As the Tories fall apart in Barnet, will Labour win the elections??? Frank Morris reports on the campaign and what’s at stake in what was once the Tories flagship for privatisation. Tory Barnet, along with, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster are London councils that Labour are hoping to win on Thursday 3 May.
The Tories have been in control of Barnet since 2002, and since then have turned over much of the services to private contractors and cut back the little that remains. It became known as the “easy council” and then the “commissioning council”, indicating the ideological principles underpinning the mass outsourcing. The Tories’ vision is a borough where people are wealthy enough not need to use local services such as libraries, meals on wheels, residential homes for the elderly, day centres, or social services.
The Tories exacerbated the government imposed cuts not just by freezing the council tax but also by cutting it just before the 2014 local elections in 2014.And the cost of privatisation is not just financial. It puts people’s lives at risk. Ofsted has condemned Barnet’s children’s services as inadequate and that “serious failings put young at risk of harm”. Like elsewhere in London, including Labour boroughs, council estates have been “regenerated” – through demolition to make way for new private developments which reduces the stock of social housing.
The danger of the council’s dependence on private contractors has been exposed by the collapse in the share value of Capita, its main external provider. The continuing crisis of Capita, like that of Carillion, threatens not just services but jobs. The council’s April audit committee also heard of a litany of service problems, system failures, lack of controls, under performance, a major fraud. It is time to sack Capita and this demand should be at the top of the agenda in this election.
For the last 10 years, there has been a vigorous local campaign, organised by Barnet Alliance for Public Services and Barnet Unison, to stop the cuts and oppose privatisation. This slowed down the Tories and exposed the cost of privatisation as the use of consultants and agency staff expanded dramatically, and the quality of services declined.
With such a record, the Tories ought to have been kicked out long ago, but they just about held onto the council in 2014 by one seat. The disaster of privatisation should have been one of the key issues in the election campaign back then. But Blairism’s embracing of privatisation, was, and still is, pervasive. One week before the 2014 election, the leader of the Labour group, Alison Moore, was quoted in the local press saying that “Labour could look at outsourcing more services”, even though her preference is for “cost-effective public services”.
Numerous polls show that well over two-thirds of people want to bring rail, and utilities such water and electricity back into public ownership. The case for bringing back local council services is an easy one. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the swing to Labour at the 2017 general election demonstrated that a programme of public services, against austerity, and that a government “for the many – not the few” can be a winner.
Barnet Unison recently published a very modest programme for a “Better Barnet”, which has the backing of Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. It calls on an incoming Labour council to start to bring services in-house, end the reliance on agency staff and consultants, and restore staffing levels in libraries. Barnet Momentum has been vigorously campaigning for the local Labour parties to support Unison’s “Better Barnet”, but the Labour group of councillors has remained quiet.
Barnet Labour councillors and candidates are steering well clear of anything which may seem too close to the values promoted by Corbyn and the majority of Labour members. The Labour manifesto in Barnet barely mentions Capita and the disaster of outsourcing. There is no commitment to bring services back in-house, even those which are run by companies entirely owned by the council.
The manifesto pledges more police, better refuse collection and continuing the Tories’ freeze of the council tax. It does promise that a Labour Barnet would build 800 new council homes, –welcome given the housing crisis in London. But although ultimately owned by the council, the homes would be built by a Local Authority Trading Company entirely owned by the Council. Rents would be at 65% of market rates, better than the “affordable rents” at 80% of the market, but not at the level of social/council rents.
Labour should win Barnet on 3 May. The Labour parliamentary candidate came within 353 votes of snatching the Chipping Barnet seat from Theresa Villiers in 2017. The population of Barnet is changing. There are more young people and it is more culturally and ethnically diverse. The Tories in Barnet are falling apart and three sitting Tory councillors have been deselected. One of these, Sury Khatri, then resigned from the Tory group thus denying the Tories control of the council, and has since called for a vote for Labour because of the Capita and outsourcing disaster.
But Labour in Barnet is in danger of not maximising its chances of wining by repeating the type of campaign that Jeremy Newmark, Labour’s parliamentary candidate in 2017, ran in Finchley & Golders Green. Newmark spent much of his time repeating the accusation of systematic antisemitism in the Labour Party. This contributed to the swing to Labour in 2017 being 4.05%, less than half the national swing of 9.6%. Newmark has now been discredited following revelations that he deceived the Jewish Leadership Council out of thousands of pounds and he was forced to resign as chair of the Jewish labour Movement.
Especially since the Brexit referendum, there has recently been a rise of antisemitism and racism, which has pervaded all sections of society, including mainstream political parties. Antisemitism, like all forms of racism must be vigorously combatted in the Labour Party through education and, if necessary, by disciplinary measures. But the current attacks are entirely directed towards the Labour Party despite evidence that antisemitism and racism is more prevalent on the political right rather than the left.
Barnet Labour group, led by Barry Rawlings, is going along with the attacks on the Labour Party, which often conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. The Labour group has adopted the definition and the examples of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). It has called for the expulsion of Ken Livingstone, without even mentioning the need for an investigation and a hearing. It is also supporting the Jewish Manifesto for Local Government produced by the Board of Deputies. This does call for opposition to antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred and all forms of racism. But it also calls for opposition to boycotts, for the adoption of the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism, and to “promote rigorous religious education about Judaism and other faiths”. The Labour group’s backing for this Manifesto is in contrast to its lack of support for Unison’s programme for a “Better Barnet” and to develop with the union a strategy to bring back services in-house.
Barnet Momentum has been working with Jewish Voice for Labour to ensure that the Jewish Labour Movement is not the only representative voice for Jews in the Labour Party. While the JLM sets out that one of its objectives is “To maintain and promote Labour or Socialist Zionism as the movement for self-determination of the Jewish people within the state of Israel”, JVL involves Jewish Labour members with a number of differing attitudes to Zionism. Recently Momentum and JVL organised a meeting in Barnet of over 120 on London’s radical Jewish history with David Rosenberg and Jenny Manson.
The type of election campaign carried out by Labour in 2014 and 2017 failed. It is not by giving in to the right and the neoliberal agenda that people will swing to Labour. The message against austerity and racism and for public services argued by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbot is popular. It is absolutely possible for Barnet to be an easy win for Labour, provided it promises that a Labour Barnet would be a real change from the Tories’ total outsourcing and that it would run a “council for the many not the few”.