Monday 7 May 2018

Election 2018: Barnet is still Broken

A hopeless dawn for Labour, at Allianz Park on Friday morning

Interesting piece in the Irish Times this Sunday, by Fintan O'Toole, on England, and the cult of heroic failure. The Charge of the Light Brigade; the Franklin expedition; the Somme - to name but a few examples of glorious catastrophe - noble hearted failure, staring defeat in the face, and embracing it. 

We live now, however, in Barnet, in the age of inglorious failure: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and then looking at its broken body on the floor, poking it with a stick, and wondering what happened.

Yes, Barnet is still Broken. 

And here is what happened. 

If you want a simplistic explanation of why Labour failed to win the council, please feel free to go elsewhere. This will be an attempt to look more dispassionately at the facts, and confront some hard truths. None of us will be any the better for it, and some of us will feel worse, but it needs saying.

Here we are then, in a nutshell. Labour lost for a number of reasons. Some are more important than others. Some are very complex. Some are not. 

Different parts of the borough were won or lost for different reasons, and some for the same reasons.

There were some very good candidates. There were some pretty poor ones. 

Some should have stood down. Some should never have stood at all. One or two newly elected Labour councillors will bring a hugely needed injection of energy and fresh perspective to the party.

It is very difficult to attempt to analyse what went wrong in Barnet with a cool eye - especially at the moment - because of the sensitivity of the one issue that everyone is talking about: and that is of course the issue of antisemitism within the Labour party, and how it is dealt with, or not dealt with, by the leadership and processes of the national party. 

A national issue, but one with a huge significance for Barnet, where, as this report in the Mirror states, one in seven voters is Jewish. 

Only a fool - or a bigot - would think that the failure of the party to deal appropriately with the issue of a minority of vile antisemites who cling on to the fringes of the party for their own purposes is not a huge factor in the reputational damage to the local party, and its chances of electoral success. 

Let us be clear about this, but also not dismiss the need to acknowledge the consequence of other failures.

The impact on Jewish Labour voters and residents of Barnet, is profound, and undeniable: many will have been reluctant to vote for the party. Some will have chosen not to. 

But we must consider the question: whatever the impact, was it statistically significant, in terms of the outcome of the election in Barnet?

Immediately after the result was announced, many Labour councillors were of course shocked and disappointed - for those who lost seats, or failed to be elected, this was a very public and painful rejection. The immediate reaction was to attribute blame for the losses on only one issue: the antisemitism debacle.

Quite evidently, and quite reasonably, many Labour supporting Jewish residents have been angered, and hurt, by a prolonged tolerance of antisemitism within the outer fringes of the party - or at least the slowness of some to instigate swift and effective mechanisms to deal with such behaviour. This has undoubtedly lost many Labour votes from the Jewish community, caused huge damage to the relationship between party and the community - and harmed the ability of the party in Barnet to campaign and win the council from a grossly incompetent, and increasingly unpopular Tory administration.

But the picture in Barnet is more complex, and needs closer analysis before we can conclude that the antisemitism issue was the only significant factor in the Labour defeat.

It is necessary to consider the other causes : local and national issues, and variations within the Barnet context, and at this point in its political history.

We do not have figures that prove how many of the one in seven voters in Barnet said to be Jewish were Labour supporters: however many, or rather how few, this is clearly likely to have been catastrophically affected by the antisemitism row. But setting emotions aside, if we can, how crucial was this in terms of the outcome, on a strictly statistical basis? Are there other reasons for Labour's failure - such as concern about the emergence of a left of centre party leadership - or a personal mistrust of the leader himself? And what other local factors were at play?

The loss of West Hendon ward came as a huge shock to many people, and was a personal tragedy for councillor Adam Langleben, who has been prominent in raising continuing concerns about the way in which antisemitism is dealt with within the Labour party. He considers the loss of his seat attributable to Labour votes lost because of anger over the issue. 

Adam's departure from the local Labour group will be a huge blow: a hard working, highly astute and experienced member, and a passionate, and well respected advocate for the Jewish community, locally and elsewhere. 

But was the loss of this ward, and all chances of gaining the council for Labour, entirely due to one issue? 

In truth the loss of West Hendon ward was always a very real risk, and has been, for some time.

The demographic changes within this area over recent years have been very significant. As this ward profile shows, there are now large Muslim and Hindu communities in West Hendon, as well as a broader, increasingly diverse population of other origins, ethnicities and religions. The percentage of Jewish residents, as you will see, was estimated at 14% - smaller even then than the Muslim one, at 17%. The Jewish community within this ward is  one that would seem unlikely to have supported many Labour votes, in any eventuality. 

The changing face of West Hendon, and the increase in BAME population was something the local party was aware of, and acknowledged, at least privately, at the time of campaigning the last London Assembly elections. There was real concern then about a gain in Tory support in these communities. In fact there were emerging signs of a shift in electoral patterns even as early as 2014, which is why the local Tory party so gleefully celebrated the defection to them of a disaffected Labour councillor, Ansuya Sodha, who stood for them in West Hendon in 2014 - and even then, in those circumstances, won 1, 357 Tory votes. Since then, the Tories have targeted these communities - and benefited as a result.

In fact the figures for last week's results show that the Labour vote increased, despite the antisemitism issue. Clearly so did the Tory vote - but where did the UKIP support go? Looks like it went to the Tories.

There is another hugely important factor in this ward. And that is a subject this blog has covered extensively - the faux 'regeneration' of the former West Hendon council estate: call it regeneration, call it social cleansing- the result in terms of political outcome is a radical realignment of old loyalties.

As this ruthless scouring of the local landscape has progressed, removing a low rise community of social housing, and replacing it with a monstrously ugly development of high rise, 'luxury' developments, the heart has been ripped out of West Hendon - and with that bleeding heart goes a haemorrhaging of traditional Labour voters. 

Let's look at another ward: my home ward of West Finchley, which has a Jewish community of more diverse character than that of West Hendon. One might expect there to be a higher level of Labour voters who would be upset by the antisemitism issue - yet this was retained for Labour, with an increased vote, despite the departure of veteran, and much loved, councillor Jim Tierney.  Rabbi Danny Rich was elected in his place  - he is a senior figure within the community of Liberal Judaism: hopefully voters found assurance in his candidacy, and voted accordingly. 

It is true that the Tory candidates in West Finchley increased their votes too - but then again they probably picked up the UKIP voters.

In Finchley Church End, a Tory stronghold, there is one of the largest Jewish populations in the borough - estimated in 2013 at 31%.

Quite clearly the Tory vote has increased: but interestingly the Labour vote has more or less stayed the same, and has not collapsed. No Green candidate, nor one from Ukip: an increase for Libdems - which may bear a clue to something else going on, which we will come back to later.

This is only a snapshot of a small number of the election results, and obviously there will need to be a detailed analysis of all wards - and a period of reflection by the local party. It would be wrong, however, to make conclusions immediately after this massive disappointment without that detailed analysis. 

Which brings us to another issue: something easily noticed if like me you were at the count, scrutinising the ballot papers. 

When you do this, you note the number of block votes of three, for any party. You have little time to keep up with the flow of papers being counted, and learn to watch every one, looking for the detail of each vote. What seemed extraordinary was the number of split votes: some with the most baffling combinations: one Tory, one Labour, one Libdem, for example. Many of these multiple choice votes appeared to include one Green candidate.

This seemed quite extraordinary, and indicates something that is being missed by all parties. Is it that voters are increasingly confused by the messages put out by mainstream politics, and failing to associate them with a coherent narrative and range of policies?

Another issue which quite clearly must have affected the outcome of this election in Barnet, and may have something to do with the split votes, is one that is hardly being mentioned, in the middle, as we are, of so much debate about antisemitism.

This is of course ... Brexit. Ah yes: remember that? Everyone seems to have forgotten, 

It might be time to ask if worries about the lack of opposition to Brexit from Labour, and a mixed message from the Tories,  has had an impact in this election - and caused a trend towards split votes. 

Again, confusion and disillusion among voters might well have sent them into a random choice of pick and mix votes, thwarting the best laid strategies of election agents and campaigners. We expect voters to be consistent, and loyal to one party. The thought that they might be heartily sick of all of them, and effectively act to undermine the whole system as a result, is quite tempting. 

Party activists expect voters to be politically literate, articulate, and think in the same way they do. The truth is something quite different.

Acting as teller earlier in the day at a local polling station, the well seasoned Tory matron doing the same for the Tories was replaced after a while by a man in his thirties who appeared not to know what to do, and kept asking the Labour teller, ie me, if he was doing it right. After a while, to my astonishment, he casually mentioned that he was actually a Labour supporter, and asked did I know how he could join the party? When I had stopped laughing, it occurred to me this might be an ill omen. It was.

But back to the question of lost votes for Labour, and an excruciatingly disappointing failure to win the council from the Tories. 

It had seemed so simple: the Tories themselves were in free fall, panicking about the growing evidence of failure of their easycouncil model of hollowed out, outsourced services: the spiralling bills, the decline in those services - they were unable to formulate a credible manifesto, and constructed one seemingly the work of an opposition party, with no connection to their own disastrous record. Tory members thought they were in for a thrashing at the polls - and some may well have been secretly relieved if this had happened, rather than face what is going to happen as the evidence of their own incompetence becomes even more clear, in the coming months. Others  were rumoured to be plotting to push a newly formed council - or opposition group - in a new direction, with a new leader.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius interviewed at the count

To be fair, Labour's campaign was slightly better focused than in previous elections. As always, there was great emphasis on canvassing, and leafleting. But there were the same mistakes in target wards, and a failure to see the trees for the wood: or rather the wood as it was maybe ten years ago.

And as always, they tended to forget that you need to have something to put on those leaflets and mention on the doorstep: a clear set of policies, based on a record of strong opposition.

This is where the party must acknowledge failure. The record in opposition has not been strong - or even memorable. Time and again their performance has been too low key, unclear, weak, and poorly communicated to residents. Too many times the Labour group has failed to challenge the iniquitous agenda of the Tory administration, to fight with real passion, and well directed strategy. 

The continual struggle to expose the damning truth about the performance of the Capita contracts has been left to Unison, and local activists and bloggers. Blogger John Dix has offered the only real scrutiny of the outcome of this contractual bondage - a fact acknowledged by the Tory Chair of the Audit committee, at his last meeting.

A preference for life in the centre of the party is partly to blame for this fatal inertia, as is a position out of step with the new energy within the Labour movement, and the key policies of a hugely popular manifesto.

Quite apart from the distraction and anger over the antisemitism issue, voters in Barnet did not know what Labour stood for, whatever it was, because there was such poor communication and slowness to get involved in local issues at a grassroots level.

Take the fight against library cuts: this should have come from Labour, not have been left to a campaign group, Save Barnet Libraries, to pursue. Instead we saw the library lead in Labour actually take part in a bid to run one of the Tories' new 'partnership' libraries: an excruciating blunder that horrified campaigners, and further alienated them from the party.

That some later rapprochement took place was down to the great diplomacy of Childs Hill community activist and SBL campaigner Anne Clarke - who has just been elected, as a Labour gain, to represent this ward, which borders on Golders Green, with the closest of margins, replacing veteran Libdem councillor Jack Cohen. 

Elected in a ward with a diverse range of residents, including a Jewish population of 17% - and two Tory councillors from that community. Fiercely intelligent, outspoken, but tactful - and strategic, the reason Anne was elected as a new councillor, in a marginal ward - the most marginal in London - was because she is that rare thing: a candidate who has proved their worth by being steeped in local activism, deeply embedded in grassroots local issues and several campaigns, such as the fight against the aggregate depot, and drawing residents towards the party at election time. Hard work, but it paid off, despite the odds. 

This is the way forward for Barnet Labour: reconnecting with residents; acknowledging the rapid demographic changes which are now a feature of a borough with an increasingly transient population, and embracing the wide range and diversity of the borough, and the needs of each community. Barnet is changing - and Barnet Labour must change with it.

The rift with the Jewish community is a grievous wound that needs urgent attention. Jeremy Corbyn must find a way to fix this: only he can put it right. 

Whatever has gone before, and the rights or wrongs of it, and the part it played in the local election, the only way forward now is through dialogue, and honesty.

The alternative is unthinkable. The future is unthinkable. 

Residents have just elected a brutal, re-energised Conservative council that will feel newly vindicated in its role, and believe that their history of incompetence has been rewarded - or at least overlooked - and this will empower them to adopt an agenda of policies that will be even more extreme than anything that we have yet seen. 

As the financial health of the borough continues to deteriorate, more and more cuts in public services will be imposed, and standards thrown out of the window.

Time for Labour to become the opposition this borough needs: to end its tendency to seek a path of consensual politics, and mutual ground. There can be no mutual ground with such people. 

There are few Labour members who are elected on the basis of wanting an easy life, or not wanting to serve their community: individually all are honourable, decent people, with the best intentions: but collectively, as a group, they have been too ineffectual.

Time to grab hold of the agenda: to wrong foot the Tory administration - to be politically courageous, and assertive, to offer the choice of a radical and persuasive alternative, not choose to rely on the same old routine, an anodyne manifesto, a few stunts, and a barrel load of empty words. 

Time to put the questions to committees that residents and activists and bloggers have had to articulate, because the opposition group has failed to do so. 

Time to earn the respect of voters, with a defence of their rights, and their concerns. 

Then, and only then, when it is time for another election, here or nationally, Labour might - just might  - be in with a chance of winning here, one day.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

When Jeremy came to Barnet: End Game, and Tory panic, as polling day approaches

A week in politics is a long time. 

A week in politics in Broken Barnet is a very, very long time.

And Mrs Angry's week, in Broken Barnet, from Monday to Monday, has been, well: not just very, very long, but ... very interesting, all things considered. 

One might suspect that for Barnet Tories, things have not been quite so enjoyable, as they hurtle faster and faster to polling day, with all the speed and unstoppable force of - well, I don't know, some unstoppable thing, that's ... very fast. And they seem incapable of steering themselves into any other other direction than the abyss of electoral doom. 

Of course they have tried to get some political profit from areas they like to think they're good at. You know, roads, pavements, bins, planning. No: really. Apparently after 16 years of trying, they think they might get the hang of running these things at last, if you'll only give them another chance.

That was Plan A. Hide your cockups in plain sight, right there in your own manifesto. 

Plan B: Quick! Look over there! Move on, nothing to see here, in Tory Barnet, but over in Brent, and Haringey, and Camden, Awful Things happen, that might happen here, when the Maoist cult leadership of Barnet Labour party takes over, and imposes military rule, and compulsory May Day parades past Hendon Town Hall. 

Plan C: nasty little smears. The favourite last minute tactic of Barnet Tories. Not going to bother helping them with that one by repeating them, or linking to them. Eurgh.

Plan D: quoting Mrs Angry in election material, as the voice of authority. Yes: hilarious, desperate tactic this one - first of all in a leaflet (punctuated with frenzied outbursts of CAPITAL LETTERS) to voters in the most marginal ward in London, ie Childs Hill, absurdly trying to claim Mrs A and A Labour Councillor think Tories spent too much money on marginal Childs Hill's roads and pavements, just because Tories spent too much money on marginal Childs Hill's roads and pavements. The most money, in fact, just as the most marginal ward last time round also had a fortune thrown at it.

AN OUTRAGEOUS ATTACK, they splutter ... Even more stupidly, they draw attention to the two Tory councillors who claim they have been 'lobbying' Highways officers for two years - and brag about nearly £5 million splurged on this most fought over ward - which is still, however, like every part of the borough, inexplicably littered with pot holes, a state of affairs that is guaranteed to make every voter wonder where the hell the fecking money went.

Then we have the nasty little press release about a couple of disaffected former Labour councillors, at the end of which, in the editors' notes, they tried linking to this blog, and an innocuous enough description of the pair as hard woking local councillors - which they were. Oh dear, the link appears to be broken now ... 

Still, gratifying to be recognised at last by Barnet Tories as OUTRAGEOUS and yet, at the same time, an utterly indispensible source of academic citation for their press releases. 

Clearly because of this sort of notoriety, and the vote of confidence, long awaited, for the Barnet bloggers, last Monday Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable took part in an interview with Tim Donovan, for a BBC London news item on the election in Barnet: shall we say it again, most marginal borough in London. 


The BBC London interview (poor quality image, sorry ...)

We talked about the Capita contracts, the massive hidden charges that make a mockery of claims of 'savings' - and the broken promises of 'better services for less money'.

Services are falling apart: was that just the view of a Labour activist, asked Tim Donovan? No: residents now are faced with the consequences of the contracted out services, and the fatal mistake Barnet Tories have made is to fail to see the impact of this on their own electoral stability. 

Pot holes, bins, planning - libraries: these are the things that middle of the (bumpy) road Tory voters can see are falling apart, literally, in terms of the fabric of the built environment and infrastructure, as well as metaphoically. This is what is losing them support, and may well lose them control of the council. 

And then: ha ha, the item ended most amusingly as Tim Donovan cornered the Tory 'leader' Richard Cornelius and questioned him. As usual, Cornelius opened his mouth and allowed a load of freeform nonsense to spout forth. He claimed the Capita contract was 'fantastic'. It isn't. He claimed the contract was not 'ideological'. It is. He claimed it is saving us £1 million a month. It isn't. 

Or at least the truth is they 'give' us £1 million a month with one hand - and take back far more in other ways, through the crafty contract variations hidden in the small print.

Then Tim Donovan caught Cornelius off balance and asked him about the local bloggers: what did he think of them? They've been at you for some time, haven't they

Yes, said the Tory leader,  But one day they might be right, so I do listen to them, he said, with his usual saturnine smile, aligned with the apparently guileless innocence of much of his off the cuff public comments: then he panicked and added quickly, but not quickly enough: ...  but they haven't been yet ...

Well, a few days later we were back at Cafe Buzz, Mr Reasonable and Mrs A, for another meeting. Hard not to pause for a moment, and consider the number of significant events that have happened here, over the last few years, in this trouble making spot, on the curiously powerful leyline that runs through this part of Broken Barnet, down from the former Tory stronghold of High Barnet, down and round to the spiritual home of all local Tory councillors and politicians, at Margaret Thatcher House. 

How much plotting and rallying of the Barnet Spring has taken place, here, at Cafe Buzz?

Which former Tory grandee saw his career end outside, on the pavement, after he attacked the cafe owner, Helen Michael - an end and a turning point not only for him, but the whole party: marking the end of one era, and the beginning of another: the beginning of the end of the malign power the Tories exert over this borough, and all its hapless residents. It was a point which broke the spell, and proved to all that they could and would be held to account, and brought down, in the end. 

And here we are, and here we were, yesterday, with a few of the local activists who have fought so hard to deliver a better future for Broken Barnet, having coffee with the leader of the Labour party. 

Oh and with the Shadow Chancellor on speakerphone, due to being stuck in traffic on the North Circular ... 

John Mc Donnell, on speakaphone. Labour Oakleigh candidate Angie Hudson, centre

Sitting round the table with us, and chatting away, Jeremy Corbyn was that rare thing: a politician who is himself, and speaks without constantly measuring his words against a scaled model of behaviour, that dictates what he should be, to please everyone, and no one, in fear of saying something interesting, or thoughtful, by mistake. Or indeed something that might upset those not in full accordance with his views. He was quietly spoken, but confident, funny, patient - and appeared to be genuinely interested in what everyone had to say. 

Fellow blogger Mr Reasonable talked about the Capita contracts, which are now the focus of a truly magnificent report by Barnet Unison, with a foreword by John Mc Donnell, that gives the long and complex history of the outsourcing of our council services from the launch of the Easycouncil idea, and its reconfiguration, through 'Futureshape', to 'One Barnet' - names all of them in their turn discarded and rebranded as interested parties sought to force the borough down the road to mass privatisation.

Blogger Mr Reasonable tells Jeremy Corbyn about the Capita contracts

We talked at some length about Tory cuts to our libraries, me telling him about the savage removal of the children's libraries, and the Tory plans to give the space to a private company to charge fees for desk rental. Taking away study space in libraries like East Finchley, next to one of the borough's pockets of social deprivation. Corbyn was visibly appalled.

He also mentioned he knew East Finchley library well, and did I know he had an allotment nearby? Yes, I did ... In fact he knows Barnet pretty well, not just on visits to support marches in defence of our public services, but in his earlier career as a NUPE official in Barnet. World exclusive: I can reveal that the Labour leader told Mrs Angry he once 'occupied' the former Gateway House, and colleagues had to post flattened fish and chips to him, through the letter box ...

On the subject of libraries there was one thing I really, really wanted to know: and so did Hugh Jordan, the Barnet Libraries Unison convener (once Mrs Angry's job, funnily enough, in another lifetime). What can a Labour government do to protect public library services from council cuts, and ensure there is proper funding in place to retain them? He and John Mc Donnell, on speakaphone, stated they intended to compel local authorities to do just that, protecting cultural resources: libraries, music, drama, the arts. 

Hugh pointed out the inadequacy of the current Libraries Act, and Mc Donnell agreed it was minimal in scope. He wanted statutory provision for cultural services in total 'embedded' in legislation. 

How refreshing to hear the leader of a political party and a shadow chancellor discussing culture as a statutory right, in Broken Barnet, where culture is seen as something disposable, or even a threat. We shut libraries here, close our museums, sell off our heritage to the highest bidder. Only a new government, and a new national policy can help us preserve what is left.

Barnet Unison's John Burgess with the report on the failure of Barnet's mass outsourcing

Ok: what about small businesses, asked someone, as local businesswoman and trader spokesperson Helen Michael, who has fought so hard to save her High street from decline, looked on.

Corbyn and Mc Donnell said they wanted Labour to be the party of small businesses. Corbyn spoke about the demise of high streets, blighted by the prevalence of charity shops, and payday loan enterprises. We need a greater diversity - of cafes, shops, libraries: a sense of community.

A woman present who had experienced the horror of Apartheid talked about asylum seekers. Jeremy observed it was important to look at each individual as a human being, not as a mass: he talked about his experience visiting a refugee camp on the Syria/Iraq border, and listening to the courageous story of one young girl who had lost her family, but who looked to a better future, and aspired to be a doctor.

At this point a woman from Chipping Barnet sitting at the table introduced herself and asked Corbyn if he understood how she, as a Jewish member of the Labour party, felt at the moment, how hard it was for her. 

He spoke at length about the subject of antisemitism, and said emphatically and unequivocally, yet again, that it was 'absolutely unacceptable'. It was true the process of dealing with reported incidents was long, but there was no place for it in our party. When a cafe regular, a Tory supporter, also Jewish, who had been listening quietly throughout now interrupted, politely but firmly, and asked him about Ken Livingstone, Corbyn explained the reasons for the protracted procedure - but agreed the processes had been 'far too slow'. The response seemed to be accepted as fair enough: and the leader dealt with the subject calmly, and with openness, as he did with every issue. 

He moved on to speak to the local press, and then was escorted out by the troublesome cafe owner (who was invited to visit his allotment ...) The troublesome cafe owner, who used to be a Tory (guess who brought that to an end), confessed to being won over by the Labour leader, despite her earlier reservations. 

And that is Corbyn's secret: by being himself, and refusing to conform to the artificially contrived image of what a politician, a party leader, is meant to be, he has retained the ability to communicate with and inspire voters, in an age where cynicism and disengagement have turned the political process into something so far removed from the experience of ordinary families, or individuals - especially those most marginalised, most disadvantaged, and in the greatest need. 

As Mrs A pointed out to Mr C, many people assume Barnet is an affluent borough, with few problems in terms of social need. In fact it is both populous and diverse, and polarised, with a gulf not between different communities, but between those who have, and those who have not. Yes, he agreed, referring to another example highlighted by Grenfell, in Kensington and Chelsea. The story is always more than we see at first sight.

Marginal is a term that means something entirely different, to Barnet Tories: it is the word that strikes fear in their hearts, for all the wrong reasons, Being excluded not from all the things that make life worth living, in your own community, but from control of the political process that gives them power, and privilege, and the right to dictate to others how they will live those lives, in dispossession and disaffection from the rights and freedoms we used to take for granted. 

Up to you now, this week, to take back control of the process of democracy in this borough from a party that has proved itself unworthy to govern. 

Please do the right thing, on Thursday, and vote for a Labour council for Broken Barnet. 

Then we can begin the process of picking up the pieces, and start again, to remake a community that works, yes, you know - for the many: and not those few, who want to maintain their hold over us, at any cost.