Thursday 29 May 2014

Broken Barnet, May 2014: the morning after the night before

It is now a week since the local elections, and all parties in Barnet are now beginning to adjust to the new reality of political life in this borough. 

Or not.

In the last few days we have seen the Tories in a state of shock, uncharacteristically silent, unable to comprehend the reasons for the loss of so many of their councillors, and unable to see that their failure to predict such consequences is proof itself of the fundamental problems that have driven their party to the brink of disaster. 

They didn't see it coming, in short, because they didn't look. And their ability to remain happily out of touch with reality, has reached its logical conclusion: not to know when they had made the fatal error of alienating their own electoral guarantors, the residents naturally inclined to vote for them, whose support they took for granted, and overlooked in the rush to impose their half baked policies in the course of the last four years.

Not that Mrs Angry is inclined to help the Barnet Tories analyse what went so awfully wrong, but for the record, it might help if they sat in the corner thinking very hard about their attitude of contempt for the views of residents, and asked themselves why they felt obliged to act with such Stalinist zeal to silence all debate with residents, to avoid real consultation with them, to allow Tory councillors like Brian Coleman and Robert Rams to treat residents with such rudeness at council meetings - and to continue in imposing their most unpopular policies regardless of widespread protest, and an uprising of activism in this borough on an unprecedented scale, and one which brought the focus of media attention not just nationwide, but across the world. 

I mean, really, when it becomes a common place occurrence for the borough to be visited by film crews from Japan, or Australia, or Germany, and documentaries are made on just one of the political issues tearing your community apart - did you never stop to think, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, hang on - this is all getting out of hand? Maybe ... just maybe we've got this wrong? Maybe we are going to be in a spot of trouble, on polling day?

The result of their arrogance, and ineptitude, is that their control of the council has all but disappeared, and hangs in the balance. 

We are just one by election away from the Tories losing all authority, and the introduction of the new committee system means that they will need to exercise a regime of the most stringent party discipline, and eternal vigilence, to ensure their own members turn up to all meetings. This will be an impossible challenge for the Tories, Mrs Angry cheerfully predicts.

At the election count, she asked one young Tory member why he had stood again for council, when his poor attendance record was so poor, and widely criticised. He maintained that he had made a promise to 'improve' his record of attendance, patchy because of work commitments, but said he thought that actually, going to meetings was not the only part of being a councillor which mattered, helping constituents was just as important. True, but for the next four years, being at meetings is going to be crucial, not optional. 

In truth, what is left of the Barnet Tory party, after the election, is a most peculiar creature, hard to define. 

So many of the members that were most characteristic of the previous administration have left us, thank God.

Consider the loss of the man they dare not name, no longer a Tory by the time of the election, but the dark power behind the throne throughout most of the administration, yes, it's him, Brian Coleman, the malign influence which worked its destructive power over the leadership of the party, and led to its downfall: without his totemic presence in the chamber, what strange synergy there will be, in this new administration.

Let's be clear: the Tory party has accomplished the sell out of our council services to Capita, and got it through an election campaign for two reasons. First of all because of the complete failure of the Labour party to oppose the programme - more of this later - and second: the privatisation has only just begun to become established, and only the first signs of fundamental change have begun to become apparent to residents. That is not going to hold out much longer, which is why it is vital for the new intake of opposition members to start as they mean to go on, and get a grip of contract scrutiny.

This week after the election, in fact on the first morning back after a Bank Holiday weekend, it was almost impossible, as Mrs Angry found, over the course of 14 phone calls in one hour, to reach the council by phone. The new Capita call centre could not cope with the number of calls it was receiving. 

 The way that Capita addresses the shortfall in the number of lines it provides, is to set up 'this number is not recognised' messages, or simply saying 'the line is busy'. This brilliant wheeze - dismissed at the beginning of the contract as teething problems - means that not all calls are logged - if they were the performance statistics would tell the truth, that at times residents cannot access information about their council services. 

These failings to respond to calls will not be recorded as failures to respond: they will simply not appear in the data, thus enabling KPIs to be flunked, as indeed they are, as Mr Mustard will tell you, in the course of the NSL contract. 

This is how your councillors, of both parties, have the wool pulled over their eyes about performance, and are able to remain at contract scrutiny committees, nodding as senior officers and Capita representatives assure them everything is just fine and dandy. 

It is not.

And just bear in mind that where large outsourcing contracts like these have ended, it has often been based on dissatisfaction with call centre performance, as we are now seeing in Birmingham. Contrary to what some are saying, it is possible to escape contracts, if the contractors are proven to be failing to provide the services paid for.

You, councillors of Broken Barnet, are being fooled. No more excuses, please: do your job, and challenge contractors not only on the performance statistics, but how they actually compile those statistics. It takes a bit of effort, doing this, but -hello - that's what you have been elected to do.

Over the last four years, I have sat and watched Labour councillors on committees fail to challenge the most appalling blunders by both Tory members and senior officers, open opportunities for political profit, and, for f*ck;s sake, to do what the people of this borough deserve, stand up for them, and do the right thing, on their behalf.

I'm not prepared to do the same again, in silence. 

In the previous administration countless opportunities were lost, by a failure in courage, in strategy, and most of all in leadership. This cannot continue.

The Judicial Review of One Barnet is the most worrying example. The reason this failed, of course, was not because the merits of the argument of the claimant: Judge Underhill ruled that Barnet had breached the statutory duty to consult residents about the privatisation of services. The Judicial Review failed because it was made too late.

Why was it made too late? Because legal action was not instigated by Labour when it should have been, early on in the process. Legal advice was not taken by Labour, until - it was too late. This was an unforgiveable error in judgement.

Having lost the JR, what then? During the election campaign, we had a series of question times at different parts of the borough. Mrs Angry took part in the first one, and sat in fury as the Labour leader refused to commit the party, if successfully elected, to attempt to exit from the Capita contracts. This also infuriated the majority of residents in the audience.

Now safely back in opposition, where some Labour members feel so much more comfortable, we hear reassurances that the party will 'fight to ensure that One Barnet is not selling residents short'. 

Let's hope that the new intake of more challenging and more radically minded councillors will do just that, and not succumb to the culture of complacency and impotence that has too often prevailed in place of any rigorous process of opposition.

And there are some really, really good new Labour members: at last, some young women, bright, passionate and determined: Reema Patel, Amy Trevethan, and Rebecca Challice. Equally promising are Devra Kay, Kitty Lyons (previously a councillor until 2006), and Kathy Levine, joined by Ammar Naqvi - a very able and welcome candidate, Adam Langleben, who works for Andrew Dismore, Paul Edwards, who used to be involved in union politics in Barnet, with Mrs Angry, a long time ago, the inimitable Alon Or Bach, who stood against Sarah Sackman for the Finchley and Golders Green PPC contest, Phil Cohen, Tim Roberts, and Laurie Williams. 

In an article here the local Times, the Labour leader Alison Moore is quoted as saying that this latest electoral defeat for Labour was in fact nothing of the sort, that the results were 'positive for the party' ... she says - I think absolutely it was a success

If this had been a campaign fought in the context of proportional representation, yes, perhaps. Notably where the candidates won surprising victories, it was largely because acitivists in those areas defied the predictions of the leadership group and did their own thing.

And as far as Mrs Angry is aware, the result in Barnet must be judged on the basis of first past the post, and - winning control. So, no: not a success, another failure. A failure resulting in a stronger party, but still: a failure.

There was every chance of doing this, of winning control, after the calamitous Tory administration of the last four years. 

Let's say it again: the Tories lost this election, and then so did Labour. 

Why? Because of the same misjudgement that failed to challenge them effectively in opposition, and something else too.

In the Times article the headline reads: I still have the backing of members. In the article itself the leader actually states: I still have the confidence of many members ... 

In fact the Labour party is in schism, beneath a veneer of unity, between the more - sorry to say - conservative members, and those more radical in approach, who want a new and more challenging form of opposition. 

It has been so, in truth,  for many years, with all criticism dismissed as supporting one faction or another, personalised, polarised. 

This failure to be inclusive of a range of views, and to allow the same attitudes to prevail without any review, is how an opposition becomes institutionalised, neutralised, too comfortable as part of an establishment.

The division in the party is such a waste of energy, and a real weakness, and yet it is set to continue because some of those who might make a challenge for leadership are too scared of disadvantaging themselves, should they fail, and in the handout of offices, and others feel that everything is just wonderful, and anyone who says it is not is disloyal, and mean. 
What is happening in Barnet is, in its way, a reflection of the faultlines within the national party. A disconnection between the voters, who see only weakness, and lack of conviction, with an establishment that runs on its own momentum, fuelled by an empty tank, right up until the moment of electoral failure.

Four more years of this, then? 

No: there won't be, because new leader or not, the councillors arriving in the Town Hall mark a new course, one of change, which will build a new momentum. 

The Tories in Barnet are in meltdown: in total disarray. Cornelius is the counterpart of his Labour rival, in fact: rather fatally for his party, he lacks leadership, or political instinct, and no doubt, sooner or later will be challenged, presumably by deputy leader Daniel Thomas.

The Tories only began to realise what was on the cards for them, in truth, in the last days of the campaign. The party which had ignored all criticism, all demands for a real dialogue with voters, all attempts at consultation, suddenly realised they were about to be handed the results of the ultimate form of consultation, in the course of the democratic process, when even their normally loyal supporters told them where to get off.

Then, so desperate were they to hold on to Hale, they resorted to such tactics as asking David Cameron to phone voters in that ward, to invite them to support their local Tory candidates. And yet, after a very long count, despite - or perhaps because of - Cameron's help, it became clear just how close they came to losing all three seats, rather than one. Boroughwide, their supporters, all those residents and traders they provoked into a 40 % turnout on polling day, came out in strength to punish them for the parking fiasco, and every other cockup they have created in the last few years.

Look at their major losses: Rams, the two Tambourides -  and good riddance to all three - and a real struggle to hold on to so many wards. The old epicentre of Tory influence in  Chipping Barnet has blown: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. The heartlands of Conservative power,  in the cradle of Thatcherism, all crumbling. Who would have thought it? 

Me, and quite a few others, in fact, those of us who bothered to look carefully at what was happening, and why.

You can imagine how popular Mrs Angry is with the old guard in the Labour party at the moment, for daring to raise these issues in public: facing accusations of disloyalty, and being unkind, washing dirty linen in public. Oh dear. 

Don't give the Tories something to make political capital from, they are saying. 

Friends, you've been doing that for the last four years, without my assistance. Now is the chance to put an end to it.

The Tories in Barnet are now in no position to make capital out of anything: they are trashed, discredited, floundering about with no leadership of their own, no direction. Richard Cornelius is standing by, smiling politely, like the chief steward of the Titanic, handing out glasses of sherry to passengers, as they wander towards the lifeboats. 

There are no lifeboats. The ship is going down, and we are all going down with it.

And to those people who don't want to hear it, let me say this: there is a need to address these issues honestly, and openly, and now, when it really matters. That is the mark of a healthy relationship: this is what should mark the difference between us, and the quivering, cowardly Tories, who have followed their own leadership blindly over the edge of the electoral abyss.

It might be in the interests of some to shut down all dissent, and carry on as normal, but it is not in the interests of the party,  or those residents who have placed their trust in elected members to form an effective, fighting opposition, and protect them from the onslaught of Tory policies, nationally and locally, that are driving them into poverty, and then seeing them gerrymandered out of this borough, a process which is set to continue in the new administration.

Next year we have a general election. 

As you will see from this piece in the Ham & High ,  the fight between Tory MP Mike Freer and the brilliant Sarah Sackman has already begun. The party must be in a state of unity, and it must have a new approach to campaigning: painful honesty now, and a few more members putting party interest before personal comfort, or ambition  -and Labour will be unstoppable. 

After the humiliating losses for the Tories in the Barnet areas, predicted by the more radical of us amongst the party, it should be said, and dismissed by many - all three constituencies in this borough are now up for grabs. 

Let's start here working towards that, here and now, but let's start by being clear about who we are, where we are, and where we need to go.


Mr Mustard said...

Just a thought Mrs A, you know that former councilor, you know, whatshisname, hewhomustnotbenamed, oh yes that's him, Brian Coleman. He loves a bit of pomp you used to say, at council meetings, especially this first one when all the new councillors take their places.

Well, Brian of course, can't now take his seat on the council side of the chamber so where will he have to sit? why, in the public gallery of course. Oh look, the only seat left, next to the tall blonde lady.

Red Sonia said...

None of the parties get it - including You Kippers. WE know the system is broken and can't be fixed but all they want to do is tinker on the margins. It won't wash.

Thanks to the net many of us are now able to see the inner workings of current politics and we know it stinks. The links between politics and big business (again in all parties), the lack of will to think differently and boldly.

It will take time but the revolution has started and UKIP is a symptom not a cure.

However, one thing that has to happen is that Labour nationally must have new leadership. Poor Ed was the "least worst" choice of a small group of people and Ed Balls, with his links to Gordon Brown, will never be trusted.

Will it happen: probably not - because those in power always want to stay in power.

In some ways I fear for the future but I think we have to go through some awful times now to come out the othet side to a new perspective and new ways of doing things.

Mrs Angry said...

You are right, Sonia: those in power never want to relinquish it, which is why the American presidential system is so good, no more than two terms - about right. Look what happened to Blair ...

And there has never been a bad leader who willingly stepped down, has there, until pushed? A large part of the reason they are poor leaders is poor judgement. Those who fail to read the signs are those without the ability to communicate, who get to a position of power because they are determined, but - like Coleman - lack the emotional intelligence to know when it is time to go - in some cases their egos will not countenance any need to let someone else takeover anyway.

Mr Mustard, I don't think Brian will want to sit in the public gallery with me, somehow. In truth, I don't want to sit there either, anymore, and may well not bother.

Short of any better offers, maybe I'll run off to Paris with the man from UKIP, after all.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Dear Lady

You claim that the Tories are unable to comprehend how they could have lost so many seats. You are wrong. The Tories are unable to comprehend how they managed to retain control. They knew they were going to lose seats and they knew that the swing to Labour in London was likely to see them out of office. They just hadn’t realised quite how ineffective the opposition was. Privately, the Conservatives are pi55ing themselves at yet another failure by Labour to score, with the goal wide open.

I agree with you that both parties lost this election. It is just that Labour lost first. But, as you say, there is now no margin for error. It will be good for the democratic process that all councillors of all parties will now have to work hard for the full term. Yes, that includes you Seal Minor.

I think the Conservatives will emerge stronger for it. They have been given a final warning from the electorate and you can expect changes to follow, both in terms of policy and leadership.

Mrs Angry said...

DCMD: I agree that there will now be pressure for all members of both parties to pull their weight, and a damn good thing too - but I think both parties will benefit.

I can assure you, as someone who spent 12 hours observing them all day Friday, that the Tories were absolutely gutted by the extent of their losses. It was most gratifying to see. Many of them looked faint with horror - even Tom Davey. As we waited for the last result, they sat in shock, in silence - even Dan Hope was lost for words: can you imagine?

Most amusing was the downfall of the Tambourides. After losing her place, Mrs Tambo walked past me, grabbed her spouse and snapped: Come, Andreas, let's go: I don't want to stay any more. Oh dear. but then I suppose at one fell swoop they lost a whopping amount of income, and they clearly had no idea that the ungrateful electorate was going to give them the order of the boot.


John Brace said...

Thank you for writing such an interesting read about the state of politics in Barnet.

Here on the Wirral, we don't have elections every four years (although at one stage the Labour administration talked about abolishing local elections three of of every four years to save money). There are twenty-two wards here with three councillors each. Due to a resignation (a Conservative councillor who got chosen as a PPC two hundred miles away and felt they couldn't do both well), there were twenty-three seats up for election.

The result of the election was pretty much the same as it was in 2012. The minor differences were as follow. In Birkenhead and Tranmere a Green Party candidate beat a Labour Cabinet Member (this is the ward of Labour's Leader who will be up for reelection next year). So Labour lost that seat.

In another ward that has elected two Labour councillors at the last elections, there was an independent (originally elected as a Lib Dem councillor) who wasn't standing for reelection. Labour took this seat increasing their majority and counteracting their loss in Birkenhead and Tranmere (see above).

In another ward a Conservative councillor had been elected in a byelection (in a ward that has two Labour councillors) and this coucillor was up for reelection. Labour won this seat.

The next result is Labour have 38 seats out of 66 (34 is needed for a majority) and they increased their majority by one.

Considering the fiascos reported in the press over the last two years linked to the Labour administration I am surprised that the opposition parties (Lib Dem and Conservative) did not make any gains.

Like you I'm well informed about what goes in local politics. I think there are a number of factors as to why elections (at least here) don't always produce the results expected.

My first reason is local newspaper coverage (of the two free newspapers) is no longer universal. In the town I live in circulation has dropped to about half of households. This means the other half are not hearing about what's happening in their local Council through their local free newspaper.

Another reason why the local population isn't very well informed about news and current affairs is the level of educational qualification and attainment in the adult population is not very high. This in turn translates into a widespread lack of interest in news and current affairs. It seems that many people get their news from the broadcast media (TV news and radio) rather than reading a local paper.

Although there are a few blogs about the local political scene there are only three here still going. Others have been started by politicians and then deleted or abandoned as they've lost interest.

So, leading to my two interrelated questions. How can blogs like yours and mine counter the above problems and lead to people when they vote at least making an informed choice based on the parties'/candidates' record (or are such blogs just read by the political class anyway)?

Politics works best when parties are actually challenging each other at election time rather than just get their name on the ballot paper then do nothing as it's a "safe seat" of another party. How can blogs like yours and mine tackle voter apathy (caused by thinking why bother voting because the X party always wins here), low turnout and a mindset in some parties that there are some seats they won't bother to do anything to try winning (which they don't win because they don't try)?

Mrs Angry said...

Very interesting, John: not quite sure how often you do have elections, but one thing is clear, I think, that national issues in many places have supported local Labour votes when local Labour performance has not been good.

I agree with your concerns about informing the electorate, and I think that in Barnet we now have a fairly unique situation where the blogs and local press have a sort of symbiotic relationship, whether they acknowledge it or not, that does keep residents in this borough far better informed than many other communities. Admittedly this is largely a highly literate borough, but even in areas that are not so well placed as others, issues highlighted by bloggers and press have helped create campaigns, for example, on housing related issues, or the cuts to disabled school funding. Whether or not local papers go online entirely, we shall see, but in the meanwhile, they are having to follow this course, and use social media for their own survival.

One thing that is clear from the election results here, and it is a lesson that the political parties themselves need to learn, and quickly, is that in a fast changing world, there is really no such thing as a safe seat, and nothing is ever won by defeatism: each seat should be given as much effort as resources allow.

When local parties are run for too long on the same principles, and with the same leader, the inevitable result is misjudgement, lack of vision, and apathy amongst the electorate. The need for change is natural, and should not be obstructed by those who really care about their party's best interests.

John Brace said...

Sorry if I was unclear when we have local elections here.

Councillors are elected for a four year term of office. There are three councillors in each ward. So (apart from byelections) there are elections three years out of every four.

Once in a blue moon there are boundary changes, in which case there are all up elections. However from your comments on your blog I would guess that Barnet just has elections every four years, rather than the election by thirds it is here.

The relationship between my blog and the newspapers is similar to what you describe in Barnet. What's interesting is that I've been to a public meeting, written it up as an exclusive on my blog, my blog has been read by a politician who issues a press release on it only for it to be referred to as an exclusive (again) when a local newspaper writes about it, but such is life!

I was talking with a local councillor here about the press a few months ago before a meeting started. He said that years ago the local newspapers used to send someone to every public meeting of the local council, but these days they only turn up if it's something controversial. I suspect it's the same in Barnet.

On the campaigns side, it was my blog that first called for the Cabinet decision to close a primary school for severely disabled children to be "called in" and shortly after the opposition councillors did call it in. Sadly the administration used its majority on the call in committee to proceed with consultation despite a petition of over 7,000 local residents against closure of the school.

You are right that parties need to change leader if they're not to get "stuck in a rut".

Anonymous said...

Dear Mrs A . I hope & pray that the Labour Group get there Act together , on many Occasions i spoke to Labour Councilours & urged them to Take up the most active opposition to One Barnet ( it was at best flogging a Dead horse ) a Bit of Light Winging & then i have been worning about UKIP , well enough said !!!! They may very well find that they could Become the third party in Barnet Unless they Become more Active !!!!!

Red Sonia said...

No - Crapita will ensure that Tories are last next time after all rhe damage has been done.

And, yes, anon - our campaigning blog often breaks the news that local rags then claim as their own.. But that's fine as long as the story gets out.

Anonymous said...

Red Sonia, if the Labour Party worked as Hard as the Bloggers & the Rest of us Behind the scenes then the Torys would have Been swept away !!! But what the Torys are Good at is sticking together , I attended a BAPS meeting the other night & they were Discussing Direction !!! & that in 4 yrs they can have another crack ! Well I didn't want to state the Obvious but Did ! That the patient would be all ready Long Dead ! But that we could take out ! The puppet masters ie the sitting Tory MP in Barnet

Anonymous said...

Just read the Local press , Looks Like the Torys are starting off as they mean to carry on ! With there first sacking of a member of staff in our Local office based in Coventry !!! Apparently for not being obedient Enough to our Demi God Like Council ours , & the Second is that councillor cornelius say that he is Going to carry on Regardless !!! In the Same old Way that should fill the perspective Tory MPs With Confidence !!!