Monday 14 September 2015

No, it's never just a book: a march for Barnet Libraries

A couple of days after the General Election in May there was a march, here in Broken Barnet: a demonstration organised to protest against the planned assault, by the Tory council, on our library service.

The proposed 'options' presented to councillors for consideration, and theoretically to residents for consultation, amount to a virtual act of destruction of a service that was once, before the Tories began their policy of cuts and 'restructuring', one of the best, most cost effective library systems in the country. 

All under the pretext of necessity, of course: another sacrifice on the altar of austerity, a token gesture whose financial significance is of far lesser importance than the act itself, a necessary sacrament of faith in the cult of easycouncil; itself a legacy of Thatcherism, springing up in the very place where Thatcherism came crawling home to die - a place where public service is bad, and private profit good; where the cull in public service provision began long before the myth of austerity was born. 

The savings which our Tory councillors insist must come from our public services - whilst unable to demonstrate any that have resulted as a result of the Capita contracts - and specifically here from the library budget, are devastating in terms of impact, yet minimal in scale in the context of council expenditure: £2.85 million - a sum which pales into total insignificance when measured against, say, the salary costs of the many senior officer posts created to enforce the annexation of our public services by Capita, the massive gainshare payouts given to Capita in excess of the already huge profits they are milking from their contracts with us; or indeed a typical bill for any of the many private consultancies who predate upon the outsourcing of those services.

And of course the library 'review' process has already cost £200,000 - that's one library already lost, then, or several members of staff.

The dissipation of taxpayers' money in this way, and on such indulgences as the pre-election grant of millions of pounds of Highways funding to Tory wards, or the scandalous giveaway of publicly owned land worth millions to private developers, or the curious matter of the £13 million purchase of a waste depot previously sold for £750,000 - these examples of economic decadence are always approved without criticism by our doltish Tory councillors, and money robbed instead from the funding of vital public services.

The latest example of this is the utterly indefensible, but horribly predictable proposal now sneaked out during the summer, to cut funding for meals on wheels: all done we are told, with bare faced insolence, in order to offer more 'choice' and 'independence' to already dependent, vulnerable members of society. In truth this move, for all the terrible distress and confusion it will cause, will return a mere £180,000. It should be noted that the salary of the senior officer responsible for overseeing this shameful proposal is around £162,000. 

A political miscalculation, however, to attack our libraries, here in Broken Barnet. Of all the public services that we have left, the one that is guaranteed, should it be in danger, of driving the middle classes out of their complacency and out into the streets to protest, alongside the usual local activists and campaigners, is a threat to the local library.

And in May, out into the streets came hundreds of residents, following a brass band, walking from library to library to send a message to their Tory councillors that they will not tolerate the attack on this much loved service.

Marching too were local campaigners and Labour members still in shock from that week's election results. Mrs Angry, utterly disillusioned, sickened by the repellant smear tactics of local Tories, and appalled by the factionalism of local Labour members, was one of them: inclined that morning to turn over in bed and stay there, with a pillow over her head, rather than get up and go, but how wrong she was - the march became a focus for the expression of hope in something better, an act of defiance, and a joyous experience.

Something better. Well: it seemed then to me at least that over the course of the next Tory government, things would be so intolerable, that sooner or later, there would be, if not riots on the streets, a momentum of social unrest and demand for a more radical form of political opposition.

But then God created Jeremy Corbyn.

Not the one who has been MP for Islington since the dawn of time, and has a bicycle and a jacket like your grandad's, but the socialist politician who - let me enjoy the moment - has become the leader of the Labour Party.

A socialist has become the leader of the Labour Party. Did you know? 

Of course we didn't know, on Saturday, when we met up at East Finchley library, to begin a march led by local children, a children's crusade in defence of our libraries, but a march about so much more than that. A march about hope: hope for our children's future - and for the future of politics in this borough, and this country.

How fitting, in view of the unfolding events, as we waited breathlessly for the results of the leadership contest, that the first speaker at the event should be the actress Rebecca Front, who of course played the fictional leader of the opposition in 'The Thick of It". As Malcolm Tucker described her character:

You are not a grandee, you are a fucking "blandee". No-one knew what the fuck you stood for. Political fucking mist, no substance, no weight. You've got all the charm of a rotting teddy bear by a graveside ...

As the crowd was joined by more and more people, and the children gathered with their banners and placards, local children's poet Joshua Seigal involved the crowd in the chorus of a poem on the importance of libraries, and reading: 'Just a Book' ...

It's a soldier in a battle
as he launches a grenade
it's a hunter in a forest
as she sharpens up her blade
it's a playmate, it's a bully
it's a policeman, it's a crook
but it's never, no it's never,
no it's never just a book

It's a package of ideas
it's a bucketful of tools
it's a field full of freedom
it's a folder full of rules
it's a fancy flight of fantasy 
so come and have a look - 
see it's never, no it's never,
no it's never just a book

Never just a book: something our Tory friends simply do not understand, or perhaps they understand it all too well - the indefinable, unlimited power of the written word, and the infinite range of possibilities offered by free access to education, and information. Dangerous, empowering, and free: three things that represent a threat to everything theTories stand for, of course, especially here in Broken Barnet.

Apart from the local residents, library supporters and activists who were assembling outside East Finchley library, it was a real honour to have representatives from 'Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners' - subjects of the fabulous film 'Pride' - above you can see Jonathan Blake, one of the original members of the campaign, who marched with their banner all the way to North Finchley, in solidarity with library protestors. 

As we walked I chatted to Sarah Sackman, recalling the previous march just after her defeat in the general election, and we debated the significance of what was expected to be the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership vote - from slightly different perspectives. Mrs Angry tried to explain why, at what should be her respectable middle age, she was eschewing the time honoured tradition of becoming more conservatively minded, and inclined towards a more radical political position, at the barricades, slightly to the left of Rosa Luxembourg, Alexandra Kollontai, and possibly Madame Mao, largely in response to her experience of Labour grassroots politics, here in Broken Barnet. 

Always measured and diplomatic, Sarah was more in favour of supporting female politicians like Stella Creasy, and a moderate approach. We agreed to disagree, I think.

As we walked along East End Road, the news broke that Jeremy Corbyn had won. 

Mrs Angry had been talking to Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League - and local resident - who now pointed out that he had won with more people voting for him than the total membership of the Conservative party. A truly astounding victory, delivering him an unquestionable mandate - and an absolute trouncing of everything the Labour establishment has come to represent: new Labour, Blue Labour, Red Tories - suddenly it didn't matter anymore. 


We walked on, back on the same route as the previous march, but in a different landscape.

Waiting at Church End library was a crowd of around 150 people, including, of course, the People's Mayor, Councillor Lord Shepherd:

Also waiting was the London Metropolitan Brass Band - and some particularly welcome guests: representatives of the Durham Miners' Association, including Davey Hopper, the general secretary, who oversees the annual Gala, or Big Meeting - as described in the previous post.

That the march had such support was in no small part due to not only the local campaign organiser Polly Napper, but because of the enormous efforts of the indefatigable local Unison branch secretary John Burgess, who has worked tirelessly over the years for members in Barnet, and is now standing as a very popular candidate for the Unison general secretary post. John's years of battle here, fighting the hollowing out of our local council services, in what is fondly imagined to be the flagship of Tory outsourcing, have made him uniquely qualified to take on such a role, and Mrs Angry sincerely hopes he is elected.

As you will understand from the previous post, to see the Miners' Association banner here, on this day, of all days, was an extraordinary thing. The last time Mrs Angry had seen Davey Hopper, he was on the balcony at the Miners' Gala, waving at the passing line of banners and bands, and then on the dais at the Meeting, introducing speakers like Jeremy Corbyn, and Owen Jones,  but here he was, in Finchley, as he remarked to her, (whilst kindly removing an angry wasp that was entangled in her hair), in Margaret Thatcher's backyard, on the day we elected a socialist leader of the Labour party. 

Mrs Angry could not resist pointing out that he would shortly be passing the local Conservative offices at "Margaret Thatcher House". Mr Hopper became very keen to get going then, and make sure a photograph was taken to record this momentous occasion, which was, after all, a perfect act of synchronicity in the order of time, as it is measured here, in Broken Barnet, and one which could really only take place here, in the most rotten of rotten boroughs, where Thatcher's would be heirs still live in her thrall, the last of their kind, under the protection of Capita, and an assortment of other commercial masters.

We had more speeches, including one from Alan Gibbons, the writer and library campaigner, which Mrs Angry, distracted by banners and wasps, missed, but which he later assured her was the 'usual one', but with value added hope and expectation, on account of the Corbyn coup.

And we were off again, through Finchley Central, the band playing, the banners held high:

The march stopped as planned, to pay its respects to the shrine of Thatcherism. The same spot that was taken over by Occupy, not so long ago, you may recall, but this unlikely pilgrimage, on such a day, really was too surreal for words: here instead is a picture. 

Not only the miners' banner: a triumphant greeting from 'Lesbians and Gays support the Miners',see below, being photographed by Alan Gibbons, 

and below, some footage.

On to North Finchley library, and the end of the march.

Mrs Angry spoke to Jonathan Blake and Nicola Field, from LGSM, whose characters, of course, appear in 'Pride', as they sat down on a bench outside the library, and asked what had persuaded them to join us. One reason was to say thank you to Barnet Unison, and to John Burgess, who had taken the Barnet banner to Pride this year - and been targeted for a vile, homophobic attack, apparently from neo-nazi activists, as a result. But as Jonathan explained, they felt very strongly about the cause: libraries, he said were the lifeblood of education - and Nicola wanted to make the point that the threat to this service was very definitely a LGBT issue, representing the first point of access to information for so many, including young people in the process of recognising their sexual identities. And winning the right to equal marriage is all very well, she said: but the impact of austerity hits the LGBT community just as hard, (if not harder) as any other. 

The lessons of 'Pride', and the spirit of the Gala, the idea of unity, and community, are understood and freely expressed here, in the political activism in this borough. Pride in community, united in opposition to the agenda of war on the poor, the vulnerable, the homeless: and on the public services which were created to support those in need, on a basis of equality, free of cost, as a right, and not a privilege of birth or wealth.

Time then for the Labour party here, and nationally, to stop dithering on the sidelines, and become once more the party that speaks for the people, that is to say these people, fighting for social justice. That process, we must hope, has now begun.

Former shadow Culture secretary Chris Bryant came to Barnet during the election campaign, and had nothing to say to local campaigners that would persuade them Labour, as it was then, intended to act in any way differently to the Tory agenda for libraries - supporting so called community ventures, staffed by volunteers who effectively are facilitating the de-professionalisation of libraries; and refusing to ringfence funding for the public library system, despite all arguments for the retention of this vital service: in short obediently repeating the Tory line that cuts to libraries are inevitable, and closures must continue.

At the time, Mrs Angry pointed out to Chris Bryant that Labour was missing the opportunity to profit from the huge opposition to library cuts from the public, and simply not listening to the message such resentment was sending. Of course, although he did reply, he too clearly was not listening, either, and look: Labour lost the election, Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the party, and Mr Bryant is no longer shadow Culture secretary. 

Let's see what the new boy, Michael Dugher, has to say, shall we? 

In the meanwhile, back here in Broken Barnet, the meeting that was due to take place this month, to 'discuss' the future of our library service, has been quietly postponed and moved to October 12th. As Barbara Jacobson suggested in her speech on Saturday, this is very interesting and possibly highly significant. Why the delay? Is it true that Tory councillors are unable to agree their position? We know that since the cuts have been announced, each Tory member, mindful of the fury from local voters, has been frantically lobbying behind the scenes, trying to save their own branch from the cull.

On the other hand, it maybe that the decision has already been made, as arrangements have been made to close libraries for a couple of hours one day next month, when staff will be summoned to council offices at North London Business Park, and told their fate. 

Libraries may close, or shrink in size, or see their hours slashed: they may decide to outsource the service to the private sector, or other venture - what is also possible is that buildings that are still nominally libraries will be retained, but become something other, not a service, a travesty of what is meant by a public library: staff may well lose their jobs and be replaced by the ludicrous system of 'open libraries' - rooms with a few shelves of books, and no librarians, or even assistants, to help you. 

A pilot scheme has already been tried, with  Reuben Thompstone,  the Tory councillor responsible for libraries, and the man who has already tried to cut the funding of respite care for disabled children, shortly after the Tories announced a pre election gesture of a 23 pence a week cut in council tax, primed and ready to sell any desperate decision that our elected representatives agree, no matter how apocalyptic in scale. 

If you live in Broken Barnet, and you love your local library, then: be afraid. Be very afraid. And angry: and now is the time to tell your Tory councillors, loud and clear, how you feel.

But it is not only we who should fear for the future. The strength of feeling on the library issue is part of the rebellion amongst the nation as a whole against a system of politics that puts profit before people, and has necessarily excluded all commitment to the ethos of public service. The resurgence of the Labour movement is real, and coming to a town hall near you, here in Broken Barnet, we can only hope, sometime soon. 

Saturday's event reminded us of the importance of the symbolism of the past, the reference to our common history, and bonds forged in hardship, injustice and inequality, then and now. 

From the past to the future then, with hope, and at last, a real chance to change the way we live, and the society we want to become.

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