Friday 24 January 2014

Where's the democracy? Showing UKIP the door, and a hustings that wasn't

Where's the democracy? UKIP's Adrian Murray-Leonard heckles from the doorway

Events in Barnet, as Mrs Angry has often observed, have often occurred according to a pleasing order of psychogeographic synchronicity, centred around the network of lines leading to Finchley, cradle of Thatcherism, and now the hotbed of radical activism, here in Broken Barnet.

It is undoubtedly true, however, that one unfortunate consequence of this is the tendency to forget the rest of the borough, especially the western side, where the culture of decadent bourgeoisie is markedly less prevalent, and people are too busy struggling to survive to give much time over to raising their political consciousness.

Barnet Alliance against the cuts is aware of this centralist tendency which sometimes excludes other parts of the borough, and is trying to be more inclusive in the arrangement of its meetings. The series of question times it is holding to kick off the run up to May's elections therefore, were scheduled to begin with Wednesday night's meeting in Edgware. 

Oh: back to synchronicity and pyschogeography, then, for Mrs Angry, who was born in Edgware, and raised in Edgware, and whose son was born (after causing a lot of trouble, as usual) in the same hospital as herself, closed by the Tories, exactly 21 years ago this week. His birthday, I mean, not the closure. Anyway.

When Edgware General was closed, it was a portent of doom: spelling out the future course of Tory policy for this borough, with a gerrymandering provision of the best healthcare, housing, education and public transport in the comfortable, affluent, Conservative voting areas. 

We are now seeing the culmination of this fateful policy in the lifetime of a local Tory council which encourages the creation of a borough where only the prosperous have rights, and those in need of support are seen as an unwelcome burden. If you are sick, or having a baby: travel across the borough on three buses to get to a hospital. If you need a council house: show us you deserve it. If you want a good school for your children: pay for it, or pay for a tutor so there is a chance of getting in through a selection process, or move to a middle class catchment area.

Edgware has changed in the last twenty years or so: once a mostly middle class area of mostly non religious Jewish families, blackcab drivers from the East End, and men who made their money in the rag trade, is now more diverse, with a smaller but more orthodox Jewish community, and a significant middle class Asian population. There are also less affluent areas, and a fair amount of social housing - or rather there was.

Who would turn up to the panel discussion, Mrs Angry wondered, as she walked up to the hall in the dark, feeling a sense of menace in the now unfamiliar and deserted back alleys that leads there?

The hall was filling up pretty rapidly, and up to maybe a hundred or so were eventually packed in the seats, and standing at the back. Some familiar faces, true, but pleasingly there seemed to be a substantial number of more local residents.

On the panel were Labour leader Alison Moore, Libdem leader Jack Cohen, Green party spokesperson Andrew Newby, and from Barnet Alliance, Barbara Jacobson.

Also present were the BBC, to film footage for the Sunday Politics show - oh, and one or two unexpected guests, or rather one uninvited guest, who arrived as we were just sitting down at the panel table. Yes, I'm talking about UKIP. 

Despite being told they were not welcome at this meeting, after allegedly threatening to 'hijack' the event, their representative Adrian Murray-Leonard came anyway, and stood in the doorway, grinning across the room at Mrs Angry, who has had one or two amusing conversations with him, in the past. Unknown to Mrs Angry at the time, the Barnet UKIP chair, Chris Apostolou was in the audience too, but he caused no trouble and indeed is reported to have asked Murray-Leonard to leave, at one point during the consequent disruption.

Why, demanded Mr Murray-Leonard, was I not invited to be on the panel? Is it because I am racist? Where is the democracy? ... Or is it something more sinister? You're a joke ... You're undemocratic. Etcetera, etcetera.

Members of the audience, including, incidentally, some of our friends from the Occupy movement, helped to facilitate the departure of Mr Murray-Leonard, and the police were called. You can see some of the drama here, if you wish: (you will have to avert your eyes from the horrible sight of local reporter from the Barnet Press, Dan O'Brien, in his Christmas jumper).


It was only after the event that it occurred to Mrs Angry how funny it was to see members of Occupy evicting someone from someone else's premises, but there you go: this is the way things are, in the upside down, inside out world of Broken Barnet.

Barnet Alliance had every right not to invite UKIP to be on their panel. It was not a formal hustings event: the fact that a blogger was asked to go on it clearly demonstrates that. They were welcome to be there as part of the audience, but not in order to take it over and push their own manifesto of dubious policies: and certainly once the threat of force was made, there was no chance the Alliance would be bullied into letting them take part. 

Having said that, Mrs Angry has no problem with debating with them: it would have been rather interesting to have them on the panel, if only for the entertainment value. Because how can you possibly take their ideas seriously? 

Look at the list of some of their policies, as highlighted yesterday in  the Guardian when it was revealed Nigel Farage had disowned their own 2010 manifesto: giving MPs more freedom over their expenses (dear Christ: no, no, no) the same income tax level for rich and poor, letting schools bring back the cane, abolishing statutory maternity pay, and getting rid of most equality and discrimination laws. 

And those are the less barking mad policies. 

Other proposals included: repainting all trains in 'traditional' colours, restoring the crown symbol on pint glasses in pubs, restricting foreigners in football teams, and encouraging proper dress in hotels. 

(In fact, Mrs Angry approves of that last one, the same thought occurring to her at the last Labour conference, all those scruffy hacks and politicians lounging about half cut in the Grand Hotel, and barely a cravat or a masonic cufflink in sight. Tssk. ) 

What else, on the UKIP policy list, now under review. Oh, being a bit racist, but in a careful, nod and a wink, dog whistley sort of way, referring to foreigners, instead of  - you know, what the PC lot don't allow you to say any more, now that we're run by ... foreigners, and  - you know, what the PC lot don't ... oh, anyway.

All panel members were given three minutes to give a quick speech on their views on four issues relevant to life in our borough: public services, housing, social care and regeneration.

Jack Cohen remarked that three minutes was the amount of time which our Tory councillors have dictated will be the new limit that a resident can address their elected representatives at council meetings - reduced from five minutes, in a further act of repression of free speech, from the party that has learnt absolutely nothing at all from the recent High Court judgement in regard to One Barnet, in which they were found to have breached the law on consulation, a finding based on the evidence of a policy of silence and censorship. 

At least at this event we had two hours to explore the issues we should be able to debate with the Tory councillors, but never can. They were of course invited to this discussion, but refused to come.

Jack Cohen also referred to the very interesting question he had asked at this week's full council meeting which lays out the full listing of payments in the year so far to Agilisys, Trowers & Hamlin, Capita, Re and Commensura - do take a look at the answer here on page 23.

Mrs Angry wrote earlier in the week that as yet there was no sign of any party manifestos. Well, hold the front page: in her three minute speech Labour leader Alison Moore announced a set of pledges that give us a hint of what is on offer: says Labour -

We are listening. Here's one example. Our parking pledges include 30 minutes free parking in town centres, saving you money and boosting local business.

We will consult on all major decisions. We will also ensure your voice is heard in all Council meetings by displaying your comments live in the Chamber at #mybarnet.

We will give you a say. We will set up neighbourhood budgets and you will decide how this money gets spent in your community. 

We will be accountable. We will open up Council meetings to a half hour of Public Question Time and webcast all council meetings so decision making is open, transparent and we are fully accountable. 

We will put residents first. Our FIRST step will be to revoke the Tories' outrageous councillors' free parking permits and reduce the councillors' allowances bill.

Consultation? Accountability? Nah: that'll never catch on, here in Broken Barnet.

Well, even if Mrs Angry wasn't a Labour voter, she would be standing at the Ballot box, slip in hand, first thing on May 22nd, purely on the basis of the last pledge, if nothing else. Performance by results, councillors, might concentrate your minds a little better, in a Better Barnet, mightn't it?

Andrew Newby, from the Green party mentioned the Capita takeover, and the failure of the council to consider an in-house bid. Mrs Angry has never met Mr Newby before, so it was good to know the Greens had formed an opinion about this, a little late in the day. (Sorry Poppy).

Barbara Jacobson, for Barnet Alliance spoke about the scandal of so many empty homes and shops, the iniquity of the bedroom tax, the urgent need to get out of the Capita contracts, the urgent need to take Your Choice Barnet, and the care of disabled residents, back in-house.

Mrs Angry's turn. 

What was significant about the meeting, of course, was not those of us who had come, but those who had not come, that is to say any representative of the Conservative party. The Tories

She read the statement by Tory leader Richard Cornelius, who defended his non-attendance, as you may recall, thus:

"It is not a public audience ... It is an audience of BAPS people. I'm sure there would not be an open debate and the panel is against us."

Mrs Angry pointed out the supreme irony of this statement from the man who did everything he could, including forbidding the mention of any council policies in public meetings,  to prevent open debate during the One Barnet procurement, leading to censure by a High Court judgement condemning the lack of consultation with residents over the privatisation of our public services ... 

In the absence of any Tory representative, therefore, Mrs Angry thought she would take it upon herself to remind the audience of their record in office.

Public Services? We don't have any. Almost all of them handed over to Capita to make profit from. And, as Mr Reasonable revealed this week, in only nine months One Barnet has cost us - you - a staggering £82.9 million. In order to save - what is today's plucked out of the air, aspirational, mythical figure? £160 million, over ten years.

Housing? In the last 20 years, the council has built no social housing. Recently it announced it would set this right, and build ... three new houses. The stock of social housing has shrunk due to the right to buy legislation, and those being persecuted by the bedroom tax have nowhere smaller to move to. 

Any new housing developement should pretend at least to include some 'affordable' housing. In Barnet we see projects that obtained approval by doing so backing out of such promises. And some make none anyway - look at the Gateway House plan, which will make huge profits for the developers, with luxury flats, no affordable housing, and a library that we do not need, as there is already one across the road. 

As in #BBCQT, members of the audience had submitted written questions, on all the sort of issues you might expect - the politicians gave their expected responses. Mrs Angry rambled on in her usual way. The most interesting answers were from Jack Cohen, who rather charmingly seems to forget that his Libdem colleagues at Westminster are in a coalition government with the Tories, and stoutly maintains his status as an opposition leader here in Broken Barnet.

There seemed to be much concern about housing and development policy in Barnet. As Jack pointed out, Barnet is a soft touch for developers, who face few demands from the local authority in terms of providing significant amounts of affordable housing or other tangible benefits for the wider community.

Mrs Angry remarked upon the ideological inflexibility that underpins Tory policy on these issues: a ruthless indifference to the needs of the homeless, and a neo Victorian sense of moral judgement applied to the allocation of housing, and a system that gives priority to the deserving poor. 

A young man named Derryl David, who has spoken very well at one or two recent council meetings, talked  about one of Barnet's latest development approvals, which will see his local sportsground at Pavilion Way, where his team, the Burnt Oak Rangers, plays football, sold for housing and a free school. 

Derryl David addresses the audience

Of course this is in a disadvantaged area of the borough, where there is a need for organised community activities like this to engage local kids, and keep them out of trouble. But the Tories are not interested in anything other than making a quick buck, and anyway, it's in a Labour ward, so there was never any real question that they would give it the go-ahead.

Mrs Angry commented that where we see a park, or a sports ground, or a library, or a museum, our Tory councillors see only a potential property development. Andrew Newby rightly pointed out that reports have shown there are plenty of brownfield sites in Barnet that could be used before we resort to using such locations for development. 

A discussion about equalities issues evolved from a question from a Mr Clampitt about the inaccessability of his local park to someone like himself, who has to use a mobility scooter. The consensus was that Barnet pays only lip service to such considerations, rather than taking such concerns as the focus of any proposals, and consulting 'protected groups' that are directly affected by the decisions they approve.

Sitting among the audience were some of the occupiers from the People's Library, and the Bohemia. One of them, Don, asked about the empty properties lying vacant for years and why that is permitted when people are so short of housing. 

Andrew Newby asked him if he was registered to vote. He said he was, but that he was not sure if he would use it. Andrew reminded him that if he did not, the Tories would be back in power.

Mrs Angry reminded everyone of the occupiers' role in saving the library, and made a comment that we are at a point now that direct action was sometimes the only effective form of protest, in the face of injustice. Some members of the panel were uncomfortable with that idea, which amused Mrs Angry, thinking back to this week's council tribute to Nelson Mandela, a man for whom direct action in the face of institutionalised injustice was the only honourable course of action.

Cue for the occupiers to unfurl the banner that they displayed outside local Tory MP and anti-squatting legislator Mike Freer's office recently, with a quotation from Isaiah: 

 'Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights' 

The most significant question was kept til the end: the interesting question of the Capita contracts, and how we could end them - could we end them?

Jack Cohen warned that if on May 23rd, the Tories were still in power, they would go straight to their senior management team and tell them to draw up plans to outsource every last council activity that had not already been given over to Capita. He is undoubtedly right.

Barbara Jacobson said we did not want to hear that leaving the contracts cannot be done. We want to hear it can.

Mrs Angry said it most certainly can be done, and the process of doing this is being considered even now in Birmingham, once an unthinkable move. She also asked the Labour leader to tell us what the official position on this is. Ah.

Alison Moore said that 'we would review the contracts'. If performance was inadequate, they would investigate the cost of withdrawal. She wasn't saying that wasn't going to happen, but pulling out would be really difficult if they were performing. They could not afford to go to court if the cost would be so high as to necessitate cuts in vital services.

But of course there may well be more savings to be made from withdrawing from the contract, commented Mrs Angry.

Yes, said the Alison, looking rather dismayed at the effect her first response had had. 

The meeting was over, and people packed up and went. It was not the best way to end the evening, perhaps.

The Labour leader was clearly taken aback by the level of disapproval that this apparent equivocation provoked. But Mrs Angry was neither surprised to hear her statement, nor disheartened. 

The truth is that the arguments in favour of trying to withdraw will prove much more compelling than perhaps the Labour leader yet understands.

As last week's contract monitoring committee demonstrated, few councillors have a grip on how to hold Capita to account, and are easily satisfied, so far, at this earliest stage, by the fudged KPIs, and a lack of available data. 

But it is not just a question of performance, but of the framework of the contract itself which needs proper scrutiny, in order to make the case that not only is it possible to withdraw, in terms of value for money for Barnet's residents, and the long term best interests of this borough, it is absolutely vital that we pull out, as Birmingham is about to do. 

We have an advantage over our friends in the Midlands: we have copies of the contracts, and we have, in the place of councillors who have yet to show they are capable of monitoring this partnership, a community of residents, bloggers and campaigners ready and willing to do the job themselves.

In fact, we've already started.

Here is the full, unexpurgated footage of the meeting, courtesy of the Barnet Bugle. Mrs Angry can't bring herself to watch, but if you are short of entertainment, go ahead:


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