Tuesday 28 November 2017

Has the Barnet Opposition given up at just the wrong time?

Something has been bothering me greatly of late. Next year we have council elections in for Barnet Council. The local opposition should be ramping up and making a push like never before to get rid of the tired and ineffective Conservative administration. Since I started blogging in 2008, I've seen three different Conservative group leaders. It started with Mike Freer from 2008-2009. Then we had Lynne Hillan who tragically passed away from lung cancer in 2012. She was followed by Richard Cornelius, who has presided over the Borough since then. I doubt many expected Richard to last this long. When he took over arch schemer Brian Coleman was the power behind the throne in the Barnet Tories and you were never more than five feet from a political scheme in the town. For all his many faults, Brian was an arch schemer. He delighted in taunting opponents and being as rude to them as possible. He often provided a smokescreen whilst his more cerebral colleagues pushed through all manner of hard right schemes that never got the scrutiny they deserved due to Coleman's public facing buffonery.

This worked pretty well until 2012, but by then, we'd got the measure of him and he was ejected from the GLA with a huge personal anti vote, following the disaster of his parking policies.  Colemans star was already in decline when Richard took over. He was however still a councillor. His altercation with Helen Michael on the High St saw the end of that.

Labour believed the 2014 council elections were in the bag. Labour was riding high in London and with Colemans demise, many believed that there was no need to run a community wide campaign. Then Labour Leader Alison Moore, didn't bother trying to enlist bloggers and Labour made some serious mistakes, most notably not throwing the kitchen sink at Hale Ward, which was winnable, whilst chasing rainbows trying to unseat Lib Dem Jack Cohen and his Lib Dem running mates in Childs Hill. This was the height of folly, as Jack generally had been highly supportive of the Labour group. Labour and The Lib Dems had run a highly effective coalition in Barnet between 1994 and 2002. As  a result, Labour cannibalised the Lib Dem vote, allowing the Tories to win two seats in Childs Hill and only taking one out of three seats in Hale.

Perhaps the biggest personal sign of this stupidity, was when bloggers had a meeting with local Labour and asked whether there was any assistance Barnet bloggers, with our huge local readership could do to help. The answer "deliver leaflets and act as tellers at polling stations". For me it was an extraordinary suggestion. My view was that there should have been a co-ordinated push across all opposition groups to achieve a change of administration. I am quite happy working with anyone. At the time, I was not a member of any political party (the Labour Party banned me from being a member in 2010, but that is another story). Groups such as the Barnet Alliance were excluded from strategy and planning, despite a strong record of organising of events.

To the surprise of many in Labour, but sadly not myself, the Tories retained Barnet Council by one seat as neighbouring Tory councils all around fell. In many ways it was a stunning victory for the pragmatism of Richard Cornelius. Realising that the Tories were in trouble, he did many sensible things. He ensured that all sitting councillors who wanted to stand were guaranteed a seat. This menat no fratcuous deselection battles. He ensured that campaign resources were wisely husbanded and that marginal seats were the priority. He was lucky in that Brian Coleman stood as an independent and started firing off leaflets and blogs denouncing his former colleagues. I often wondered if this was a Machiavellian masterstroke by Coleman and Cornelius. His toxic brand had infected the local Tory Brand and his "hissy fits" could only help in the Tory Detox. Whilst many believe the Barnet Tories to be bumbling incompetents, I believe that they are anything but. They simply find that to be a useful public persona, as if you can portray unpopular policies as simply the result of being bumbling buffoons, people don't turn against you. Boris is the master of this type of strategy.

If you doubt just how good at running the show Richard Cornelius is, consider how tightly he's managed to control his group, with only one councillor needing to vote with the opposition to lose any vote. I can't recall any major policy votes that the Tories have lost and they've even managed to pass completely childish pieces of grandstanding such as the motion to declare "Sadiq Khan an enemy of people", a measure at least three Tory councillors have privately confirmed to me they felt was a very silly motion and quite unhelpful.

But all of that is just the history. I am more concerned with the present day. What six years of Richard Cornelius has managed to do, quite incredibly given the national mood, is to completely grind down the opposition. Wheras at the 2014 Council elections, the Barnet Alliance was an active and vibrant organisation, it has ceased to exist. The local members who still have a stomach for a fight have jouned Barnet Momentum. This highly political group for left wing activists has currently got approx 1,200 followers.  This compares favourably with The Barnet Tories who have less than 500. Barnet Labour have over 4,000, so I suppose that we can assume that around 25% of Barnet Labour supporters are Momentum followers. Now of course not all followers are supporters. People like me follow just about all parties & Councillors, but it is indicative.

Of course Twitter is far from the full picture. The tweets put out by most political groups are banal and I doubt many sane and rational swing voters would follow any of the party feeds for fun. The Barnet Opposition look just as intent on throwing this election away as they did the last. Perhaps the worst example of this is Childs Hill. Historically the anti Tory vote has gone to the Lib Dems with Labour (until 2014) standing aside. In 2014, they tried to run a strong campaign which simply meant two of three Lib Dems lost to Tories. This time, Labour have an absolutely excellent candidate in Anne Clarke. Anne is a fervant local campaigner and I would normally say that she should walk the vote. The trouble is that I don't believe that Labour has the numbers to take Childs Hill. I also think it would verging on criminal to see Jack Cohen, the stalwart Lib Dem lose his seat. The Lib Dems have put up two strong local campaigners. My great fear is that a great Lib Dem team and a strong Labour team will simply form a Guard of Honour and allow the Tories to walk in. My own view is that the opposition should be pragmatic and back the Lib Dems in Childs Hill and ensure a win, but I accept that would highly unfair to Anne Clarke who really does deserve a seat. I'd love to see Anne Clarke stand as a Labour PPC in Finchley and Golders Green against Mike Freer. I think Anne is of the calibre to do it. She is a worker and I suspect that if the Labour Party had the balls to do this, it she'd win. My perfect outcome would be to see Jack and his team retake the seat and Anne to become the local MP, in an election later next year.

Then we have Hale Ward. I spoke to local Momentum supporters who are also active in Labour. They feel that it is in the bag. Most of them were new to campaigning. I said that "This is what Labour said last time". The response I got was "this time it is different". I advised them to concentrate all of their efforts in marginal and winnable seats, however they told me they felt that they had a good chance of winning Mill Hill as well. If they split their resources and don't target marginal council seats, I suspect that they will end up crying in their beer for the fifth election in a row.  I've canvassed and delivered leaflets in every council election since 1988. I was truly gobsmacked when Labour and Lib Dems took the council in 1994. An incredible amount of hard work won it. Labour came to agreements with Lib Dems in Mill Hill and Childs Hill and as a result a centre/left administration was returned. many good things were done in that period. The blueprint for success is there, but what is missing is a Labour team who are prepared to actually take the tough decisions needed to win elections. The leader of the group is almost silent. He should be busting a gut to win recognition and doing everything to push campaigning in marginal wards. Sadly a search of the Leader of The Labour Group's twitter feed shows that he's hell bent on making all the same mistakes. If I search for tweets he's made about Hale ward, which is winnable and Labour have 1/3 of councillors I find

Tweets by Labour Group Leader about Hale Ward

Then there is the wider opposition. Us bloggers, to start with. I think we are largely exhausted. in 2013, the year before the last Council election Mrs Angry posted 130 blogs, over ten a month. This year, the same point in the cycle, she's managed 30 so far. Mr Reasonable managed 99 in 2013 and a mere 21 so far this year. Mr Mustard managed 239 in 2013 and yet this year has only managed 118.  As for me, I managed 487 in 2013 and a mere 367 this year. I think it is fair to say that we are all pretty exhausted by the process. That is not to say that there have not been excellent blogs with huge impact this year, in fact for the Barnet Eye, in the history of our blog, three of the ten most read blogs were posted this year. It simply demonstrates that there is a degree of fatigue. Then there are the trades unions. The Barnet Tories have been hell bent on emasculating them ever since they took power. Sadly this assault on the rights of workers has taken its toll. Long standing stalwart of the opposition and good friend of mine, John Burgess publicly admitted that the stress has caused him to suffer mental health issues. Although John struggles on, without his iconic presence in teh Borough full time, much of the vigour has gone from local campaigning.

In short, it seems to me as if the Barnet Opposition has run out of stream, just at the very point when finally there is an opportunity to actually achieve regime change in the Borough. There is six months until the next election. If you really want to see a change. If you want to see the end of a head of Education who seeks to cut after school care for disabled children, who won't lobby the education secretary for a better deal for Barnet Schools and who has reduced the Barnet Libraries footprint by 50%, you'd better realise that only hard work will do the trick. If you think that councillors who get paid £25,000 a year in allowances have nothing better to do than draft motions calling the Mayor of London an "enemy of the people" then fine, but if you want change and you want the council to fight for YOU, then you need to work harder.

I am prepared to make a commitment. I promise that in 2015, I will publish at least 500 blogs to effect change. I managed over 750 in 2012, so it is not a pipedream. I will be seeking guest blogs from you the community to help. The second most read blog on this site is a guest blog about council housing  Guest Blog - Opposition to huge rent rise growing - posted in 2012.

Of course if no one is prepared to even bother, is there any point. Therefore, I ask you to come along to the Barnet Eye Community Awards Ceremony on Saturday 9th December at The Chandos Arms in Colindale. There will be members of all major campaigns and opposition groups, so it will be a great chance to meet like minded people, network and work out how to effect change in a relaxed environment. We need a full house to ensure that we can send a message that the Barnet Opposition has not given up. We will be giving an award to our "Community Campaugn of the Year". This is a campaign that shows local grass roots campaigns really do work. So if you need some inspiration, come along.

If you are a regular reader, it would be great to meet you. There will be live music (including a never seen before acoustic unplugged session from my Band, The False Dots), a DJ and the awards ceremony. If nothing else, come along to support our local champions.

The False Dots will also be performing a song we wrote in honour of the workers of Barnet who lost their jobs to The Capita Outsourcing of Barnet Council entitled "They cleared out your desk". This .was us performing it for the first time last year at The Chandos Arms. We will also be passing around the hat for our charity of the year, so bring some spare pennies.


We'll be presenting our awards to outstanding local people and organisations

The categories this year are

Barnet Person of the year

Barnet Charity of the year

Barnet Pub of the Year

Barnet Band/Artist of the Year

Barnet Sports Club of the Year

Barnet Compaign of the year

Barnet Community Event of the Year

Barnet Campaigner of the year

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