Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The greatest good, or - Pomp and Pomposity: a mayor-making in Broken Barnet

Mrs Angry toyed with the idea of not attending last night's annual meeting of Barnet Council, for several reasons. Deep frustration at the 'business as usual' attitude of the Labour leadership, clinging on regardless after yet another election defeat; a reluctance to watch the Barnet Tories disporting themselves in childish glee in the course of their mayor-making jamboree - but most of all because of a pervasive sense of ennui, weary of the interminable wrangling and dead end politics of much of the last administration.

Still, in the end, the thought of missing the sight of so many old friends taking their places in the newly refreshed Labour side of the chamber was too much to ignore, and so off to the Town Hall, up the slippery stairs to the public gallery, early enough to grab one of the few seats not earmarked for the guests attending the meeting, and invited to the Mayor's reception that follows these events.

For some unfathomable reason, Mrs Angry was not on the guest list, although she would have gatecrashed the buffet, on a point of principle, in order to eat her fair share of egg sandwiches, paid for by her and all the taxpayers of Broken Barnet. 

Would have, but did not, as it turned out, because in the end, after what happened in the course of the meeting, all Labour councillors and supporters were obliged to boycott the reception, and leave the new Tory Mayor, his cohorts and their friends to feast alone, at least on whatever pickings were left by the Barnet Bugle, who predictably nipped in first to avail himself of the free grub. 

This is what happened.

It was clear right from arriving in the chamber, rather poignantly clear, in a way, that there had been a real change in the makeup of the council: not as the Tories wanted, a re-endorsement of their group, safely returned to power, and a weakened Labour party in opposition. 

Cllrs Amy Trevethan and Paul Edwards

The entry into the room of so many familiar faces, new Labour councillors, underlined the real result of the election: a newly energised opposition, and looking over at them from the other side, a jumble of Tory members, a body gutted of some of its longtime members, the steady hardcore of councillors from the Barnet wards, now turfed out of their seats, and unceremonially dumped by the ungrateful voters whose support they have for so long taken for granted.

Cllr Reema Patel

Also missing from this new council, at last, if not from the council chamber, was one Brian Coleman, whose career has ended, at last, not with a bang, but a long drawn out whimper, as he clung to the delusion that the residents of Totteridge would demonstrate their loyalty to what he sees as his many years of devoted public service on their behalf. 

Yes, poor Brian Coleman, as Mrs Angry predicted, could not resist the temptation to make use of the invitation extended to all former mayors of Barnet to attend the inauguration of the latest incumbent. There he sat, rather stiffly, at the side of the chamber, back against the wall, accompanied by his faithful mum, chin up, and a determined look on his face, as if to say: ha - you can't get rid of me that easily. 

They can, Brian, and they have. 

Mrs Angry understands that the former councillor is now looking for useful employment, so would appear to have turned down the offer of a job as trainee washer-upper at Cafe Buzz. ( Zero hours contract, minimum wage, all breakages to be paid for). Or perhaps his CV didn't meet the demands of the job specification.

The pantomime began, with the usual comic procession into the chamber of the old Mayor, about to be wrenched of his position, and condemned to return to the humdrum life of an ordinary councillor. 

This sad ending to the reign of a Tory mayor usually results in tears, endless fond anecdotes of their time as Mayor, and prolonged speeches, as they try to put off the awful moment of surrender. 

When Brian had to make way for his successor, he cried, which was a real surprise to everyone, as no one thought him capable: when Lisa Rutter's time came to stand down, she made a speech longer than the Gettysburg Address - and rather less interesting - delivered in a queenly style reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, the Early Days/ Long Walk to Finchley era. Melvin Cohen, on the other hand, went for pathos - as we shall see.

The chaplain had not turned up in time, so instead of the usual pleading to the Almighty for a miraculous act of spiritual awakening to take place in the black hearts and twisted minds of our elected representatives, we were blessed instead by an offering of prayer, in a sort of wishywashy, non denominational, God-free invocation from the honeyed tones of Tory leader Richard Cornelius, who asked that he and his colleagues 'may all bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people', which surely marks a dramatic u-turn in the policies of the Tory administration, here in Broken Barnet, where tradition demands the greatest good is brought only to the privileged minority, or in other words, to coin a phrase, for the few, and not the many? 

Tory rightwinger and Nelson Mandela impersonator Councillor Brian Gordon stood to propose Hugh Rayner as candidate for Mayor. Gordon and Rayner were councillors together at Hale, with the callow youth Tom Davey, but Gordon jumped ship to stand in safer Edgware ward when it became clear that Hale could to swing to Labour - in the event, one Labour councillor, Kitty Lyons, did win a seat.

Brian thought Hugh would be a good Mayor because ... he will enjoy it. Fair enough. Also, he had chaired lots of meetings. Another bonus. He knows how to throw his weight around - an ominous remark, severely tested, later in the proceedings.

Hugh also, we heard, had a 'devilish sense of humour'. On balance, Mrs Angry thought that the devil would be having the last laugh at this particular meeting, and so, as it happened, he did. But we are jumping ahead.

Hugh had a military background. Ex RAF. Ah. Mrs Angry looked up, as the theme to the Dambusters played along inside her head. Oh. Apparently he was a supplies officer. Disappointing, still ... apparently this gave him the ability to approach canvassing as a military style operation. 

Mrs Angry had a non Gove approved vision of the trenches, Blackadder style, with keen young conscripts leaping over the top to their electoral doom, while Councillor Gordon legged it in the direction of the mess tent. Wasn't that unkind of her?

Hugh Rayner, after his mention in despatches at RAF Hendon, Warehouse Squadron, developed a new career in property. Ah yes, he is a landlord, isn't he? Hmm.

Planning is his great interest, we heard, on the council. And he is - was - a wow at the 'highly regarded' Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Yes. Worldwide reputation for scrutiny: ie as he once defined it, whereby only positive observations should be made ...

Hugh, said Councillor Gordon, is 'a live wire'. 

It is now my intention to plug him in ...

Hear, hear ... agreed the Barnet Bugle, as he passed across the floor of the public gallery, a comment that received warm and enthusiastic support, from the public gallery.

And switch him on, continued Gordon, oblivious to the mounting hysteria in the audience, rolling about on their chairs.

Oh, dear God. Eighty four year old Tory Councillor John Hart rises to second the Mayoral nomination. He thought he was right in saying that only two members have a military past, ie Hugh, and himself. But only he, John Hart,had the moustache ... he preened himself, and stood boastfully in the chamber, this old fool, a remnant of another age, but still here, to upset us with such comments as the one about 'handouts' to disabled children, as he remarked only weeks ago, at a committee meeting.

More praise for Hugh. When he worked at RAF Hendon, he ... well he didn't fly. Did nothing dangerous. But since then, he has been involved with many uniformed groups. Good. And he has supported not only the living, we heard, but the dead, which is a good thing too, as there are now more dead people than alive, and they need looking after. 

It emerged he was talking about war memorials, rather than offering masses for the eternal rest of their souls. (Of course now we are owned by Capita, they are doing their best to look after us, the living and the dead residents of Broken Barnet, and screw as much profit as possible from us at the same time).

Guess where Councillor Rayner was born? Grantham. A town, we were reminded, that had produced Sir Isaac Newton, and erm ... there was someone else. Ah. Margaret Roberts, the grocer's daughter. No: I said grocer. Those stories are clearly just ... misunderstandings.

To produce such prodigies as Sir Isaac Newton, Margaret Thatcher, and Hugh Rayner, there must be, thought John Hart, something in the water, in Grantham. 

Mercury, or cryptospiridium, wondered Mrs Angry? 

Such an elixir, he said, should be bottled.

He waffled on, praising Hugh's wife, Susan, 'his elegant consort', who would be bound to wear lovely hats.

Two women in the public gallery behind Mrs Angry groaned: is that really important, one asked the other?

Time for the token nomination for Mayor by Labour to be run through, half heartedly. Clearly there was no chance of an opposition candidate to succeed, but Leader Alison Moore put forward someone who really should be given such a position, as she would bring some real dignity and grace to the title, that is to say Agnes Slocombe, now the longest serving member, of 32 years service.

No chance.

Hugh Rayner now made his acceptance speech. This occasion was, he claimed, the highpoint of the municipal year. Jesus wept, thought Mrs Angry, clasping her forehead in despair. He began a potted history of the borough, thankfully passing over the Roman era, the Dark Ages of the Labour/Libdem coalition, and skimming lightly over the medieval period, in the midst of which we still live, in Broken Barnet, in feudal bondage now to Crapita, rather than our Tory lords.

Mrs Angry's mind began to wander. She thought she may have heard mention of Sir Keith Joseph. And then the Mayor of Morphou (Barnet is twinned with several towns, but for some reason our links with Morphou are positively conjoined, whereas the bond with Jinja, in Uganda, which does not offer regular hospitality to our councillors, is completely forgotten). 

He thanked Hendon Conservative Association. And Tom Davey, whom he thought looked much more relaxed than he did on the day of the count, (when we all spent the day enjoying the sight of him in a state of advanced distress, presented with the clearly unexpected shock of nearly losing his seat).

It was revealed that the Mayor's chain of office, by the way, was presented by Nalgo, the union now known as Unison. Mrs Angry turned to Unison secretary John Burgess: ask for it back. 

It's on loan, he remarked, drily.

Time to praise his predecessor, Melvin Cohen. What, asked Hugh, can you say about Melvin? Of course some things you can't say about him, for reasons which aren't certain, but we moved on. 

Melvin, we heard, had served under Brian Coleman. In what capacity, it was unclear, but Hugh pointed out it had been a 'baptism of fire'. He said, Brian told me what to do, and I did it. This, in fact, is how the Tories ran the council for several years, and has resulted in their terminal decline, and his downfall, but still. 

I'm so delighted you could be here, said Hugh, smoothly, across the chamber, to the former colleague and Mayor, with a criminal conviction for beating up a woman in the high street, who smiled graciously. Wasn't that nice? Are they all friends again? I do hope so.

Hugh said he wanted his mayoralty to define the difference between 'pomp' and 'pomposity'. Mrs Angry, who has always rather fancied her scribblings about Broken Barnet to be in the style of a sort of foul mouthed Jane Austen, intent on studying a small world from close perspective, bashing away at her laptop, rather than with a fine brush on a two inch piece of ivory, thought that might make a very good Janeite title: Pomp and Pomposity.

More prancing about with the Mayor's wife, and a badges, and poor old Melvin Cohen divested of his moth eaten robes, and left feeling naked in his black suited get-up with white ruffled cravat, and time for - oh no - another speech.

He patted himself and his family on the back, recalling his grandfathers' service to the community, and his son's - Dean Cohen, who has served the highways and pavements of Golders Green at a cost of more than one million pounds, in this pre-election year, an expenditure now being referred by Labour to the external auditor for investigation. 

He mentioned his grandson. Oh, and then he honoured us with his opinion  that in his view, the role of the Mayoress was to carry the Mayor's bags. 

Melvin Cohen had no partner or wife as Mayoress, and this role was filled by colleague Wendy Prentice: not sure if she enjoyed her year as his porter, or if this interfered at all in the wearing of lovely hats. But then she has very interesting hair.

The women in the public gallery marvelled at his cheek, their indignation loudly expressed.

What were the highlights of his reign? Well, you know it was nice to have dinner with the Prince of Wales, meet Richard, Duke of Gloucester (presumably at a re-enactment of the Battle of Barnet). And stuff like that.  But the real highlight ... and here his tone changed, as he told the sad story of a short encounter with a small child at Kisharon, a school for disabled children in his local community. He became tearful. 

Harsh though this may seem, Mrs Angry could only wonder at the apparent inability for Cllr Cohen, his ward colleagues and fellow Tory councillors to feel equally moved by the plight of the disabled children at Mapledown School, in the forgotten borders of the same ward, whose respite funding, along with other similar schools in the borough, was dismissed as those 'handouts' referred to previously by Cllr Hart. 

One of those pupils came with his mother to two council meetings, and his mother spoke eloquently, painfully honest, about the terrible burden of looking after children with complex needs. Melvin and Dean Cohen's ward colleague Reuben Thompstone admitted he had never been to the school. Have they, and if so, did they speak up, when the cuts were proposed?

Cohen finished his speech. That's it, he said. The End. 

Thank f*ck for that, thought Jane Austen, hunched over twitter, and trying not to think about the increasingly more attractive possibility of getting rat*rsed in the Greyhound. 

(Oh dear, hope the nice Methodist minister who confessed to Mrs Angry last night that he had once been Brian Coleman's chaplain  -I KNOW! - isn't reading this. Sorry, Reverend).

And: if this post seems long, imagine what it was like, sitting through it all - until things livened up nicely, of course. Hang on in there.

But next we had the election of the council Leader: yep, Richard Cornelius again. For the time being, anyway. Deputy leader Daniel Thomas made a good stab at not seeming to want to be leader himself, anytime soon, and then Antony Finn was full of praise for his not being, erm, arrogant, and being always keen to compromise, and he told us Richard would be leader for the next four years. How thrilled we were.

Out by Christmas, I reckon, don't you?

Then the real farce began. Time to make nominations for offices, and committees, and outside bodies: but the papers were all wrong. Different details for different parties, missing names, wrong numbers, missing amendments, wrong amendments: governance officers were in a total mess, scurrying in and out of the chamber, trying to put things right amidst the chaos.

Matthew Offord - centre - was the only local MP foolish enough to risk being associated with Barnet Tories last night

In short the meeting was a shambles, from the point of view of the organisation of business. What has happened in Barnet is the old school governance officers have left, and their replacements, even at the most senior levels, are simply not up to the job. No one any longer retains the breadth of experience and legal knowledge to manage the work, hence the increasing number of cockups.

The Mayor tried to tell members that none of this really mattered, the confusion over papers, because now they all had their new ipads to use. The panicked look on the face of our IT illiterate councillors, facing a paper free future, with only the Crapita loaned technology at hand, was a sight to see. Since being handed out, many have had problems using the ipads, including being locked out of their own email accounts. Add that to the growing list for Capita to excuse away at the new contract monitoring committee, perhaps?

One of the most extraordinary appointments to committees was revealed, to the disbelief of anyone who has had any faith at all in the objectivity of the Audit process in Barnet. By convention, the Chair of this committee must be a member of the opposition, so as to retain an independence of the process from political influence. 

In Mrs Angry's time as armchair auditor in Barnet, this post has been held by Libdem Monroe Palmer. Now that Monroe has decided to stand down, and spend more time in the Lords, there remains his colleague Jack Cohen, and of course a number of able Labour councillors who would fill the post perfectly. Geof Cooke, for example. But the Tories have taken the completely unprecedented step of appointing a member of their own party as Chair: Brian Salinger. What lies behind this deeply suspicious decision remains unknown.

Out of the prolonged, and proliferating shambles, omnishambles of the nominations, developing in the face of increasing fury and protest by Labour, there now emerged a curious amendment, casually mentioned by an innocent faced Tory councillor, Antony Finn: a proposal to move the date of the September full council meeting. 

At first this seemed innocuous enough - and it had been sprung upon the opposition councillors, with no warning, as had, it seems, most of the other amendments they were meant to vote on. 

Then it dawned on Labour members, the significance of the changed date, a change for which no reason was given. It will be during the week of the Labour conference, in Manchester, which most of them will be attending - in fact on the day of the Leader's speech.

Again, there is a long standing convention in Barnet, as in parliament, that council does not meet during any of the conference weeks. 

This inexplicable move was a deliberate, cheap political stunt aimed at the opposition. 

There was outrage in the Labour seats, and in the public gallery. 

Many backbench Tory members looked aghast at the proposal, unlike Cornelius and his cronies, knowing it was a departure from the accepted rules of administration.

Members and those in public gallery howled their disapproval, as the new Mayor became increasingly infuriated by the heckling, and their refusal to accept the proposals. He blustered impotently, stupidly, spluttering resentment at the lack of respect shown to his position, his 'authority'.

A vote on the amendment was forced, doomed to fail not least because of the absence of any councillors from Colindale, waiting for the delayed election. 

One of the long term Labour councillors, Gill Sargeant is normally a very quiet, beautifully mannered and considered member, well spoken, thoughtful and rather reserved. Last night she exploded in fury, from her exiled position in the public gallery, forced to watch helplessly as this vote was proposed, with three members unable to take part. 

As you can hear on the footage below, she heckled throughout the process of the pointless vote: DISGRACEFUL! SHAME! - to the point where the Mayor turned to censure the gallery. 

Tellingly, he tries to tell the public they are guests of the councillors - in the eyes of the Tory councillors, our presence at meetings is tolerated, at best, of course, rather than seen as our natural right to witness the transactions of our elected representatives.


Rayner tells the people in the gallery, including Gill Sargeant, to refrain from calling out. 

Mrs Angry suggested in return, as loudly as possible, that he tried to act as if he were in a democracy, rather than a dictatorship.

This stand off went on for some time, and then the voting began. One by one the sheep masquerading as Tory councillors approved the move of the meeting to the week of the Labour conference. 

When it came to the Labour division vote, matters were less easily managed. Normally compliant councillors expressed their disgust - in the case of Arjun Mittra, his reference to what was indeed a farce caused the new Mayor to become enraged: ridiculously, Rayner slammed down his toytown mayoral hammer and glowered, then tried to lecture him about his comment. 

The new Mayor becomes slightly cross with Councillor Mittraaa, for daring to suggest a farcical Tory proposal was ... a farce.

He was drowned out by a sea of yells -and was visibly shaken by the force of feeling in the room, and said nothing when the Labour leader and other members made their own protest at the erosion of democracy that this move signified. 

Against - with integrity, as Agnes Slocombe declared.  

Against, against, against, as Pauline Coakley Webb said.

Labour leader Alison Moore said that she had thought that Barnet's Tories could not sink  any lower, but she had been wrong. 

Over on the Tory benches, Danny Seal continued to grin, oblivious to the seriousness of what was happening.

And what was happening was, in fact, partly his fault.

What lay behind the stunt pulled by the Tories was this: a fear of the new reality of political life in Barnet: a feeble grasp of control of the council, made more vulnerable by the change to a committee system, and a demand, made to the Labour group,  that it take part in a pairing system so that any Tory councillor planning on skiving from his or her required attendance at a meeting could do so, safe in the knowledge that it would not affect the outcome of any vote. 

The reward for such a scandalous agreement, they proposed, would be that they would not cut the allowances to certain new opposition spokesperson posts.

Danny Seal was one of those councillors widely criticised for his attendance record in the previous administration, missing a number of meetings. Seal defended this by citing work commitments and a family illness, and promised to improve his record. But he is not the only Tory with a patchy attendance rate, and clearly with the new system, any absence will be a risk. Tough. That is the price you pay, when you fail to win enough votes for a decisive victory.

Labour rightly refused to take part in any such facilitation of the Tory's natural inclination to treat their duties as optional, and in retaliation, not only were the allowance cuts put forward, revenge was taken by this petty move of the council date, and perhaps the Audit chair appointment: breaks with convention marking a declaration of war.

Let battle commence.

Hugh Rayner was clearly outraged that, as he put it, such disrespect was shown to the position of mayor, ie to him. 

This is so typical of Barnet Tories: so bound up in their infantile delight of civic duty as pageant, pomp and circumstance, rather than as a duty to the residents who elected them, particularly those in the greatest need of representation, those without means, without homes, or jobs, facing like the care workers at Your Choice Barnet, huge cuts in their pay, struggling to bring up their families on low incomes, to look after disabled children. 

Where was their part in last night's pantomime? 

How many children in Barnet went to bed hungry last night, while the Tory councillors stuffed themselves at the Mayor's Reception, at their expense? 

Labour councillors and supporters boycotted the buffet, and the sad line of chairs along the committee rooms, attended by obsequious waiters, standing by nervously, ready to serve the Tory members and their guests.

We went to the local pub instead, in protest, and in solidarity with some ideal rather more important than the self serving ambitions of our Tory friends: the recognition of the real value of democracy, and the real cost of failing to defend its processes.

Four more years of this?


Partygirl said...

No Mrs A, hopefully not four more years. One of the older Tory councillors will croak and then we will have a bye-election. Result - a Labour councillor. 31 all - with the decent Jack Cohen holding the balance of power.....

Red Sonia said...

Pins ... wax dolls ... stop it Red Sonia that's sinking to their level ...

Mrs Angry said...

A classmate tried that once with our hated maths teacher. The next day the teacher was off sick. The classmate went to confession, begging for forgiveness for her wickedness. The teacher returned, and continued making our lives hell. Doesn't pay to dabble with the occult, Red Sonia: there's enough of that amongst the ranks of the Tory councillors as it is.

On the other hand, the steps in the Town Hall are awfully slippery. I would hate to see any Tory councillors in marginal wards lose their step.

Otherwise we must hope for an act of God, spontaneous combustion, the offer of a job in New South Wales, or perhaps a Tory councillor lured by a honey trap into a love triangle, and tempted into running away with another woman. Or man.

Or a criminal court case.

Mrs Angry said...

PS I leave it to your imagination which of these scenarios is most likely.

The honey trap option could only be undertaken by someone with a sense of civic dedication that surpasses all understanding, as the vast majority of the Tory councillors - oh dear, no. No, no, no.

Red Sonia said...

Take heart from Hammersmith and Fulham where the short of shennannigans that occur in Barnet were a daily occurence and where the area now has a Labour majority!

Mrs Angry said...

Indeed, Red Sonia: H&F serves as a dire warning to all Tory councils who take their voters support for granted ...

Anonymous said...

I voted for one of the local Tory Councillors as I consider her to be a honourable woman. I didn't vote for the other two nut jobs. If I were voting tomorrow I wouldn't vote for any of them.