Thursday, 29 October 2009

Twins in Barnet - now that's what I call news!

There we have been, worrying about prosaic things like the future of council services in Barnet, when all the time real news was being made on our streets! The Sun draws our attention to the fact that the X Factor house is in Golders Green and local residents - including the Chinese ambassador - are having a crappy time living near it.

This is my favourite quote:

Peri Wiseman, 14, from Hendon, North London, said she travelled for an hour on the bus just to see John and Edward.
What have we been saying all along - the traffic is just terrible in this part of London!

Monday, 26 October 2009

The future looks anything but easy

Mike Freer's Future Shape report, complete with easyCouncil elements, went through Barnet council's cabinet meeting on Wednesday 21 October, as we knew it would.

It was a depressing experience for those of us who oppose it, showing that Freer can ride out a certain amount of political flak - Future Shape has been controversial since it was first mooted and a head of steam built up against it, but not enough. Now Future Shape is going on to its next phase.

Some of us thought that Freer would be kicking himself when Future Shape was tagged as easyCouncil, but I always suspected that he intended that to happen. He likes his easy labels, does Freer. He thinks that's all voters can understand.

One of Freer's refrains is 'if the voters don't like it, they can vote us out in 2010', or words to that effect. On such occasions, I reply that he has a very shallow conception of democracy, whereupon he sits back and look smug because, shallow conception that it is, that IS about all the democracy we have!

The last word is far from being spoken on Future Shape. For my part, I'll go into some of the details in future posts.

Here is a selection of reports about the Future Shape plan from the mainstream media. For the most part, they read like rehashes of council press releases:

BBC - Council pledges 'radical' plans
Guardian - Council backs radical 'easyJet' services plan
Telegraph - Book me a seat on low-cost easyCouncil
Telegraph - Bin taxes are back! Two councils want to charge families more that do not recycle

An exception is a report in the local Hendon Times reflecting some of the anxieties of the council workforce.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The BBC's Nick Griffin night

Last night's "Question Time", I fear, will have done the BNP more good than harm. All the people who already hated Nick Griffin will still hate him and will have enjoyed the majority of the audience giving him hell. He deserved it.

But he played his cards very close to his chest, denied all the worst things, mugged, smiled a lot, joshed with Bonnie Greer, and told the establishment politicans some uncomfortable home truths. Jack Straw had no answer when Griffin talked about the Iraq war - you could hear the audience sitting on their hands so as not to clap him.

Labour, Tory and Lib Dem all seemed to be in denial about the fact that a lot of people don't like seeing two men kissing - it's true. That fact is not the end of debate on that issue, but it's true. The vast majority of people in the UK are of white English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish descent; their ancestors have 'been here' for hundreds of years - what conclusions flow from that it's not clear, but it's a fact. The establishment seemed to be in denial.

The only actual policy debated all night was immigration - and on that the three mainstream parties bickered and fell over themselves to compete on the BNP's territory.

Then there was the actual format of the programme. Having decided that the BNP has crossed the threshold whereby, playing by the usual rules, they must be invited onto the programme, the Beeb then tore up the rule book and geared the whole show around exposing - it looked more like ritually humiliating - one of the panellists.

All in all, I think it was a gift to Griffin and the BNP. Anyone who might have been wooed by him, probably was.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Why I'll join the protest at Television Centre tomorrow

This evening BBC director general Mark Thompson is defending the decision to invite Nick Griffin onto "Question Time" tomorrow night. I think it was a bad decision - made in the first place not by him but by the editors of the programme.

They had the discretion whether to invite Griffin on or not and they chose to invite him on out of some mistaken sense that since he gets x% of the vote he therefore has earned the right to x% of airtime. The simple fact is that going on "Question Time" normalises Nick Griffin and his politics and we can't afford to normalise him.

Nick Griffin will be answering whatever questions are put to him on the night; they could be on anything - climate change, the postal strike, "The X Factor" - on some level, appearing on this show helps to normalise Nick Griffin.

There's nothing normal about a party that won't allow non-whites to join it, has violent thugs among its leadership, preaches hatred of a whole religion (just one for now) - Islam - hates trade unions and socialists, gay people, the European Union, foreigners, glorifies a mythical white race and its supposedly spotless past. A fascist party, that offers only reactionary answers to social problems.

In late teenage I finally cottoned on to the fact that most people on TV are middle-class and probably went to public schools. There's nothing wrong with that as such, but it isn't normal. The people who populate our television screens, on the whole, and commission and schedule the programmes, etc, are not, collectively, normal. I think a lot of them live in a cocoon. Their values are skewiff. On this occasion they think they are opposing censorship and standing up for free speech. I think they are dangerously out of touch.

Censorship: however "establishment", the BBC is not the state. "Question Time" is a programme, not a national election, and certainly not a party political broadcast. I would be against the British state censoring the BNP - I'm against the state censoring political expression. But, to repeat, the BBC is not the state.

Free speech: the right to free speech does not oblige people to give the BNP a platform. In a Guardian article Lib Dem Chris Huhne makes a reasonable fist of explaining why he will debate Griffin, including this:

I would not appear at a meeting organised by the BNP, and nor would I extend an invitation to them. It is no part of the business of an elected liberal to drum up larger audiences for our most reviled opponents. They are welcome to their freedom of speech, but they can choose their own street corner and their own soapbox without my help.
He sounds as though he has a much sounder grasp of what's at stake here than Mark Thompson.


The simple fact is, I think, a lot of middle-class people, and especially at the BBC - who also gave the BNP a soft ride in a "Newsbeat" interview recently, of all things - are complacent about what the BNP and other far-right or racist groups, like the English Defence League, represent.

If it is a defence to say that the BNP gets 6% in elections, what is the establishment going to let them do if they start getting bigger votes? I don't trust the establishment or the state to save us from fascism. The BBC, on the current showing, will just roll over and say "well, a lot of people like them, you know".

On 10 October about 500 English Defence League racists and fellow-travellers and - alas - people they picked up on the day, had the run of Manchester city centre while an anti-racist counter-demonstration was corralled by the police in Piccadilly Gardens. The fascists are audacious and the only thing that can persuade them to back down now is large mobilisations of people who oppose them. That happened in Harrow a few weeks ago, although I fear that the fascists have learned lessons from that day and might come back for a second try. In any case, they are currently on a tour of the UK, with Scottish and Welsh Defence Leagues also being set up.

Free speech is not the issue. Stopping the fascists from growing is the issue and the more of us that show up when they show up, the easier that will be.

The CWU ate my hamster

Today I've been enjoying some of the newspaper headlines around the looming postal strike. As you would expect, many find angles that cast the postal workers' union, the CWU, in a bad light:

Postal strike threat to swine flu vaccination programme

Post strike could hit Christmas military mail

One of the more unlikely front pages was the Daily Mail's - a picture of strike breakers queuing up behind a chain link fence. The full story shows that their concern is simply about who might be getting their grubby mitts on readers' letters:

Royal Mail is hiring thousands of 'strike-breakers' who have not had their references checked or been vetted for criminal records.

The company's decision to bus in 30,000 casual workers, to clear a mail backlog caused by previous strikes and the two-day national stoppage beginning on Thursday has already triggered a furious row.

Now the Mail has learned that they are being hired - on the minimum wage of £5.80 an hour - after only cursory interviews.
I don't know all the ins and outs of the dispute, but I do know that postal workers are low paid, they will not receive strike pay when they are out and that striking will cost them. Yet the high turnout in the strike ballot and the large majority for a strike shows that the workers' grievances - over job cuts, management bullying, workload - are serious. Naturally, I will be showing support on the picket lines tomorrow morning.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Tally ho! The Tories are coming!

The RSPCA recently drew attention to the alarming rise in dog-fighting in the UK. A report on the BBC website includes news about one fight in a Mill Hill park. Of course, the sort of people doing this are largely assumed to be working-class yobs. An RSPCA spokesperson explains:
"It's a lot to do with the sort of MTV gang culture - people want to look hard, they want to look tough, with a dog that looks tough."
I wrote a blog about this back in July and I think it is sad and a damning indictment of the sort of society that we are/have become.

But exploiting dogs' natural, aggressive instincts for sport is not confined to the working classes, of course. News comes that David Cameron's Tories would repeal the ban on fox hunting with dogs, if they form the next government. See, for example, this nice partisan report on the Daily Mirror website.

Of course, there are many differences between a bunch of brutalised working-class idiots setting their dogs on each other in a park, which we all condemn, and a bunch of aristos or nouveau-riches galloping after a pack of hounds after a fox, which some of us regard as a noble pastime and part of the indissoluble social glue of rural life. That is, setting aside class double-standards, when it comes down to it, there is no difference at all.

Here is my favourite militant vegan punk band Active Slaughter with their song "Born Free" and an upsetting video reminding us why it is right that fox-hunting is banned and why that ban should be enforced.

Frank Field hoist by his own petard

I am quite enjoying the story about Frank Field protesting his innocence of involvement in the MPs' expenses scandal and refusing to pay back some of the money he received. You can read about it here.

I'm sure Field IS quite innocent. It is just nice to see him being unjustly accused of being a benefits scrounger, as his late political career has been built on berating the feckless, cosseted children of the welfare state. A modern-day Samuel Smiles.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Manifesto for the public services - 1st draft

It won't have escaped your notice that we nearly had a completely financial meltdown last year, and are currently in a recession. Moreover, despite the fact that they weren't the cause of this, you'll have got the message from almost all political parties that it is the public services that will get hammered in order to restore the national finances.

Barnet council trade unions, Barnet trades council, and a number of residents have launched a draft manifesto for the public services to serve two purposes in the coming period:
- as a benchmark against which we will judge the policies of politicians seeking our votes

- as a set of principles to guide our own actions.
If I were to summarise its contents at the moment it's: we will defend public services!

I must stress that it is a draft, an imperfect document (though a darn sight better than anything any of the mainstream political parties is offering). We are inviting residents' and other organisations in Barnet to join the process of discussing the manifesto, the issues raised in it, and proposing amendments. The manifesto will be finalised, taking on board people's suggestions, in the spring at which point people can decide whether they want to put their names to it or not.

If you would like more information about this I suggest you email Barnet trades council - - as they will be playing a coordinating role. Thank you. I think this is a pretty exciting development, albeit the road we are embarking on looks long.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Is it a bird, is it a plane? The Future Shape report arrives

You can download the Future Shape report and other documents to be discussed at Barnet Council's cabinet meeting on 21st October from here.

I haven't read them yet but I can see they're packed with colourful diagrams - always a bad sign!

Other items on the agenda will be the Brent Cross regeneration scheme and the council's response to the recession, so a very lively evening is in store.

Council unions, Barnet trades council, and residents opposed to the Future Shape privatisation plan will be lobbying outside Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs, from 6pm. The Cabinet meeting starts at 7pm and several questions are tabled from the public about Future Shape and other matters. Come and join us!

It didn't take them long - Barnet Tory curbs on resident participation

When I attended my first Barnet Cabinet meeting nearly a year ago and put a public question it was a chastening experience. I was most surprised to learn that public questions to Cabinet were almost unheard of. For a year now, however, opponents of the council's 'Future Shape' privatisation plan and cuts to sheltered housing wardens have made it our business to put questions on those matters to the Cabinet.

Now Barnet's Tory council have voted to restrict which matters the public can address during Cabinet meetings - details in the press release from Barnet's Labour group below. It didn't take the Tories long to begin closing off the avenues of complaint that we have against their policies. This is the administration that spouts a lot of rhetoric about finding new ways to engage with residents. Any way that suits them, it seems, not us.

Barnet Tories curb public participation rights

Conservative councillors have forced through changes to public participation rights that will restrict what questions can be asked by members of the public at council committees, including, Cabinet, Scrutiny, Environment & Planning committees.

Conservative councillors on the Constitution Review Committee voted on Monday night to stop members of the public submitting questions on any matter in the remit of council committees and ruled that questions must be restricted to items on the agenda at any particular meeting.

The rule change was proposed by Cllr Melvin Cohen, who recently attracted criticism for accepting an extra allowance of £7,500 for chairing the Constitution Review Committee that meets just four times a year.

Leader of Barnet Labour Group, Cllr Alison Moore said:

“This is just the latest blow to democracy in our battle to stop the further erosion of public participation rights in Barnet. This Conservative council has an appalling record on public participation and consultation. They have cut the number of Resident Forums, reduced public speaking rights at Planning meetings, and now this – what are they afraid of? Frankly it's a disgrace, and we will be opposing this rule change at Full Council.”

Ends. Notes to reporters:

1. Section 4, Paragraph 4.1 of the Council's Public Participation rules states that:

“Anyone who lives or has a business in the borough may ask the Leader or Cabinet Member chairing the meeting of the Cabinet or Cabinet Committee, or Chairman of any committee, or sub-committee, a question on any matter within its terms of reference.”

Last night's vote proposes that Full Council changes this rule to read:

“Anyone who lives or has a business in the borough may ask the Leader or Cabinet Member chairing the meeting of the Cabinet or Cabinet Committee, or Chairman of any committee, or sub-committee, a question relating to an item it is considering on that occasion.”

3. A copy of the relevant sections of the Council's Constitution can be found

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Barnet wardens fight is an example for all

Yvonne Hossacks, the lawyer acting for a number of sheltered housing residents in Barnet and other areas, has succeeded in her motion for a judicial review of Barnet council's decision to axe its sheltered housing wardens. This means at least a delay in the axing of the wardens, because the council cannot now terminate the contracts for the existing service when it wanted to.

It also means that sheltered housing, as it deserves to be, will still be a live issue in the run-up to the next local - and general - election.

Congratulations to David Young and all the other sheltered housing residents in Barnet who have refused to just give up the service they value and rely on. I have been involved, through Barnet Community Campaign, in organising some protests and also want to praise those who have been involved in those.

Sheltered housing is an important, but only one of the areas of public services that are coming under attack and which will come under attack in the coming months and years. We have got to mobilise many more people in the defence of their services. The tenacity and imagination of David and his comrades (if I can call them that) in the campaign to defend their warden service is a great example of where we all need to be heading.

Times report of the judicial review here.

The return of the smooth man

I try not to base my blogs on unkind personal observations, but sometimes one can't help noticing things about people. My mother (this post is not about my mother), like most human beings, had descriptions for people based largely on their appearance. And made value judgments based on that.

Sometimes she would describe a man as 'smooth'. 'Oh, he's a bit smooth.' Sometimes she would describe someone as 'smarmy' - this is worse than smooth, but smooth is bad enough. Smooth men played golf, they never travelled by bus, they had glass decanters of sherry on their sideboards. They almost definitely, inevitably, to a man, voted Conservative.

That's what they did. What did they look like? They had smooth, rounded jawlines, with just a tiny bit too much fat on them, and tidy hair, probably parted, with the hint of a quiff.

Anyway, why I'm thinking about this now is because I can see the return of the smooth man in politics, they are waiting in the wings, crowds of them, waiting to move back into the centre of our television screens... because the Tories are coming back into power.

I really hadn't taken much notice of the Tories for years, but now I will have to, I suppose. I will try not to judge them by their appearance, and only by their deeds, but, in honour of my mother's judgment, I cannot resist compiling a small picture gallery of smooth, Tory men. This lot just make me shudder. The last gentleman is David Pugh, the Conservative council leader for the Isle of Wight, where I have spent some time this summer.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Romanian families: don't punish people for being poor!

A shocking story about Romanian families who have been living in an unused football stadium in Cricklewood. Twelve of their children have been taken away by social services, after the electricity has been cut to the stadium - which is going to help them how?

When Romania joined the EU, Romanian migrants weren't granted the same rights to work and settle in the UK that, say, Polish migrants were when Poland joined the EU. In other words, they had the basic bad luck to have been born in Romania, not Poland... or the UK.

My take on all of this is that people shouldn't be punished for being poor. Most people in Britain were poor until not so long ago - absolutely poor, as well as relatively poor. People would do well to remember that before they start tutting and shaking their heads at how other people live.

And Barnet council should house the families, not take their children away!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

I was lost in Barnet

While my other half visited his mother in hospital this afternoon, I went for a walk (I'm all heart). He dropped me off on Hendon Wood Lane and I followed part of the Dollis Valley Green Walk.

This is one of the footpaths that won a Mayor of London makeover grant in the 'Help a London Park' popular vote earlier in the year. I don't know whether it was more deserving than candidates that did not win, but I'm all for upgrading ALL of London's green spaces so I'm glad that it will have some money spent on it.

I don't know which parts are going to be upgraded; I suspect the bit I was on needs some better signposting. I know that at a certain point I was following one path and then there were dozens to choose from and at that point I got lost. I walked along some unfamiliar streets with unlikely names like Quinta and Nupton, past a posh new primary school called Whitings Hill, and up a hill that belongs to Barnet Council that was freshly mown, from the top of which I could see no familiar landmarks whatsoever.

Then I found my way back to Totteridge Lane which is far more familiar to me, being the route of the 251 bus, and had a cappuccino in the Orange Tree pub that I usually sail past. It's good getting lost, frankly. We all feel under so much pressure to have everything under control always, that it was nice being completely clueless. Now that I'm home, however, can I resist the urge to look up my route on Googlemap?