Friday, 6 March 2015
To redeem the work of fools, or: a diversion from the truth - an Extraordinary Meeting in Broken Barnet
You know the score by now.
A Full Council meeting at Hendon Town Hall.
Barnet's Tory councillors, gathered together before the altar of Thatcherism, underneath a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen, and, more importantly, beneath the benevolent gaze of the incumbent Mayor, called to give formal approval to the policies created in their name by the senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, Crapita, and a cohort of bloodsucking, council tax leeching private consultants.
Our Tory councillors barely feign interest in the issues on the agenda, more worried about the more important matter of whose turn it is next to be Mayor, and deputy Mayor, and Mayoress, and dress up in the moth eaten furs and faded velvet gown of office, ready for a year of smiling graciously at civic receptions, and patronising the residents of Broken Barnet.
This is their raison d'être, as councillors: the pinnacle of their political ambition - a sense of status, at last, an endorsement of their sense of self, a necessary end for a collection of small time working class conservatives living in the past, looking on in bewilderment at the modern world, and camarooned within their own party, unknowing, unacknowledged: an evolutionary bottleneck, the last of their kind, claws at the ready, and feathers bristling with pride,as they slide slowly into the antedeluvian sludge.
Goodnight, and goodbye.
We salute you, Tory councillors, of Broken Barnet: last night was your finest moment, and perhaps the end of days, for you, though you don't see it.
Last night's pantomime, a full council and budget setting meeting, was to be preceded by an Extraordinary Meeting, which sounds more promising than it really is - called by the Labour opposition in an attempt to persuade our doltish Tory councillors to amend the budget, so as to spare the axe on our library service.
The proposals to cut libraries, shut libraries, shrink libraries, squeeze them until the last book jumps off the last shelf, into a waiting skip, and they can sell a collection of vastly profitable properties for development - all this has, predictably to all but said Tory councillors, caused uproar in Broken Barnet, even unto the very heartland of their own natural born voters - a consequence now leading our three Tory MPs, Theresa Villiers, Mike Freer and Matthew Offord to be quivering with fear, on the brink as we are of the general election, and forcing them on to a desperate, unprecedented course of actually forming an opinion on a local political issue - and then expressing it.
Villiers, Freer and Offord have now, at the end of the consultation period, weighed up their chances of being re-elected and realised that they are now, and have always been, dedicated defenders of the library service about to be destroyed by their Tory colleagues. We therefore arrived at the Town Hall, last night, wondering if this declaration of concern would hold any weight with our councillors.
Further speculation regarding the outcome of the meeting centred around the slender majority, of one, that the Tories now hold. As Mrs Angry had discovered, one of our Tory councillors was missing: the globetrotting young councillor for Hampstead Garden Suburb, Danny Seal, who once objected to Mrs Angry describing him as not being the brightest button in the box of Barnet Tories, on offer, and shoved to the back of the drawer as that box would be, in the bargain basement of political haberdashery.
Cllr Seal was very lucky to be reselected last year, due to his record of not showing up for council meetings, but as he told Mrs Angry at the election count, he had promised to reform, and attend every meeting, and be a very good boy. Nice boy, he undoubtedly is, but his attendance record this time round has been terrible: a 53% absence rate. This is simply not good enough, for someone paid £10,000 of taxpayers' hard earned dosh simply to turn up to a few meetings - and potentially fatal for his own party's administration.
Foolishly he also insists on drawing attention to his own absences by tweeting non stop about his travels, under the impression anyone is interested in which airport lounge he is sitting, at any given moment. This weekend it was El Prat. No, obviously Mrs Angry could not resist. But, oh dear: El Prat remained in Spain, rather than return for the crucial meeting, which meant the outcome would hang on the casting vote of the Mayor - unless any of the Tories recovered the use of their consciences, and voted against the group whip.
Outside the Town Hall at 6pm, residents and campaigners started to arrive, en masse, detemined to show to their elected representatives their determination to retain the library service we all care for so much.
Residents of all ages and backgrounds, campaigners from across the borough, who have been so well organised by the indefatigable Polly Napper, and Alasdair Hill, Labour councillors, Labour candidates, Sarah Sackman, Andrew Dismore, and Amy Trevethan - and of course, Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor - were in attendance, the gravity of the occasion marked by the number of bags of clippings Mr Shepherd felt were required: the usual two bag rating upped to a four bag level.
Earlier in the week, the People's Mayor had complained, at some length, to Chris Bryant, Shadow Minister for the Arts, on a visit to Golders Green library to support Sarah Sackman, about the absence of the Morning Star from all but one Barnet library. Burnt Oak took it, he explained, but only because the British Soviet Friendship group used to meet there.
Some residents brought posters, with choice of quotes only people on a library protest would think of: quotes from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future - and from a Patti Smith song - People have the Power: to redeem the work of fools.
Which was to be something of a motif of the evening to come. Or at least an aspiration. They like aspiration, don't they, Tories?
Other residents brought books. Mrs Angry was amused to see this choice, by one resident, of two books that may not naturally appeal to our Tory councillors.
True, they are naturally disposed to a dismissal of the working classes as 'Chavs', an underclass, and a problem to be removed from the boundaries of Broken Barnet, but the Kama Sutra?
None of them would have the inclination, the imagination - or the stamina, Mrs Angry would guess. Let alone the opportunity.
As night fell, a huge crowd continued to gather outside, yet, unusually for this sort of meeting, there was no waiting minibus full of police, or crash barriers. Had they been told to play down the risk of barricade storming, teetering as we are, on the brink of an election?
Funnily enough, despite their recent embrace of radical, grass roots campaigning, our three MPs were conspicuous by their absence.
Mrs Angry entered the Town Hall with some Labour councillors, and slipped into the public gallery, to read through the agenda and get ready for the meeting. After a while a member of the security staff came in, very embarrassed and apologised, saying that the Mayor had instructed him to tell Mrs Angry to get out.
Mrs Angry was not very pleased, and politely pointed out a. that she was there as a journalist and b. that if the Mayor had a problem with this, he was very welcome to come and tell her himself that she should leave, and try to make her - and then he might like to explain to her, and then Eric Pickles, exactly how this was compliant with the guidance from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on access to council meetings for journalists, and citizen journalists?
For some reason, the Mayor was too scared to come and face Mrs Angry, and she remained in her place, accompanied by a couple of Tory activists who appeared not to have had any trouble from the Mayor, or indeed anyone else.
The Extraordinary Meeting kicked off with a speech from Labour leader Alison Moore, who spoke of her love of reading (it's all the rage, you know, that sort of thing) - and the excitement of finding a book that catches the imagination. A book that catches the imagination ... Mrs Angry's too easily distracted mind began to wander ...
Pull yourself together, Mrs Angry.
The Labour proposal was an amendment to the budget which was reasonable enough: to get the Tories to stop, pull back from the brink and think again before agreeing to such a devastating round of library cuts.
Time for the architect of those shameful plans to speak: Reuben Thompstone, the member who was responsible for trying to impose cuts in funding for respite care for disabled children, straight after the Tories boasted of their pre election gesture of a cut in council tax, giving back 23 pence a week to residents, but of course necessitating a slash in budget elsewhere.
This, readers, is the ugly face of Barnet Conservatism.
Thompstone has once more been passed the poisoned chalice and tasked with the destruction of the borough's library service.
Ah: as Brian Coleman (remember him?) used to say - cometh the hour, cometh the man.
And there he stood before us, the angel of destruction, Cllr Thompstone, his voice, interestingly, betraying a certain amount of nervousness, and looking straight ahead, trying to pretend he was at a school assembly and not taking an axe to one of the best library services in the country. He talked of a 'misunderstanding', and suggested, with the grasp of a man with an intellect of infinite subtlety, or had read the thought in an article, somewhere, that libraries were an emotive issue.
Jack Cohen, who can't help being a Libdem, and carries it off better than anyone might be expected to, in the circumstances, made a rather better speech: as well as pointing out with barely concealed contempt that protecting the library service had been part of the Tories own election manifesto (promised myself I wouldn't mention Nick Clegg, and student loans here, Jack, so - I won't), he observed that overwhelmingly, people want to the council to think again - even the three local Tory MPs. And he noted that the decision to cut libraries in this way is, as must be admitted, a political decision, rather than one based on economic need.
Labour's Anne Hutton asked the Tories to please stop and reconsider, to look at other options, to try an holistic approach, to undertake a real consultation, to find what people really want. Of course it is true, as she said, that the Tories would rather not know.
The Mayor had clearly been expecting some sort of outrage from the public gallery by now - a fair enough assumption, on past form, but people were biding their time. At least they were until Rayner resorted to type, and decided, patronisingly, to tell the members of the public present - 'without being patronising', that they were behaving awfully well, by not interrupting. This did the trick, of course: stirring the masses into rebellion.
But first the matter of the vote on the Labour amendment. Labour members voted for it, of course, each proudly holding up a book, as they did so. The Tories voted against, of course, and did not hold up books, of course, as most of them are barely literate.
Thanks to Danny Seal disporting himself in Barcelona, the Tory majority was lost, and the outcome depended on the casting vote of Mr Mayor.
You can see from the footage below how events transpired: following an intervention from the People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, and a reference regarding his fellow Mayor's interesting role as landlord, Rayner smiled graciously, and then launched himself into a constitutional minefield.
He voted. But ... he voted with the opposition.
We all looked at him.
He looked at us.
He then realised what he had done: and so did we, and then the chamber erupted: he had allowed the amendment to pass.
We stood and applauded him, the gallery and Labour councillors, unable to believe what had just happened
As soon as he realised what he had done, Rayner tried to retract it: he had made a mistake, he blurted out, as the opposition and members of the public in the gallery howled at him.
Did the vote still stand? No one knew.
They bluffed it out, eventually.
If you recall, Barnet disposed of all the experienced governance officers, and legal officers, and the much criticised appointment of a monitoring officer who had no legal qualifications had proved to be a serious error, but was addressed merely with the 'interim', part time replacement of a fill in from Westminster Council, Mr Large, who later on in the proceedings appeared to be under the misapprehension that the council is run on a Cabinet system.
The Mayor forced the proceedings to continue as if the matter of the vote was of no significance, whereas the matter really needed legal and constitutional advice, and clarification. At this point it was clear that the devastating findings of the investigation into Barnet's legal services by Claer Lloyd-Jones are still not being taken seriously by the Tory administration.
As confusion held sway in the chamber, the doors suddenly burst open, and a crowd of people from the overflow public gallery began to force their way onto the floor, shouting angrily about the Mayor's refusal to stand by his first vote, and calling for him to resign.
Pandemonium: we all looked on in amazement. Again, no one seemed to know what to do, and an impasse ensued, a stand off, with the group of protestors refusing to move. The Mayor got up and swept out, chased out of the chamber.
It was hard not to think of another annual budget meeting, five years ago, in which, in order to prevent any embarrassing scenes of this nature, our Tory councillors had used their illegally operating, unlicensed, non contractually appointed private security firm to physically bar ordinary members of the public from the gallery - and allowed them to film Mrs Angry and others with hidden cameras ... Some Tory councillors probably wished MetPro were still running the show, no doubt.
It seems the police were called, but considered the event, unsurprisingly, to be of low priority and took the long way round to get to the Town Hall, in order to silence the voice of democracy. In fact Mrs Angry did not see any arrive at all, and the residents in the chamber made their own decision when to leave, which was not for some time.
In the meanwhile, chaos continued not amongst their members, but in the chamber, as councillors and senior officers appeared unable to act, or decide how to proceed. Labour's Kath Mc Gurk, at one point, sat down in the Mayor's seat, and attempted to call the meeting to order, much to the fury of certain senior officers, who of course are rather more used to running the council, than councillors.
Tory councillor Brian Salinger snarled across the chamber towards the public gallery that he had seen nothing like it, since the 80s, and the days of the 'looney left'. The Town Hall chamber of Broken Barnet is, of course, strictly reserved for the exclusive use of the swivel eyed loons of the Tory party, and clearly Salinger felt deeply affronted, as we shall see.
Eventually the meeting resumed, and became the proper, full council. The Mayor swept back in, and his chaplain fumbled though a rather odd opening prayer, pleading with the Lord to help the people of Barnet to work in 'such harmony' in 'home and housekeeping', to set 'such an example'to other boroughs, and demonstrate that the 'impossible will be possible'.
And then, God help us, or not: the single most important item on the evening's agenda. No, not the budget, or indeed the library cuts ... the nomination for Mayor, of course. This is the single most important issue to Barnet Tory councillors, at any meeting - for them it is the absolute apogee of their political lives.
Clearly no one could bring to the role of Mayor of Broken Barnet anything quite matching the unassailable integrity and dignity of Councillor Hugh Rayner, so it was very difficult choice for the Tories. This time, they went for the only male councillor who is not either very very old, or very very young, ie dashing ex hedge banker Mark Shooter, who started off so promisingly, being rebellious, standing in a leadership contest, buying Mrs Angry drinks in the Greyhound, passing on scurrilous stories about his colleagues. But now: he has been well and truly tamed, and brought to heel, and rewarded for his good behaviour by being made Mayor.
Maureen Braun, in true Barnet Tory matron style, nominated her ward colleague, apparently on the basis of being a. young (relative to Cllr Braun, who is verging on the prehistoric), b. having a 'USP' (it might have been 'USB', but if so, it was unclear as to where, exactly, you would plug it in), and c. being 'fit'.
Mrs Angry and her neighbour in the public gallery had an urgent whispered discussion, at this point, as to whether or not Mark Shooter is, or is not, fit. And I'm not telling you what the conclusion was.
Councillor Finn seconded the nomination, giving a speech consisting of an interminable joke, which, Cllr Devra Kay suggested to Mrs Angry, was the sort of thing an uncle would bore the guests with, at his nephew's barmitzvah.
Time for the Labour nomination, which of course stood no chance.
One of Mrs Angry's councillors, Ross Houston, was proposing another of Mrs Angry's councillors, Kath Mc Gurk. Kath, as he reminded us, had served as a Labour member for 21 years. He described her as quick witted, speaking with passion, a hard working single mother: the Red Queen of Finchley, educated at that wonderful Finchley school, St Michael's which, he naughtily observed, had produced not only Kath, and Tory activist Vanessa Gearson, but ... Theresa Musgrove. The Tories looked appalled - as if they wanted to make immediate plans to put the school in special measures - and then it was time for the vote, and of course Mark Shooter won.
No longer possible to put it off any longer: it was time for library campaigner Alasdair Hill to present the 9,000 strong petition, and make a speech urging the Tories to reconsider their terrible proposals for our libraries which were, Alasdair reminded us, temples of civic society, and vital to all sections of our community, young and old,the frail and disabled.
He mentioned a number of Tory councillors who have been giving assurances to their residents that they opposed the library cuts - but still vote for the options to go forward, and so step forward, Councillors Sury Khatri, Helena Hart, and Lisa Rutter. Rutter even went so far as to sign the petition, as Mrs Angry reminded her in a timely heckle during the meeting. But what these councillors say, and do, are entirely different things. Remember that, when your library closes, and then again, when they seek your vote in the next local elections: all of the Tory councillors, because not one of them has had the integrity to stand up for what they know residents want, and expect them to defend.
Labour now proposed another way forward: the setting up of a commission, similar to their Housing Commission, a cross party body to try to resolve the issues at stake. It was of course rejected.
The meeting drifted on. Tory 'leader' Richard Cornelius was told by the Mayor that he had 15 minutes to speak on the Budget. Oh God, no, said Mrs Angry, rather louder than she meant. Too much for anyone to bear: starting with a statement proclaiming the Coalition government to be a great success - although, observed our Richard, in his ineffable style, he had always thought of Libdems as 'fluffy bunnies'.
The spectre of Jeremy Thorpe suddenly rose before Mrs Angry's eyes, just for a moment, and bunnies going to France, and all sorts of things the Libdems would rather we forgot, for some reason, and then, whoosh, we were off again, boasting about Barnet's marvellous housing record, and then, oops, expressing gratitude to Labour for supporting Tory policies. On next to a consideration of Hilary Benn: a two dimensional version of Eric Pickles, sneered Cornelius.
Something to drive Eric Pickles wild with jealousy ...
Hmm. Not sure how many dimensions Eric has, in his earthly manifestation. More than the average, for sure.
Now then: time for Labour. There had been talk of Labour supporting the Tory budget, at which point, in the interests of balance, Mrs Angry would have been ready with a range of heckled insults, but now we heard that the Labour leader was proposing merely not to offer an alternative budget. She did however make a range of perfectly valid suggestions as to where else the Tories could find savings, rather than cutting services like our libraries.
Jack Cohen, the only surviving Libdem on the council, had his turn, pointing out the waste of public money by a Tory 'slash & burn' administration that fails to have any system of checks and balances of its dealings with Crapita, for example: the matter of the £16m 'investment' which was in the end not an upfront investment from them at all, but the sum we paid Crapita, meant to be for IT - where did it go? They don't know. Why don't they cut political assistants, councillors' allowances by £1,000, and dump the extravagant waste of £100,000 on the mayoralty, and 'the flummery of office'?
Time for deputy leader Dan Thomas to have his say. As usual he had sat bolt upright throughout the meeting, watching the proceedings with his cool regard, and smiling. Now with his usual fully automated delivery of true blue tory polemics, completely detached from anything approaching the reality of life for most residents of this borough, he told us about the wonderful new massive Brent Cross development agreement just made with Argent, with whom, he said, and he may well have been blushing, we have 'a new relationship'.
Of course if any of our Tory councillors had ever borrowed a library book, thought Mrs Angry, and sneaked out that copy of the Kama Sutra, they might better understand what sort of positions,and indeed contortions, will be required of us, in the expression of this new relationship, as we have endured with Barratts, in West Hendon. The Ass, or the Elephant - in or out of the room? (Warning, the latter position not for plus size men, apparently. Not looking at anyone in particular, Eric).
Will we, I wonder, be sealing this new partnership with gifts, as in the handing over to Barratts of three areas of land worth £12 million, exchanged for the token payment of £3.00? (See next post for more on this).
Thomas waffled on, lost in a wonderland of new development, a brave new world for people like him. People are being evicted from their homes, yelled Mrs Angry, in an attempt to penetrate his complacency: a waste of time, of course.
Labour's Barry Rawlings spoke of the Tory attitude, and referred to what he described as 'a diversion from the truth'. He mustn't use the word lie, he said. Oh go on, thought Mrs Angry: tell it like it is, for once.
But the meeting had now descended into the ditchwater of Tory delusions: and a debate that was not a debate, but voices speaking into a void, a vacuum, in an hermetically sealed chamber, safe from the toxic air of reality the rest of us depend on, here in Broken Barnet.
That this meeting took place in a state of such incompetence was one thing: that the Tories regard the process of democracy as nothing more than a ceremonial requirement is clear: the predictable absence by one councillor, repeatedly tolerated by the party leadership, an elected member who has only been to 47% of the meetings he is paid to attend, says much about their attitude.
They wonder why residents are driven to burst into their own council chamber, and yell, and wave library books at their elected representatives, in that very British way of demonstrating. It's not the storming of the Winter Palace, but it speaks of something gone awfully wrong in the life of our local democracy
But the final insult to the democratic process in this borough was demonstrated perfectly by another councillor: long serving Tory member Brian Salinger, a former leader, who, during budget speeches by opposition councillors, deliberately took out a golfing magazine and made a great show of reading it, to show his contempt for the proceedings, sandwiched between equally bored Tory colleagues:
Unfortunately for him, a photo was taken, and tweets by Mrs Angry and Councillor Devra Kay spotted by a journalist from the Mirror, who then produced this story .
From kama sutra to instant karma, in one evening.
This is Broken Barnet.
There is nothing else to say.