Sunday 18 August 2013

From Easycouncil to Capitaville: Mike Freer and the One Barnet story

Now that we are living in Capitaville, and awaiting the arrival of our new corporate masters, it might be an appropriate moment to stop and reflect upon the interesting genesis of our new nationstate, and thank those who are responsible for its creation.

We have expressed our fulsome gratitude to the doltish backbench Tory councillors who have facilitated the takeover of our democracy, by default, while they were sleeping, and to their knavish Cabinet colleagues, who administered the liquid cosh, and to the hopelessly impotent 'leader', Richard Cornelius, who failed to notice, this time last year, that while he was relaxing in his French holiday home, his own senior officers, with no right to do so, had completely rewritten the business model of one of the two multi-million pound privatisation contracts.

But grateful thanks are also due in other quarters. And Mrs Angry was reminded of this duty by an article which appeared in the Barnet Press yesterday, see here

Yes: it would be the mark of unforgiveable discourtesy if we were to forget the indispensible contribution of local Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green, and former leader of the council, Mr Mike Freer, the only true begetter, or so he would have us believe, of the 'easycouncil' concept, which metamorphosed, in time, via the incarnation of 'Futureshape', into the beast known as 'One Barnet', a creature now too fearful to behold in its real form, so must be referred to as 'the Change Programme' ...

Freer in mourning for his Finchley predecessor, pic courtesy Ham & High

The Easycouncil idea was adopted by Freer in the run up to his election campaign, and promoted as a groundbreaking approach to delivering local government services, and all his own work, and wasn't he awfully clever to think of such a thing? He promised us, his future constituents, 'more choice' over the council services we use - that we pay for. More choice, the Tory phrase which means so much, and delivers so little. 

Easycouncil was based, we were told, on Mr Freer's breathless admiration for easyjet style airlines, where the domination of what he referred to as 'monolithic ' companies was supplanted by the cheery lowcost efficiency of budget airlines.

Of course in reality 'easycouncil' was not Freer's budget airline equivalent at all, it was merely part of a new style franchise being rolled out across the country: the exploitation of local authority service provision by the private sector.

There is a virtual monopoly of companies who dominate the outsourcing market: yes, a cabal of the very sort of monolithic companies which were supposed to be a Bad Thing, in relation to the air industry, and an obstacle to choice for customers. 

Hats off to Capita, Serco, G4S - and BT. Mike Freer and a former Chief Executive of Barnet Council were both schooled by BT as part of the secretive 'Vital Vision' programme, a sort of scientology style nonsense for public sector budget managers which has had a wide reach across the public sector outsourcing market.

All around the UK local authorities and public sector bodies became prey to the hovering interest of the major outsourcing companies: many fell for their chatup lines, and lived to regret it. Here in Broken Barnet, they fell for the chatup lines, and will live to regret it, but we must remember, then, who it was to blame.

Freer is worried: Labour are choosing their candidate to stand against him in the next parliamentary election, and the vote will be between two brilliant candidates, Sarah Sackman, and Alon Or-Bach. Mr Freer is going to have a real fight on his hands, to retain his seat, and he knows it. Labour lost the seat at a time when the political tide was turning nationally, and the terminal illness of Rudi Vis, the Labour MP, towards the end of his term, had clearly had an impact on the way in which he had been able to serve the constituency. But all will be very different in 2015.

Freer has been remarkably quiet since One Barnet became such a toxic subject: now that the appeal has been lost, and we appear to have no choice but to surrender to Capita, a concerted effort is being made to reclaim it and present the wholescale outsourcing of our services and our democracy as something wonderful, something the residents and voters of Broken Barnet will think is in their interest. Difficult: time for some dog whistle tactics, then ...

Says our MP, about our council services, handed over to Capita:

I think most people agree that it’s what is delivered, not who delivers it, which matters. Therein lies my concern with the trade union-backed opposition to the One Barnet programme ...  

No local authority should be run in the interests of the staff unions. The council is there to deliver the best services possible ... 

Of course, the people who deliver the services for Barnet must have a say in how their jobs are done. At the moment, however, the reasonable voice of council staff is being drowned out by the ideological dogma of trade unions who refuse to accept any changes to anything.

Got that? Opposition to the flog off of council services is not from a wide range of residents, or even, as Tory leader Cornelius described it, a group of eccentric socialists, American exiles, bloggers and coffee shop owners, but that terrible bogeyman of our retro Barnet Tories, still living in the 1980s, and the reign of Freer's rather more eminent predecessor, Margaret Thatcher: yes, the trade union movement. 

Two points in response to this drivel: first of all it most certainly is not the staff unions who are leading the resistance to One Barnet.

The opposition to One Barnet is driven by activists from all over the borough, and from all backgrounds, who have one thing in common: the intelligence necessary to see that putting the predatory commercial interests of Capita before the ethos of public service is wrong, shamefully wrong, and economically and financially irresponsible.

As for the unions: clearly they are going to oppose it - and quite rightly as their duty is to protect local jobs and fight for the livelihoods of council workers - why does Freer think that merely mentioning them will necessarily provoke his readers, his constituents, into regarding the Capita takeover as a good thing?

There was an excellent article in the Guardian yesterday by John Harris - in the Comment is Free column, rather than the Comment is Sponsored by Interested Parties section, as featured last week : 

in which he discussed the inhumanity of life under the 'dysfunctional capitalism' of Osborne economics, and where he concludes:

Humankind long ago invented things that could at least retilt the balance between capital and labour, and ease some of modern life's most inhuman aspects. We called them trade unions.

Yes, we did. And we were proud of them, and Mrs Angry was reminded of this feeling of pride, and solidarity, attending this year's Durham Gala, the Big Meeting, traditionally the annual celebration of Durham miners, like her grandfather, and generations before him, but now  evolving into something else, something which continues to speak to the ordinary people of every community, who take pride in that community, and want to take the lessons of the past, and the strength which took people from a position of submission to one of empowerment, and pride.  This, Mr Freer, is what community looked like.

What was interesting, this year of all years, perhaps, was the iconography of the miners' lodge banners: the figures represented, and the mottoes. Nye Bevan, Keir Hardie, Attlee: figures who now represent an ideal of reform which is being hacked apart by the present Condem coalition government. 

Spennymoor lodge banners, Gala 2013

The irony was inescapable: here we are, in the year that saw the death of another iconic figure, an inversion of the principle of social progress, and the nemesis of the mining industry, we face a new reality, something that my grandparents and parents would have thought they had put behind them in the last century: a government led by a cabal of elitist, over priviliged men intent on destroying the reforms of Bevan, and Beveridge, and the hard won rights of ordinary people, working people, the elderly, the sick, disabled, disadvantaged, to a life of decency and dignity.

Barnet Tories live in evolutionary isolation, a distant island, cut off from the Conservative continent and preserving its own curious characteristics, unique to another place, and another time. Living in the prehistoric era of Thatcherism, they live in retreat, hiding from imaginary dinosaurs like rampant socialism, the Common Market - and The Unions. 

Do Freer and all his retro minded chums on Barnet Council, in their kipper ties and blazers, really believe that we still live in an era of cloth capped pickets, Red Robbo and beer and sandwiches? Some probably, makes no difference - they believe that their voters do, and will be scared by any reference to something they only just half remember, but read about in the Daily Mail.

On the balcony at the Gala last month there stood the leaders of the main unions, led by the General Secretary of the TUC. This post happens to be held by that thing regarded with such contempt here in the misogynistic swamp of Broken Barnet: yes - a woman. No cloth cap, no whippet, no fags, wears nice dresses and a polite smile, nothing scary: relax ... 

the old and new faces of trade unionism

And Frances O'Grady is secretary of the TUC at a time when the most typical union member now is a young, university educated professional woman, rather than a blue collar worker employed in a heavy industrial workplace. In the public sector, 66% of (often low paid) workers are female.

Where would any of us be without the rights fought for by the union movement? A decent wage, sick pay, holiday pay, a safe working environment, defence from unfair dismissal, or bullying at work - from exploitation. And all these things, and more, the very definitions of a fair society, the things that my grandparents' generation won  and never thought to see removed, are now at risk. 

Every time Freer or his Tory colleagues try to denigrate the union movement, they attack their own constituents, ordinary decent women, and men, trying to support their families, pay their mortgage or rent, on modest incomes, and living in fear, if they work in the public sector, of losing their livelihoods, no matter how hard they work, or for how long, simply because the public sector  has been targeted by Capita, and BT, and Serco, and G4S, in order to make profit out of our services, at our expense. 

And don't swallow the lie that this is being done to benefit us, the taxpayers, and to improve our services. Case after case show these acts of privatisation result in a stark decline in standards, and the savings promised before the signing of contracts are entirely aspirational.

Next up is the NHS: Freer, the godfather of One Barnet, the founder of Capitaville, has already distinguished himself in parliament by backing the government's refusal to  publish the NHS 'reform' risk register. Why would he not want us to know the risks associated with slicing open the heart of our public health service, and creating a new market for the predatory companies hovering in the dark skies above?

In his nasty article in the Press, Freer tries to smear the Labour candidates who may stand against him in 2015 with a ridiculous accusation:

We already know from its own leaked document that the Unite union is trying to influence the local Labour Party’s selection of my opponent at the 2015 general election.

The Tories have tried desperately to make political profit from the Unite story, aided, it must be said, by the dithering of the Labour leadership, and a party overly dominated by wet behind the ears, middle class men with no experience of grassroots, working class politics, manual labour, or any sense of the historical debt the party owes to its past, and the continuing struggle for reform and social justice. Oh dear, though: look what we have here, in this interview with Tom Watson ...

it seems that all that really was a red herring, and a dangerous diversion from the real dilemma facing Labour,and indeed all three major parties: how to re-engage with its own natural electoral base. Tom says:

 "The truth is, our parliamentary democracy is broken," he says, and he wants Labour to embark upon a much more radical debate about how, far from being the problem, trade unions could actually be the answer ..."

So let's use the union movement for good, and reclaim our right to fight for our best interests: there is no shame in that. And as Frances O'Grady says, union money is 'the cleanest in politics' - open, and transparent. Can we say the same about the funding of political parties, especially the funding of the Conservative Party?

Mr Freer wishes to cast a shadow over the backing of Labour candidates who might oppose him, implying there is something wrong with having the openly declared support of a union.

We must therefore apply the same level of stringent scrutiny to those who support him. 

Let's take a look at his donations, shall we?

Here is his entry on the 'Search the Money' website, where we discover that he has accepted an astonishing total of £493,049.59 in donations to the Finchley and Golders Green Conservative Association. 

To put this into perspective, Hendon MP Matthew Offord has declared only £54,272.00, and Chipping Barnet MP and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers a mere £25,750.00.

Let's look at some of Freer's donors. 

First the corporate list: a few examples ... although these donations are properly declared, details are strictly limited, and it has taken a fair bit of research to identify the individuals or companies who have given financial backing to the constituency funds.

Some generous offerings by local property developers: Excelsior Properties, for example, who have coughed up £25,000 in cash, and £950 'in kind', and in 'travel'.

Lakeside Developments: heard of them? Another local property development company, £5,000. 

A company named Brookstream Properties donated  £10,000: very nice of them. 

Who are they? Oh: owned by the Comer Brothers, businessmen from the west of Ireland who took the former Colney Hatch Asylum in Friern Barnet, and changed it into the luxurious housing development that is Princess Park Manor. 

They are also the landlords of Barnet Council, owning North London Business Park, where the council offices have been located for some years now.

A lot of interest lately has been shown in relation to the MPs in receipt of donations from a mysterious entity named the United and Cecil Club: in total it has passed on £397,760 in donations, £6,000 to our MP. What is the purpose of this body? To keep Scotland in the Union. Who funds it? We do not know.

Then we have ...

Private donors: 

Rather odd: £10,000 from a fellow Tory MP, Greg Knight. Perhaps he had a surplus of generous donations, and wanted to help out.

£1,750 from a Mr Neel Khiroya. Who he? Oh: the sometime company secretary of Excelsior Developments. 

Fair enough.

And then: a Mr Chaim P. Zabludowicz has coughed up £7,200. Useful. And he is ... ? 

The 48th wealthiest person in the UK, whose father founded the family fortune on arms manufacture, via the Soltam company. According to Wikipedia, here , Soltam provides 'artillery systems, mortars, ammunition and peripheral equipment', to more than sixty countries ... Mr Zabludowicz has a house in Bishops Avenue, in the Tory stronghold of Hampstead Garden Suburb.

But perhaps the most amusing entry in the individual donors is this: £2,000 from an Antonios P Yerelemou. 

Mr Yerelemou had a business that was sold to a company named Bakkavor, in a deal involving the Icelandic bank Kaupthing. Yerelemou subsequently, in 2007, became a non executive director of Kaupthing. 

Why is this funny, Mrs Angry, you may be asking, if you do not live in Broken Barnet-Capitaville, or have had your ears sealed up with One Barnet glue? Two reasons: one here, in this Guardian article of 2011:

And the other thing? 

Well of course there is the awkward fact that Icelandic banks are not awfully popular in this borough, for the reason that during Mike Freer's tenure as leader, nearly £30 million of taxpayers' money was lost in the collapse of that country's banking system. Our money was in the Glitnir and Landsbanki coffers (any sign of it coming back yet, by the way?) but how fitting that some of Kaupthing's directors should be contributing to Freer's party piggy bank. 

There is of course, absolutely nothing improper in the nature of any of these donations. 

Campaigns must be paid for, somehow, mustn't they? 

And the declarations have been made as required. 

But the successful accumulation of such funding should perhaps be measured against the attempt by Freer to discredit his Labour opponents, and in particular Alon Or-Bach, whose support from Unite consists not of half a million pounds from individuals or local companies, but a rather more low key assistance in the modest form of advice, speech training, and, erm:  leaflet design.

In May 2014 electors will be faced with a choice of Freer, and his influential backers, or a rather less well supported Labour candidate.

The question most voters will have will be not who funds their campaigns, but rather what each candidate has to offer the residents of this borough. 

Labour's candidate will be a fresh new face, untried and untested, and Freer will have had five years to demonstrate his commitment to his constituency. He will be admired by many for his commitment to equal marriage, perhaps.  But just as many voters will be repelled by his defence of government policy on the NHS carve up. And what else? What has he achieved for the residents of Finchley and Golders Green? They work for you, we are told, but what has he done for us?

Looking at the record of his written questions in parliament is telling. He has submitted 244 questions this year, on more or less the same subjects: the common themes are these -
Departmental Billing, Press: Subscriptions, Billing, Sick Leave, Mobile Phones ... Mobile phones? 

What a shame he does not trouble himself with issues of more immediate significance to his constituents: the mass privatisation of their council services, without their consent, the impact of government benefit cuts on the sick and disabled members of our community, the crisis in our healthcare provision, and the impossibility of fast access to treatment to the vast majority of chronically ill patients, or the scandalous failure of 'Your Choice Barnet' and the attempt to screw profit from the care of disabled adults in order to subsidise the housing programme of Barnet Homes.

But all this is irrelevant now, anyway. These are the last days of Broken Barnet: as of September 1st, we will all be living in Capitaville. Those of us who refuse to acknowledge the terms of the new arrangement will have to regroup, and take arms as best we can. 

And we can, and will, and we must never forget who brought us to such an ignominious end.

From Easycouncil to Capitaville: one small step for Mike Freer, but a step too far for the rest of us, don't you think?


Anonymous said...

Great post Mrs Angry. Sometimes it's hard to remain calm when society is being attacked all around us. Keep up the fight.

Mrs Angry said...

Thanks, Anon. I never have been very good at remaining calm. But now I am not sure there is anything left to say, only things to do. Well, perhaps saying is doing.

Anonymous said...

The majority of the association's money comes from one donor, Jean Parmer. Any idea who she is?

Also on the Icelandic banks, sounds like most has now been repaid.

But no figure for Barnet.