Monday, 7 May 2018

Election 2018: Barnet is still Broken

A hopeless dawn for Labour, at Allianz Park on Friday morning

Interesting piece in the Irish Times this Sunday, by Fintan O'Toole, on England, and the cult of heroic failure. The Charge of the Light Brigade; the Franklin expedition; the Somme - to name but a few examples of glorious catastrophe - noble hearted failure, staring defeat in the face, and embracing it. 

We live now, however, in Barnet, in the age of inglorious failure: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and then looking at its broken body on the floor, poking it with a stick, and wondering what happened.

Yes, Barnet is still Broken. 

And here is what happened. 

If you want a simplistic explanation of why Labour failed to win the council, please feel free to go elsewhere. This will be an attempt to look more dispassionately at the facts, and confront some hard truths. None of us will be any the better for it, and some of us will feel worse, but it needs saying.

Here we are then, in a nutshell. Labour lost for a number of reasons. Some are more important than others. Some are very complex. Some are not. 

Different parts of the borough were won or lost for different reasons, and some for the same reasons.

There were some very good candidates. There were some pretty poor ones. 

Some should have stood down. Some should never have stood at all. One or two newly elected Labour councillors will bring a hugely needed injection of energy and fresh perspective to the party.

It is very difficult to attempt to analyse what went wrong in Barnet with a cool eye - especially at the moment - because of the sensitivity of the one issue that everyone is talking about: and that is of course the issue of antisemitism within the Labour party, and how it is dealt with, or not dealt with, by the leadership and processes of the national party. 

A national issue, but one with a huge significance for Barnet, where, as this report in the Mirror states, one in seven voters is Jewish. 

Only a fool - or a bigot - would think that the failure of the party to deal appropriately with the issue of a minority of vile antisemites who cling on to the fringes of the party for their own purposes is not a huge factor in the reputational damage to the local party, and its chances of electoral success. 

Let us be clear about this, but also not dismiss the need to acknowledge the consequence of other failures.

The impact on Jewish Labour voters and residents of Barnet, is profound, and undeniable: many will have been reluctant to vote for the party. Some will have chosen not to. 

But we must consider the question: whatever the impact, was it statistically significant, in terms of the outcome of the election in Barnet?

Immediately after the result was announced, many Labour councillors were of course shocked and disappointed - for those who lost seats, or failed to be elected, this was a very public and painful rejection. The immediate reaction was to attribute blame for the losses on only one issue: the antisemitism debacle.

Quite evidently, and quite reasonably, many Labour supporting Jewish residents have been angered, and hurt, by a prolonged tolerance of antisemitism within the outer fringes of the party - or at least the slowness of some to instigate swift and effective mechanisms to deal with such behaviour. This has undoubtedly lost many Labour votes from the Jewish community, caused huge damage to the relationship between party and the community - and harmed the ability of the party in Barnet to campaign and win the council from a grossly incompetent, and increasingly unpopular Tory administration.

But the picture in Barnet is more complex, and needs closer analysis before we can conclude that the antisemitism issue was the only significant factor in the Labour defeat.

It is necessary to consider the other causes : local and national issues, and variations within the Barnet context, and at this point in its political history.

We do not have figures that prove how many of the one in seven voters in Barnet said to be Jewish were Labour supporters: however many, or rather how few, this is clearly likely to have been catastrophically affected by the antisemitism row. But setting emotions aside, if we can, how crucial was this in terms of the outcome, on a strictly statistical basis? Are there other reasons for Labour's failure - such as concern about the emergence of a left of centre party leadership - or a personal mistrust of the leader himself? And what other local factors were at play?

The loss of West Hendon ward came as a huge shock to many people, and was a personal tragedy for councillor Adam Langleben, who has been prominent in raising continuing concerns about the way in which antisemitism is dealt with within the Labour party. He considers the loss of his seat attributable to Labour votes lost because of anger over the issue. 

Adam's departure from the local Labour group will be a huge blow: a hard working, highly astute and experienced member, and a passionate, and well respected advocate for the Jewish community, locally and elsewhere. 

But was the loss of this ward, and all chances of gaining the council for Labour, entirely due to one issue? 

In truth the loss of West Hendon ward was always a very real risk, and has been, for some time.

The demographic changes within this area over recent years have been very significant. As this ward profile shows, there are now large Muslim and Hindu communities in West Hendon, as well as a broader, increasingly diverse population of other origins, ethnicities and religions. The percentage of Jewish residents, as you will see, was estimated at 14% - smaller even then than the Muslim one, at 17%. The Jewish community within this ward is  one that would seem unlikely to have supported many Labour votes, in any eventuality. 

The changing face of West Hendon, and the increase in BAME population was something the local party was aware of, and acknowledged, at least privately, at the time of campaigning the last London Assembly elections. There was real concern then about a gain in Tory support in these communities. In fact there were emerging signs of a shift in electoral patterns even as early as 2014, which is why the local Tory party so gleefully celebrated the defection to them of a disaffected Labour councillor, Ansuya Sodha, who stood for them in West Hendon in 2014 - and even then, in those circumstances, won 1, 357 Tory votes. Since then, the Tories have targeted these communities - and benefited as a result.

In fact the figures for last week's results show that the Labour vote increased, despite the antisemitism issue. Clearly so did the Tory vote - but where did the UKIP support go? Looks like it went to the Tories.

There is another hugely important factor in this ward. And that is a subject this blog has covered extensively - the faux 'regeneration' of the former West Hendon council estate: call it regeneration, call it social cleansing- the result in terms of political outcome is a radical realignment of old loyalties.

As this ruthless scouring of the local landscape has progressed, removing a low rise community of social housing, and replacing it with a monstrously ugly development of high rise, 'luxury' developments, the heart has been ripped out of West Hendon - and with that bleeding heart goes a haemorrhaging of traditional Labour voters. 

Let's look at another ward: my home ward of West Finchley, which has a Jewish community of more diverse character than that of West Hendon. One might expect there to be a higher level of Labour voters who would be upset by the antisemitism issue - yet this was retained for Labour, with an increased vote, despite the departure of veteran, and much loved, councillor Jim Tierney.  Rabbi Danny Rich was elected in his place  - he is a senior figure within the community of Liberal Judaism: hopefully voters found assurance in his candidacy, and voted accordingly. 

It is true that the Tory candidates in West Finchley increased their votes too - but then again they probably picked up the UKIP voters.

In Finchley Church End, a Tory stronghold, there is one of the largest Jewish populations in the borough - estimated in 2013 at 31%.

Quite clearly the Tory vote has increased: but interestingly the Labour vote has more or less stayed the same, and has not collapsed. No Green candidate, nor one from Ukip: an increase for Libdems - which may bear a clue to something else going on, which we will come back to later.

This is only a snapshot of a small number of the election results, and obviously there will need to be a detailed analysis of all wards - and a period of reflection by the local party. It would be wrong, however, to make conclusions immediately after this massive disappointment without that detailed analysis. 

Which brings us to another issue: something easily noticed if like me you were at the count, scrutinising the ballot papers. 

When you do this, you note the number of block votes of three, for any party. You have little time to keep up with the flow of papers being counted, and learn to watch every one, looking for the detail of each vote. What seemed extraordinary was the number of split votes: some with the most baffling combinations: one Tory, one Labour, one Libdem, for example. Many of these multiple choice votes appeared to include one Green candidate.

This seemed quite extraordinary, and indicates something that is being missed by all parties. Is it that voters are increasingly confused by the messages put out by mainstream politics, and failing to associate them with a coherent narrative and range of policies?

Another issue which quite clearly must have affected the outcome of this election in Barnet, and may have something to do with the split votes, is one that is hardly being mentioned, in the middle, as we are, of so much debate about antisemitism.

This is of course ... Brexit. Ah yes: remember that? Everyone seems to have forgotten, 

It might be time to ask if worries about the lack of opposition to Brexit from Labour, and a mixed message from the Tories,  has had an impact in this election - and caused a trend towards split votes. 

Again, confusion and disillusion among voters might well have sent them into a random choice of pick and mix votes, thwarting the best laid strategies of election agents and campaigners. We expect voters to be consistent, and loyal to one party. The thought that they might be heartily sick of all of them, and effectively act to undermine the whole system as a result, is quite tempting. 

Party activists expect voters to be politically literate, articulate, and think in the same way they do. The truth is something quite different.

Acting as teller earlier in the day at a local polling station, the well seasoned Tory matron doing the same for the Tories was replaced after a while by a man in his thirties who appeared not to know what to do, and kept asking the Labour teller, ie me, if he was doing it right. After a while, to my astonishment, he casually mentioned that he was actually a Labour supporter, and asked did I know how he could join the party? When I had stopped laughing, it occurred to me this might be an ill omen. It was.

But back to the question of lost votes for Labour, and an excruciatingly disappointing failure to win the council from the Tories. 

It had seemed so simple: the Tories themselves were in free fall, panicking about the growing evidence of failure of their easycouncil model of hollowed out, outsourced services: the spiralling bills, the decline in those services - they were unable to formulate a credible manifesto, and constructed one seemingly the work of an opposition party, with no connection to their own disastrous record. Tory members thought they were in for a thrashing at the polls - and some may well have been secretly relieved if this had happened, rather than face what is going to happen as the evidence of their own incompetence becomes even more clear, in the coming months. Others  were rumoured to be plotting to push a newly formed council - or opposition group - in a new direction, with a new leader.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius interviewed at the count

To be fair, Labour's campaign was slightly better focused than in previous elections. As always, there was great emphasis on canvassing, and leafleting. But there were the same mistakes in target wards, and a failure to see the trees for the wood: or rather the wood as it was maybe ten years ago.

And as always, they tended to forget that you need to have something to put on those leaflets and mention on the doorstep: a clear set of policies, based on a record of strong opposition.

This is where the party must acknowledge failure. The record in opposition has not been strong - or even memorable. Time and again their performance has been too low key, unclear, weak, and poorly communicated to residents. Too many times the Labour group has failed to challenge the iniquitous agenda of the Tory administration, to fight with real passion, and well directed strategy. 

The continual struggle to expose the damning truth about the performance of the Capita contracts has been left to Unison, and local activists and bloggers. Blogger John Dix has offered the only real scrutiny of the outcome of this contractual bondage - a fact acknowledged by the Tory Chair of the Audit committee, at his last meeting.

A preference for life in the centre of the party is partly to blame for this fatal inertia, as is a position out of step with the new energy within the Labour movement, and the key policies of a hugely popular manifesto.

Quite apart from the distraction and anger over the antisemitism issue, voters in Barnet did not know what Labour stood for, whatever it was, because there was such poor communication and slowness to get involved in local issues at a grassroots level.

Take the fight against library cuts: this should have come from Labour, not have been left to a campaign group, Save Barnet Libraries, to pursue. Instead we saw the library lead in Labour actually take part in a bid to run one of the Tories' new 'partnership' libraries: an excruciating blunder that horrified campaigners, and further alienated them from the party.

That some later rapprochement took place was down to the great diplomacy of Childs Hill community activist and SBL campaigner Anne Clarke - who has just been elected, as a Labour gain, to represent this ward, which borders on Golders Green, with the closest of margins, replacing veteran Libdem councillor Jack Cohen. 

Elected in a ward with a diverse range of residents, including a Jewish population of 17% - and two Tory councillors from that community. Fiercely intelligent, outspoken, but tactful - and strategic, the reason Anne was elected as a new councillor, in a marginal ward - the most marginal in London - was because she is that rare thing: a candidate who has proved their worth by being steeped in local activism, deeply embedded in grassroots local issues and several campaigns, such as the fight against the aggregate depot, and drawing residents towards the party at election time. Hard work, but it paid off, despite the odds. 

This is the way forward for Barnet Labour: reconnecting with residents; acknowledging the rapid demographic changes which are now a feature of a borough with an increasingly transient population, and embracing the wide range and diversity of the borough, and the needs of each community. Barnet is changing - and Barnet Labour must change with it.

The rift with the Jewish community is a grievous wound that needs urgent attention. Jeremy Corbyn must find a way to fix this: only he can put it right. 

Whatever has gone before, and the rights or wrongs of it, and the part it played in the local election, the only way forward now is through dialogue, and honesty.

The alternative is unthinkable. The future is unthinkable. 

Residents have just elected a brutal, re-energised Conservative council that will feel newly vindicated in its role, and believe that their history of incompetence has been rewarded - or at least overlooked - and this will empower them to adopt an agenda of policies that will be even more extreme than anything that we have yet seen. 

As the financial health of the borough continues to deteriorate, more and more cuts in public services will be imposed, and standards thrown out of the window.

Time for Labour to become the opposition this borough needs: to end its tendency to seek a path of consensual politics, and mutual ground. There can be no mutual ground with such people. 

There are few Labour members who are elected on the basis of wanting an easy life, or not wanting to serve their community: individually all are honourable, decent people, with the best intentions: but collectively, as a group, they have been too ineffectual.

Time to grab hold of the agenda: to wrong foot the Tory administration - to be politically courageous, and assertive, to offer the choice of a radical and persuasive alternative, not choose to rely on the same old routine, an anodyne manifesto, a few stunts, and a barrel load of empty words. 

Time to put the questions to committees that residents and activists and bloggers have had to articulate, because the opposition group has failed to do so. 

Time to earn the respect of voters, with a defence of their rights, and their concerns. 

Then, and only then, when it is time for another election, here or nationally, Labour might - just might  - be in with a chance of winning here, one day.


PDR said...

Interesting commentary on a complex situation. I do feel that anti-semitism and opposition to several policies of the current Israeli government are often conflated, particularly in media which see this conflation as being in their own and their owners' interests. It's a big barrier to surmount. Also both Labour and Conservatives strike me as being strong on criticism but weak on their own policies -- neither wants to incite rebellions against Brexit, so maintain a fudge. No wonder voters are confused.

Mrs Angry said...

I'm not sure there is a safe place to raise valid criticisms of the current Israeli government. This is part of the problem, as it means anyone wishing to do so may end up on the lunatic fringe of conspiracy led antisemitism hiding under a political cover. But anyway it is wrong to attach the two issues, as if one must necessarily belong to the other, or to assume Jewish people in the diaspora are somehow accountable for what happens in Israel, as the lunatic fringe tend to.

Pavilion Way WhatsApp group admin said...

After a council motion on BDS, I sought out my ward councillor to chat about it. I have never seen him so passionate about a topic as his trip to meet trade unionists in Israel and the occupied territories. No it's not a polite British topic of conversation. It has very little connection to the business of local government. Yet this election it was put on the agenda.

amie said...

A very thoughtful, heartbreaking and nuanced analysis. I am interested in your perception that Tories are now more popular with the BAME community. As someone who used to pound the streets for Dismore, I could not vote Labour last week because of the endemic antisemitism. This is where I party company with your analysis: that this is only on the fringes, and that Corbyn is the one to solve it. He is part of the problem.

Further, this meeting at Cafe Buzz you attended and blogged about, highlights the problem. The Jeremy persona at this meeting you so lovingly sketch is not the Jeremy so many of us see, when we watch the Vice documentary and he vehemently lashes out at Jonathan Freedland. Significantly, not the Jeremy we saw sitting in Parliament responding to the harrowing testimony of Jewish and non Jewish MPs at the hands of a torrent, not a fringe of Labour party abuse. Jeremy's response was to fold his arms, shake his head petulantly and chunter across the testimony before leaving the chamber for several key MP accounts. We saw him hide behind procedure in his emotionless response in the meeting with representatives of the Jewish community.

Read here why your Buzz cafe meeting was part of the problem

amie said...

Also, as you say, the Labour programme failed for me in that it followed Tory dogma in guaranteeing no increase in Council Tax, while at the same time promising the return of Big Rock Candy Mountain, without explaining how this sleight of hand would be achieved. Until we can openly talk about necessary tax increases, we are in a dead end.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis Mrs Angry. Lots to agree on and you have honestly highlighted several areas where Labour could have done better. But you missed the elephant in the room (beyond the antisemitism) and that is the justifiable fear many people have on the antics of Momentum and the real risks of Momentum flexing its muscles should Labour have taken control of LBB.

Chuka Umunna in an interview just days prior to the local elections saw the risk of Momentum as one of the key factors that could hold Labour back. And so it proved to a large extent.

Mrs Angry said...

Thanks for the link to the JC piece, Amie: had not seen that, and know nothing about the Leplat story. Amused to see I am now part of a hard left conspiracy - in fact the meeting was for local activists, and nothing to do with the local Labour party, although it was rather funny to see a couple of senior councillors nonchalantly walking past the windows, out for a casual stroll.

I was asked to be there to talk about libraries, and Capita - but I was also there as a blogger, taking notes & pics. I am not a Momentum member, or part of any other group - my position on all issues is not measured according to any ideological fixation, and I find it tedious that other people think in that way. It was an opportunity to talk about libraries not only in the local context, but to find out what a Labour govt can do to protect our national public library service: we were assured that this will be part of a new initiative on cultural services now under threat. It may be too late for Barnet, but it is a step forward.

As for Corbyn, I think I made it clear that he is indeed part of the problem and that is why only he can fix this. The problem is not that he is an antisemite, but that he has failed to understand the danger from those who are - and they are on the fringes of the party. I deeply resent implications that anything but a small minority of extremists are to blame for such behaviour: it is not endemic within the main body of membership at all. The vast majority of members are utterly decent people who would not indulge in any form of racism, or antisemitism.

Regarding the BAME population and the Tory vote, it has been clear for some time that the Tories have been finding support within some communities, and this has been privately acknowledged as a risk to the Labour vote for some years. There is no use being in denial about it, which many are. Time to build stronger links with those communities, and not wait until election time to ask for their vote.

I agree with you regarding the Labour budget: but I disagree that too much was promised on the basis of no tax increases. I don't think enough was promised, and feel there was room for more creative use of funds, with cost neutral implications - but also would have preferred to see a rise. More importantly would have been a commitment to getting a better deal on the Capita spending, which is currently out of control.

amie said...

Thank you for your considered response. Have supported your library campaign from day one. You are more in touch with funding options. Pity the canvassers weren't. Purely anecdotal, but the woman who was sitting at the entrance at my Hale ward polling station with a broad welcoming smile and a big blue rosette was a woman of colour, and the polite elderly Conservative gentleman who came to my door to check in the early evening whether I had voted, was of Asian heritage.
btw this is how Adam Langleben is being treated, even as we speak: He was invited to this meeting, then disinvited:

Mrs Angry said...

Anonymous 16.13: the thought that Momentum had any influence over the Barnet Labour group is risible. this group is staunchly and immoveably in the centre of the party. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Barnet politics would know this. Chuku Ummuna is as usual is talking a load of nonsense: frankly I would be thrilled to see an even slightly more radical party in Barnet, but there is little or no chance of it happening in my lifetime ...

Red Sonia said...

Do people understand the difference between anti-sematism and anti-Zionism? Do they care? I ask because some I speak to don't seem to understand they are two entirely different things. Indeed some of them think they are interchangeable. When I tell them you can be Jewish and anti-Zionist they look at me as if I am crazy.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Angry, you missed my point on Momentum. It was the fear of Momentum potentially having an influence that will have swayed some Barnet voters. Whether Momentum could, should or would influence the Barnet Labour group is another matter. Many Barnet voters will be focused on what is happening nationally not locally so your point on the Barnet Labour group is moot in this context.

Mrs Angry said...

Red Sonia: I don't think most people understand that Zionism has many meanings, and significance, depending on personal interpretation. So it is also hard to define 'anti-Zionism'. Antisemitism is pretty obvious, in any context, whatever the label.

Anonymous: you may be right. But I think anyone who swallows tabloid hysteria about Momentum probably ought to spend some time exercising their brains, and judgement before voting.

Alan Stanton said...

Hi Theresa,

Many thanks for your thoughtful, detailed and thought-provoking blog.

As a Tottenham resident, I'm in no position to comment on the Barnet details. (Though we were sad to learn about the defeat of one Barnet councillor who is a friend of ours.)

I'm worried about a couple of aspects you highlight which do apply in Haringey. These include the regeneration / social cleansing issues and how this may eventually lead to a different political mix.

Our own Labour Manifesto was far from "anodyne" - to use your word. However Haringey Labour was very fully engaged with the redevelopment debate, and this meant we lacked time and energy to do the detailed work on a number of issues with costed plans ready to go. But we'll get there!

It needs a team approach and at the moment it seems to me we're in the 'storming' and 'norming' phases. Many Labour councillors are either new or had become used to the command and control culture of the previous leadership. (It appears that following Whatsapp messages may have taken the place of independent thinking.) That too can change. But provided people realise the a councillor's job is 'to do' and not just 'to be'. And also provided that councillors don't pull away from the Party members - who joined in huge numbers and helped elect them.

About the so-called anti-Semitism issue: this, in my view is mostly spurious. Or at maximum a fringe issue within our local Parties. There are members of Tottenham and Hornsey Wood Green Parties who have been labelled as such, solely - it seems to me - because of critical views about the Israeli Government's policies and actions. They include Jewish members of the party who I did not know were Jewish.

Far more positively I found the prescriptions/suggestions at the end of your piece very helpful and they certainly would apply in Haringey.

I will be drawing attention to your blog post and encouraging people to give it serious and careful thought.

Best wishes,

Alan Stanton
Labour Party member. Tottenham councillor 1998-2014.