Thursday 23 January 2014

The council of the wicked - or: sat in the seat of the scoffers - Mrs Angry survives another Full Council meeting

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, 

Nor stand in the path of sinners, 

Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! 

But his delight is in the law of the LORD, 

And in His law he meditates day and night. 

He will be like a tree [firmly] planted by streams of water, 

Which yields its fruit in its season 

And its leaf does not wither; 

And in whatever he does, he prospers. 

The wicked are not so, 

But they are like chaff which the wind drives away. 

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, 

Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the wicked will perish. 

Psalm read by the Mayor's Chaplain before the Full Council meeting

Yes. Been a busy two days, here in Broken Barnet. Tuesday night the special meeting to commemorate the life of Nelson Mandela, followed by Full Council.  Wednesday night the Barnet Alliance debate in Edgware. But first things first. Tuesday night.

Labour had called for a special commemorative meeting and for the establishment of an annual lecture in Mandela's name, to mark Black History month, particularly aimed the younger residents of Barnet, in recognition of his achievements and to reflect the issues facing the diverse population of our borough. A worthy suggestion, you would have to agree. 

Shall I show you my Joe Slovo t shirt? asked Mr Shepherd, ripping open his jacket and shirt with a frankly rather alarming enthusiasm ...

Although the Tory administration agreed to the special meeting, and the idea of a lecture, they simply could not bring themselves to support the move in dignity, but showed themselves up for what they are: shallow, and lacking in graciousness, by submitting some pathetically small minded and mean spirited amendments.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius was keen to insert an agreement that a sponsor must be found for the annual lecture. He made a shabby little speech which, amongst other cheap jibes, all delivered as usual in that passive-agressive demeanour he adopts, suggested that 'the wealthy unions' could be asked to pay for them. 

Libdem leader Jack Cohen looked on, in vague disgust. He talked about Mandela and a moral compass - an accessory sadly lacking in the toolkit issued to Tory councillors - and remarked that because of him tonight we stood together, but in earlier times ... we stood divided. The Tories looked down at their papers. 

Former Tory Brian Coleman, of course, rose to the occasion with a statesman-like tribute - or rather by delivering a ridiculous, petulant speech centred around not the guiding principles of the great man's life, but around Himself. 

Nelson Mandela, he informed us, as Mrs Angry fell off her seat laughing, had been A Methodist (like that other great figure of the age, at least in the world inside Brian Coleman's head, ie Brian Coleman). 

This was at least, Mrs Angry supposed, an improvement on Tories referring to Madiba as A Terrorist, wasn't it? Been there, done that, got the Hang Nelson Mandela t shirt. 

Not allowed now. Spoilsports.

And, lucky Nelson: Brian had met him. Or in fact, it transpired he had been in the same postal district as him sometime in 2007. And Lord Dickie Attenborough had been there (Brian calls him Lord Dickie, you know) and some Left Wing People, who made speeches which he said bored Mandela (not really into politics, see). 

And then: he stopped to remind us that Some Other People (looking at the Labour members, so not Left Wing People) Some People had tried to Stir Up Trouble with Mr Mandela in regard to Tory Councillor Brian Gordon and his 'tribute' act, which consisted of him blacked up at an event at a residential home in front of a captive audience of confused elderly residents ... (Mrs Angry was crying with laughter, by now).

And Some People, the same trouble-making People, had contacted President Mandela's office and told him about it, but - he didn't really mind.

He didn't like the shirt though, did he, yelled an historically well informed heckler, from the public gallery.

But why should we have a lecture in Black History month, asked Coleman? Why Black History Month? There is no Jewish History Month. 

There's Jewish Book Week, Brian, Mrs Angry commented, trying to be helpful ... (starts Feb 22nd, and always very interesting, but somehow I doubt he reads very much, do you?)

When Desmond Tutu was a curate at a church in Golders Green, whispered Mr Shepherd, nodding at the Tories, They wouldn't let him become a Freeman of the city of London

Always dangerous ground, with Mr Shepherd, anything touching on the subject of the City of London.

Luckily by now Labour's Agnes Slocombe was on her feet, enraged. Agnes is a councillor of long experience, originally from Barbados. Mrs Angry, as it happens, once had the privilege of attending a garden party at Buckingham Palace with her, (yes, just imagine) and her daughter, and she was great company, and absolutely refused to be impressed by anything - including the dusty velvet curtains and dingy nets in the foyer.

You can't tell me anything about lectures, said Agnes, or Black History Month

This was a scheme promoted by Ken Livingstone, but one to which everyone had contributed: we all worked together. 

I know, she said, what I'm talking about. Why all this nonsense now? This was all long before your time.

Agnes is one of the few councillors who can reduce Coleman to the state of a chastened schoolboy. He shut up.

Tory grandee Councillor John Marshall rose to his feet. Uh oh, thought Mrs Angry. 

But no: to her surprise he immediately rebuked Coleman, as he so thoroughly deserved. The veteran parliamentarian referred with contempt to 'The Independent Member for Totteridge, and said his comments 'ill behoved him'. 

He explained that with his son he had visited Robben Island, and saw the tiny cell in which Mandela was so cruelly incarcerated. He could not imagine how anyone could possibly have survived twenty seven years in such conditions.

Marshall recalled Mandela's visit in 1996, and his speech in Westminster Hall, made with such dignity; he remembered the first free election in South Africa, with the extraordinarily long queues: here in our local elections we take for granted, we see no queues. He spoke about the Truth and Reconciliation process, enabling people to move forward - and he mentioned the tribute paid in the House of Commons, an unprecedented honour.

For the first and probably last time, Mrs Angry applauded Councillor Marshall, as he sat down. It was well said, and said with sincerity.

Colemand sat sulkily, staring straight ahead, swinging his glasses impatiently in his little hand, completely unable to comprehend the significance of the moment, the need to acknowledge the real value of a life so nobly spent in dedication to the fight for justice, humanity, decency. That he is unable to understand - that is the reason for his isolation, in life, as well as in the council chamber of Broken Barnet.

Labour's Ross Houston told the meeting that he had been an anti-apartheid activist before he had even joined the party. He quoted from Alan Paton's inspirational  'Cry the Beloved Country', written in the very year which saw the birth of the iniquitous system of apartheid. He referred to one particular quotation:

"I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating".

And then to the famous words by Mandela:

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Coleman carried on swinging his glasses in his hand.

Labour's Jim Tierney, who is Irish, reminded the meeting of the link between the example of the achievements of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa and the peace process in Northern Ireland. The road from Mandela and the ANC to Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams, it seemed from the expression on the faces of some of our Tory councillors, was too long a road to travel. But he is right: in the end, cooperation and forgiveness is the only solution to any conflict - a lesson too difficult for our elected representatives as we shall see.

Labour's Gill Sergeant patiently explained to that example of doltish incomprehension, Councillor Coleman, the relevance of honouring the life of Nelson Mandela. His story demonstrates the fragility of democracy.

Opposition leader Alison Moore returned to her own tribute to the great man, thanking the speakers - with perhaps just one exception - and remarking that the Tory leader's comments about funding were, as she put it drily 'unfortunate'. Also unfortunate was that she appeared forced to accept the lectures would not be allowed in Black History month, due to the Tory amendment, and much to the satisfaction, no doubt of Brian Coleman, who was the only one supporting his own pointless amendment.

He'll claim to be an oppressed minority now, suggested Mr Shepherd.

There is another line from Cry the Beloved Country, which has a certain resonance for us, here in Broken Barnet, you might think:

“The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.” 

 Which serves as a lead into the second part of the evening's events: the Full Council meeting.

The chamber had not been full during the Mandela tribute, notably on the Tory side - although for once the public gallery had lots of new faces, keen new candidates for all the parties in the forthcoming elections, including a woman who is standing for the Tories in a hopelessly unwinnable seat, but had arrived determined to show her support for Tory councillors and their idiotic statements, by a volley of staccato interjections: YES! YES! YES!

 This was so alarming, that Mrs Angry felt obliged to interrupt her own rather more langorous stream of heckling to turn around and observe her competitor, and make sure she was actually heckling rather than re-enacting that interesting scene from Harry met Sally. She left early: peaked too soon, thought Mrs Angry. Over excitement. Timing is all, isn't it ladies? And gents?

We stood for the Mayor's Chaplain to say prayers: always a favourite moment for Mrs Angry, as our wicked elected representatives excell themselves in an act of feigned humility to a God with whom most of them have the most casual acquaintance, if any at all.

The Rabbi had chosen to read us from Psalm One, a beautiful extract, in fact, as you can see from the top of the post. He had chosen it for its allusion to a recent Jewish festival, Tu B'Shevat - the new year for trees. 

Mrs Angry looked at the forest of councillors in the chamber, and prayed for a hurricane, somewhere on the scale of 1987, arriving towards the end of May. And, as the psalm teaches, thought Mrs Angry, sitting comfortably in the seat of the scoffers, hopefully the Lord's will shall be done, and the way of the wicked will perish. Amen.

Some of us at that meeting were sitting a little less comfortably in our seats, on Tuesday night. Lo, amongst the counsel of the wicked was a new member, hiding, shrinking against the wooden panelled wall at the far end, the Tory end of the chamber.

Labour councillor Ansuya Sodha, who represents West Hendon, failed to be reselected as a candidate for the forthcoming elections. Instead of accepting what was a democratic decision, made in an open voting process by her local party members, she has complained bitterly about her deselection, made unfair allegations in the local press about those who replaced her, and announced last year she had resigned from the Labour party. She remained as an independent member. 

No one, of course, has the right to tenure over any elected seat, or candidacy: and personal disappointment over rejection may be very difficult to deal with, but this is the result of a democratic process: the person with the highest vote wins. If your colleagues decide there are better candidates to represent the residents of any ward, that is a decision they are entitled to take.


Now however, Councillor Sodha has abandoned her fifteen years as a Labour councillor, opposing the policies of the Conservative administrations which have brought this borough to its knees, and taken up their offer of welcome, in order to retain a place as a candidate - even if it is for the party whose policies she has opposed for so long.

Barnet is not in fact the picture of leafy affluence that Conservative politicians prefer to think about, but encompasses many areas of considerable social deprivation. West Hendon is one of them.

The western side of the borough has the worst housing, education and health care. And the historical difficulties faced by the residents of this area, under the impact of the policies of both the coalition government and the latest local Tory council, have become acute, with so many disadvantaged residents suffering social injustice and exclusion as a result of the bedroom tax and benefit cuts. Never could there have been a more desperate need for Labour councillors to fight for a better Barnet, a better future for their constituents. So Sodha's move is a pretty shabby act, by any standards.

And it is not just Labour supporters who think so. One well known Tory activist told Mrs Angry that he felt 'sickened' that his Tory colleagues could countenance the adoption of a Labour member in this cynical way.

Mrs Angry can remember not so long ago listening to Cllr Sodha speaking about the devastating consequences of the bedroom tax on the poorest, most vulnerable residents of this borough. She used an example of a family with a disabled child, who needed the extra room for the special equipment that their child required, and slated the Tory policies which were causing such hardship. Quite how the lure of a candidacy from the same party which is inflicting such misery can outweigh the sense of betrayal that such residents will feel from their councillor's new allegiance is impossible to see. 

The other irony of this story is that Ansuya Sodha has for so long been the butt of Tory derision in the council chamber, from the very same councillors who were cheering smugly, braying like a pack of inbred donkeys, when her defection was announced on Tuesday night.

The misogyny of the male Tory councillors in Barnet is legendary, but worse still is the schoolboy sniggering that inevitably ensued in their rankswhen Cllr Sodha, an older woman of Asian origin, would address a meeting. Her accent was the cause of amusement with the Tories - an atrocious habit which struck Mrs Angry with astonishment in the earliest days of writing this blog, watching them laugh when she pronounced words in a way which they found comical, in the way of someone still living in the era of 'It ain't half hot mum', and the 1970s mind set that is required thinking, if that is the word, for Barnet Tories.

Eurgh. What a contemptible story, from all sides of the stage.

The new Tory member hid throughout the meeting behind the back of another older female Conservative who has also been the victim of ridicule and contempt, and even bullying from her own Tory colleagues; Kate Salinger, who was vilified and abused, ritually 'punished' for perceived 'disloyalty' for not supporting the Tories notorious attempt to award themselves a nice big fat pay rise as soon as they were elected. She will no doubt be able to coach her new friend in how to survive in the foetid swamp of Barnet Conservatism. 

Good luck, then.

The meeting trundled on in its usual way, a perfect counterpoint to the profundities and noble sentiments of the earlier session, with our elected representatives churning out their usual mix of lies, insults, feeble point scoring, petty ripostes. There were a few honourable exceptions, with contributions from the Libdem's Jack Cohen, and Labour's Ross Houston, but otherwise it was a tedious affair. Mrs Angry got up and left at the interval.

In one evening, then, the full range of political activity: from the legacy of a great statesman, true to his principles, loyal to his people, compassionate to his enemies - to an example of politics at its worst: to an act of betrayal, a cynical embrace, and an evening of meaningless exchanges. 

Yes, this is Broken Barnet, flying under the flag of Capita, plc.

The tragedy is not that things are broken. 

The tragedy is that things are not mended again.

No comments: