Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Holding a dagger at the heart of democracy: Full council, Part Three

Next up: the Labour leader's motion, which everyone in the public gallery was keen to support, and was in fact the reason for their attendance and earlier lobby outside the Town Hall. It was headed:

Let local people decide if they want the £1bn 'One Barnet' gamble

Labour was calling for a referendum on the One Barnet outsourcing programme: a project so huge that, like the limits of the universe itself, no one really knows where it begins and ends, or if it will ever begin or end, something totally all consuming, and so unique that it is impossible to comprehend.

Many of them had revealed their orange anti One Barnet t shirts, with demands for a referendum pinned to the front. As Mrs Angry had entered the Town Hall, a member of council staff - with no ID - ordered a resident with learning and physical disabilities to remove his piece of paper, with the demand printed on it in small letters, from his t shirt.

Mrs Angry undid the safety pin for him, as clearly he could not do so easily himself, and with the paper notice on his shirt, obviously this man, a resident of the borough, a 'stakeholder' already directly affected by the impact of privatisation of care services, attempting to assert his right to watch a council meeting debating the disastrous extension of such lunacy; yes, he would have represented a major risk to the democratic process.

Remember, this is Broken Barnet in the post MetPro world: and this is how we still treat our residents, able bodied or disabled, when they come to the Town Hall - with suspicion and contempt.

Other disobedient residents had sneaked into the gallery with shirts and jackets over their t shirts and notices, and after heckling determinedly throughout the meeting so far, now took off their covering clothes, stood in silent protest and held banners up in defence of Our Barnet, not their Barnet, One Barnet, and demanding a referendum, so that the ordinary residents of this borough, who have deliberately never been involved in any process of consultation over the massive outsourcing plans, can express their views in a democratic way.

Of course this is the last thing the Tories want, and the motion was doomed, but still it has to be put, and seen to fail due to Tory refusal to engage with the people they are supposed to represent.

Alison Moore put the case against One Barnet, carefully, patiently, said that although we were close to entering the point of no retuen, it was not yet too late to pull back. She urged the Tories to ask people what they think, to listen to them.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius in response claimed in his inimitable way, like a reassuring undertaker grasping the hand of a bereaved widow, that all will be well, One Barnet is not a gamble, that it is in fact, ha ha - a careful plan. Every dot had been joined. Good. That'll help. He denied that Barnet Council had an appalling track record. Hmm. He said he didn't like referenda, and referred rather oddly to the rise of Hitler as an example of why they are a bad idea. Mrs Angry has been puzzling over this theory all day, and can only imagine that Barnet Tories have been so keen on obstructing the democratic process due to an unfortunate misapprehension that it was responsible for the birth of Nazism, a theory which surely even David Starkey would screw up and throw in the bin.

There was, it must be said, a fair amount of unseemly pandemonium in the public gallery by now. ARE YOU COMPARING ME TO HITLER? demanded one resident - ARE YOU CALLING ME A FASCIST?

Tory councillors were by now calling for the gallery to be cleared, and residents ejected - THAT'S WHAT HITLER DID - EJECT THE COUNCILLORS! came the furious response - but to his credit Mayor Brian Schama resisted their demands and managed somehow to steer his way through an extraordinarily bad tempered meeting without resorting to the repressive tactics of some of his colleagues. Play the game, he asked the gallery. IT'S NOT A GAME, came the reply - THIS IS OUR LIFE, AND OUR FUTURE!

Cornelius continued, in that wistful, naive, idiotic way of his, trying to negotiate with decency the indecent course of his administration's policies ... Last night, he confided quietly, he had awoken with a worry. Mrs Angry shook her head, pleading with him, in her head, not to give her reason to feel touched by his total lack of grasp on reality, or what is an appropriate comment in any given situation ... his worry was about Labour, and how could they defend their case. Defend what, Richard? He thought he should explain how things were. It was like a box of no, not chocolates, matches, too many matches, and some of those matches in the box had to be thrown away. What? Why? And promise Mrs Angry you will never play with matches, Richard, without a responsible adult present.

Thank God: time for Libdem Jack Cohen, and some intelligent debate.

He was also taken with the box of matches analogy, although had always imagined that One Barnet had actually been drawn up & written on the back of a postage stamp.

Jack referred to Michael Sandel, and his book, 'What Money Can't Buy', which poses the theory that we have moved from a market economy to a market society (yep, just looked it up on Amazon) ... and that market forces are now being brought to bear on areas where they just don't belong. Like the provision of social care, the emergency services, education - sound familiar? He mused on the political theories of Richard Cornelius in regard to referenda ... is he saying, he asked, that we should be run like a communist state?

Please God, said Mr S, in the gallery, in what was undoubtedly the funniest remark of a very entertaining evening. Mrs Angry was beside herself with laughter.

Mr S, arriving at the Town Hall in style. Joking, joking.

Mr S is the old school comrade who often attends council meetings and sits listening in the public gallery in a state of very thinly veiled contempt, commenting loudly on the farcical procedures from behind his copy of the Morning Star, like a sort of radicalised Greek chorus.

Jack Cohen continued: he mocked the council's own claim to be a 'truly citizen centric council' and its pledge to build 'a new relationship with its citizens' when they do everything to avoid engaging with residents. He cited the outrageous censorship of the Resident Forums, the reduction of planning meetings, and mocked the ludicrous One Barnet motto ' A Relentless Drive for Efficiency', their statement of principles - what principles do they have left? They are holding a dagger at the heart of local democracy, and selling off the use of our public services for what? An illusion driven by dogma, based on not one shred of evidence.

Throughout this brilliant diatribe, Cornelius sat smiling, and even laughing, enjoying the spectacle, and not listening to the message.

Oh hell, up stands Robert Rams. Rams can only speak in sound bites. Better services for less money. Right versus wrong. Lunacy versus common sense. Democracy versus fascism. Erm ...

Why do we need a referendum, he asked?

IT'S CALLED DEMOCRACY, someone explained, helpfully, and forcefully, from the public gallery. BECAUSE YOU SERVE THE PUBLIC, screamed another.

Labour's Cath McGuirk was due to speak now, but was shamelessly ignored and silenced. Alison Moore summed up, and reminded the Tory councillors that they will have to face the ultimate ultimatum, one they cannot avoid - in 2014.

The motion failed, of course.

Half time. The councillors left the chamber to gorge themselves on the buffet that is always provided for them at these events, and some of the public left too. Mrs Angry got up, noting the Director of Corporate Governance sitting rather forlornly on his own in the chamber. Still seething from her experience last week at the council offices, where she was treated like a high security prisoner, she gestured to him, and indicated, pointing in the direction of the corridor, that she needed to visit the ladies, and wondered if he might like to escort her? He had the grace to look slightly ashamed, and slightly red in the face. As he should.

At the end of the break, there was a real buzz in the room. No, a real Cafe Buzz owner in the room. Here was Helen Michael, the traders spokewoman and sandwich making menace to civilised society, (and the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet) ... she walked smiling into the chamber, to thunderous applause from the gallery and opposition seats. Mrs Angry understands that she is the first resident to present a petition to council in this manner, in fact.

She presented her petition, and gave a brilliant, eloquent speech on behalf of her fellow traders, ruthlessly deconstructing the Tories' idiotic parking policy, designed by Brian Coleman who sat sulkily in his seat, looking at his phone, and in every direction other than at his nemesis stood in the corner of the room, delivering perhaps the ultimate defeat of his recent fall.

The Mayor and even a certain (usually very solemn faced) senior officer were smiling discreetly, in admiration, as she spoke. The Tory councillors, who had been clearly shaken all night at the ferocity of feeling from the residents in the public gallery, looked on in visible discomfort as Helen spoke of the effect on her high street, and her life, and protested about the sequence of events over the anti parking poster which had somehow led to her being interviewed by detectives from a counter terrorism unit.

At this point the normally genial, relaxed leader Cornelius panicked and leapt to his feet, insisting her allotted time had finished, and demanding that she be stopped. How very amusing.

Helen's appearance in this meeting in fact, marked another point in the rapidly shifting relationship, the balance of power, between this council and its electorate.

Moving into the sacred circle of the chamber, crossing the line: this is a timely reminder to our Tory tyrants that the taboo is broken, here in Broken Barnet, and now, as it should be, it is the people who are back in control of their own destiny.