Thursday 19 April 2012

Mrs Angry goes to Westminster

No, haven't been elected yet. Can only be a matter of time, of course. Except ... come to think of it, the Lords is probably more likely - Baroness Angry, of Broken Barnet: yep, has a certain ring to it.

Yesterday Mrs Angry and assorted residents of Broken Barnet attended a viewing at the House of Commons of the 'Tale of Two Barnets' film, sponsored by MP John McDonnell. The film was shown in the Wilson Room, at Portcullis House, the modern extension adjoining the older buildings of Parliament

Entering this building requires, as you might expect, strict security procedures, airport style. Mrs Angry's heart sank, as this rigmarole usually results in her being selected for a closer inspection, as a result of a latent Catholic guilt complex which makes her demonstrate all the body language traits of a fidgety drug smuggler, or would be terrorist, (uh oh: that'll trigger some unusual blog visits). Funnily enough, this time she got through ok, although Citizen Barnet's swivel eyed tendencies were immediately detected and she was given the once over before being allowed through.

Up the stairs then, past a number of works from the Parliamentary art collection - views of the House and MPs, and portraits of former Prime Ministers. Mrs Angry stared disapprovingly at the queenly one of Thatcher, and passed swiftly by to the more palatable environs of the Wilson Room.

This was, of course, the venue for the infamous performance of Rupert and James Murdoch when they were called to give evidence to the parliamentary select committee about their papers' involvement in phone hacking. Mrs Angry slipped into Rupert's chair, to see how it must have felt. John Sullivan, one of the carers featured in the Two Barnet sat next to her and announced: 'This is the most humble day of my life'. Oh, how we laughed - like naughty school kids on a day trip.

Mrs Angry had an idea, and suggested to Citizen Barnet and Mr Mustard that we should pose for a photo, sat there, Murdoch style. Citizen Barnet was worried: she thought we were Not Allowed.

Citizen Barnet, said Mrs Angry, sternly: how are you going to organise a revolution, with such an attitude? Did they think about that sort of thing during the storming of the Winter Palace? Don't be such a scaredy cat.

Barnet bloggers address the select committee. Mrs Angry: 'There are thresholds of materiality, if you will, whereby things have to move upstream'. Or something like that.

The room quickly filled up with residents, activists and other visitors, including MPs John McDonnell, and Jeremy Corbyn.

John Mc Donnell arrives
Jeremy Corbyn on the panel

After the film was shown, in between coming and going to vote on the Finance Bill which was being debated in the chamber - the division bell sounded several times during the evening - both MPs discussed the film, and talked about the issues it raises, and what it says about the state of not just this borough, but that of communities throughout the length and breadth of the country, where the most vulnerable members of our society are bearing the heaviest impact of the changes imposed by the policies of the coalition government, a government set on dismantling the welfare state, brick by brick. The next six to twelve months, he said, were crucial: a time to draw a line in the sand, and say, no further. It is time to lobby politicians and tell them what we want from them - if they do not listen, it is time to take action to make sure they hear us anyway.

John Mc Donnell praised what he called the 'exemplary' campaigning of residents and activists in Barnet. He described Unison leader John Burgess as 'a hero' - and deservedly so. He noted the determination shown in exposing the actions of our singularly shameless Tory administration and expressed his admiration for the creativity shown in so many of the campaigns adopted in our borough.

A panel of residents now began a discussion about the film and the matters it raised. John Sullivan, whose daughter has a learning disability, expressed his profound concern for the future care of residents like his daughter in this borough, the withdrawal of the level of support necessary for other parents of children with such dependent needs. He thanked those involved for making the film, and for highlighting what he labelled the 'bullying mentality' of the current Tory administration. Democracy, he declared, does not exist in Barnet: we are ruled by ideology and dogma, by a council that is simply not interested in listening to people.

Rather amusingly, by the way, Mrs Angry, during the film, had noticed an email in her inbox from the Chief Executive of Barnet Council, Mr Nick Walkley, regarding a certain complaint. She texted a quick reply, ending with:

"By a strange coincidence I am sitting in the house of commons watching you in 'a tale of two barnets'. You are going down a storm! Best wishes, Mrs Angry"

Of course, when she said 'going down a storm', she really meant 'you are the object of a certain amount of cynical commentary and unnecessarily rude heckling from the residents of Broken Barnet'. But she was too polite to say so: a serious fault of Mrs Angry's, it must be acknowledged.

Joanna Fryer, from the campaign to save Friern Barnet Library, spoke next. She told us that the campaign continued, and she explained to us how the residents had been duped by Barnet Council into believing that they had any real chance of saving the library. 'We trusted them', she said, angrily.

Joann Fryer

By misleading campaigners in this way, they were persuaded not to present a legal challenge to the closure - by the time they realised they had been had, it was too late. The same trick was pulled out for the closure of Church Farmhouse Museum, and in the case of Barnet Museum.

Speakers from Unison and the local Trades Union council addressed the audience, and then Labour councillor Kath McGurk.

Kath, ha ha, is the councillor for not just Mrs Angry, along with councillors Jim Tierney and Ross Houston, but is thrilled to represent our local Tory MP Mike Freer, and the much loved Brian Coleman, whose name was mentioned over and over again last night, as you might imagine.

(A certain councillor told Mrs Angry this week a rumour claiming that when he was a schoolboy, little Brian Coleman was often the object of ridicule for, well, lots of reasons, probably, but especially for being the only pupil who insisted on wearing cufflinks. Mrs Angry's amusement was increased when she inspected the sleeves of the Labour councillor who told her this story, and found that he was wearing cufflinks - and a fetching, stockbroker type striped shirt. She promised she would not reveal his identity. Don't worry, Ross: your secret is safe with Mrs Angry. Maybe leave the top hat at home next time you are out canvassing, though? Just a thought.)

Kath lambasted not only the parking disaster which is devasting the economic well being of our town centres and isolating so many elderly and disadvantaged residents, but reminded us of the Tory administrations complete abandonment of our cultural needs - the closure of libraries and museums, the total lack of interest in the arts.

She said we needed to build on the rise of opposition to the council's policies, all the campaigning, the events such as the occupation of the library on its last day. And she reminded us that Brian Coleman is not the only target: the other Tory councillors and senior officers have allowed him to bully the entire borough into submission: but no more. She despaired at the comments of Tory leader Richard Cornelius at the end of the film, saying 'I have no ambition', and suggested he might be better off sticking to selling jewellery if he really cannot address the demands of his generously paid position as Leader of Barnet Council.

Local activist Keith Martin talked about a recent meeting of BOPA - Barnet Older Peoples Assembly. This forum had agreed some of its own targets: they were the reopening of Friern Barnet Library, by August 18th, the reopening of Church Farmhouse Museum, by 1st October. Optimistic, but why not? This is what the residents want, and in any borough where the process of consultation is respected and acted upon honestly, these two resources would still be open and accessible to the community.

Keith then decided to express his views in the form of a song, which was an interesting diversion - and he has a rather fine voice.

Another resident, Barbara Jacobson, also had some demands of our elected representatives: that
they comply with the rules which are meant to regulate their activities. She talked about the erosion of civil liberties, and the fight for democracy, and said they must remove censorship from our residents forums so that we can again ask the questions that we want answered.

North Finchley traders spokesperson and anti parking scheme campaigner - and former Tory voter - Helen Michaels spoke eleoquently of the impact of the new charges and payment system on our high streets. She told us about her dealings with leader Cornelius, and his attempts to persuade her, without any real danger of committment, that changes would be made. He admitted to her that she had caused him a lot of trouble, and even offered her a place as a Tory councillor. Dear me: desperate measures, Richard Cornelius. Unless you wanted her to stand in Totteridge?

Helen has been out leafleting Finchley with a marvellous poster featuring the man responsible for 'the murder of Barnet's high streets'. Guess who? She made sure to deliver a copy to Brian's home, and Mrs Angry believes one may have found its way to the windscreen of his car. Expect a call from PC Plod, Helen ... She urged people not to vote for Coleman, even if they are usually Tory voters.

Barnet Eye blogger Roger Tichborne

Roger Tichborne and Unison's John Burgess talked about the film, and its implications, then Maria Nash, a woman from Barnet who is active in defending the rights of disabled residents, made some very important points about the effects on the elderly and also wheelchair users, or those with other disabilities of the new parking system.

She explained the shortage of parking bays for disabled users, and the difficulties involved in using the cashless payment process - the notices are impossible for a wheelchair user or elderly person with less than perfect sight to read, and of course many older residents do not use - perhaps cannot afford - mobile phones.

The new parking system is causing real hardship to the most vulnerable residents, in terms of access but also financially. As Maria reminded us, here in Barnet the larger majority of residents are older people, yet their voice is not being heard, and their needs are not being addressed.

Maria Nash, left, and Keith Martin, right

David Braniff of Barnet Trade Union Council, wanted to say how 'amazing' the film is: he is new to Barnet and has been 'swept over by the activism and the rage'. The no 1 action to undertake, he stated, was the removal of Brian Coleman, and in Barnet there will be a concerted campaign to acheive just such a fervently hoped for outcome of the GLA election. Further details to follow.

John Sullivan agreed with the prioritisation of this objective, and spoke of his deep anger at the words Coleman once used so arrogantly - at a meeting where Mrs Angry was present - of 'these people', disabled and vulnerable residents like his daughter who are dependent on the council for transport provision, something Coleman wishes to remove from the responsibility of the council. We think instead, Councillor Coleman, that we will remove you from the London Assembly, and one day, in the not too distant future perhaps, from the council too.

John McDonnell summed up by thanking those associated with the film. It was, he remarked, an historic occasion: not many films have been launched at the House of Commons, although he imagined that discussions like these were happening right across the country. Again he praised what he described as an incredibly motivated campaign of resistence by residents to the agenda of a particularly hardline, right wing administration. He urged residents to continue the fight and send the message, loud and clear: we are not taking this anymore.

After the meeting, the evening took on a surreal twist: Kath McGurk, who works in the House for an MP, kindly invited two Barnet bloggers and a local resident for a drink. We were led through an almost endless labyrinth of tunnels, vaulted passageways, and cobbled courtyards, into the older Parliamentary buildings, catching on the way a really fascinating glimpse of the secret life of government.

Oh yes. By the way, invited to the film viewing were all of our local MPs - Tories Matthew Offord, Theresa Villiers, and Mike Freer. Guess what?

None of them had the guts to turn up, of course. But as our party was descending into the underground world of parliament, rather like entering one of the circles of hell in Dante's Inferno, whom should we spy scuttling across the floor, but Mr Mike Freer. He acknowledged Councillor McGurk, with rather marked unease when he spotted Mrs Angry.

Hello, said, Mrs Angry, with an evil glint in her blogging eye, extending her hand, Mr Freer: I'm Mrs Angry ... I'm one of your constituents, you know ... he nodded unenthusiastically, and, probably remembering the promise in a post in the early days of this blog, in connection with the neighbours from hell problem he ignored, a promise involving the sharp application of the end of my shoe to his rear end, backed away with a tight smile, and started to sweat. He ran off, as soon as possible, and we bid him a fond farewell.

We continued our journey and then look: we bump into the sometime Broken Barnet Westminster correspondent, and would be blogger, Mr David Hencke, who was overcome with excitement at meeting Mr Mustard at last. Not sure how excited he was to see Mrs Angry, but he didn't run away as fast as Mike Freer.

David has written extensively about an issue which raises very serious questions about another role played by our favourite character, Brian Coleman: in his capacity as Chair of the London fire authority. The extraordinary story of Assetco, the company from whom he received hospitality and gifts, and who were given a huge contract by the authority is updated now with a pretty staggering development. Take a look:

Very blokey, the blogging world, of course, and so, clearly is the world of Westminster - it's a long time since Mrs Angry has seen anywhere so densely populated by such a preponderance of male white middle class men in suits. The number of women we saw could be counted on the fingers of one hand: quite extraordinary.

On we go, and here we are, in the throng of the Strangers Bar. This was full of more gossiping men looking very pleased with themselves - and one young blonde woman, sitting on a stool, surrounded by admirers.

Out on to the terrace overlooking the river, where there is perhaps the best view in London, even in the rain.

Councillor Kath Mc Gurk, Mrs Angry & Mr Mustard enjoying a subsidised drink on the rain soaked terrace outside the Strangers' Bar. No doors were damaged, and no arrests were made.

It was, Mrs Angry reflected, a very interesting evening. To have brought the Barnet story to Westminster, right into the heart of central government, is a significant acheivement.

People often ask why Barnet has produced a network of such active bloggers: the answer is simply that this is a response to the ways things are here, a necessary measure.

The opportunities offered by social media, the ease and accessibility of the new ways of communication have enabled a different form of community activism, and one which is a hugely powerful support to the democratisation of our political system - not just here, of course, but everywhere. It's the netroots approach, a new movement, and it is one that is here to stay. Politicians who ignore it, like Coleman, will not survive this new form of public scrutiny: it is upfront, and personal, and you cannot bully it, or avoid it, or fail to engage with it. If you do, you will lose the power to influence the electorate: and this is exactly what has happened here in Barnet.

How Barnet got broken is a very long story: who broke it? Are they still in power? Too many of them. How much of what has gone wrong in this hard right Tory borough is the result of conspiracy or gross incompetence is a debatable point: that there is a pervasive culture in this council, in the political leadership and senior management, of self self serving cynicism, a loss of principle and conscience is to many of us now quite evident, and something to be resisted by all who care about the future of their families, and their environment.

It seems fitting that the Barnet film was shown in the same room where we watched the Murdochs answer to parliament about the hacking scandal, and where we watched the slow unmasking of the real face of News International. The pursuit of profit at the expense of principle is not a practice confined to the world of newspapers. It is a motivation which corrupts both individually, and on a corporate level, and it has no place in any decent, open and accountable administration. The residents of Broken Barnet, as we see in this film, and in the campaigns and activities happening now in our community, will do their best to see that here, at least, the fight to reclaim the integrity of our local authority starts here, now, before it is all too late.

thanks to Vicki Morris/Citizen Barnet for the smaller pics

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