Friday, 2 June 2017

Saving Broken Barnet: Mrs Angry's pre-election guide

A couple of weeks ago, Mrs Angry went along to the launch of the campaign of the Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, held at the Bohemia, in North Finchley. To be quite honest, this attendance was provoked by a sense of duty, as much as anything else, in the likely circumstances, or so it seemed, that only a couple of diehard activists would turn up, and the event would be something of a damp squib.

On approaching the venue, however: well ... what a sight. And then: what a surprise.

There were queues to get in, and the room hired for the launch was bursting to the seams, packed with local members, many of them new, all keen to show their support. There was a feverish atmosphere: literally, due to the heat of the overcrowded room, but also in terms of a real sense of excitement, that at that point in the election campaign seemed wildly out of proportion to the gloomy predictions of some elements within the local party, who cling to the political certainties of the past, and retain a less mutable vision of Labour politics.

All three Labour candidates from the Barnet constituencies went outside before the launch for photographs, standing across the pavement, cars passing by hooting as if it was a picket line - which in a way, perhaps, it was: a statement of solidarity and defiance, on that faultline of local political significance, just along the road from Margaret Thatcher House, where Tory activists sit, night and day, frantically stuffing leaflets in envelopes. 

Or rather, plastering the windows with them - rumour has it that the local party is so short of help, CCHQ has had to send leafleteers to the constituency, in order to bolster the campaign. Must be hard finding loyal volunteers to help out, this time, when the party locally is itself is in conflict over Brexit, and in an area that voted so heavily to remain part of the EU.

Margaret Thatcher House, Finchley Tory HQ

Returning to the Bohemia, it was hard not to remember the history of this location, and the part it has played in the story of political activism, in Broken Barnet. The occupation, a few years ago, by the same people who liberated the People's Library, in Friern Barnet, was a notable moment in that story, and made this the perfect venue, in many ways, for the launch of a new opportunity for rebellion. From direct action, to a more meaningful engagement with the democratic process is not so large a leap.

Jeremy Newmark is the perfect choice of candidate for Finchley and Golders Green: a genuinely warm, likeable and well respected man - and one who can represent the Jewish community in this constituency without any of the taint that attaches to some of the shabby apologists for anti-semitism who have caused so much distress amongst the membership over the last year or so.

Newmark, moreover, has all the necessary qualities to give the people of this constituency an elected representative who works for the good of our community, and will fight for the improvements we so desperately need in so many areas: schools, housing, the NHS, in the delivery of local public services. 

Ah yes: local public services ... like libraries, for example.

Remember those? It might be hard, for some of you. Because at the moment, only a handful of them are open. The rest are either only open occasionally, and run in so called partnership with volunteer groups, or have been shut for months so as to accommodate a truly devastating programme of building works that will see our libraries cut down in size, within the footprints of their own buildings, staffing halved, or in some cases entirely removed, book stock drastically culled -  and study space reduced to a minimum. 

In fact, they are so scared of running the unstaffed libraries without, erm - staff, they are using security guards and managers to attend all the DIY opening hours, making a mockery of the whole process, and at unknown cost. Whether this continues after the election will be interesting to see.

Because so many branches are shut, students trying to revise for exams, as so many are at the moment, are particularly badly affected - and particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds unable to study at home. 

The charedi community in areas like Golders Green, Hendon, Childs Hill, whose families depend on libraries for heavy borrowing on Fridays, for shabbat, are finding the doors to their local branches firmly shut. When they are open again, the children's libraries at Hendon and Golders Green will be gone forever. 

As someone who worked for years in the latter library, I find this simply beyond comprehension, and I urge voters in those areas to hold their elected representatives directly to account for what they have done, or allowed to be done.

Mrs Angry, for reasons of health, and sanity, and possibly health and safety, has tried to avoid such events, but is informed that at a local Finchley & Golders Green hustings last week, when sharp criticisms of the library cuts were raised, local Tory councillors in the audience began shouting that the libraries were merely being 'refurbished'.

By an extraordinary coincidence, banners have just been put up outside our libraries, even while they are being assaulted, also making this claim. 

Currently being cut to pieces: East Finchley library

Now then. One or two Barnet council meetings have been cancelled during the last few weeks, on the pretext of 'purdah'. 

Meetings likely to be particularly embarrassing to the Tories, but not otherwise appearing to meet the critieria that might demand their postponement.

Yet these banners have appeared, totally misrepresenting the facts regarding the real reason for the closures of such libraries, again citing the spurious Tory spun excuse of 'refurbishment'. Clearly this is where all the extra PR budget so enthusiastically approved not so long ago is being spent.

What is the definition of 'refurbishment'? It generally means redecoration, and improvement. It quite evidently is not the appropriate term for the outcome of a savage programme of cuts in service, that severely diminishes that service in scope, accessibility, and resources. 

The unqualified statement that libraries are being refurbished is simply not true: it would appear to be deliberately misleading, and one that has appeared during an election period. Rather questionable, one might think.

In the case of East Finchley library, however, there is much more to the story, and one which relates to the wider issue of why the Tories have attacked our library service in this way. 

If you recall, the pretext was in order to make a couple of million of pounds in the budget. In order to achieve this saving, they are going to spend around £14 million in total. Yes: madness. Much of the capital outlay is going on the reconstruction of the library buildings, in order to shrink the space within them for the service, and supposedly free space for commercial purposes: to let to businesses. This is supposed to make more than half a million quid a year in rental income.

Mrs Angry decided to submit an FOI request to ascertain exactly how many tenants had been found to take on the newly freed office space in our public libraries.

The answer that emerged explained that there were NO arrangements of this sort in place, at all. Nothing.

Oh, a vague mention of 'negotiations' - but nothing confirmed. Not even the flagship rental agreement which we were told long ago was a done deal, ie the handing over of almost the whole of Hendon Library to Middlesex University. No such deal has been agreed. The library is closed for months, in the process of being gutted, and reduced to a tiny area on one of the three floors, for no reason.

Hendon's children's library - shut by local Tories

And the same would appear to be true of all libraries.

Oh. Except for East Finchley. A local community group who asked to rent space there recently was told, no: there will be no space to let here. Really? East Finchley has always done rather well from renting the room upstairs. But no longer. Why? Because ... oh, they are thinking of having a 'business hub' there. Really? What is meant by that? More enquiries revealed that they are talking to a one man business that was given seed funding to use up 'surplus' space in Merton Libraries - letting desk space on an individual basis. 

Why this business needed 'seed funding' is unclear. What is clear is that if this were to be allowed in East Finchley, it would mean that accommodation would be reserved for this business in a library that is taking study space away from students and school children in one of the poorest area of the borough, with high levels of social deprivation, and allowing a third party to make money in their local library, while they struggle to find anywhere to study.

Why would they choose this venue to put this venture? Because it is a politically sensitive area, with a very active local library campaign by residents - and because it is in the constituency of a Tory MP, Mike Freer, who has to explain to his voters why his friends at Barnet Council are cutting libraries, and make it seem like a positive move. Along with the 'refurbishment'. So what if children and young people in Strawberry Vale lose out, and will only be able to access a library anyway for a few hours a week? They're not likely to vote Tory anyway, are they?

Messages from the children of Martin's School, next to East Finchley Library

Let us remind you that all three Tory MPs in Barnet have refused to condemn the library cuts, but have been at the sharp end of residents' protest over this issue. And those protests are largely from middle class, Tory leaning residents who, even though they may not depend on their local libraries as much as others, recognise their importance, and are horrified at what is happening.

Clearly the local Tory council thinks that some might, just might, have their fury over library closures mollified by such nonsense, just as some will see that claim about 'refurbishment', and fall for it. Mrs Angry prefers to think that these voters are not as naive as their elected members would appear to imagine.

An issue that is of great concern to all residents of Barnet is the current state of local health services. As Mrs Angry has discovered recently, from personal experience, and on demanding answers to questions from the local commissioning body, the CCG, (who are very reluctant to answer some of those questions, and consequently will now have to explain themselves to the Information Commissioner), here in Barnet the NHS system is virtually falling apart. 

The half empty Finchley Memorial Hospital

This is through no fault of the hard working staff in our hospitals, clinics, gp practices and walk in centres. Gaining a GP appointment is a process now fraught with difficulty, and waiting lists to see a consultant are, as revealed here, simply unable to meet demand: it seems as many as one third of referrals are finding there are NO appointments, at all. Why is this? Ask the CCG, and the government supported by your local Tory MPs, without hesitation, or challenge. Of course the reason is a disastrous combination of a politically directed lack of funding - and a failure in local accountability. 

On Monday, outside Finchley Memorial Hospital, there was a well attended rally in defence of those local health services. This was the most appropriate venue: a wonderful new building, created by a Labour government, left half empty since opening: why? Such a waste of resources, and sustained failure to address the needs of the local community is scandalous: but who is doing anything about this? Not your local Tory MP, who cannot even manage to persuade anyone to provide the promised bus service that would prevent patients from having to make the long, long walk to the hospital when attending appointments, or the walk in clinic.

Labour rally in support of our local NHS, with candidates Jeremy Newmark, left, Mike Katz, right, and Emma Whysall (just out of shot).

According to Labour candidate Jeremy Newmark, when he addressed the crowd, Mike Freer had reportedly claimed at a local hustings last week that 'contracts had been signed' with local GPs, to move in to FMH, as we were promised so long ago. This came as a surprise to Mrs Angry, whose own practice was supposed to move in, but has refused to do so as the cost demanded was too great. Money is everything, of course, in the Tory run NHS.

This claim had also come as a surprise to Mr Newmark, that is to say, talk of contracts being signed, as he had had a meeting last week with the Chair of the CCG (who has also invited Mrs Angry to go and 'chat' with her, after raising concerns about the board's performance) ... the Chair, he said, had not only said there were no GPs about to move in to FMH, but that in the new - excuse me - 're-imagining' of the hospital, there may be none at all. Ever.

Well, well. 

Over the course of Bank Holiday Monday, one local Tory supporter tweeted at Mrs Angry that he thought we couldn't do better than re-elect Freer. Mrs Angry invited him (twice) to tell her what our MP has done for ordinary families in Finchley and Golders Green, over the last two years. He did not reply. He couldn't. He still hasn't, after being prompted again last night. And the leaflet sent out by Freer ... is laughable. It has nothing to say. And he cannot cite any notable - and recent - achievements on behalf of this constituency.

Look around you. 

Everything you see that is failing the people of this borough it directly the result of Conservative policy, whether national, or local. Housing, planning and enforcement: another area in which the policies of the outsourced council, supported by your MPs, are turning this borough into an unregulated opportunity for profiteering developers, at both ends of the spectrum, large scale, and small time. 

From the scandalous faux regeneration of West Hendon, with public land given away to Barratt London, and large scale eviction of social tenants, as well as the betrayal of leaseholders, it has been a small step to the facilitation of endless other massive developments, with housing intended not as affordable, or for the benefit of residents, but as investment for overseas buyers, or anyone wealthy enough to buy off plan, in cash. 

On a smaller scale, the failure by the privatised planning and enforcement service now run by Capita effectively to regulate breaches has led to an epidemic of unregulated extensions, buildings, unauthorised demolitions, and the replacement of perfectly good family homes by ugly, expensive, inappropriate housing that does not address the real needs of the majority of residents.

What safeguards are there, to protect the interests of home owners, and the built heritage of this borough? You tell me. And if you can't, ask your parliamentary candidates. They may problems answering this, even as they are with increasing frequency, being asked by normally loyal Tory voters, who see unrestrained development all around them, threatening the value of their properties, and their quality of life. 

This is the legacy of the local Tory 'easycouncil' approach to public services: and now is the time to hold the architects of this flawed construction to account.

The truth is that all three of our Tory MPs here in Barnet assumed, with their usual sense of entitlement, that as the next election was far off in the future, and they were in the early days of their term, they didn't have to bother to be seen doing much at all in their constituencies. In fact, they have been so quiet, Mrs Angry had (almost) forgotten about them altogether.

To be fair, on looking at their news archives, it seems that Matthew Offord has moved on from worrying about elderly cod, and has been busy worrying about monkeys instead:

And locally? Erm. Well, Mike Freer held a Christmas card competition. Fair enough. He does make a particularly jovial Santa:

And as part of his tradition of wooing voters, street by street, (appears not to have reached this part of Finchley yet) invited a friend of Mrs Angry, and her neighbours, to Westminster, where they had a wonderful time, with a genial host, showing them round, cracking jokes, a laugh a minute, apparently - until they realised  - oh - they had been in the wrong party, and with the wrong MP.

Usually, towards election time, we are graced with some attention by our elected representatives - a few photographs in the local press, so as to remind us of their names on the way to the ballot box, but for much of the time, other than answer emails from constituents, they follow a policy of keeping to a minimum of appearances at carefully chosen venues, amongst friends, and avoiding any engagement with local issues. 

This is probably a wise move, as on the rare occasions they do venture into the dangerous ground of open debate, it only serves to expose them, and their disconnection from the hardship and injustice that is the daily experience of too many of their own constituents.

Yes. Let's take time to remember those constituents, shall we: the ones that are always ignored by our Tory representatives. Residents in social housing, waiting to be evicted by the relentless 'regeneration' schemes. Residents living in the borough's areas of social deprivation. Residents using the borough's food banks, or living in fear of domestic violence, or unable to access legal aid, or legal advice; children whose school budgets are about to be savagely cut by Tory cuts which our MPs and Tory councillors refuse to condemn. Elderly, disabled, vulnerable or seriously ill residents living in fear of losing vital benefits.

Just look, if you can bear it, at this footage from a local hustings at Mill Hill shul, moderated by Rabbi Y. Y. Schochet, in which Hendon MP Matthew Offord dismisses any allegations that he was indifferent to the plight of a former constituent, who has very sadly now died, dying, as his widow tells her MP, knowing that he was indifferent to their distress over the loss of benefits to his bereaved family. Shockingly, Offord does not even have the decency to offer his condolences: instead observes that 'there are always going to be losers'. And remarks that: 'some people get remarried'.

Please make Matthew Offord the 'loser' on June 8th, and vote for Mike Katz

This tactic of avoiding public engagement as much as possible, of course, is necessary because any organised activity or campaigning on local issues is completely out of the question. Out of the question because it is impossible for any of our three MPs to criticise any action by the local council. 

For Theresa Villiers, up in Chipping Barnet, this is largely out of a sense of discretion, and a natural instinct for the preservation of her political career, which, unlike her two parliamentary colleagues, was highly successful - until she made the blunder of backing Andrea Leadsom for Tory leader - and being a cheerleader for Brexit, at the wrong time:

Mrs Villiers, backing Brexit, and bringing back all that money for our NHS

In the case of her two colleagues in Finchley & Golders Green, and Hendon, their lack of local campaigning, and failure to challenge any matter that is the responsibility of Barnet Council, is not just because of political loyalty, but due to the fact that they are so closely associated with this administration: Freer and Offord were, until their move to Westminster, Leader and deputy Leader of the Tory group, and pushed the 'easycouncil' mass outsourcing agenda that is the ideological assault, in the guise of austerity, on the very principle of public services. 

The autocratic Mrs Villiers might appear to think she has a right of tenure, up there in Chipping: a feudal seat of power, in line with her Plantagenet forebears - but last time round, in the Battle of Barnet, 2015, she lost a huge amount of votes to the young and inexperienced, but very bright and left leaning Labour candidate, Amy Trevethan, who managed to persuade an astonishing total of more than 18,000 residents to vote for her, at a time when her chances had been utterly dismissed by all parties. Now the very able Emma Whysall is standing - and the changing demographic face of this constituency, with the added factor of general disillusionment by traditional Tory voters worried by the 'dementia tax' fiasco means nothing is predictable, anymore: arch Brexiteer Mrs Villiers could well be in trouble.

Emma Whysall, Labour's candidate in Chipping Barnet

Over the course of the last few years, this blog has reported the slow annexation of this borough by the profiteering vultures who circle round our public services, our publicly owned assets, and our democratic process, seeking to indulge their appetites at our expense. 

We have seen the accountability of elected representatives to their constituents stripped away, and the indifference of those representatives to those constituents reach a point of complacency that has now put them in real danger of losing their support.

Also over the last few years, I have watched the Labour movement painfully shift from a position of similar overweening satisfaction with its own performance to somewhere new, and, yes - slightly scary. No one quite knows yet, where we are, or where we are going. The signs now, however, are that there is at last real hope for a radical new approach to the issues which beset this country, and a change in the political agenda, from one rooted in everything that is worst in human nature, to something better, yes, yes: for the many, not the few. 

Whether or not you like or approve of Jeremy Corbyn is neither here nor there,in the end. Can he do the job better than Theresa May? That is the point. I don't subscribe to the cult of personality, in political life. But I think Corbyn is a decent man, that he has transformed the party, the political scene - and this election, for the good. He has made errors of judgement: but latterly he has also shown himself capable of listening to his critics, and of reaching out to parts of this country with no voice, and until now, no hope. And the Labour manifesto he has given us is manifestly good, and brave, and brings the party back to its core values, or closer than we have been, for a long time.

The changes that we need can only come about, locally and nationally, with a Labour government. Here in Barnet we have three outstandingly good candidates: decent, empathetic, conscientious people who will work hard for the whole community, and put their interests before anything else. These are the sort of representatives we need, and deserve.

Mike Katz, Labour candidate for Hendon

Please reject the politics of fear, and the blundering government of Theresa May, and vote for these candidates, and for a Labour government, next week.

The latest polls suggest that there is a groundswell of support for Labour nationally, and particularly in London; that in Hendon, Offord is now in danger of losing to Labour's Mike Katz. Finchley's Tory vote is also reportedly falling away. Chipping is demonstrably no longer the Tory stronghold it once was. Change is within your grasp.

In all three constituencies there is evidence from the doorstep that some Tory voters - especially Remainers, and those horrified by the dementia tax - will choose to stay at home on polling day. This would make all the difference, of course, between re-election, and an outcome that no one would have predicted, a few weeks ago, but now is a real possibility. 

There is at least, without doubt, a sense of shifting expectations: it is up to you now, for the sake of all of us, our families, and our community, to turn those expectations into reality.

1 comment:

CalvinCasino said...

Also let's not forget the fact that the Tories were the ones who mistakenly blocked disabled person freedom pass last year (even it's not the national issue although I have to bring it up) along with the Barnet council (which they currently govern) & Capita (or Crapita).

I recently wrote the letter to Mr Offord about it & he did not bothered to answer my question (as I received the letter from him).

I am glad that I will not throw my vote away & I recently created my own website to focus Thursday's election.

Goodbye to the 3 Tory MPs if they are voted out.🌹😀