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.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

When Jeremy came to Barnet: End Game, and Tory panic, as polling day approaches

A week in politics is a long time. A week in politics in Broken Barnet is a very, very long time.

And Mrs Angry's week, in Broken Barnet, from Monday to Monday, has been, well: not just very, very long, but ... quite fun, all things considered. 

One might suspect that for Barnet Tories, things have not been quite so enjoyable, as they hurtle faster and faster to polling day, with all the speed and unstoppable force of - well, I don't know, some unstoppable thing, that's ... very fast. And they seem incapable of steering themselves into any other other direction than the abyss of electoral doom. 

Of course they have tried to get some political profit from areas they like to think they're good at. You know, roads, pavements, bins, planning. No: really. Apparently after 16 years of trying, they think they might get the hang of running these things at last, if you'll only give them another chance.

That was Plan A. Hide your cockups in plain sight, right there in your own manifesto. 

Plan B: Quick! Look over there! Move on, nothing to see here, in Tory Barnet, but over in Brent, and Haringey, and Camden, Awful Things happen, that might happen here, when the Maoist cult leadership of Barnet Labour party takes over, and imposes military rule, and compulsory May Day parades past Hendon Town Hall. 

Plan C: nasty little smears. The favourite last minute tactic of Barnet Tories. Not going to bother helping them with that one by repeating them, or linking to them. Eurgh.

Plan D: quoting Mrs Angry in election material, as the voice of authority. Yes: hilarious, desperate tactic this one - first of all in a leaflet (punctuated with frenzied outbursts of CAPITAL LETTERS) to voters in the most marginal ward in London, ie Childs Hill, absurdly trying to claim Mrs A and A Labour Councillor think Tories spent too much money on marginal Childs Hill's roads and pavements, just because Tories spent too much money on marginal Childs Hill's roads and pavements. The most money, in fact, just as the most marginal ward last time round also had a fortune thrown at it.

AN OUTRAGEOUS ATTACK, they splutter ... Even more stupidly, they draw attention to the two Tory councillors who claim they have been 'lobbying' Highways officers for two years - and brag about nearly £5 million splurged on this most fought over ward - which is still, however, like every part of the borough, inexplicably littered with pot holes, a state of affairs that is guaranteed to make every voter wonder where the hell the fecking money went.

Then we have the nasty little press release about a couple of disaffected former Labour councillors, at the end of which, in the editors' notes, they tried linking to this blog, and an innocuous enough description of the pair as hard woking local councillors - which they were. Oh dear, the link appears to be broken now ... 

Still, gratifying to be recognised at last by Barnet Tories as OUTRAGEOUS and yet, at the same time, an utterly indispensible source of academic citation for their press releases. 

Clearly because of this sort of notoriety, and the vote of confidence, long awaited, for the Barnet bloggers, last Monday Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable took part in an interview with Tim Donovan, for a BBC London news item on the election in Barnet: shall we say it again, most marginal borough in London. 


The BBC London interview (poor quality image, sorry ...)

We talked about the Capita contracts, the massive hidden charges that make a mockery of claims of 'savings' - and the broken promises of 'better services for less money'.

Services are falling apart: was that just the view of a Labour activist, asked Tim Donovan? No: residents now are faced with the consequences of the contracted out services, and the fatal mistake Barnet Tories have made is to fail to see the impact of this on their own electoral stability. 

Pot holes, bins, planning - libraries: these are the things that middle of the (bumpy) road Tory voters can see are falling apart, literally, in terms of the fabric of the built environment and infrastructure, as well as metaphoically. This is what is losing them support, and may well lose them control of the council. 

And then: ha ha, the item ended most amusingly as Tim Donovan cornered the Tory 'leader' Richard Cornelius and questioned him. As usual, Cornelius opened his mouth and allowed a load of freeform nonsense to spout forth. He claimed the Capita contract was 'fantastic'. It isn't. He claimed the contract was not 'ideological'. It is. He claimed it is saving us £1 million a month. It isn't. 

Or at least the truth is they 'give' us £1 million a month with one hand - and take back far more in other ways, through the crafty contract variations hidden in the small print.

Then Tim Donovan caught Cornelius off balance and asked him about the local bloggers: what did he think of them? They've been at you for some time, haven't they

Yes, said the Tory leader,  But one day they might be right, so I do listen to them, he said, with his usual saturnine smile, aligned with the apparently guileless innocence of much of his off the cuff public comments: then he panicked and added quickly, but not quickly enough: ...  but they haven't been yet ...

Well, a few days later we were back at Cafe Buzz, Mr Reasonable and Mrs A, for another meeting. Hard not to pause for a moment, and consider the number of significant events that have happened here, over the last few years, in this trouble making spot, on the curiously powerful leyline that runs through this part of Broken Barnet, down from the former Tory stronghold of High Barnet, down and round to the spiritual home of all local Tory councillors and politicians, at Margaret Thatcher House. 

How much plotting and rallying of the Barnet Spring has taken place, here, at Cafe Buzz?

Which former Tory grandee saw his career end outside, on the pavement, after he attacked the cafe owner, Helen Michael - an end and a turning point not only for him, but the whole party: marking the end of one era, and the beginning of another: the beginning of the end of the malign power the Tories exert over this borough, and all its hapless residents. It was a point which broke the spell, and proved to all that they could and would be held to account, and brought down, in the end. 

And here we are, and here we were, yesterday, a few of the local activists who have fought so hard to deliver a better future for Broken Barnet, having coffee with the leader of the Labour party. 

Oh and with the Shadow Chancellor on speakerphone, due to being stuck in traffic on the North Circular ... 

John Mc Donnell, on speakaphone. Labour Oakleigh candidate Angie Hudson, centre

Sitting round the table with us, and chatting away, Jeremy Corbyn was that rare thing: a politician who is himself, and speaks without constantly measuring his words against a scaled model of behaviour, that dictates what he should be, to please everyone, and no one, in fear of saying something interesting, or thoughtful, by mistake. He was quietly spoken, but confident, funny, patient - and genuinely interested in what everyone had to say. 

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable talked about the Capita contracts, which are now the focus of a truly magnificent report by Barnet Unison, with a foreword by John Mc Donnell, that gives the long and complex history of the outsourcing of our council services from the launch of the Easycouncil idea, and its reconfiguration, through 'Futureshape', to 'One Barnet' - names all of them in their turn discarded and rebranded as interested parties sought to force the borough down the road to mass privatisation.

Blogger Mr Reasonable tells Jeremy Corbyn about the Capita contracts

We talked at some length about Tory cuts to our libraries, me telling him about the savage removal of the children's libraries, and the Tory plans to give the space to a private company to charge fees for desk rental. Taking away study space in libraries like East Finchley, next to one of the borough's pockets of social deprivation. Jeremy was visibly appalled.

He also mentioned he knew East Finchley library well, and did I know he had an allotment nearby? Yes, I did ... In fact he knows Barnet pretty well, not just on visits to support marches in defence of our public services, but in his earlier career as a NUPE official in Barnet. World exclusive: the Labour leader told Mrs Angry he once 'occupied' the former Gateway House, and colleagues had to post flattened fish and chips to him, through the letter box ...

On the subject of libraries there was one thing I really, really wanted to know: and so did Hugh Jordan, the Barnet Libraries Unison convener (once Mrs Angry's job, funnily enough, in another lifetime). What can a Labour government do to protect public library services from council cuts, and ensure there is proper funding in place to retain them? He and John Mc Donnell, on speakaphone, stated they intended to compel local authorities to do just that, protecting cultural resources: libraries, music, drama, the arts. 

Hugh pointed out the inadequacy of the current Libraries Act, and Mc Donnell agreed it was minimal in scope. He wanted statutory provision for cultural services in total 'embedded' in legislation. 

How refreshing to hear the leader of a political party and a shadow chancellor discussing culture as a statutory right, in Broken Barnet, where culture is seen as something disposable, or even a threat. We shut libraries here, close our museums, sell off our heritage to the highest bidder. Only a new government, and a new national policy can help us preserve what is left.

Barnet Unison's John Burgess with the report on the failure of Barnet's mass outsourcing

Ok: what about small businesses, asked someone, as local businesswoman and trader spokesperson Helen Michael, who has fought so hard to save her High street from decline, looked on.

Corbyn and Mc Donnell said they wanted Labour to be the party of small businesses. Corbyn spoke about the demise of high streets, blighted by the prevalence of charity shops, and payday loan enterprises. We need a greater diversity - of cafes, shops, libraries: a sense of community.

A woman present who had experienced the horror of Apartheid talked about asylum seekers. Jeremy observed it was important to look at each individual as a human being, not as a mass: he talked about his experience visiting a refugee camp on the Syria/Iraq border, and listening to the courageous story of one young girl who had lost her family, but who looked to a better future, and aspired to be a doctor.

At this point a woman from Chipping Barnet sitting at the table introduced herself and asked Corbyn if he understood how she, as a Jewish member of the Labour party, felt at the moment, how hard it was for her. 

He spoke at length about the subject of antisemitism, and said emphatically and unequivocally, yet again, that it was 'absolutely unacceptable'. It was true the process of dealing with reported incidents was long, but there was no place for it in our party. When a cafe regular, a Tory supporter, also Jewish, who had been listening quietly throughout now interrupted, politely but firmly, and asked him about Ken Livingstone, Corbyn explained the reasons for the protracted procedure - but agreed the processes had been 'far too slow'. The response seemed to be accepted as fair enough: and the leader dealt with the subject calmly, and with openness, as he did with every issue. 

He moved on to speak to the local press, and then was escorted out by the troublesome cafe owner (who was invited to visit his allotment ...) The troublesome cafe owner, who used to be a Tory (guess who brought that to an end), confessed to being won over by the Labour leader, despite her earlier reservations. 

And that is Corbyn's secret: by being himself, and refusing to conform to the artificially contrived image of what a politician, a party leader, is meant to be, he has retained the ability to communicate with and inspire voters, in an age where cynicism and disengagement have turned the political process into something so far removed from the experience of ordinary families, or individuals - especially those most marginalised, most disadvantaged, and in the greatest need. 

As Mrs A pointed out to Mr C, many people assume Barnet is an affluent borough, with few problems in terms of social need. In fact it is both populous and diverse, and polarised, with a gulf not between different communities, but between those who have, and those who have not. Yes, he agreed, referring to another example highlighted by Grenfell, in Kensington and Chelsea. The story is always more than we see at first sight.

Marginal is a term that means something entirely different, to Barnet Tories: it is the word that strikes fear in their hearts, for all the wrong reasons, Being excluded not from all the things that make life worth living, in your own community, but from control of the political process that gives them power, and privilege, and the right to dictate to others how they will live those lives, in dispossession and disaffection from the rights and freedoms we used to take for granted. 

Up to you now, this week, to take back control of the process of democracy in this borough from a party that has proved itself unworthy to govern. 

Please do the right thing, on Thursday, and vote for a Labour council for Broken Barnet. 

Then we can begin the process of picking up the pieces, and start again, to remake a community that works, yes, you know - for the many: and not those few, who want to maintain their hold over us, at any cost.

Monday, 23 April 2018

End of Days: a Nasty Party, and the long, slow death of Easycouncil


The death of Easycouncil has been a long time coming. 

The death of Tory Barnet has been a long time coming. 

But here it is, now, before our eyes, even before the elections are over. 

And it all began, and ended, in two Audit committee meetings, years apart, in the faded municipal grandeur of what was once Hendon Town Hall. 

A Town Hall in name only, pimped out, like everything else now in Broken Barnet, as a rented space, here a nominal, liminal space, between two worlds: one imaginary world of civic splendour, decorated with stern portraits of dead aldermen, and fading photographs of past mayors and mayoresses, and another, more brutal territory, more familiar to us now  - a building emptied of its purpose, and a democratic process broken, and lying in pieces on the floor.

This Thursday saw the last Audit meeting before the election: a meeting squeezed into the carved up corner of an airless committee room, a room reduced in size to accommodate the new commercial function of the venue. 

The meeting was chaired by Hugh Rayner, a stalwart Tory member, and former Chair of Hendon Association, who has suddenly announced his 'retirement' - and attended by a newly independent member who has renounced the Tory group after his ruthless deselection by his local Conservative association. And it had been rumoured that Cllr Khatri intended to use the occasion to make a statement. Those in the know sat in the sweltering heat of the room, on the edge of their seats, waiting. 

Cllr Rayner's last meeting: but he took the time to thank the local bloggers for ... what was it now .... being 'helpful in concentrating our minds' ... and noting that he would hope to see members of the committee being more challenging in their own questions.

This meeting was to end in the most devastating way possible for the remaining Tory members on the committee, and for the party in Barnet, as Councillor Sury Khatri, while his former colleagues sank their heads in their hands, in abject misery, quietly denounced the Barnet Tory group, their record in office, the disaster of the Capita contracts- and urged voters to vote Labour. 

 "It has been an honour to serve as their community champion for the residents of mill hill for 8 years. in that time I have tried my best to take up their issues and concerns, and deliver real positive changes, such as the diving club, the future of the library and with the many planning applications we have received. I fear though that my zealous advocacy for the residents of mill hill may have cost me the selection. as Cllr Dan Thomas lays the ground for his right wing and hard brexit based leadership coup, he only wants yes men in the conservative group, and thus I have been discarded. astonishing that after 8 years of serving the community, without a blemish on my record and more than a decade serving the party amounted to zero.

 I have had residents contacting me expressing shock and disgust – a conservative councillor telling me among other things that when joined the conservative party it was not this party – a nasty party. Isn’t it telling that of the 31 other councillors only a handful had the decency to contact me expressing also shock and disgust. today have the party group chairman sitting alongside here but not even a squeak - silence is deafening? We have been hearing for some time that deselect ion was discussed last summer and that the exercise should be prolonged to the 11th hour – damage limitation was on mind. Momentum has arrived in the conservative party.

However, my time at the council has been overshadowed by the disastrous capita contracts, which are falling apart at the seams. 4 years on, issues still keep crawling out the woodwork. This contract represents poor value for money, and the residents are being fleeced. I believe my deselection by Daniel Thomas is motivated by my scepticism of the capita contracts.

 Today’s public questions and current media reports vividly illustrates the complete incompetence of capita.

 The contracts are a shambles and a disaster and performing badly and council taxpayers are being fleeced by capita ..."

He ended by saying:

"... all I can say is that the people of Hale will get a significant upgrade in the quality of their representation if they vote for the labour candidates - Ernest, Rachel and Liron. they deserve better.

I hope the residents deliver the right result on 3rd may – conservatives losing control."

Cllr Zinkin hides his face as former fellow Tory Cllr Khatri trashes the party's record in office

Well, to be fair: why, oh why, Mrs Angry? ... Cllr Khatri's criticism was perhaps too focused on deputy leader Dan Thomas, (you can read his reaction to the devastating speech in full here) did not mention the Tory 'leader', Richard Cornelius, and glossed over the fact that Khatri had approved the Capita contracts himself, and criticised them publicly only when they had been safely signed. 

Would he have spoken out, if he had been re-selected, and tacitly supported the continuation of the contractual bondage we are committed to for at least another five years?

Dan Thomas later commented to the local Times:

"Mr Khatri only has himself to blame for his de-selection, which was decided by a democratic process.

I believe he lost the support of party members because of an ill-tempered style, not attending many Conservative Party events and the fact that he delayed a new town square being built in his own ward".‎

A council spokesperson stated:

"The partnership between Capita and Barnet Council is performing as expected in many areas". 

This at least is undeniably true - if by 'performing as expected' you mean - badly.

This morning Capita admitted to pre-tax losses of £513.1 million. With their level of commitment to Barnet, clearly this raises many questions about the future delivery of our local services.

Over the weekend, Sury Khatri has posed for photographs with opposition candidate in Hale (Labour) and Mill Hill (Libdem). Clearly he wants to encourage tactical voting to ensure his former fellow councillors do not return to power, at all costs.

The meeting had begun with no clear sign of the looming trouble: the usual collection of now you see me, now you don't officers of the council, or Capita, interchangeable, and indistinguishable, some of them occupying the limited public seats with a droit de seigneur that has become the norm, in this last outpost of the Capita empire.

Fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable, had submitted a long list of questions to the meeting, on several issues, including a failure in addressing the risk of duplicate payments, and in regard to the alleged massive fraud currently under investigation - and the very interesting story of a very large gainshare payment to Capita, of £313,215, which he finds very worrying, and has reported to the external auditors at BDO, as an objection to the accounts. After nine months, this has still not been resolved. In John's view:

"Services are being cut, money is incredibly tight but because Barnet signed up to a contract which no councillors read in detail, we are being stuffed. This is nothing short of a scandal".

You can read John's summary of the meeting here.

Leigh Lloyd-Thomas of external auditors BDO and fellow blogger Mr Reasonable

Mrs Angry had only one question for the meeting: addressed via the Chair, to the auditors at BDO. Chair Hugh Rayner wanted the Man from Capita to respond first, before the auditors.

The man from Capita, Alan Parfitt, Operations Director for Capita Re, the 'Joint Venture' company that runs many of Barnet's services, sat himself at the committee table and smiled a blue eyed smile, in a blue suit, not in the least discomfited by the occasion. 

Why would he be? His demeanour was the usual insouciance of a contractual partner protected by an 8,000 page agreement, signed unread by councillors, that delivers power and profit, but not accountability, into the hands of private sector control: a complacency based on the sure knowledge that no matter how bad that relationship becomes, the commissioning council becomes, like the partners in any troubled relationship, caught in a trap: coerced into silence, for fear of the outcome of any challenge.

Sorry to bring you here, muttered Mrs Angry, with as great a degree of insincerity as could be imagined. No, murmured the man from Capita, still smiling, I quite enjoy it. Does he? Perhaps he does. Probably he did, usually. But then: some of us enjoy attending Audit meetings of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, for all the wrong reasons. 

Being totally disnumerate, as I most certainly am, is no bar to the enjoyment of a Barnet Audit meeting. If it were,  I would most certainly not attend. In truth, not understanding a single thing about accountancy, or audit, is an advantage. It leaves Mrs Angry better able to sense intuitively when something is wrong: to smell the odour of deceit, and tear apart the language of spin, and obfuscation, that is used to cover up the rotting corpse lying beneath the floorboards of the committee room. This is something that has been true right from the beginning, from the first Audit meeting that addressed the almighty stink of the MetPro scandal.

When the Barnet blogosphere was born, the first investigative story we uncovered was the scandalous tale of the bogus security firm used by the Tory council to stomp up and down the corridors of the Town Hall, in absurd paramilitary uniform, preventing members of the public from attending council meetings - and covertly filming suspect dissidents like Mrs Angry, with pinhole cameras. 

As we discovered, these jackbooted thugs, provided by MetPro, were operating illegally, without licences, and generously paid by the Tory council without any contract in place. 

It then emerged that the authority had literally thousands of 'non compliant' arrangements in place, instead of contracts - some of them in relation to the care of vulnerable residents.

This scandalous state of affairs was brought to the Audit committee, where it was properly investigated, by the Chair who was then, quite properly, deemed best appointed from the opposition groups. In those days this role was undertaken by Libdem councillor Monroe Palmer, now in the House of Lords: he was of course formerly one of a triumvirate of Libdem councillors, in Childs Hill ward. And Palmer made sure that the MetPro scandal and the further revelations that ensued were acknowledged, investigated, and put right. It was the birth of something new, in Barnet: the first major coup of the new phenomenon of citizen journalism - and the first sign of weakness in a failing Tory administration.

But- ah yes: Childs Hill ward. A former Libdem stronghold, now keenly fought over by three political parties.

All of which is why Mrs Angry and the Man from Capita were sitting at the committee table, at the Audit meeting, now chaired not by an opposition member - too risky - but by Hendon Tory Hugh Rayner (see last few posts) who has been a councillor for Hale ward, but mysteriously announced he was standing down, only a couple of weeks ago, when nominations were published. He said the decision had been made six months earlier. It had been alleged that Cllr Rayner wanted to stand in Edgware, and of course there was a vacancy after the deselection of Cllr Joan Scannell - but rumour has it after accusations of misogyny, Hendon Tories were obliged to appoint another woman. Whatever the truth, poor Hugh is out. Why would he not want to stand again in Hale? Because it was last time the most marginal ward in the borough, and Labour gained one of the seats in a traditionally Tory area.

Ah yes: marginal wards. 

And the reason Mrs Angry and the Man from Capita were were sitting at the table. 

This was in regard to a question put by her to the Chair in regard to the Audit report items on Highways expenditure. See the previous post, and the interesting pattern of higher spending on Tory wards, a pattern objected to at the time of the last election, when an FOI had exposed the highest level of funding had gone to the ward of Tory lead member of the Environment Committee, which approves spending- and the second highest to the most marginal ward of ... Hale. 

A report from Sharpe Pritchard confirmed that more money had been spent on Tory held wards, although unconvincingly concluding that this was not proof that the expenditure was politically influenced.

A new set of FOI responses revealed that in the run up to this election the highest level of expenditure had once again been to the most marginal ward in the borough - which is itself perhaps the most marginal in London. 

That ward is - Childs Hill, which is being fought over by Tories, Labour and Libdems. 

The question to the committee had been to note that there was still, after all these years, not in place a robust and objective system to prioritise the allocation of Highways expenditure on a basis of need - was that why so much money had been given to Childs Hill, while the roads in so many other wards in the borough were in such a terrible state? The response admitted that the final decision on funding is approved by the Environment committee, which clearly is politically weighted.

Supplementary question, then, through the Chair to the external auditors, BDO: 

This response confirms that the level of spending on each ward has been determined not according to need, either by regular inspection, or to address concerns raised by residents, but by a process that is open to exploitation for the purpose of politically influenced decisions. 

Bearing in mind findings of the Sharpe Pritchard report of 2014, commissioned after a previous FOI made to the council revealed a use of public funds, favouring Conservative held wards, including the previous marginal ward of Hale, the continued failure to protect expenditure from political influence is truly shocking. Childs Hill is of course again, the most marginal ward in this election. I think it is not reasonable to suggest this is purely coincidental, and should at least be the subject of investigation.

The Man from Capita was asked to come and comment, before the auditor. Blah blah blah, repeating how money was agreed, which we knew already. Turning to him, Mrs Angry asked why it was, did he think, that the roads in marginal wards wore out quicker than in others?

The Man from Capita

He didn't seem to know.

The auditor had never thought about the issue. Mrs Angry asked him to think about thinking about the issue, then, as it might appear to suggest ... an improper use of public money. 

Later on in the meeting, Labour lead Geoff Cooke took up this point, and suggested that the 'disparity' in allocation was indeed a matter for the external auditors, to see if it was an appropriate use of public money.

Up until then, the two Tory councillors had been silent, and somewhat uncharacteristically subdued, sitting downstream from their coolly aloof former colleague Sury Khatri, who had been ruthlessly deselected only weeks before, and resigned the Tory whip in protest. But Cllr Peter Zinkin now launched himself into what was clearly an irrepressible outburst - he is prone to these performances, which are often deployed at  moments when distraction from an inconvenient truth is necessary.

He claimed now that his ward - Childs Hill, of course, had been forced to endure 'twenty eight years of Libdem misrule'. 

Bit harsh, thought Mrs Angry, no Libdem fan, but trying to think of Cllr Lord Palmer and Lady Palmer, and Jack Cohen, ruling the ward like merciless feudal overlords, revelling in the number of pot holes and broken pavements, while the peasants sat and waited for the day when they would be rescued by Tory councillors, who lavish them with attention, out of boundless generosity and fond feelings, and make sure their feet never have to walk on anything but the best laid paving stones, and the most perfectly maintained roads, and all of this being absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with being the most marginal ward in the most marginal borough in London. 

Cllr Zinkin was tweeting during this discussion, so Mrs Angry took the opportunity to ask if the previous pre-election splurge on the then most marginal ward of Hale was therefore due to about sixty eight years of Tory misrule? 

He didn't answer, but made a face at her from across the table.

The Chair intervened at one point and asked if Mrs Angry had noted that Hale was bottom of the list of expenditure. Yes, she retorted, because you've written it off, haven't you, Hugh? Is that why you wouldn't stand there again?

No argument, funnily enough: just a wry smile playing on the mouth of Cllr Rayner.

Newly independent Cllr Khatri showed the first signs of mutinous behaviour, that evening, by venturing to tell the meeting that despite constant requests over many years to repair areas in his ward, nothing gets done. He blamed the Environment Committee.

Geoff Cooke said it was a question of resources, and governance, and that despite the Tories' boast of spending £50 million on investing in them, the borough's roads were in a 'poor' condition. 

Earlier in the meeting there had been much debate about the pot hole issue, one which is blighting the borough, and is perhaps the biggest and most obvious manifestation of Tory incompetence, at least in the eyes of Barnet residents - and voters. With all the reckless zeal of someone with a compulsive deathwish, Barnet Tories have put the condition of the roads at the top of their manifesto, along with bin collection, another act of frantic flag waving of their own glaring failures in office.

The Tories would like to blame the contractors, although they are supposed to be -ha ha - in charge of them. The contractors, as it turns out, blame ... other contractors. Well, why not?

The Man from Capita, with a measured application of low, slow, Welsh accented murmuring, intended to soothe the worried hearts and minds of Tory councillors newly awoken to the catastrophe of their own making now unfolding, tried this tactic, anyway. 

He wriggled out of admitting that Capita Re, who run Highways, are accountable for the problem, by blaming their contractors, and saying in effect they, ie Capita Re, were not responsible for the holes, only the management of the people paid to fill the holes. 

He appeared not to be at all disappointed in their failure to manage the people who fill the holes, as if some dark magic force has somehow intervened in the process, and made it all impossible. 

But then: dark magic has been at work in the London Borough of Broken Barnet for some time now, even before the signing in blood of the devil's pact between our Tory council and Capita, in the summer of 2013.

What can you do, in the face of such malign influences? 

Not much. 

Except throw the Tory council out on May 3rd, of course.