban revitalization effort in an entrepreneurial direction—what Davies (2004) called the new “logic of market led regeneration”.’

This is the perspective that has dominated Labour municipalities and the trade union movement since the 1980s.

‘With no prospect of defeating the government through direct action, and little immediate prospect of removing it electorally, Labour municipalities accepted […] that attracting business investment was the only plausible solution to urban decline and poverty. It is much easier to influence local economic development than nationally imposed austerity.’

On this basis Labour Councils aim to do three things: to deliver austerity in the context of government coercion, to try to preserve public services, and to build a competitive city which attracts investment and creates jobs. This requires a strategy of coalition building – multiple coalitions with business and civil society partners, ‘mobilized by congruent interests and resource interdependencies’.

‘The regime ensemble constitutes the local state in its Gramscian, inclusive sense (municipality, government agencies in the city, business leaders, and elements of organized civil society), sustained through coercion and consent. It constitutes what has been, since the onset of austerity, a functional urban regime.’

In addition to the two historical experiences shaping ‘austerian realism’ there is a third factor cementing the local authority-business coalition. The Conservative government has recently abolished the national redistributive Revenue Support Grant for the vast majority of cities. From 2020, business rates will increasingly be raised locally as an essential source of municipal revenue. The council ‘will be permitted to raise business rates (strictly for infrastructure projects) but only with the consent of local business leaders’ on the Local Economic Partnership (LEP).

There are 38 LEPs in England, covering the country. The Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP is an example. It has a Board of 16 members: 10 from local businesses including HSBC, KPMG, Deloite and HS2, and 6 local Council leaders. There are no union or community representatives. As Davies notes, ‘This fiscal settlement makes aspects of municipal spending in Britain directly dependent on business consent for the first time.’

Local authority climate coalitions

In the last few years the climate emergency has become one of the key issues around which local authorities – councillors and officers – have constructed a new coalition, with the relationship between local government and business at its centre. I began by quoting from government and TUC reports which called for union involvement in climate coalitions at the local level. We have seen that in practice unions are either excluded from local Council-led climate coalitions or, in the case of Birmingham, are included but play a marginal role. The explanation is two-fold.

For the dominant partners in the governance of the urban regime – the local authority and local employers – the participation of unions in its climate coalition is not essential for its functioning. For employers, including local Councils as employers, their relations with unions are at the level of the workplace. Local climate policy issues that directly concern the workplace, such as skills for green jobs, can be dealt with on their own between Councils, employers, FE colleges and unions, without needing to involve the unions in wider local policy-making. And in general the unions have accepted this. As I have said, I have found no evidence of campaigning by local union movements to be included in local climate coalitions. The explanation is essentially because of the historical experiences Davies referred to, leading to declining membership and resources and the lack of militancy, including pressure to compel local authorities to include unions in local climate coalitions. Unions have accepted that their role at the local level is largely confined to the workplace and does not include participation at the scale of place-based, cross-sector policy-making that the climate emergency requires. The exception is Birmingham, where the Council has included union representation in its Climate Taskforce but has managed it to ensure that there is no risk of radical challenge to Council-business hegemony.

Can unions work together on local place-based cross-sectoral issues?

There is also another obstacle which increasing union involvement in municipal climate coalitions would have to overcome. At the local level unions are geared up to deal with individual employers and workplaces. This may entail collaboration between unions in joint negotiating committees with particular employers, whether in the private or public sector. But the climate issue at the local level is completely different: it is place-based and cross-sectoral, cutting across the whole range of employers, and encompassing class issues within communities as well as workplaces. It requires a coordinated approach across the whole local union movement. This is posed concretely by the question of representation. No municipal climate coalition is going to offer a seat at the table to every local union. If local unions want to be involved – and directly, rather than see representation handed over to a distant union officer, as in Birmingham – they have to work together.

One solution could be for local Trades Councils to choose a member to represent the local trade union movement. But are they thought to be sufficiently representative, either by Councils and employers or by local unions? The alternative is for local unions themselves to come together to set up a local Climate Coordinating Committee which can send a representative to the local municipal partnership body.

Local place-based cross-sectoral issues are not limited to climate

We have a example here in Birmingham. The City Council has recently launched an East Birmingham Inclusive Growth plan. East Birmingham has a population of about the size of Nottingham. The plan aims to create thousands of jobs. The workstreams include Health and Wellbeing, Skills, Schools and Early Years, Green spaces, Transport, Housing, Climate change and green technologies. It has a new governance structure, the East Birmingham Board, chaired by Liam Byrne, a local MP, with the City Council Leader as vice-chair. The Board consists largely of employers in the public and the private sectors. But the Board has not a single representation from trade unions to speak on behalf of the tens of thousands of workers and trade unionists in East Birmingham and the thousands of new employees that the Inclusive Growth plan aims to create jobs for. In fact in the 70 pages of the 2021 Council documentation the word ‘union’, as in trade union, does not appear.

On behalf of Birmingham Trades Council I recently met with Ian Ward, the Council Leader, and raised this issue with him. He conceded that there should be a union representative on the Board. But that poses a new challenge for the union movement in Birmingham: can they work together effectively in East Birmingham, either through the Trades Council or by setting up a Joint Coordinating Committee? The issue of local Covid recovery and ‘Levelling Up’ may well pose the need for similar place-based projects around the country and with it a similar challenge for local union movements.

Versions of Localism

I began by finding that the predominant pattern of local municipal climate partnerships was the exclusion of trade union representation. To explain it I drew on Jonathan Davies’ Gramscian theorisation of urban regimes. That raised the question of how local union movements could achieve united representation on local place-based cross-sectoral partnership bodies, of which climate is just one example. Localism is a political framework that stretches across the political spectrum from right to left and I want to end by looking at the range of localist strategies, drawing on the writings of Jamie Gough. [2]

On the right, Gough identifies the corporatist localism of an alliance of big business and local councils aimed at increasing the competitiveness of their cities in the national and global economy.

Social democratic localism istypical of the tradition of Labour municipalism, and exemplified by Labour councils during the past decade of austerity’.

‘Social democratic localism seeks to build a partnership with all sectors of capital and all sections of the local population.  Residents’ groups, minority ethnic organisations, voluntary organisations and even trade unions are to be drawn in.  This is seen as creating, in the long term, a more productive local economy, and also as being politically more robust.’

 Birmingham’s Climate Emergency Taskforce is an example.

‘Overall, then, social democratic localism draws working class people into passive collaboration with capital and the state, blocks politicisation, and fails to develop popular collective self-activity.  In a dialectical reversal, it thus ends up stabilising capitalist class relations and the neoliberalism it ostensibly opposes.’

We can also identify a left social democratic tradition of localist politics in England exemplified by the GLC under Ken Livingstone, now largely extinct.

Another version of social democratic localism which has become prominent under Tory government austerity is what Gough calls ‘social democracy from below’, a strategy pursued by local authorities working in alliance with SMEs and community organisations, exemplified by Community Wealth Building [3] and New Local’s ‘Community Paradigm’. [4] 

Further to the left on the political spectrum Gough identifies ‘associationalism’, a strategy with its roots in anarchism, autonomous Marxism and libertarian socialism which aims to transform capitalism by building from below in the gaps and fissures of the system:

‘Rather than confronting the neoliberalism of big capital and of the national and local state, it seeks to bypass them by building an independent local economy of SMEs and community businesses, and providing public services through not-for-profit enterprises, self-help and voluntary work.’

‘At its worst, by fostering self-help and making-do, associationalism serves to stabilise capitalist social relations, and feeds into the kinds of self-help and community-building promoted by neoliberal localism.‘

For a detailed critique of associationalist theory see Jonathan Davies’ 2013 paper ‘Just do it differently? Everyday making,  Marxism and the struggle against neoliberalism’. [5]

Localism and the socialist and Marxist Left

While social democracy and associationalism have focused on the local level of politics, the focus of socialist and Marxist organisations in England, especially in the period of austerity, has tended to be on capitalism at the national and global scales. Involvement at the local level has tended to be limited to a combination of building local support for national campaigns and responding reactively to local issues such as Council cuts and workplace disputes when they arise. All of these can be pursued without a theory of capitalism at the local scale or a comprehensive analysis of the local urban regime. But, as Gough argues, the local is not just the national and global writ small: ‘While localities have the same fundamental social relations as larger-scale societies (Gough, 1991), local capitalism is differently constituted from national capitalism and is not simply a small scale replica of it (Gough, 2014)’.  That is why it requires the specific level of analysis and theorisation exemplified by the work of Davies and Gough. Why this matters is because of the importance of the local level for socialist strategy, as Jamie Gough explains:

‘At this scale, socialists can show the deep connections between production, jobs, housing, transport, education and health services and the physical environment.  The problems in these fields are normally treated as intrinsic to the particular field; the normal policies to address them therefore often fail.  In contrast, by a focus on local interdependencies, on society as a totality, socialist strategy can develop truly radical proposals. Socialist strategy thus starts to erode the divides which capitalism fosters: between ‘work’ and ‘home’, public and private, production and consumption, economy and culture, society and nature. 

What, then, are the essential class relations of socialist local strategy?  I have argued that the local scale is one where collective organisations of ordinary people, around production, the social sphere and between them, can be strongly built: the locality becomes the site of working class solidarities.  By taking up the basic material issues of the locality, these can build collaboration and mutual support  between sections of the working class between which capitalist society (consciously, but more importantly unconsciously) constructs divisions.’


  1. Jonathan S. Davies, Adrian Bua, Mercè Cortina-Oriol & Ed Thompson (2020) ‘Why is austerity governable? A Gramscian urban regime analysis of Leicester, UK’. Journal ofUrban Affairs, 42:1, 56-74.
  2. Jamie Gough (2016) ‘Chameleon Localism: the conflicting political uses of the local scale’, unpublished paper. See also Özlem Çelik (2014) ‘Urban neoliberalism, strategies for urban struggles, and ‘the right to the city’, II: An interview with Jamie Gough’. Capital & Class 38:2, 414–451.
  3. Richard Hatcher ‘The Limitations of Community Wealth Building’, ACR 19 June 2021.
  4. New Local (2021) ‘The Community Paradigm: Why public services need radical change and how it can be achieved’.

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