Friday 7 March 2014

A tale of three budgets: Part Two - Turn again, or Which side are you on?

Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

The Mayor's chaplain had begun the meeting with references to Purim, but Tuesday night, the night before Ash Wednesday, also marked the beginning of Lent, which for guilt ridden catholics everywhere necessarily requires the wearing of ashes, and a sacrifice made as an act of repentance, for the expiation of sin.

A tale of three budgets, then, and a mark of penance, refused.

First of all we were to be given a self congratulatory presentation of the Tory version from leader Richard Cornelius, who launched into a raving attack on 'socialist paradises', piling praise on the 'success' of the Capita contracts, and sneering at 'those who play games in court' - referring to the disabled resident Maria Nash, who dared to question the legality of the Capita deal in the High Court. Far from 'playing games' the evidence of potential wrongdoing was such that courts gave permission for a Judicial Review of the outsourcing process, and then found that Barnet had breached the law by failing to consult, but clearly, in Richard's view, the law is of no consequence, and merely a game. 

He reminded us of all the blessings of living in Broken Barnet - the number of marvellous schools (full of pupils from other boroughs, remarked Mrs Angry) and hoped for even more grammar schools. At this point, without looking up from his reading material, Mr Shepherd expressed the passing thought that Councillor Cornelius might benefit from the endorsement of 'six of the best' at one of the borough's grammar schools. This brought Cornelius' flow to a sudden halt, and created a fair amount of mirth in the chamber. 

Thank you, Mr Shepherd, replied the Leader, continuing in his list of wonderful achievements: the installation of Saracens rugby team at Copthall (for a peppercorn rent, while they clean up with a multi-million sponsorship deal with Allianz), the building of three council houses - the first in twenty years, and the mending, last year, of 4,542 pot holes.

All in Golders Green, remarked Mr Shepherd. More laughter. This was a jibe at Tory councillor Dean Cohen, in charge of environment, alleged by his former colleague Brian Coleman to have secured £800,000 worth of highways related funding for his own ward, ie Golders Green. See here - and try to ignore the excruciatingly inappropriate choice of phraseology by  Coleman:

Swiftly moving on, with breath taking bravado, we were asked to acknowledge the 'very popular' pay by phone parking system - met, as you might imagine by a certain amount of ribald heckling from the gallery, and then to be grateful for the return, at last, of some of the money from the Icelandic bank fiasco. Heckling about the loss of interest provoked the response that Labour wouldn't have had the money to invest in the first place. Mrs Angry pointed out that the money was borrowed - Cornelius remarked that he could now see why Labour was 'so hostile to payday lenders', a bizarre statement, implying that this was an unfortunate position to take.

He was bursting with pride over the Tory budget, at the one per cent tax cut: Mr Pickles, he said, set us the challenge, and we have met it.

Certainly Barnet Tories have a long way to go before winning back the approval of Eric Pickles: the idea that this trashy gesture is enough to make him forget the enormity of every other embarrassment they have caused the Conservative party over the last four years is delusional.

Cornelius turned now to the Labour alternative budget.

Oh dear.

He quoted the Labour leader Alison Moore, who had previously described the Tory tax cut as 'a cynical election ploy', and deputy leader Barry Rawlings, who had called it 'a political stunt.'

This was highlighted, with gleeful scorn, by Cornelius, because, (to the fury of many Labour activists, supporters, and even Labour councillors), the leadership was now requiring the party to support the one percent cut, the cynical election ploy, and the political stunt.

He pointed out that in her budget, Alison Moore had not suggested any reduction in pay for the leader of the opposition. He said that if she would offer to give up a month's salary, he would.

The Libdems' budget, which does not accept the cut, he described as 'a sensible one you can understand'.

As for the 'independent' member for Totteridge, or as he corrected himself, the 'non aligned member', Brian Coleman, he noted his suggestion of removing the office of Chief Executive - (tactless, and strategically ill judged, from Coleman's precarious position). He thought his proposal to turn off street lighting at night was 'silly', but would give some consideration to looking at the level of subscription to the Local Government Association. Good, thought Mrs Angry.

Time for Alison Moore to present her budget. She attempted to begin, but met with a load of the usual discourteous, mindless jabbering from the Tory seats - usual when any woman is speaking, that is. Shut up and you might learn something, she snapped - a most surprising loss of self control for someone normally so courteous, accommodating and polite - far too polite, in fact, and easy prey for the boorish behaviour of the misogynist Barnet Tories. 

And it was an indication of the pressure she was feeling in respect of the tax cut issue, from perhaps an unexpected weight of disapproval from her own ranks and the opinion of many local activists who have become increasingly concerned at the lack of - well, opposition, from the opposition, or at least the leadership of the opposition. 

The recent cock-up over the Labour members' apparent endorsement of the Task and Finish group which whitewashed the scandalous failure that is the 'Your Choice Barnet' care service was one step too far for many, but to support the Tory council tax cut, after all the outrage that has been expressed is a decision which has enraged many Labour supporters, and rightly so, in Mrs Angry's view.

The explanation for this move is that, well, you know, you can't change the rate once it has been set, and send letters out to residents telling them they will have to pay the dreadful sum of 23 pence a week more than expected, to support vital services.

Yes, actually you can, and you should, and you must. To do otherwise is morally and tactically wrong.
Endorsing the Conservative tax cut, Labour's current leader Alison Moore, and forefront, deputy leader Barry Rawlings

The Tories have acted cynically and irresponsibly, and it is the duty of an opposition to say so, to act to reverse such a move, and certainly not to endorse it. 

In order to have any influence on any financial policy, Labour has actually to win power, and they will not win power unless they convince enough residents that they are going to offer an administration that is radically different to the present bunch of largely self serving, incompetent Tories, who lack any sense of compassion, justice, or respect for the people they represent - unless they live in Bishops Avenue, or Totteridge Lane.

The Labour party, both locally and nationally, is failing to see that in their eagerness to be electable they are failing to respond to the real sense of outrage being felt by ordinary people, disadvantaged people, and even more comfortably placed people, the increasing sense of disillusionment felt at the lack of clear alternative offered by Labour to the iniquitous Tory policies that are falling most heavily on the backs of those who are least able to bear them. 

In Barnet we have seen a virtual uprising over the course of the last couple of years, over issues that ought to have been identified and fought by Labour. Instead of taking ownership of these matters, and using them as an opportunity to take on the Tories in a headlong challenge, they have consistently pulled back, and left it to others like Barnet Alliance and the Barnet blogosphere to pursue, while they focus on watered down policies that fail to grab the attention of the wider electorate. Why should the wider electorate turn to Labour, with such a lack of initiative, and fighting spirit? It is a question we must ask honestly, and address, and correct any failings before we get any closer to the election.

As fellow blogger Roger Tichborne asked after the meeting, in an exasperated post of one sentence:  

What is the point of Barnet Labour party if they slavishly copy the Barnet Tory tax cutting and service destroying agenda?
And the always reasonable Mr Reasonable commented in an aptly titled post:

Having read through the details, I have to say that I am disappointed that Labour have chosen to go along with the Council Tax cuts. It is not surprising, I suppose, given that any suggestion they would either freeze or increase Council Tax would be pounced on by the Conservatives, but that doesn't make it right. 

Without a doubt, the vast majority of Labour councillors and activists in this borough are good people, genuinely dedicated to making our community a better place. And they will, once they are elected. There is simply no comparison with the selfish, contemptuous, materialist culture of the Conservatives in Barnet. But we must, at this point in the run up to the election be honest and admit that there is a failure in leadership, and need for a change in the direction and presentation of Labour policies. 

There is absolutely no doubt either, that Labour must and can win this election, indeed there is no option to fail: we owe it to the forgotten residents of this borough to wrest back control of this council and our local services. 

The fact that the party leader is so loathe to commit to challenging the privatisation of those services is a serious mistake: escaping from the Capita contracts may prove to be impossible in the end, or it may not, but the desire to fight for the shaking off of what has been an agreement forged in a process utterly devoid of transparency, consent, or proper scrutiny, is entirely absent, and that is a shameful indictment of the strength of opposition, and a betrayal of the best interests of our borough. 

As the Unite union leader reminded us, regrettably in the absence from the platform of the party leader, at last year's conference, Harold Wilson once said:

If Labour is not a moral crusade, then we are nothing ...  

Nowhere could there be greater need of a Labour opposition to retain the high moral ground, safe from the hypocrisy, cruelty and self-indulgence of Conservative politics than here, in Broken Barnet.

Mrs Angry spent yesterday out canvassing for Labour in West Hendon, one of those areas of social deprivation the Tories ignore as much as possible, unless there is a gerrymandering opportunity for new non affordable housing developments. More on this in another post, but it was an experience which brought home the urgent need for a council administration which stands up the for the welfare of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents, and stops worrying about the inhabitants of, yes - Bishops Avenue, or Totteridge Lane.

There is a new wave of Labour councillors about to be elected: their arrival will transform the party and give it the new direction it so badly needs, and that is why you, yes you, must vote Labour. Whatever the outcome in May, Mrs Angry confidently predicts there will be radical changes within the party, and a the birth of a new beginning for Labour, as well as the borough.

Back to the meeting, and the presentation of the Labour alternative. We heard a bit about you know, Cameron and Eric Pickles, and all in this together, and Oxford getting a better handout of grants, and Bob Neill admitting those in greatest need were taking the burden of austerity measures.

All true. What is the opposition group in Barnet going to do about it? They are going to take away the Tory councillors' free parking permits. Good. And? And the increases in allowances. Marvellous. Parking: one policy which will most certainly attract the support of many disaffected Tory voters - a bit about affordable housing and, ... that was more or less it.

Not that there are not policy proposals to be proud of, these were just not presented assertively enough, and the issues which should be addressed, simply sidelined or ignored. Don't remember anything about Capita, or Your Choice Barnet, or any really big idea: just a stated commitment to ensuring more 'fairness' ...

At the end of the speech, a sniggering suggestion was made from within the gloating ranks of the Tory councillors that the Labour leader might be about to defect to their party, as one deselected councillor has already done, and good riddance, in a desperate bid to keep a seat on the council. It was an embarrassing moment.

Labour's Ross Houston had been listed to speak to the budget item. For no particular reason, this was not allowed by the Mayor. Funny, as Mr Shepherd remarked, that we have time for prayers, but not democracy.

He would have said:

We acknowledge that times are tough and a Labour administration won't spend it’s first few months re-issuing council tax bills.

The proposed council tax cut although welcome represents less than £14 a year for the average household.

Is it welcome? To whom? When it deprives vital services of funding? Cllr Houston, who is a scrupulously decent man, defended the cut as enabling the council to support the new focus a Labour administration would have on those elusive goals, fairness and transparency.

In Mrs Angry's view, those are principles to be observed without reference to budget, or any other limitation, and endorsing a Tory vote buying gimmick is not the best demonstration of fairness.

Does this all matter? Yes, it matters.

Should it stop anyone voting Labour in the election?

NO - the essential difference between the Labour party and the Conservatives is that we can have this debate in the open, and raise criticism of issues in order to build a stronger bond between us, before the election period properly begins. And when the new intake of Labour councillors are in post, we can begin to put Broken Barnet together again.


Back to the meeting.
Time for Jack Cohen to speak about the Libdem budget.

The Libdems' budget rejected the council tax cut.

Jack reminded us of Richard Cornelius' description of the one percent cut as 'a gesture'. He disagreed. It was not a gesture, it was a gimmick - it was reckless.

He pointed out that the £70 million shortfall that was heading our way makes such a cut simply unsustainable. All for 23 pence a week. He remembered that Councillor Davey, when discussing an increase in some other service had dismissed the extra 55 pence a week as 'absolutely nothing'. And one consequence of this cut would be that anyone who lives, drives, or breathes in the borough would have to shell out for hidden taxes ...

Time for a budget from Brian Coleman. Oh God. His idea was to cut the council tax by three percent, paid for by the poorest residents out of their benefit payments. In fact his budget was unlawful, as some of the funding it required was not available in the same financial year, and really the entire proposal should have been struck out by governance officers, but they clearly decided to humour him, in view of the item at the end of the agenda.

Coleman turned to the subject of parking, the policy he devised that has caused so much damage to the Tory party in Barnet - and wreaked so much havoc on the borough's high streets. Commenting on attempts to undo the impact of this catastrophic scheme he boasted that it was designed by him in such a way as to be 'irreversible'. Despite this cunning plan, he protested, he could exclusively reveal, like an amateur magician at a Rotary Club christmas party producing a toy rabbit out of a hat, rather than a wriggling live one  -  that: taddah ... A Parking Recovery Plan Was Being Drafted! Just imagine the excitement!

When we had composed ourselves, he continued with his speech. As for the Labour budget, he said, he was staggered that they were accepting the cut. At least, he said, Jack Cohen had moral principles.

Being lectured by someone like Brian Coleman on the issue of a moral principle is a joke, of course, but to be put in such a position, courtesy of the Labour party, is intolerable. Please don't do that again.

And for once the old fool was right: the Libdems had retained their dignity in opposition, and the Labour leadership had thrown theirs in the gutter with the Tories.

Lord Palmer tells it like it is, and delivers an opposition budget, as Labour members look on

Libdem peer Monroe Palmer, who with his wife, fellow Childs Hill councillor Susette Palmer, is standing down in May, gave a scathing speech on the other parties' budget proposal. Alternative budgets, he said, were always pointless: in all the years he could recall, the Tories had never adopted a single item from another party. The Tories did not present a budget in opposition, perhaps because they were unable to formulate one without the help of officers. He said their cut of one percent was an action by a 'morally bankrupt' party.

Palmer raised the scandal of the shameful salary cuts of ten percent being imposed on the already low paid workers employed by 'Your Choice Barnet'. He referred to the ludicrous boasts about potholes, saying he recognised the same ones popping up again, and the risk of tripping up from unmended broken paving slabs, all worth it, of course, for the grand sum of  23 pence a week. And for Cornelius to congratulate himself on the 'success' of the Capita contracts? They've only just begun! He mentioned the capital investment fiasco, and the Icelandic loss, taken not from reserves, but borrowed money. By this time, his fury was such, that Mrs Angry feared for the risk to his blood pressure. But it was at least genuine feeling, passionate, a legitimate fury, and so much more worthy of an opposition member.

Tories and Labour - morally bankrupt: Councillor Lord Palmer socks it to them: a lesson in opposition

Other speakers took their turn: like Tory Dean Cohen, wittering like a third form schoolboy, so boring that his contribution was punctuated by the sound of someone snoring in the public gallery. (Not Mrs Angry, of course).

Unfortunately we also had to listen to a speech by the less than charming Tom Davey, a callow youth who delights in trying to sound as right wing and hard line as it is possible, a peculiar and regrettable tendency in someone in their mid twenties. If he is like this at such a young age, what will he be like in his middle years, or old age, one wonders? In UKIP, probably. Still, as always, Mrs Angry salutes his dedication to such a deeply unpalatable brand of uncompassionate Conservatism.

He claimed that people were 'flocking' to Barnet. Not poor ones, obviously, you know - the subspecies of human beings that Boris Johnson's sister went to visit recently, and found living like 'animals' on £3 a day. 

Our Tory councillors wants none of that, of course. Davey said that he wanted to encourage only well off people to live in this borough - he has previously said he wants to see Russian oligarchs moving in, rather than people who are 'dependent on council services'. 

Obviously Cllr Davey uses no council services, as his f*cking feet never touch the pavement, he has no rubbish to be recyled, other than his half baked political ideas, and judging by the content of his contributions in debate, has failed to take full advantage of the benefit of our marvellous local education system, so highly praised by Richard Cornelius.

Enjoy the sight of Councillors Greenspan and Coleman revelling in Davey's puerile remarks about welcoming the well off to Barnet

Davey made rather a foolish blunder, in his speech. He talked about a conversation he had had about the budget with a reporter from a local paper, and repeated comments he alleged the unnamed reporter had made. This was unfair, in breach of all protocols, and pretty stupid, in the run up to an election. 

He also made an inexcusably low comment about the Labour housing spokesperson not bothering to turn up. Her husband stood up and demanded an apology, as she has been very unwell. Davey slunk into his seat, muttering that he didn't know that. If he apologised, Mrs Angry did not hear it.


Watch how our Tory councillors behave: Tom Davey and a baying audience

Deputy leader Daniel Thomas - is he standing as a PPC anywhere this time? Last election he stood in Neil Kinnock's old constituency, on an anti-immigration ticket. Here in culturally diverse Barnet, he is more discreet. Kind of. He claimed that Labour now realises that cutting tax is exactly what residents want.  He thought that the 'fairness commissions' suggested by Alison Moore were the 'socialist version of consultants'. Oh, thought Mrs Angry, wondering why Barnet Tories will keep banging on about Barnet Labour being socialists, an interesting admission that, as Mrs Angry knows he really knows, the spending on One Barnet consultants is utterly outrageous.

He had an announcement. He guarantees not to sell Friern Barnet library. For four years. Wonder who might be lined up for Year Five?

When are you selling Church Farmhouse Museum? asked Mrs Angry, who was sitting next to the former curator, Gerrard Roots, beside himself with contempt at the debacle in the chamber, just as he is enraged by the Tories' treatment of the now vulnerable, closed, ransacked, decaying Grade II* listed building. Still, as we hear, Barnet has now gone and shoved a shower room in it for the security man, possibly without permission from English Heritage.

They took a vote on the budgets. Obviously the Tory one was approved. Not Labour, or the Libdems. Oh: you are wondering about Brian Coleman's? He almost forgot to vote for himself, but managed a last minute signal, rallying all his supporters (ie one) just in time.

Against? Only 56 votes. Close, commented Mrs Angry. 

Even Councillor Harper laughed. 

Mr Shepherd called for a recount.

And then at this point, the non aligned, independent member for Totteridge quickly gathered up his papers, and left the chamber. 

Where are you going, Brian, asked Mrs Angry? Gone to look for your laptop?

Which will bring us to the last, rather perplexing part of this meeting, in the next post.

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