"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945
There are some historical forms of live public entertainment which we now frown upon. Bear baiting. Public executions. Chimpanzees tea parties. Laughing at the inmates of Bedlam.
If you still have a taste for this sort of thing, though, let me suggest you spend an evening, as I did last night, attending a full meeting of Barnet Council, four hours of raucous fun, watching the Tory councillors, the elected representatives of you, me and all the good people of Broken Barnet, disport themselves at our expense, lecture us at length about the painful austerity measures which we must be subject to, and then vote themselves a lovely package of extensive increases in their own pay allowances.
I've attended council meetings, on and off, for some years now, and even had to take part in some as a staffside representative. I have to say, in all honesty, that I have never seen a more discreditable bunch of Tory councillors than the selection we have now. The immaturity of their behaviour, the feeble level of debate, the lack of intellect, and of course the lack of integrity, marks this lot out as something quite unique, even by Barnet's admittedly low standards.
The most worrying feature, though, is the leadership of this group. Watching the interaction and body language of the Leader, Lynne Hillan, her mentor, Brian Coleman, and their chum Andrew Harper, was most illuminating.
The real Leader of this council, dear readers, is Mr Blobby himself: or so he thinks. He certainly has the loudest voice, and likes to hear it as often as possible. He evidently also believes that he is the Oscar Wilde of Barnet Council, and trots out what are supposed to be his little witticisms at every opportunity - which sound suspiciously as if he has been practising them in front of the bathroom mirror. Whereas other councillors are soft spoken, and have trouble being heard even with the microphones, our Brian has no problem. Aside from the occasional peevish remark, when he is caught unawares, in full flight he does not speak so much as hector and bellow: typical of someone who has no respect for the views of others. He and the Leader sat sniggering like nursery schoolchildren throughout most of last night's proceedings. Lynne Hillan was a complete revelation, in fact - to say she is a surprising choice as leader is to put it mildly. Say what you may about Mike Freer: as we all know he was a banker, and certainly looked like one, didn't he boys and girls, but at least he looked vaguely credible as a local politician: the present Leader seems markedly short of the requisite gravitas and bearing of someone appointed to what she later reminded us was such a responsible position, and so badly underpaid ...
Well actually, let's tell it like it was: there they sat, Hillan and Coleman, like Olive and Stan from On the Buses, whispering and giggling, as the council proceedings unfolded. Curious behaviour, you might think, in the circumstances. It was noticeable, however, how disrespectful the Tory group councillors are whenever anyone from any other party is speaking. They smirk and snigger, talk, make derisory comments constantly. When a woman speaks, especially, I noticed, when a Labour woman councillor from an ethnic minority speaks, this amusement is increased. Their audible derision takes on a really nasty, bullying tone. Apparently women, funny accents and mispronounced words are still very funny in the non PC world of Barnet Tories. One female Labour councillor made the unfortunate mistake, when discussing the Condem government, of referring to the Condom government. Oh ho ho: condom: see, ha ha: of course, slightly amusing, but to the boys of the Tory group this was SO funny - and this coming from a bunch most of whom are definitely either too old or too ugly to have a packet of johnnies that isn't past its sell by date anyway ...
We started with a prayer from the Mayor's chaplain, a Rabbi who made an erudite speech about Talmudic tradition and councillors being nice to each other, and how the Mayor was going to bring about peace and harmony. Surprisingly, this Mayor seemed determined to be remarkably grumpy, especially to the Labour councillors, one of whom later accused him of not being even handed ... and I have to say that I thought it was rather rude of him to ask Councillor Sodha 'Are you awake?' when she was few seconds late in speaking, at one point.
Tribute was paid to the late local Labour MP Rudi Vis, who passed away recently. Guess which councillor, throughout one particular speech, had his eyes markedly fixed on the ceiling. Of course, it may have been that he was seeing a heavenly vision of angels or asking for forgiveness for his many sins from the Almighty, but quite frankly it simply looked as if he was being deliberately disrespectful.
Question time followed. This was a series of written answers submitted earlier, some of whose responses were being queried at the meeting. In most cases this was because the answers Labour or Liberal councillors had obtained from the relevant Tory responsible were inadequate. Brian Coleman appeared to answer most of these, with as little information as possible, and as dismissively as possible. His favourite stock answer, as to when something that ought to be done, might be done, when he couldn't be bothered, or could not reply for other reasons, was 'In due course'. This phrase evidently is an in joke with those cheeky Tory chappies. 'In due course' they repeated, constantly, chortling at their own wit: 'In due course!'
Amongst the interesting questions to which there was no satisfactory answer was from Labour Councillor Schneiderman asking why it was taking so long for councillors' expenditure to be published, as promised long ago. How timely: this will at last be published next week, safely after the meeting, Barnet style. He also asked when will Futureshape savings overtake the costs that this scheme had incurred?
In due course.
Councillor Agnes Slocombe was unhappy about Brian Coleman's response on battery collection in recycling boxes. Hers kept being left behind. Councillor Coleman thought this was nonsense: he, apparently, gets through a lot of batteries - hmmm - and has no problem disposing of them. In a response that would strike a note of fear in any citizen's heart, he offered to call round in the morning to inspect her recycling arrangements.
Councillor Coakley Webb asked Brian the meaning of the phrase 'In due course'.
Brian, in a witty riposte that would have had dear Oscar chewing the tablecloth in envy, replied 'In due course means - in due course!' Oh, how we laughed.
Brian is the new Broken Barnet Czar of Potholes (think it was potholes) -cometh the hour, cometh the man - and was asked why it was taking so long to sort them out, and who was to blame for this situation? Councillor Coleman sought to shift the blame by announcing that as the pot holes were due to 'an act of God', he was going to take legal action against the Almighty. This statement, however, caused a sharp intake of breath in the council chamber:
'Blasphemy!' protested more than one councillor.
The Mayor became very solemn and looked across the room in pious disapproval. Luckily the Rabbi had left by now. Coleman, for once, slipped into his seat and shut up.
There was a debate about the proposed housing plans. Labour councillors mentioned the effect of cuts in benefit on vulnerable families, the 'social cleansing' it would cause, moving the poorest families on continualy in search of a diminishing stock of affordable housing. Oops, someone even mentioned Shirley Porter.
Libdem councillor Susette Palmer informed us that she had a dream. We've all heard that one, dear. Decent education and housing for all. Yes, yes, we agree: move on. She defended the present housing points' system. Olive and Stan sat there smirking. To be fair, watching the three Libdem councillors last night initially was rather amusing: they are evidently less than thrilled at being forced into bed with their long term opponents, and their vile seducers, their Tory colleagues, took a great relish in verbally feeling them up, as it were, knowing they couldn't protest too loudly. It was like watching your uncle and aunt being forced to attend a swingers' party and not knowing where to look. They overcame their reserve, however, and daringly flirted with some racy Tory suggestions, and supported some of their amendments, which did not exactly cover them with glory. Later on, however, they redeemed themselves by their savage criticism of the scandalous events which were to follow.
Lynne Hillan made a speech about the budget. She told us, warned us, sternly that tough decisions will have to be made, and - tragically, these decisions could not be implemented 'without pain'. Pain for other people, that is, you understand, not Lynne and her cronies, who are special, very special, and above all of this unpleasantness. There would be harsh spending cuts, all because of Labour. Everything nasty was Labour's fault. For overspending. On things like, ooh what: salaries? Allowances? However, things can only get better under the new government. All that wicked bureaucracy and rules and regulations which have caused the decline of Western civilisation will be banished, and there will be a free for all, hooray!
She welcomed the Libdems into a new era of intimate relations with the Tories. They looked ashamed and stared ahead with fixed expressions. Councillor Schneiderman spoke: he pointed out that Barnet had only ever complained about the low level of funding from central government, rather than ask to have it cut. Monroe Palmer then stood up. He announced that actually he was going to disagree with the Leader: he wasn't scared, oh no, not him. He noted that the Leader talked of sacrifices that had to be made, but apparently not by the Leader in relation to her proposed increase of her own allowance. Thunderous applause broke out in the chamber.
Hillan and Coleman looked sheepish and slunk a little lower in their seats.
A new Labour councillor, Brodkin, spoke now: an impressive, eloquent, well reasoned speech - he will be an asset to the Opposition, mark Mrs Angry's words, and what a contrast to some of the new young Tory councillors whose laughable neo Thacherite opinions could only be expressed by someone with no real life experience. One of the new Tory boys' parents came in to watch him make his speech, then left. Remarkably restrained, I thought, because if that had been my son I would have legged it over the public gallery barricade and given him a hiding. Don't say you haven't been warned, my boy ...
We had a discussion then on road safety. Geoff Cooke, for Labour, is concerned, as we should all be, about the rise in accidents in the borough. What did our Brian, with his 'roads, roads, roads, roads' portfolio have to say about this? He welcomed the Mayor of London's proposal to relieve us of some traffic lights and pelican crossings which, rather annoyingly, have the habit of slowing down traffic and obstructing would be speeding drivers, a subject dear to his heart (if he had one). He claimed people had been knocked down and killed on road calming platforms in the Finchley Road, something vehemently denied by local councillors of both Labour and Libdem parties. Coleman became even more exciteable at this point, yelling and bullying - really, I do think he needs to calm down a little: bearing in mind his ever increasing girth, (a few lunches too many, I suspect, Brian) he is a prime candidate for a heart attack or stroke, and that would be a sad loss for the people of Barnet, wouldn't it, friends?
Geoff Cooke, he ranted, in his own time in charge of roads, was an 'arch fiddler'. Oh dear. Not expenses or allowances, you understand, that's a Tory indulgence. No: just couldn't stop himself trying to bring in road safety measures, here there and everywhere, obsessed with the idea of preserving life rather than prioritising the needs of speeding councillors. Silly man.
Next topic: education. Academies, and the loss of funding for Barnet's most needy schools. Andrew Harper likes academies now, even though they were a Labour initiative. He likes them now I guess, because obviously whereas before they were only for the poorer residents, and therefore a foolish idea, now the scheme can be exploited by successful middle class schools. He said how wonderful it will be for these schools to be free of control: ah yes, that old Tory touchstone, freedom to do what you want regardless of the consequences for others: marvellous. People who objected were alarmists who didn't understand: 'TEACHERS! yelled a certain blogger sitting behind me.
Mr Harper said smoothly that of course it was disappointing to have all that funding taken away, but quite right of Mr Gove to take it away. Anyway, we have such wonderful schools in Barnet, it doesn't really matter. Funny how none of the Tories pay any attention to the fact that we also have some really crap ones too, the sort their children will never have to go to. Anne Hutton pointed out that chucking this scheme out meant that £160 million has been completely wasted. But that fact was completely wasted on our Tory councillors.
Child Poverty next. This doesn't exist, or at least it is a relative term, according to some of the more stupid Tory councillors who now spoke. Of course more stupid is a relative term: I perhaps you should qualify that by saying really, really, stupid, ill informed and insensitive. They said, for eample, if I understand them correctly, that under Labour more children were living in poverty (which doesn't really exist) whereas in fact all studies show that the reverse is true ... Councillor Hutton reminded us all of the scary fact that Barnet is slipping backwards in the index of Multiple Deprivation. She mentioned the areas of Burnt Oak and Colindale, which don't really register on the radar of Barnet Tories, of course.
Throughout this discussion, Hillan, Coleman and Harper and other Tory councillors seemed to be amused by something: Councillor McGurk shouted that she failed to see what they found so amusing about the subject of child poverty.
Tory councillor Davey had some very interesting views on this subject. He claimed that only aspiration lifts people out of poverty. Ah, the deserving poor again. We need to do away with concentrated social housing because it was a Bad Thing for the plebs to be surrounded by people with no aspirations. Yes, really: I've checked my notes.
And then we reached item 5.3.
This was an item on the agenda which had only appeared at the last minute, for some strange reason. It was the proposal that Barnet should drop the current scheme for deciding the level of allowances for councillors in favour of one which coincidentally would hoik their allowances up by a huge amount. Lynne Hillan stands to gain a cool £20,000.
Ms Hillan stood up to try to defend the indefensible.
What we had not appreciated, of course, was that in these times of austerity, she and her chums are special cases. They need to pay their bills. They have more work to do than before.
This obviously does not apply to any council officer or any worker in any other employment. You see, what we have always paid our over worked councillors is only an allowance, despite all the responsibility they undertake. The idea that the level of their allowance is meant to represent the fact that they are not employed as councillors but choose to do this -ha ha - as a service to their community, seems to have escaped Ms Hillan and her chums. Local government is NOT or should not be an alternative to employment in the private sector, nor are the positions of councillors meant to be salaried. If you rely entirely on your earnings from your council office, that is your decision. If you don't like it, take a walk down to the job centre, love.
Alison Moore told Ms Hillan that to do what she proposes at a time like this was obscene, self serving, hypocritical and at exorbitant cost in a times of austerity. She had neither a scrap of integrity nor any remorse.
Susette Palmer warned that she was about to explode. In fact in her anger, punctuated by applause and heckling from the public gallery and in the chamber itself, she embodied the outrage that any resident of this borough must surely feel at what the Tories have done. As she lambasted the scrounging wastrels, Brian Coleman sat biting his nails indifferently. She accused them of sheer greed, said that the proposals were morally outrageous, and ethically unsound. She was glad the Mayor's chaplain was no longer present to see the councillors trying to cheat the electorate.
Guess which councillor now moved to shut down any further discussion of the issue, swiftly seconded by a shameless crony? The Labour group forced a division roll call which compelled each councillor to express support or opposition to the allowance rise.
Not a single Tory opposed these outrageous pay rises.
Only Tory Councillor Kate Salinger had the temerity to abstain. At this point, I left in disgust, but I am told Mrs Salinger was consequently deprived of all committee responsibilities by the leadership, in an act of spite to punish her for daring to do the right thing. *Update: this event has just been described to me by an eyewitness as 'a public execution' ... Well: looks like some good old forms of live entertainment are coming back into fashion after all.
And this, Tory voters of Broken Barnet, is the bunch of greedy, self serving, parasitic, scrounging hypocrites whom you have returned to power for another four years.
What were you thinking?