Saturday, 7 June 2014

He who MUST be obeyed: A Hugh and Cry

He Who MUST Be Obeyed: A Hugh and Cry

The new Mayor of Barnet, Hugh Rayner, has a temper. It can accelerate uncontrollably from 0 to 120 in a matter of seconds as he demonstrated at the Annual Council meeting last Monday at Hendon Town Hall.  Veteran Councillors said they had never seen a meeting like it. As on St Crispin's Day, those who were not there shall think themselves accursed they missed it all.  It was the meeting at which Hugh became Mayor of Barnet. When Hugh threw a tantrum, demanding the respect that was being denied him, he did so like a power-crazed sergeant major on the parade field. Hugh is indeed an erstwhile military man who apparently served his country in the warehouse at RAF Hendon. 

Monday night was to be ceremonial, Hugh's night of mayoral triumph, charmingly hosting a lavish bash for Councillors and guests at the taxpayers' expense.  He took his seat for the first time as mayor as I took my seat for the first time in the Council Chamber.

I had supposed that joining the ranks of the Council would mean an end to my days of unseemly heckling from the public gallery. But Tory antics and Hugh's impotent, yet fascinatingly comic struggle to control the meeting ensured that my heckling days were far from over. Old habits die hard.  You'd heckle too if it happened to you.

Oh how the Tories had been plotting and planning.  Used to working with a substantial majority which now is expected to reduce to only one after the delayed election in Colindale on 26 June, they are running scared. And Barnet now has a newly-established Committee System which spreads power much wider and will allow the opposition more influence than the previous Cabinet system by which just ten members of the ruling party had all the power.  The Tories have never had it so bad. 

The fun began a few moments before kick-off when the Leader of the Labour Group, Alison Moore, came into the room to tell us that the Tories were going to stop our expenses if we didn't agree to pair with them.  Allow me to explain asap that this wasn't an improper suggestion - well actually it was, but political rather than sexual. Propositioned so charmingly how could we refuse? But we did - and ended up just a little bit poorer than when we'd arrived - at least financially but not where our integrity is concerned.

So the first skirmish was played out, and the two sides entered the Chamber at loggerheads. It was then that I had my first glimpse of the Tories preening themselves in their ceremonial robes.  How I did chuckle, but not for long

So back to Hugh trying out his throne for size all decked out in Mayoral splendour, fur-trimmed town cryer costume, (he'd definitely pass the audition) with white cravat frothing at his throat, Hugh almost frothing at the mouth.  The Chamber doors burst open to admit officers run ragged, distributing papers literally hot off the press, full of errors, omissions, not enough to go round initially, can we share one between two.  It has to be deduced that the Tories had submitted their information immediately prior to the meeting. The first sheets to arrive showed only the Tory committee members. The officers rushed out of the Chamber and returned with revised lists showing both Tories and Labour. The Tories demanded a division based on these papers to ratify the membership of Council committees. Labour objected, pointing out some of the obvious errors that existed on the papers, and complaining that they had had no time to read the papers but the Tories inevitably won a vote to proceed and the committees were agreed en bloc, mistakes and all. The furious protest from the opposition and from the public gallery was ear-splitting and drove Hugh into a frenzied rant demanding silence and respect for his office. Was this the same Hugh who when merely in the ranks never lost an opportunity to chatter and laugh with his neighbour and fellow-Councillor in Hale Ward, Tom Davey, while others were speaking in Council - in particular, the oppostion?

And for the next Tory move Cllr Anthony Finn requested that a future Council meeting be changed to a date that coincides with the Labour Party Conference in September. Pandemonium.  Shouts of "outrageous", "shameful" even from the most timid of those in attendance. 

There is a convention, an understanding, both in Parliament and local government that the diary is kept free during the three weeks of annual conference for the three major parties. But Hugh pushed ahead with determination:   "This has been moved. Agreed?" expecting to win on a nod.  Roars of protest rang out from the opposition and from the gallery while the buffet lay untouched in Committee Room 2.  Surely tonight was about fun and frolics.  Of course there was no thought that the food would be better taken to the local foodbank for those less fortunate, those who were paying for this feast. But the fun had to wait a while longer.

There was a vote: For, Against, Against, For, then the impeccably well-mannered Labour Cllr Arjun Mittra called out in disgust: "Against....against this farce".  Applause, cheers from ABTT (anyone but the Tories). Hugh went completely berserk. Cllr Mittra had overstepped the mark and he told him so.  Others followed suit. But I'll let you watch it all for yourself on this video  It's so much better when you can see it as it happened. But the Tories had the numbers and won the vote.  

We boycotted the reception. We left the web, we left the room and hurried down to Camelot, or rather the Greyhound and an honest pint and a packet of crisps - in my case, throwing caution to the wind, a double slim-line tonic with ice and lemon.  If I were a new Tory Councillor I'd seriously be considering the cross-benches.  The Battle of Barnet is in full swing and it's not pretty. All that time and effort wasted on political wrangling when we should be out there serving the people of Barnet. So my first Council meeting as a Councillor.  A baptism of fire. Ouch!  And Mr Mayor,  perhaps you should take the advice given to you from the public gallery amid the jeers on Monday night: Act as if you're in a democracy rather than a dictatorship".  And I believe there is a training course at the Town Hall in the next few days on "Chairing Skills". You may wish to enrol. Hale Caesar.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Barnet Council: It's a whole new ball game

Barnet Council: It's a whole new ball game 

It's an exciting new dawn for Barnet Council. Nothing will ever be the same.  Well, for one thing I am thrilled to be able to announce that I was elected Labour Councillor for West Hendon on 22 May, so I will no longer be sitting in the public gallery.  Thank you so much to everyone who made this possible. I'm very proud and intend to do my best to serve wherever I am needed, the job of every Councillor.  So for the very first time I'm going to be in the Council Chamber able to speak and take part.  I should explain by adding that I am able to speak and take part officially.  I never could keep quiet in the public gallery.  And the prospect of the next four years inspires and excites me because for all Councillors, from the newly elected to the veterans, it is going to be very different. 

Until now the Tories have run the Council with an unshakeable majority. Impassioned protests from the Labour opposition on issues such as housing , caring, schools, crime, hospitals, disability, parking, refuse, etc have been met with chatting and laughing throughout Labour speeches amongst the Tory ranks followed by the inevitable Tory win when the vote took place.  

Labour just failed to win the Council on the 22nd May in spite of substantial gains, but it is so close that the Tories are no longer going to have it all their way.  For those old enough to remember, Harold Wilson's first administration comes to mind when it was so close that an MP might be brought to vote into the House of Commons on a hospital bed still attached to a saline drip.  The Tories are going to have to have every one of their Councillors present every time.

Then the Council will be run in a different way moving from the Cabinet System where just ten Councillors from the ruling party made all the decisions.   That was true of the last Tory Council's decision to privatize Barnet services, signing us all up for 10 years. The Council is changing to a Committee System that is new to everyone and works in a more inclusive way. 

There is new technology, papers distributed electronically, a whole new system created by Capita, though not yet completed!  But don't get me started on the IT provision for Councillors by Capita. It is, shall we say, disappointing.

And there is the new balance of power.  The election in the safe Labour seat, Colindale, which will take place on 26 June, delayed due to the sad death of the Green candidate, is likely to result in a Council with only two seats between the two major parties.  It will be very different.

Tonight I will attend my first Council event since the election - the Annual meeting at which all the newly-elected Councillors gather and the Mayor is appointed for the year.  The Conservative Councillors choose to wear ceremonial robes.  Labour Councillors choose to sport a single red rose.  And so we run out of the tunnel in our own distinctive kits to begin a whole new ball game, from captain to rookie. Let the people of Barnet referee.