Monday 2 March 2015

True Blue, or a Whiter Shade of Pale? Barnet's Tory MPs, fading fast, and panicking over library cuts

Here is a curious thing.

Look very carefully at these pictures of our three local Tory MPs ... and then tell Mrs Angry what colour you see:

 Chipping Barnet MP, Theresa Villiers

Finchley & Golders Green MP, Mike Freer

And the other one, Hendon's Matthew Offord. DR Matthew Offord.

Now then: most people will immediately see the colour blue

Go on, have another look, just to be sure ...

Yes: dark blue, accompanied by all the Barnet Tory trimmings you might expect, you know: a breathless endorsement of every last stupid thing their colleagues on the council might say or do, a refusal to criticise any aspect of council policy; a tacit agreement to avoid involvement in any local campaign of objection to any aspect of council policy - a strategy of doing nothing controversial, in other words, for five years, keeping your head down, and hoping this is enough to get yourself re-elected, safely returned to a very cushy job lounging about in the palace of Westminster, with a very nice salary, opportunities to tour the world on 'fact finding' trips, and all the world at your disposal.

But now look again ... still blue, but, hang on ... is it the light, or ... are our elected representatives beginning to look a little paler? Almost, if you look more closely, whiter than white, with an unexpected golden hue, around the edges ...


Hmm. Thing is, you see, although a strategy of doing and saying not very much by our Tory MPs might be enough to achieve re-election, in happier times, when there is a natural disposal to get rid of a long term Labour government, or the economy is doing well, and there is not in power a coalition government imposing an agenda of such remorseless, punitive assaults on the rights and well being of the less advantaged members of our society, and selling off our beloved NHS - oh dear: that is not where we are now, is it?

And here in Broken Barnet, after five years and more of the idiotic exploits of a maverick, delusional Tory council, seemingly set on a course of alienating its own natural electoral base, with hugely unpopular policies, the wholescale sell off of our public services to Capita, the catastrophic parking regime - we are now presented with the lunatic proposals to destroy our library service.

As Mrs Angry, with her usual delphic prescience, and a certain amount of schadenfreude, predicted long ago, this last brilliant idea by our emptyheaded Tory councillors, is without question the one most guaranteed to turn even the most moderately minded, apolitical resident of Barnet into an armed combatant, a freedom fighting suburbanista, determined on electoral revenge, on May 7th. Why? 

Because, as we have said before, and let us say it again: you can close as many children's centres, support services, nurseries, as you like, in this borough; cut as many jobs as you please, and the silent majority of conservatively inclined voters will remain, well: silent, if somewhat perturbed, and possibly even mildly disgusted.

But there is one rule, in Broken Barnet, that must be obeyed: or rather, the first rule, and the second rule of Broken Barnet.

1. Do not mess with libraries.
2. Do not mess with libraries.

A couple of years ago, our Barnet Tories messed with libraries.

They tried to shut down Friern Barnet Library.

They failed.

Friern Barnet Library was taken over by Occupy activists, given back to local residents and campaigners, and re-opened by the community, for the community, in a breathtaking victory for real localism in action, direct action. The outcome was that the Tory council, under the nominal leadership of Richard Cornelius, was forced into a humiliating defeat, and the plans to grab the building, and flog it off for development, were trounced, good and proper.  

But let us be clear and honest about that outcome: a humiliation for the Tories, and hugely damaging to any remaining credibility as an administration, but what remains, although a popular community centre, is not a public library, but a venture staffed by volunteers, with no link to the borough's service, and such as it is, its future is uncertain.

Worse still: out of the jaws of defeat the Tories have grabbed what they hoped would be a greater victory, in the long term. And that is the destruction, or at best the emasculation, of the borough's wonderful library service: one that has always been recognised as one of the best in the country, even in terms of value for money - at least until the present Tory administration took over, and set about running it down, and culling the professional staff.

The takeover of Friern Barnet library by volunteers - and the handover of the library in a shop Hampstead Garden Suburb branch, in response to the whinging of the local,hugely affluent voters and highly influential local residents association: these examples have served as inspiration for the scheming, philistine Tory councillors who see libraries only as a liability: a portfolio of potential lucrative property developments. Hence the current plans to close libraries, cut opening hours, cut staff - and even, most ludicrous of all, to shrink them in size by 93%, and - God help us - have 'open' libraries run with no staff at all.

Culture averse as they are, and never having read a book in their lives, let alone used a public library, the Tory members of Barnet Council failed to foresee the outrage this set of proposals would generate, and made a gross miscalcuation, in the process.

They failed to understand the totemic significance that the public library system has in this country, and in this highly literate, articulate, and well educated borough.

They did not grasp the interesting truth about this issue: that even residents who do not use their local branch libraries, who are wealthy enough to buy their own books from Waterstones, or Amazon, or read on a kindle, or maybe not at all,  want them to be there, know that libraries are needed by the community. 

It is the same philanthropic feeling which is expressed in the widespread unease over the effects of policies like bedroom tax, or the withdrawal of legal aid for others less advantaged than you, which still disturbs that very British sense of fair play, and justice. 

And there is something undeniably British about the very idea of a public library: in the inclination to a staunch defence of a resource for those in need of free access to education, and information.

Outrage, at the thought of the destruction of our library service was the inevitable, immediate reaction to the announcement of these terrible proposals - and to the farcical 'nonsultation' which ensued, a loaded survey which the newly formed library campaign warned residents to answer very carefully, as it was clearly designed, as most Barnet consultation is, to provide data supporting their nefarious proposals.

And the impact of this was soon expressed, not only in the brilliantly resourceful borough wide campaign to save the libraries, but in a massive avalanche of furious responses from residents, expressing their horror to local councillors - ah, and of course to their MPs.

Library 'invasion' East Finchley

Our three local Tory MPs are a pretty complacent bunch: or at least they have been, until the reality of the pending general election has hit them, full on.

Matthew Offord, of course, lives in a world of his own, caught in its own mysterious cycle of orbit, in a surreal, parallel universe, where the fate of elderly cod,and turtles in tax havens, and narco terrorists sailing across the blue waters off the coast of Belize are so much more interesting than the tedious problems of, for example, the tenants facing eviction and the demolition of their homes, in West Hendon. Mr - DR, DR, Mrs Angry, DR OFFORD, only became worried about West Hendon earlier this year, when he solved the problem by, erm - inviting some of the leaseholders to the House of Commons, to pose for photos and be assured that all would be well. All is still not well, in case you haven't been keeping up with that story.

Mike Freer has been, until now, similarly unruffled by the prospect of convincing a grateful electorate to carry him on their shoulders, singing his praises, back into the House of Commons. 

But what has he done, for the people of Finchley & Golders Green, over the last five years? What local issues has he pursued? Let's have a think.

Still thinking.

Worried about mansion tax. 

And squatting. 

In mansions, in Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Erm. Nope, nothing much else springs to mind. 

No help either from the two leaflets shoved through Mrs Angry's door in recent months: one was so short of local issues to boast about, it was obliged to fill up space with a sudoku puzzle, and the second was an ill judged piece of work, reminding everyone how well the economy was doing, and therefore, by implication, how much better off we all are. 

We are not all better off, though, Mr Freer, unless perhaps you live in a mansion in Hampstead Garden Suburb  .... 

Still, Mrs Angry's spies - including  A Local Councillor - have told her, with some amusement, in the latter case, that Mr Freer is now copying his Hendon colleague's tactics, and, in the absence of any local campaigning, inviting great tranches of his constituents to, yes: the House of Commons, where they will have a tour, and an audience with the great man himself, before he loses his seat, which is a nice memory to treasure, isn't it?

For some unaccountable reason, Mrs Angry, who is a constituent, of course, has yet to receive her invitation to the House of Commons, with her MP, but then again, his last encounter at Westminster with Mrs Angry didn't go awfully well, ending with the man breaking out in a cold sweat, and backing away with rather over enthusiastic haste - mind you, he wasn't the only one to do so, on that visit, as Mrs Angry recalls. Such is her effect on most men, Tory MPs or otherwise, sadly, in and out of Westminster.

Theresa Villiers, of course, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is awfully important, and terribly busy these days, and barely has time to show her face at the recommended number of local events, up in Chipping Barnet, once the stronghold of Tory dominance in this borough: the nest of Barnet Conservatism - or was, until the nest took a tumble, with the downfall of Brian Coleman serving as an awful warning of things to come. 

Goodbye, then, to the heady whirl of fundraising candlelit suppers and strawberry teas of High Society in High Barnet - an era past, now, with rapidly declining Tory membership, and a change in the demographics of the constituency to an electorate less likely to want to maintain the status quo. 

Revolution in Chipping Barnet is unlikely to happen any time soon: but Villiers' majority is quite likely to take something of a bashing, as it seems she now realises. In fact Mrs Angry is reliably informed that Ms Villiers is in something of an unprecedented state of dismay at the state of things, in the run  up to May.

In Hendon, Matthew Offord is being challenged for the seat by the previous MP, Andrew Dismore. Dismore only lost last time by a slender margin, 100 or so votes, even at a time of national swing against the by then unpopular Labour government. The reason it was so close was that Andrew Dismore, as even his enemies will admit, is a shrewd and hard working constituency MP. He will return, in May, and Dr Offord  ... will be a sad loss, won't he?

In Finchley Freer is facing a real battle, with an outstandingly good Labour opponent, Sarah Sackman, a candidate who grew up in the borough, a barrister who is extremely bright, articulate - and whose intellectual grasp is matched by a genuine passion for social justice.

Sarah Sackman, in short, is everything that Freer is not, and, unlike him, has worked hard to involve herself in controversial local issues, exemplified by the advocacy she has extended to causes such as the families from Mapledown, a school for children with severe disabilities, whose respite care funding was slashed by our Tory councillors as soon as they had announced the 'gesture' of a council tax cut, just before the local elections last year. You might wonder why our local MPs failed to speak up on behalf of these children, or any of the many issues which have so galvanised the political debate here in Broken Barnet: whatever the answer to that conundrum, they are paying the price now.

Labour's Sarah Sackman with East Finchley library campaigners

Labour has Hendon and Finchley firmly in sight, but has of course followed the mistake committed by the local party leadership and campaign last year, in yet again overlooking the potential for Labour votes in the Chipping area. 

Before the local elections, Mrs Angry pointed out that the Libdem sellout and other local factors were likely to see some significant Tory losses, and Labour gains in Chipping wards, and of course Mrs Angry is always right, about everything, and that is exactly what happened. One particularly satisfying departure was Robert Rams, in East Barnet, very largely due to his disastrous handling of ... the library fiasco.

So here we are at the general election, and the Tories have learned no lessons as the previous library cockup has been followed by proposals to destroy the whole service, and in Chipping Barnet - as well as the two other constituencies - this is having a serious impact on what Theresa Villiers has come to regard as a safe Conservative seat. 

At the last election in 2010, Villiers had 24,700 votes. The Labour candidate had 12,773. Seems an impossible margin, perhaps, until you consider that the Libdem candidate had a whopping 10,202.

The Fibdems are unlikely to retain anything like that, of course. Other parties? Meh. 

Green - move on. 

Ukip? Bound to get some votes, but probably taking them from the Tories. 

Add the Libdem vote with an increase in Labour vote due to national issues, and more still due to the changing demographics in the constituency, and measure that against the unpopularity of the current government, and the failure of any attempts to convince even Tory voters that the politics of austerity and an agenda of socially punitive 'reforms' is making their lives any better - and you can see why Ms Villiers might be, as reported to Mrs Angry this weekend, not a little concerned about her own position. 

The Labour candidate in Chipping Barnet is a local councillor, Amy Trevethan, another very bright young woman, who has not had the benefit of party support and funding given to the other two constituencies, but should not be as easily dismissed as some would have you believe. 

And put into the frame now the library issue: see how our Tory MPs have turned from a strategy of silence, and, apeing the tactics of Tory councillors getting it in the neck from furious residents, whispering quiet reassurance to individual constituents that their local libraries will not be closed, to this week's sudden leap into very dangerous territory: actually expressing an opinion, in public, on a local matter, and thereby appearing almost to, well ... f*ck me ... not support the shabby library bashing plans of their Tory council colleagues.

Theresa Villiers started the trend, the beginning of last week, emboldened by dipping her toe into the shark infested waters of social media only the other week, being forced to make a statement on the scandalous Sweets Way evictions, on to the street, despite pleas by residents to local Tory politicians, apparently unheard.

Ms Villiers, of course, has survived her time as MP for ChippingBarnet by not doing or saying anything remotely controversial - some might say remotely interesting - throughout her term of office,  so this is a new departure for her. But her statement on libraries needs careful reading.

Support Our Libraries, trills our intrepid MP, although in fact her comments do anything but that - what she means is: please don't close my libraries .... and she favours 'elements' of Option One, outsourcing libraries, shrinking some of them in size, suggests we make savings by cutting staff, or even considering the truly idiotic 'open', unstaffed libraries. She completely fails to measure her own enthusiasm for such terrible proposals with what she herself identifies as the qualities so appreciated by her constituents: 

There is strong support for the libraries in my constituency. In my view, they provide invaluable educational and learning opportunities for people of all ages. They also make a helpful contribution to social mobility, for example by providing a quiet place for children and young people to study, even if their home life is disrupted. 

My understanding from the feedback my constituents have given me is that libraries are a popular resource for a very wide range of people from across our diverse borough, including our minority ethnic communities. Many older people place great importance not just on library services, but on the opportunity for social interaction a visit to the library can offer.
Ms Villiers has not quite grasped that all these features of the wonderful service our libraries offer to residents are provided by professional librarians and trained staff, already at minimum staffing levels, thanks to the cull instigated by Robert Rams, in the last round of assaults on Barnet Libraries.

As Chipping Labour's Amy Trevethan has observed to Mrs Angry:

"None of the 3 options in the Tories' 'consultation' are acceptable: each require closures or massive reductions in floor space- reductions which will presumably lead to closures in the future. In Chipping Barnet, Osidge, South Friern and East Barnet libraries  could be shrunk to 1/32nd of the size of Chipping Barnet library - or 1/10th of their current size.

"Some Tories seem to think the pain can be avoided - or at least concealed - by 'changes' to how our libraries are staffed. In other words, they are lining up library staff to take the hit. But how can the quality of services be preserved without adequate levels of staff? Will children still be able to access the libraries during unstaffed hours? And what about the safety of other vulnerable library users, and council property, when the premises are unstaffed? Presumably the 'self-service' model will entail an extra reliance on an outsourced IT system, but given the IT problems that have plagued the libraries' computers over the last year or so, how can we be sure this system will deliver?

Chipping candidate Amy Trevethan with fellow new Barnet Labour councillors

"The Council have the opportunity to modernise the service and ensure it is run by professional, trained librarian staff: a service fit for the 21st century and able to meet the educational and training needs of all our residents. Trained staff are a vital part of this picture - rather than get rid of them, the Council could be making savings on its massive spend on agency staff and consultants (roughly £17m per year). 

The Council claim they want to save £2.85m on the libraries, yet in just 16 months they have willingly poured £110m into Capita's coffers for the CSG and Re contracts. This is £70m over the agreed price for those contracts. At present trends, £1bn of the Council's money will have been given to Capita by 2025. Why the urgency to scrimp £3m on such a valued part of our local educational infrastructure when many millions more are being thrown at a FTSE 100 company? That's the bigger picture and it points to a deeply unhealthy set of priorities in the Tory administration."

Theresa Villiers' apparent sudden conversion to the joy of libraries was also queried in a letter to the Barnet Press by another Theresa, Mrs Angry's imaginary alter ego:

Villiers' statement was duly followed, almost as if it had been coordinated, by pronouncements by her two colleagues, Freer and Offord. That's DR Offord, to you, Mrs Angry. 

Offord tagged along after Villiers and Mike Freer, apparently keen for us to remember a. he exists and b. he is "someone to whom books mean a great deal", and someone desperate to be re-elected so please don't shut any of the libraries in his constituency either.

Of course our three MPs are being very careful in what they say, ie not saying hands off and leave them as they are, thank you very much. Post election, if still in office, will they sanction a new service which keeps libraries in place in name only, with no staff, fewer opening hours, and shrunk in size? I think it is a safe bet, don't you?

Andrew Dismore and his fellow Labour parliamentary candidates raised the issue of libraries at the end of last year, in this letter, and asked:

Will Barnet’s Conservative MPs join us in campaigning against these cuts to such vital and valued local public services, given that their votes in Parliament have taken the axe to local government funding?

In January, Offord was sweating enough to agree to an unprecedented appearance at a meeting in  Mill Hill to debate the library issue, and promptly tried to have Mrs Angry thrown off the panel when he arrived and realised she was on it as well as Andrew Dismore ...

At this event Offord again avoided making any direct opposition to the real impact of the plans, or criticise the consultation process, but chose to waffle on about a couple of books he read, whilst claiming, as a reason to 'modernise' the service that people don't read books like they used to... Other people, you understand, not DR Offord, who is a gentleman, and a scholar.

Been a long time coming, then, hasn't it, this new found zeal by our MPs, for 'supporting' libraries - or rather looking for the least worst of the Tory options for cuts?

In the Ham & High, for some reason, possibly because it caters more to the better class of voter in Finchley &Golders Green, rather than the hoi poloi who read the local Times, Mike Freer is described, in the headline as joining Labour in 'slamming' the Tory library cuts plan. 

Hmm. Much as Mrs Angry enjoys the thought of her MP 'slamming' anything his Tory chums on Barnet Council ever do, have done, or propose to do, in the past, in the present or in the world to come, she thinks this is not an accurate description of his position. Interesting, and unprecedented, but the timing?

His apparent conversion to the joy of libraries is welcome, and indeed his anxiety over the consultation process, but rather a surprise, considering he, and indeed his two parliamentary colleagues, have kept quiet about the library plans throughout, erm, the entire length of the consultation process, and waited until it was safely over to raise any 'concerns'.

As the article states:

Mr Freer has been criticised by Sarah Sackman, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, for failing to speak publicly about the cuts until now and for not attending a public meeting about the threatened closure of Childs Hill Library. 

And as Sarah says in her blog:

We spoke out publicly against the proposals from the start. Proposals which would mean that in Finchley and Golders Green alone, libraries in Childs Hill, East Finchley and Golders Green would see staff cuts, reductions in space and closures. The community united against the Conservatives’ ill-thought out library policy. We collected petitions, ran street stalls and attended public meetings. We wouldn’t let up.

Then yesterday, after 3 months of near-silence and after the consultation had closed, your Conservative MP said what Labour has said from day one – that the consultation is flawed. Why? Because with a 10,000 signature-strong petition and public pressure mounting ahead of next week’s Extraordinary Council Meeting, it’s clear Mike Freer and his Conservative colleagues are panicking.

If the Tories in Barnet really think the consultation is flawed, do they support Labour’s motion to halt the cuts and go back to the drawing board?

On Tuesday there will be the next full council meeting, preceded by the 'extraordinary' meeting, at 7pm, called to consider a motion by Labour in regard to the library proposals, urging the Tory council to put aside the current plans and reconsider the plans which will cause such devastation, if approved. 

A protest will take place from 6pm onwards: if you care about your local library service, this might be the time to come and join other residents to show your opposition to the Tory proposals. 

And when it comes to 7th May, and the general election, you might like to think very carefully as to which candidates you really trust to fight, when it is right, and not when it suits them, for the issues which really concern the people of Broken Barnet.

Update Tuesday: 

Shadow Minister for the Arts, Chris Bryant, visited Golders Green Library this morning with Sarah Sackman, and spoke to local residents about the importance of libraries - as well as, of course, to meet People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, who brought to his attention the glaring absence of the Morning Star from all Barnet libraries, except Burnt Oak branch, where the British Soviet Friendship Group used to meet, apparently. 

Mr Bryant was somewhat lost for words, but after a moment of further danger, when the conversation veered off to matters apertaining to the corporation of the City of London, always risky with Mr Shepherd, he managed to collect himself and put together a few interesting thoughts on the library issue - and to give his backing to Sarah.


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