Saturday 8 December 2012

We'll talk about what WE want to talk about: the Barnet rebellion continues

Cornelius informs residents that he and his treacherous colleagues have just handed over this borough's services to Capita, and committed political suicide

There is a local landmark, here in Finchley, a large statue, which features in the first of the two short films made about our borough: 'The Tale of Two Barnets'. This statue is named 'La Délivrance', and was created to celebrate the success of the Battle of the Marne, when the German army was kept from capturing Paris. Lord Rothermere, the fascist supporting proprietor of the Daily Mail, who often drove through this borough en route to his mother's home in Totteridge, (the ward now represented by Councillors Cornelius and Coleman),  presented it to the people of Finchley in 1920.

Mrs Angry was rather amused, therefore, when a fellow committee room occupier murmured to her admiringly on Thursday night that the magnificent sight of Citizen Barnet, whose politics are somewhat to the left, and a bit further still, to those of the Hitler fancying press baron,  reminded him rather of our much loved statue - also known locally as the naked lady.

Rest assured that Citizen Barnet kept her clothes on at all times, whereas Mrs Angry - no, joking, joking. She did think about taking her cardigan off, at one point. And in fact Citizen Barnet did remove her shoes, before standing on the chair, in case they left a dirty mark.

It was a very British revolution, after all.

Instead of a sword, our intrepid defender of democracy brandished a statement, which she yelled from the back of the room in the direction of our shabby Tory Cabinet and their glowering senior officers.

Referring the meeting to the infamous act by our tyrannical councillors to amend the local constitution, so as to forbid all discussion of council policy at any residents' forums, and the refusal by the Tories to allow any debate on the One Barnet programme, Citizen Barnet announced that residents would be now taking charge of the Cabinet meeting, and would remove any restrictions from the issues to be discussed. We are, she said, fighting to take back our democracy. 

At our meeting you can talk about One Barnet.

You can talk about policies.

You can talk about things that affect the whole borough.

They tried to stop us talking about them: we'll talk about what WE want to talk about.

These are OUR services.

This is OUR council.

And you: YOU have NO MANDATE!

The crowd picked up this last phrase and chanted it: YOU HAVE NO MANDATE! YOU HAVE NO MANDATE!

The councillors looked on, stunned. The officers looked mutinous. Sitting across from Mrs Angry, Councillor Brian Coleman sat impassively, and other Tories visibly blenched at the up close and personal reality of the rebellion going on around them. The leader's wife, Councillor Alison Cornelius, gulped some water. For once even the normally ebullient Andreas Tambourides was rattled, surrounded by disrespectful residents for perhaps the first time in his life as a Tory councillor: he hid in his seat, visibly shrinking, as if pretending he was not there. 

After some minutes of chaos, the Tory leader decided to try to assert some authority. He wondered if he might address the gallery. NO, said the gallery. Cornelius patronisingly told the residents that he really did not want to call the police, but he would have to, if they continued in this way. They ignored him. 

A handful of police drifted into the room, and stood by the door, but did nothing. In contrast to the outrageous behaviour by the council's former illegal, unlicensed, blackshirted thugs (Lord Rothermere would have rather taken a fancy to MetPro, one imagines) masquerading as security officers, at this meeting the new security staff acted perfectly properly, as did the police, wisely choosing to keep a distance and allow residents to continue unabated.

Predictably, the Tory Cabinet decided to rise and move out of the room, adjourning to a side chamber where they all squeezed into together, and carried on with their rubber stamping of the Capita contract. OUT OUT OUT chanted the residents ...

Naughty old veteran activist Mr Shepherd, the radical scourge and one man chorus of disapproval at most council meetings wandered about upsetting the Tory councillors as they began to leave: keep the Tory councillors IN, he suggested, revelling in their discomfiture. See, he said, gleefully: you've lost control. He was right.

Residents all moved to their vacated places around the table. Mrs Angry found herself sitting in the seat occupied by the Director of Corporate Governance. Unfortunately a spoilsport officer removed his place name, but she enjoyed the role, and informed him later in the corridor that she had taken the opportunity to amend the constitution, and reinstate the right to free expression in Broken Barnet. Poor Mr Lustig tried very hard to maintain his composure, but was unable to prevent an inadvertent and almost imperceptible twitch of his moustache that might, in other circumstances, have been mistaken for a smile.

We sat around the table, ready to enjoy the rare privilege of a free debate. Revolutionary days, observed Mr Shepherd, approvingly. One of the library occupiers remarked that what was happening was probably the most democratic thing that had happened in this building for a very long time. 

The security staff went about the table, removing the microphones, which was more of a symbolic act than anything. 

One of the telling features of the way in which council meetings are held in Barnet is that the sound system is seemingly designed to make communication as difficult as possible: every meeting is punctuated with demands from the public for councillors to remember to speak into the microphones so we can hear them, and every member of the public who dares to sit at a committee table to ask a question struggles to make themselves heard. 

The resulting dialogue is fractured, fraught, and characteristic of the whole dysfunctional relationship between members and residents: a lack of interest in being open and accountable, and contempt for the opinion of the electorate, representatives of whom now sat around that same table, making themselves heard, without need of amplification, to the councillors who were cowering next door, packed into a windowless room to hold their secret meeting.

Barbara Jacobson, the wonderful Chair of Barnet Alliance, first read out a statement of intent which was repeated, line by line, by the residents present. It was, thought Mrs Angry, rather in the line of a declaration of independence. No taxation, without representation, councillors of Broken Barnet. 

It also occurred to Mrs Angry to enjoy the thought that it is the women of this borough who have done the most to challenge the dictatorial regime imposed by our misogynistic Tory councillors. This revolution, the insurgency, would never have taken fire without the outspoken female residents who have simply had enough and taken matters into their own hands, taking on a role which they probably would never have envisaged for themselves.

Look at the people in the pictures: these are not professional activists, seasoned trouble makers. They are retired civil servants, and librarians, and gardeners, nurses, law students. They are occupying a committee room in the Town Hall that was the bastion of Thatcherism, a building that groans with the weight of Conservative political history. And here we are, in 2012, with a Conservative cabinet hiding in a safe room, selling off the council services to their friends in the private sector, surrounded by their electors, holding them hostage in their own meeting. What do you make of that, Eric Pickles, and David Cameron?

There was a door connecting the two rooms where two such different meetings were taking place last night in the Town Hall, neatly serving as a metaphor for the two Barnets: one in which the secret act of betrayal by our councillors went through its faux consideration of the Capita contract, and in the other, the first and only free debate about One Barnet that has taken place in a council building. 

Around nine o'clock the door opened, and the Tory leader Richard Cornelius stood before us, looking very pleased with himself. Once the yelling had been stopped, he was allowed to speak. He wanted to tell us that the Cabinet had approved the contract. He then left the room swiftly, while he still could.

During the Cabinet enclave, the residents had commenced their own meeting with the invocation read by Barbara Jacobson. We cannot be sure that the councillors were able to hear the entirety of the statement: here then, for their benefit, is the text of the declaration: a declaration, in truth, not of independence, but of war, issued on the evening of 6th December, 2012: the residents of Broken Barnet v their elected representatives:

We will not sit by and watch our community, local economy and livelihoods be destroyed. 

We will be there to protest when Capita turn up to claim their prize. 

While the Barnet Cabinet makes the biggest mistake of their political lives, we are taking over the Town Hall, because there is no democracy in Barnet.

Where has our democracy gone?

The One Barnet programme was not done in consultation with us, the public.

(The People, observed Mr Shepherd.)

It will affect each and everyone in Barnet.

If One Barnet contracts go ahead, it will be irreversible. 

Once our public services are gone, they are gone forever.

We are not going away. 

No matter what the Cabinet decides, whatever the Cabinet decides, it is only the beginning.

We are fighting to take back our democracy. 

We will keep on the fight.

We will keep on the fight.

We will keep on the fight, and reclaim our democracy.

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