Sunday 28 March 2021

Three million blog views for the Barnet Eye

 Today the blogger stat counter passed three million views. When I started the blog back in October 2008 I didn't think I'd get 300. I am surprised and overwhelmed to have reached this amazing target. Unlike twitter, facebook, instagram etc, a conscious effort has to be made to view a blog. The thought that on over three million occasions someone, somewhere, most of who I've never met, have decided that they want to have a look at what I've written. Getting hits has never been something I've been too bothered about. I've always taken the view that I would write what I wanted and if people liked it that was great. If they didn't they wouldn't be back. Oddly many of the people who read the blog don't agree with me, but they seem to enjoy what I write. Over the years a few people have written to say that they disagree with most of what I say, but they enjoy the fact that I have strong opinions and it makes them think. It is true to say that over the last few years, the blog has changed. I have far less political content now than when I started.  The reason for this is not that the issues have diminished, if anything things are far worse in the Borough of Barnet now than ever. There is a real need for coverage of these issues, but when I had done ten years devoting all of my spare time to blogging about the failings of Barnet Council, I felt that I simply had run out of energy to do the job properly. Politics was never my main passion. That has always been music. The political blogging was a complete accident. The fact that so many people have developed an interest shows that there is a need for such blogs, but one person in their spare time cannot do it all. For a while, in the previous decade, there was a rather good team of Barnet bloggers, but all rather ran out of steam. Whereas they wrote hundreds of blogs in 2012, by 2020 this was almost down to single figures for two of them and down by 85% forthe third. The huge amount of time, effort and energy is just too hard to maintain for anyone. This isn't a criticism, all deserve medals for their efforts over nearly a decade. 

I think that all of us felt a tad let down and unsupported by many who should have been allies. John Burgess, the tireless Barnet Unison branch secretary worked tirelessly with us, but the sheer hard work we put in was not used to good effect by the opposition political parties in Barnet. I naively thought when I started the blog that it would help the opposition effect change. What I didn't realise was that political establishment in Barnet opposition circles wasn't the least bit interested in forces it couldn't manage and control. I never expected much from them, but I did expect that when we were providing useful ammunition, gaining press coverage and appearing on TV, that they would see the benefit in engagement. Sadly, the opposite was true and a huge opportunity to prevent Barnet Council making huge and costly mistakes was missed. Whilst I could understand them blanking me, given the fact that I am a gobby maverick, I never understood why they gave John Dix the same treatment, given the huge amount of work he's done. What especially annoyed me was it became clear that the lazy B*******ds never even bothered reading anything the bloggers were writing. 

The saddest aspect about this was that not only did they fail to exploit a useful resource, they also alienated many natural supporters, who realised that the political establishment wasn't interested in working in the interests of the people of Barnet. I've spoken to dozens of people over the last 12 years of the blog who said to me "Why doesn't the opposition pick up all of this stuff you and the other bloggers are writing?". My answer was always the same "When they come canvassing for your vote, ask them". And you know what, they did and the answer they got was always one that infuriated the ordinary voters. 

The sad truth is that the real story of Barnet Council, One Barnet and Capita is one that has been documented all of the way by the bloggers of Barnet and that in the whole sorry story, there was never any proper opposition from the Barnet Labour party. I was at all of the rally's, all of the Barnet Alliance Q&A sessions, all of the film premiere's. All of the key council meetings. I can only name half a dozen of the Labour Party Councillors who can say the same thing. These councillors, who were getting a £10,000 allowance to represent us, simply couldn't be bothered to come along and mix with the plebs. I simply couldn't believe that the Labour Party didn't put a three line whip on its councillors to come along. But the truth is that they never opoosed the One Barnet program, never committed to bring services in house and never committed to the #KickOutCapita campaign. 

There is one really important point to make in all of this. One or two siren voices have tried to portray the opposition to One Barnet as a bnunch of hapless ultra left Trotskyites. This is an accusation that I've had directed at me. It is ridiculous. I am a member of the Liberal Democrat party, I am a business owner and a member of the Federation of Small Business. Many Tory Councils, run by sensible people with a strong business background, looked at the Barnet model, the Commissioning Council and said "No thanks". They have kept services in house and have not had the chaos that Barnet saw. They have also had to make cuts, but as they are not locked intoi commercial contracts with external suppliers, can make these where they see fit. Barnet has limited scope for cuts in many areas as they are contractually obliged to pay Capita for services. This means that other areas, where Capita do not have contracts,  have much deeper cuts, whilst Capita shareholders are cushoned. It is worth pointing out that even Lord Eric Pickles, former education secretary in David Camerons government publicly praised the bloggers of Barnet for our efforts holding the council to account. Of course, like John The Baptist, we were just voices in the wilderness. Inconvenient for the local Tories, but even more so for the local Labour party, who's lack of effort was clear.  In 2018 council elections, the Barnet Labour party got exactly what it deserved. The council was widely touted as the no 1 target for Labour in London. I gave a briefing to BBC Radio London on the situation and they were amazed when I told them that the Tories would make substancial gains, fail to take Hale ward and lose other key seats. Susana Mendonca, the BBC London political correspondent said "what do you know that the bookies, punters and everyone else doesn't?". I explained to her that Barnet Labour had failed to engage with local people, had an appalling strategy that had failed in 2014, 2010, 2006 and 2002 and yet they still used the same planning and the same campaign. There was an arrogant assumption that the council would simply fall into their lap because 'London is a Labour city', but they had failed to engage with the public on the key issues that mattered to people locally. After the election, I got a note from Susana complimenting me on the accurancy of my prediction and saying that when she'd gone up to Hale ward and interviewed locals, the polls may be wrong.

It really didn't have to be like this. If Barnet Labour had gone out and explained just what a mess the One Barnet program was, how much it was costing Barnet and why it was damaging key services, they would have had a different result. How can I say this? In Mill Hill, we went out on the doorstep and said just this. The Lib Dems doubled their vote from 2014. This didn't happen anywhere else in any opposition ward. We cazme third, but this was because we simply didn't have the resources to get the message across to enough people. Labour had huge teams as Barnet was a big target, but they simply told the wrong story. The narrative was that the anti semitism of a Corbyunite Labbour party was to blame. Whilst this was a factor, all this did was energise the Tory vote.  Labour failed to make its case in the areas where they had a cast iron argument, which is that the Barnet Tories key policy of the last ten years had failed and was costing a fortune. 

When it comes down to it, all we can really do is try our hardest if we care about something. I think I have done. I have three million reasons to think that it was worthwhile. In life, we can't always achieve everything we set out to, but we can try. I tend to think that it has all been worth while. I suspect that without the scrutiny of the Barnet bloggers, Barnet Council would have been in an even bigger mess. We have had victories. We exposed the Metpro contract fiasco, which has saved Barnet Council over £2 million, which has hopefully be spent on better things. We exposed the scandal of the illegal cancelling of the Freedom passes for people with disabilities. This gave many back their freedom. The audit that followed Metpro made Barnet strengthen their procurement process which has save countless millions. We have kept a focus on Capita, making it impossible for cock ups to be swept under the carpet. We have not succeeded in getting them booted out, but I am convinced that they are costing Barnet less than they would have given free reign. So yes, it has been worth it. Oh yes, and I've shared some great jokes, some great music, supported a fair few people struggling with dyslexia, cancer, bereavement. I've celebrated a fair few unsung heroes, raised awareness of foodbank appeals, homeless projects and a few other great causes. So yes, it has all been good.

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