Wednesday 6 April 2022

A month to go - The State of play in the Barnet Council Elections

 In exactly one months time, we will know the new shape of Barnet Council. This will be the third time I've stood as a candidate for the Lib Dems in Mill Hill at a council election. I stood in 2010, 2018 and now. In 2010, the Lib Dems believed they had an excellent chance in Mill Hill, having had councillors in the ward since 1994. In 2018, it felt like the charge of the light brigade. Privately we said that if we got more than 1,000 votes each we'd done well. We'd got less than 500 in 2014 (I didn't stand). We worked extremely hard and I got over 1,200. Mill Hill ward had the best result for the Lib Dems of any ward in Barnet. However the big issue locally was Jeremy Corbyn. Despite the fact that it was a local election and the local Labour party are all Blairites, that was all anyone in Mill Hill seemed to want to talk about. The Tories exploited this to the hilt and made a big play on the fact that if you wanted to show your dislike of  Corbyn you'd vote for them. Our message that "If you don't want Corbyn and you think the Barnet Tories have done a pretty rubbish job vote for us" was a hard sell. 

Move on four years. Jeremy Corbyn is a distant memory. Labour have morphed back into a sort of Blair light party, which stands for very little, seeks to upset no one and is seemingly far more electable. As for the Tories, whereas in 2018, they used the toxic leadership of Corbyn as a weapon of mass media destruction, now they have #Partygate and their own toxic leader, Boris Johnson to deal with. 

Over the last few weeks, we've started our campaign. This week, we have begun leafletting. Not having access to the vast financial resources of the Tories (some of the local Tory MP's have taken big bungs from Russian Oligarchs) we can't pay to have our leaflets delivered, so we do them ourselves. I've also been knocking on doors. To say things have changed is a mild understatement. So how will Barnet Council change in May?

A month is a long time in politics. Much can happen, but the Tories mantra that we need Boris as there is a crisis in the Ukraine has failed miserably to ring home. Even local Conservatives I've spoken to have privately admitted that he's not the right Prime Minister for a crisis. No one in Mill I've spoken to seems at all enthused for either Labour or the Tories. On Boris, there is pretty universal disdain. People see him for exactly what he is. All of the partys at No 10 have left a sour taste. The impression I get is that Tories would rather he just quietly disappeared. The ordinary Tory voters, who are not politically motivated and just want decent, sensible government are horrified. The British are too polite to tell people canvassing for their party what they don't want to hear, but a couple of lifelong Tory friends I know, who have only ever voted Conservative told me "I don't know if I'll even bother to vote in the Council elections, if I do I might vote for you this time, just to send them a message". In 2010, these friends pretended they'd vote for me and later admitted they hadn't, in 2018, they said there's no way they'd risk voting anything but Tory. Now they are saying this without asking a hundred reasons why they should vote for me (wasting my valuable canvassing time in the process). 

As to local Labour. Hard Corbynite Labour supporters hate the Lib Dems. They seem to hate the Lib Dems now even more than they did before. I get the "How can you possibly stand for THAT PARTY" from quite a few. There is a train of thought in Labour circles that the Lib Dems should simply stand down and let them win everywhere. They fail to recognise that people like me do not actually believe that Labour is the answer to every ill in the world. I passionately beleive that Barnet Council would work far better if it wasn't dominated by one party, who are whipped to death to pass unpopular schemes and are disconnected from local people. The local Labour party is almost as bad as the Tories in many ways. They never opposed the One Barnet outsourcing programme, they never said they'd reverse it. They actually created the monster that has become "Barnet Homes". I don't actually know what they stand for in Barnet. When you chat to people on the doorstep, they don't know either.

People ask me what the Lib Dems will do, which the others wouldn't. Well should we hold the balance of power, the first thing I'd push for is to remove the ridiculous rules on public questions at meetings that the Tories brought in after the last election, which mean that public scrutiny of decisions is almost impossible. I'd push for a return to the old format of the local area forums, where people could just turn up and ask any question they liked. The Tories hated this because the questions were difficult. I'd return to the old convention that the chair of the Audit Committee was from an opposition party, as this meant better scrutiny. I'd also seek to unwind the One Barnet outsourcing, except where transparently published figures proved it delivered better services and better value for money. The Tories refuse to publish such info and Labour has made no such commitment.

Locally, I would make sure that any council work done in Mill Hill was done properly and I'd use my access to officers to get things done when they should be, not eighteen months later. A Tory candidate sneered and said "what makes you think they'd do that for you, when they don't do it for us?". The answer is threefold. The first part is that I've run a business for 43 years. I know that if I want something done, I don't fire off an email and think that's the end of the matter until someone else moans. I speak to people face to face and take the time to explain why they need to get on with it. The second reason, and anyone who has read this blog will know this. I do not let people fob me off with excuses. The third reason is that I have an excellent relationship with the Barnet workforce and unions. They know I will be fair so they will talk frankly and honestly with me. When I explained this to the Tory candidate, he said "You are deluded, you have no idea". That was exactly what I was told when I applied for a bank loan in 1979 to start my studio.

So what do I think will happen next month? Labour is not toxic, the Tories have a major issue with their leadership. I expect a swathe of seats to flip from Tory to Labour, not all in places you'd immediately expect. I also expect the Lib Dems to pick up a few. There are several seats where the Lib Dems are privately polling very strongly. In Mill Hill, it is notoriously hard to read the runes. I may change this prediction, but I suspect that the Lib Dems could poll between 1,500-2,000. If we got 1,200 last time, I think we should be expecting at least a 50% increase without the bogeyman factor. As to the Tories, if what I'm hearing is correct, they could well drop by 30-40% my gut feeling is they'll poll somewhere between 1,700 and 2,200. That means it is in play for the Lib Dems. As for Labour, if their voters vote tactically for the Lib Dems, they will see a drop and see the back of the Tories. If they don't they will probably do as wella s last time and get 1,400-1,800 votes and a Tory Councillor. I can't see any way that they will get over the wire. I actually think that last time, they polled better than previously as the hard left bothered to vote. They won't vote for Sir Keir Starmer's Labour party, they hate him even more than they hate the Lib Dems and the Torys. 

The key question is whether the Tories will lose their majority in Barnet. I think the boundary changes favour them. They have a decent majority in number of seats. The biggest problem for local Labour is that they simply don't live in the year 2022. Check their Hendon Labour website. I was gobsmacked that the front page doesn't even mention the fact that there is a council election. 

Compare that with the Barnet LibDems site, which has lots of local campaign news.  I can't believe that Labour haven't twigged that a website is an important local resource. Speaking to their local campaigners, it seems that the campaign strategy is pretty much the same as the one which didn't work in 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. Lots of leaflets and lots of canvassing core votes, with little or no effort to reach out and make new friends.

If I was a Tory Strategist, I'd be worried. It almost seems to me that their strategy is to rely on Labour running a rubbish campaign. Whilst it seems, from the evidence I can see, that this is a given, I am not sure that with Boris running the show, it will work. In 2018, I spoke privately to BBC Radio London's Susana Mendonca three weeks before the election. She asked whether I thought the Tories would lose Barnet. To her amazement, I said "No, they will increase their majority". She was stunned and said "What do you know that every other political commentator is missing?". I replied "I've actually knocked on doors and I am not telling porkies about it". I advised her to have a walk around Hale, a key ward and speak to people. I was spot on. I may change my prediction, but I think we may well have a hung council, with three or four Lib Dems holding the balance of power. I intend working my socks off to ensure one of those people is me, but it is very much in the balance. In the sidebar of the desktop version of the blog, you can check the history. I made no such prediction in 2018.


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