John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for November, 2012

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Ukip: the party that’s coming in from the cold

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

It was written off by David Cameron as a party of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’. So why is Ukip suddenly becoming a political force to contend with?

In the long slipstream of this year’s party conference season, British politics seems to have gone strangely quiet. But listen closely, and under the sound of all that rain, you can make out something very interesting: the metaphorical forces politicians usually call “tectonic plates”, shifting in ways that, three or four years ago, no one would have predicted. This winter’s biggest political story, in fact, may turn out not to be focused on the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems, but an organisation that until recently was routinely condemned to the fringes, or smirked about as a collection of eccentrics and oddballs.

But there it is: the UK Independence party, which has spent well over a year regularly scoring at least 6% or 7% in the polls, and often climbing as high as 11%, thus relegating the poor old Lib Dems to fourth place. At last week’s Corby byelection, the party managed an impressive 14.3%, its highest-ever share of the poll in any such contest. That day, there was also a byelection in the seat of Cardiff South and Penarth, where it managed 6.1% – not nearly as convincing, but still its highest share in any Welsh election. And in the same day’s somewhat shambolic elections for police and crime commissioners, Ukip’s share of the vote per candidate once again put it ahead of Nick Clegg’s lot.

This week sees the Rotherham byelection, where the party’s prospects have been boosted by a remarkable story indeed: the local council deciding to remove three children from the foster care provided by a local couple who are Ukip members. The children are migrants from mainland Europe; Rotherham’s director of children services, who was quickly condemned by both Labour and Tory politicians, said she had to be mindful of their “cultural and ethnic needs”, in the context of Ukip’s policies on multiculturalism. Ukip’s website now features the slogan “All roads lead to Rotherham”, the stylised image of a family of five, and a headline about what it calls the “Ukip foster care uproar”.

Yesterday, the Tory MP and party vice-chairman Michael Fabricant published a report titled The Pact, in which he advocates an electoral deal between the Conservatives and Ukip, on the basis of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and a place in a future Tory cabinet for the Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

Fabricant – who on Sunday night was reported to be having “social drinks” with David Cameron – reckons that the ongoing battle between the two parties cost his side as many as 40 seats (and, therefore, an outright majority) at the last general election. The Tory leadership duly poured cold water on his suggestion, but the underlying thinking was hardly revelatory: Ukip’s rise is jangling Tory nerves, and with good reason. On Monday, Farage talked about the possible game-changing effects of someone “grownup and sensible like Michael Gove” becoming leader of the Tories: the aim, one suspected, probably had more to do with mischief than constructive politics.

Ukip already has 12 members of the European parliament, including Roger Helmer, who was elected as a Conservative, but jumped ship in March this year. There are three other ex-Tory Ukipers in the House of Lords: Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the 21st Baron Willoughby De Broke, and Baron Stevens of Ludgate. While we’re here, it is also worth noting the sole Ukip representative in the Northern Ireland Assembly, David McNarry, a former member of the Ulster Unionist party – and the party’s presence in local government. Ukip now has 158 people serving on local councils, though the vast majority are concentrated at town and parish levels, a number regularly swelled by more revolting Tories.

They are all committed to a self-styled “libertarian, non-racist party seeking Britain’s withdrawal from the EU”, whose ideas are built on the claim that even the Conservatives – and read this bit slowly – “are now Social Democrats”, and that the main parties “offer voters no real choice”.

Aside from pulling out of Europe, Ukip’s other notable positions and policies seem purposely designed to cut across what remains of the metropolitan “modernisation” agenda that Cameron and his supporters brought to modern Tory politics. Chief among them is the belief that climate change is a matter of debate and “wind power is futile”, the contention that there should be “real and rigorous cuts in foreign aid” (to be “replaced with free trade”, apparently), and support for grammar schools. Given half a chance, Ukip would also freeze “permanent immigration” for five years.

The party’s prevailing tilt is in the small-state, cut-spending direction, though it would hold on to Britain’s nuclear weapons, and “make increased defence spending a clear priority”. It is opposed to gay marriage (though it’s OK with civil partnerships), and advocates an end to the ban on smoking in “allocated rooms in public houses, clubs and hotels.” The party’s radical rightwing credentials are also flagged up by its avowed belief in a flat rate of income tax, an idea that has found favour in Serbia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Georgia, and Romania.

In 2006, much to Ukip’s fury, Cameron famously called them a party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” (weirdly, over the weekend, the Downing Street press office seemed to retract at least the third of these suggestions, only to un-retract it). There have been occasional reports about Ukip members with links to the far right, and the BNP in particular (though on this score, to be fair, the party is vigilant). There also is a low hum of online noise about the party’s associations with other political parties in Europe, the kind routinely described using such terms as “ultra-nationalist” or “socially authoritarian”: in the European parliament, their MEPs are part of a grouping called Europe of Freedom and Democracy, which also includes the Italian Northern League, the Lithuanian Order and Justice party, and an outfit from Greece called Popular Orthodox Rally. In 2009, Ukip peer Lord Pearson invited the Dutch politician Geert Wilders to the House of Lords, where he showed a film titled Fitna, linking the content of the Qur’an to terrorism.

Still, if you like the cut of Ukip’s jib, you might like to think of its members as bold trailblazers for the future of the radical right. If you are being slightly less generous, you might agree with the verdict of an internal Tory document that called them “cranks, gadflies and extremists”. Neither view, though, answers this year’s most pressing question: why has the party’s support suddenly ballooned?

According to John Curtice, the renowned psephologist and professor of politics at Strathclyde University, the answer is inevitably bound up with two institutions that have each had a grim 2012: the European Union, and the British Conservative party.

“The simple answer is that the public are getting much more Eurosceptic,” says. “And yes, the public is pretty Eurosceptic, but it’s not clear that it’s any more Eurosceptic than it was in the late 70s and early 80s. The other argument is, you’ve got a bunch of people out there who are normally Tory supporters, and they’re not entirely sure that Cameron’s got it, they maybe think that Osborne has made too many mistakes … they’ve lost confidence in the competence of the Tories. Now, if you’re in that situation and you’re a voter on the centre-right, where are you going to go?

“You’re not going to vote for the Greens. You can’t vote for the Lib Dems. You think the BNP is going too far. The answer might be Ukip, because quite a lot of their policies are quite similar to the Tories. And you perhaps think they’d at least do something about European immigration, which none of the other parties would.” According to Curtice’s numbers, around 7% of the people who voted Conservative at the last general election would now vote Ukip; he does not quite concur with Fabricant’s belief that Ukip could cost the Tories up to 40 seats at the next election, but if they even threaten 20, “that’s still non-trivial”.

In 1991, an LSE historian and academic called Alan Sked formed the Anti-Federalist League, a group-cum-party opposed to the Treaty of Maastricht, the agreement that formally established what we now know as the European Union. Two years later, it became the UK Independence party. In 1995, it held its first national conference, which drew 500 people. At the general election of 1997, it was rather overshadowed by the late Sir James Goldsmith’s Eurosceptic Referendum party, though with his death later that year, Ukip quickly found itself at the forefront of non-Tory Euroscepticism.

Sked, however, soon left, claiming that he had begun to fear that people who did not share what he calls “liberal British values” were joining the party in ever-increasing numbers. He now claims that once he exited Ukip, text stating that the party had “no prejudices of any kind against any lawful minority” disappeared from its membership forms.

In 1999, Ukip got its first three MEPs. Five years later, it reached its first watershed moment, when 12 were elected. But around this time, Ukip fell victim to the revived ambitions of the Labour MP-turned-talk-show host Robert Kilroy-Silk – who fancied becoming leader, until his aims came to nothing, and he left to found the long-forgotten party (the French would call it a groupuscule) Veritas. The way was thus opened for the rise of Nigel Farage, a commodity broker and former Tory who became Ukip leader in September 2006, although he resigned three years later, to concentrate on his efforts to become the MP for Buckingham.

There, he was cocking a snook at political convention by running against John Bercow, the (nominal) Tory and speaker of the House of Commons. But in the event, Farage came third, behind an independent called John Stevens, who campaigned with the aid of a character called Flipper the Dolphin – though that failure was eclipsed by one of the most remarkable moments of the 2010 campaign, when Farage crawled from the wreckage of a light aircraft after a Ukip banner got wrapped around its tail fin (weirdly, the pilot was later found guilty of making death threats against him, in a separate incident).

In 2009, it had been revealed that Farage had taken £2m of EU expenses and allowances, which he claimed had been used to promote Ukip’s message. Within his party, the story obviously did him no harm at all: in November 2010, he once again became Ukip’s leader, and is now a firmly embedded part of the culture – an apparently unembarrassable, foghorn-voiced operator (some have likened his tones to those of Zippy from the 70s children’s TV show Rainbow) who proudly smokes and enjoys a lunchtime pint of bitter, and who characterises his relations with the Tories as a matter of “war”.

For at least one of his old colleagues, however, Farage’s success is less important than the rightwing politics that he has firmly planted in Ukip’s collective soul. “Ukip is far too rightwing for me,” says Sked, from his home in the Scottish Highlands. “And they’ve gone native: they’re mainly interested in their seats in the European parliament, and their pensions and allowances. All the energy seems to be directed to keeping them in Brussels and remaining well-paid members of the European parliament. It’s gone askew.”

Once Sked gets going, there’s no stopping him. “Their other obsessions seem to be anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what happened at the last election. The country was facing its greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and all Ukip could say was ‘Ban the burqa’.”

The party’s high-ups, of course, are having none of that. Paul Nuttall, 35, is a Liverpudlian former academic who joined Ukip after a spell living in Spain (”I saw the failure of the euro firsthand,” he tells me), became an MEP for the north-west region, and is now the party’s deputy leader. He puts their apparent surge down to “being proved right on everything to do with the European Union”, and the endless warnings the party has dispensed about “mass, uncontrolled immigration”. He also reckons that Ukip “has become professionalised. It’s moved on from being a single-issue pressure group. We’ve developed a whole raft of domestic policies that people find attractive.”

In the European elections of 2014, he reminds me, the party’s aim is to finish first; at the next year’s general election, they want nothing less than a ”political earthquake”, though what that might mean remains unclear. But why not, I wonder, swallow hard and get with the Fabricant programme? A deal with the Tories, after all, would guarantee them at least one seat in cabinet – and, one assumes, a handful of MPs.

“The biggest stumbling block at the moment is the prime minister himself,” says Nuttall. “He can’t be trusted on the European Union. And he’s described us as closet racists in the past: he had the opportunity to retract that, and then he retracted the retraction.”

Sked’s accusation that Ukip has long since fallen in love with the perks and privileges of Brussels, he tells me, is “nonsense”, and the idea that the party is “obsessed” with Islam is also given short shrift. “I don’t think we’ve talked about the burqa since 2010, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s not something that’s a lead policy of ours. But I will say: if I can’t walk into a bank with a crash helmet on, then I think the burqa should be removed.”

Could a devout Muslim be a wholehearted supporter of Ukip?

“I don’t see why not.”

We end our conversation with his party’s rum assortment of allies in the European parliament, and another chance to rummage through more arcane rightwing parties that do their thing in Brussels: among them, Helsinki’s own True Finns, and the United Poland party.

“Groups in the European parliament form as a marriage of convenience,” he says. “We don’t really deal with each other’s domestic policies … I’m sure if you look at the Conservative and Labour parties, they have people in their groups who they wouldn’t necessarily form pacts with in this country. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

Even if they’re on the far right of politics?

“I’m sure there are people you could say were on the far right of politics in the Conservatives’ group, and people on the extreme left in the Labour party’s. You just have to hold your nose.”

His last sentence sounds like the kind of thing that you can get away with on the fringes, but that a new life at the centre of the action might make that a bit more difficult: “Their domestic policies are nothing to do with us.”

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In the absence of a ‘none of the above’ option, I had to spoil my ballot paper | John Harris

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

The police commissioner elections were a farce, and I thought scrawling across my paper was better than staying at home

When I turned up to have my say in the elections for police and crime commissioners last Thursday, I made a point of asking the people staffing the polling station how turnout was looking. “Busy, I take it?” I said: they replied by way of a grimly ironic giggle. I then took my ballot paper and went into the polling booth – but so quiet was the room that the sound of the pencil rubbing against paper and wood sounded very loud indeed. I would imagine that the sound of lengthy scrawling rather than a couple of Xs gave me away. As I had vowed on Comment is free just a week or so earlier, I spoiled my paper, writing – and sorry, but this will inevitably look pious, and a bit rubbish – “Meaningless, shambolically organised elections, and what’s wrong with local police authorities?”

As the hubbub of pre-election conversation about ballot-spoiling (see, for example, this piece from Liberal Conspiracy) had suggested, I was hardly alone. As Alan Travis reported on Monday, there were more than 120,000 spoilt ballots in the PCC elections, which means they ran at a rate about 10 times higher than that registered at general elections. Alan Renwick, of Reading University, told Travis that “many observers at counts across England and Wales saw ballot papers with mini-essays on them rather than votes”: the biggest number of spoilt papers was 9,190 in Avon and Somerset (where I live). The highest proportion was a remarkable 7.2% in North Yorkshire, from where the Guardian’s inestimable Northerner blog had served prescient notice of why it was worth considering.

Renwick suggests that anyone therefore imagining some huge burst of rebellion – like me, I confess – may be mistaken: confusion about the elections’ chosen system may also have been a factor, something borne out by the fact that in many areas, spoilt papers ran at the same rates as those seen in the comparable London mayoral elections. But we should also bear in mind polling data from the Electoral Reform Society about people who stayed at home: 45% said they didn’t have enough information to vote, and 19% (ie 5.8 million people) said they had not taken part because they objected to the policy.

Add all these numbers to the abundance of people who spoiled their papers, and the huge upsurge of online conversation about doing so, and one thing becomes clear: the PCC elections represented remarkable proof of a dud, appallingly executed policy. And underlying that, I would argue, is something much deeper: the fact that a deep, informed, perfectly reasonable anti-political political sensibility is taking root among the kind of motivated, informationally literate people who any functioning democracy really ought to have on board.

The latter point requires thousands of words to even begin to properly explore, but it highlights something I wrote about at the weekend: even after Iraq, expenses, and now a carnival of abstention, all the parties are nowhere near understanding how bad things are. But after my experience of ballot-spoiling, a few clear points can be made.

This was the first time I’d been to vote and not actually done so. Although I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that there is something Rik-Mayall-in-The-Young-Ones about bothering to go to a polling station just to quietly defy the rules, in its own anti-climactic, slightly crap way, spoiling my paper felt honest, and a little bit liberating. I assume that at some point in the future, I might do it again (in Quebec, they call it the “Parti nul” option). But it also affirms something I’ve believed for a long time: that all ballot papers for political office should include a “None of the above” option, and that in an age such as ours, as many abstainers as possible should use social media and the web to explain why they haven’t cast a vote.

As negative and often nihilistic as that may seem, it needs doing: to provide an index of how bust and broken politics is, why we feel so disconnected from our parties and institutions – and, perhaps, what we might start to do to restore them to health.

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Our parties must rid themselves of this stench of nepotism | John Harris

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

This week’s low turnouts show that the public is losing interest in politics. Westminster has to stop keeping it in the family

Ten or so days ago I was in Northamptonshire, having a look at the two main parties’ campaigns in the Corby byelection. In the rather pinched rural town of Thrapston, I hooked up with Labour, and eavesdropped while their candidate, Andy Sawford, did his thing with that day’s star guest, David Miliband.

Only later did the strange subtext of what I had seen hit home. Sawford, elected yesterday on a 13% swing from Tory to Labour, is the son of one Phil Sawford, until 2005 the MP for the neighbouring seat of Kettering. That day, he was plodding around the constituency in the company of the Labour leader’s brother, who had so famously had his ambitions torn apart by his younger sibling.

Do not forget that at the last English byelection that attracted coverage of Corby-like proportions, the idea of politics as a family business was also present and correct: in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008, Labour’s decision to try and replace Gwyneth Dunwoody MP with her daughter was a potent illustration of the party’s arrogance in power, and played some role in its crushing defeat. There was a possible echo of that story in yesterday’s appallingly organised police and crime commissioner elections: the areas of south and north Wales were respectively contested by the former Labour minister, Alun Michael, and his son, Tal, but the latter unexpectedly lost to an independent.

To the public, all this must look weird indeed: the idea that politics is the preserve of a self-recruiting elite, confirmed in spades. Indeed, what with the low hum of fraternal intrigue around the Labour leadership, a husband-and-wife team in the shadow cabinet, along with two sisters, and Mr and Mrs Harriet Harman now both sitting in the Commons, you could increasingly be forgiven for asking: is this a political party, or a familial sect?

This is one of those arguments that can easily look a little cruel: certainly, Andy Sawford may well prove to be a capable local MP, who will forge the strong bond with his seat that Louise Mensch could not. The problem is that similar stories are piling up, and suggesting that though the left always gnashes its teeth about the hereditary principle, it may actually be coming round to the idea.

Four years ago David Prescott had a spirited go at succeeding his father John as the MP for Hull. At around the same time, Georgia Gould, the daughter of the late New Labour insider Philip Gould, tried to become an MP when she was just 22, with the help of some of her father’s old colleagues. According to one recent newspaper story, she’s been “mooted” for two safe seats in inner London. Of late, there has also been gossip about the political ambitions of Joe Dromey, the son of the aforementioned Harman/Dromey family, and 28-year-old Euan Blair. Perhaps they’ll do the sensible thing, and bide their time. Then again, maybe they won’t.

Or take Will Straw, who has definitely served notice that he is interested in the Labour nomination for Rossendale and Darwen, next door to his father’s Blackburn constituency. Straw is a gifted political player, who founded the indispensable blog Left Foot Forward and used it to pioneer cleverly forensic attacks on Tory policy and rhetoric. He is open, likeable and interested in the more creative and imaginative aspects of Labour thinking. You can easily imagine him in high office. But the question then arises: why risk the appearance of machine politics and cosy fixes, and taint his career from the off? Aren’t there seats he could choose a little further from his father’s home turf?

Of course, whether in its democratic incarnation or during eras when elites could shamelessly perpetuate their power, British politics has always had strongly dynastic elements – from Pitt the elder and younger through to the Chamberlains and Churchills. Labour has plenty of past form here, too: the Benns (lately joined by Emily Benn, who stood at the last election aged 18); Estelle Morris and her MP father Charles; Margaret Jay and her dad, James Callaghan. Some, in fact, would say that nepotism has long been a pathology deep in the Labour movement’s being: witness “sons and daughters” housing policies, or the jobs once passed along bloodlines by the print unions.

But these are times when politicians should be painfully self-aware, and sensitive to the fact that, as this week’s grim turnouts proved, these are awful times for their trade. Whatever plans the Westminster class comes up with to revive interest, they fall spectacularly flat. The alternative vote proved to be a non-starter. Hardly any places voted to embrace the borderline moronic panacea of elected mayors aside from Bristol; and even there, turnout in yesterday’s mayoral election was not much more than 25%. The car wreck of the police and crime commissioner elections (11.96% turnout in the West Midlands) speaks for itself.

In Westminster, disengagement and disconnection are often talked about in the abstract: nouns so endlessly parroted that they end up washed of meaning. But in the real world, they denote something powerful, and seemingly immovable: frustration and anger that seem to be curdling into indifference, as plenty of people steal their last glance at Westminster and then almost completely switch off.

Labour has long since weakened its links with the manual working class; the Tories must now be regretting their bizarre decision to fatally weaken their association with middle-class meritocrats and return to the grouse moors. According to some Labour focus group findings, some of the public assume Ed Miliband went to Eton. And this is what you get: the public on one side, politicians on the other, and an ocean of mistrust and bafflement in between.

Talk about a vicious circle: parties look like bizarre cults, so no one joins them; no one joins them, so they look ever more like bizarre cults. In the US, we’re told, 2016 may see Hillary Clinton squaring up to Jeb Bush, yet another example of money and privilege so misshaping politics that these things become the norm. But in the old world, no one – least of all the Labour party – should regard dynastic politics with anything other than horror. If that model strengthens its grip, beware: that way lies the final death of just about everything that supposedly progressive politics was meant to represent.

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Barnet’s outsourcing easyCouncil faces taxpayers’ revolt – video

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

John Harris meets the bloggers, parents and business owners in north London who are leading the ‘Barnet spring’

John Harris
John Domokos
Christian Bennett

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Outsource to easyCouncil? Not in our name, says Barnet | John Harris

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Suffolk and Cornwall have held out against running councils like budget airlines. Now the fight’s on to stop it in London

I once sat in a radio studio and watched, with some horror, a well-known current affairs presenter field a call about the last government’s reckless use of the private finance initiative. The person at the other end of the line sounded very well-informed, but he was cut off within five seconds. “Sorry, you’re sending me to sleep,” said the host, and that was that. The implication was clear: this stuff was the preserve of anoraks, and best left that way.

The same applied to privatisation writ large, and an agenda so mired in acronyms and general tedium that, circa 2006-7, it almost disappeared from debate. But now, with G4S having so bungled their Olympics contract and the cutting edge of outsourcing reaching the police, this most crucial of issues is back. Moreover, in one corner of London, there is a full-scale citizens’ revolt against a huge switch from public to private that defies rational belief.

In 2009, the local Tory council expressed its enthusiasm for a notion known as “easyCouncil“, which referred to a simple if hair-raising principle: that in straitened times, local authorities should be like budget airlines, offering a basic set of services and charging for optional extras. Now, the big idea is officially called “One Barnet“. This denotes 70% of the council’s functions – first supposed “back office” services, and then such core functions as environmental health, planning, transport, even crematoriums – being handed to the private sector, on the basis of two 10-year contracts, together worth over £1bn.

Similar plans have been floated in Suffolk, only to be halted by Tory dissent. In Cornwall, last month saw the ousting of the county council’s Conservative leadership, and the suspension of an £800m privatisation programme. But in Barnet, the first contract will be signed on 6 December, with a second to follow in the New Year (the frontrunners are BT, Capita and EC Harris, a self-styled “global built asset consultancy”). Those in charge claim that in the face of swingeing cuts from Whitehall, the scheme will eventually lead to savings of £111m over the contracts’ duration; the project’s opponents reckon such figures have been pulled from the sky.

Piloting such a radical plan takes a certain kind of pioneering zeal, and the ability to keep your head while all about are losing theirs.

The council’s chief executive quit in early October, and a high-profile local Tory named Brian Coleman turned on the plans two weeks ago, claiming that ”the concept of One Barnet is fundamentally un-Conservative and ignores localism. It is totally New Labour, in fact.” Recently, there was an unexpected decision to keep waste services in-house. But on the really big stuff, the ruling Tory group – led by Richard Cornelius, who survived a vote of confidence last week – are holding their nerve.

Last Thursday, I spent the evening at a community centre in North Finchley, watching a 150-strong crowd make impassioned arguments against all this, to a panel that included Cornelius. The event had been organised by an umbrella group called the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, and the questions came thick and fast.

Why 10-year contracts? To make it worth the companies’ while, said Cornelius. What would happen if either of the successful bidders hit the buffers? No need to worry: they had been “checked” for all such eventualities. Shouldn’t the public have been consulted before such a drastic change? 2010’s election was effectively a consultation, he said, rather passing over the fact that the Tories never mentioned anything remotely resembling One Barnet in the course of the campaign. Why had no financial case for keeping services in-house been worked out, at least as a comparator? There was no answer.

The Barnet rebellion’s tribunes are five forensic, workaholic bloggers who go by the names of Citizen Barnet, Barnet Eye, Mr Mustard, Mrs Angry (aka Broken Barnet) and Mr Reasonable. The de facto HQ of the revolt is Friern Barnet public library, squatted since September and turned into a “people’s library”, in opposition to the council’s plan to close it, and sell the land to a property developer. And the local upsurge includes many people beyond the usual suspects – not least, irate ex-Tory voters, who cannot quite believe their council is doing something so mind-boggling.

Barnet already has a questionable record on outsourced contracts, and the downgrading of services. The great British headache that is parking is a good example: in such areas as North Finchley, where coin-in-the-slot machines have all been removed, the service has been handed to a company called NSL, and signs advise you to pay using your mobile phone (I tried this, and having encountered inexplicable difficulties, was put on hold for 40 minutes, before giving up; local traders say business has dropped by 40%).

There is also plenty of noise about even more vital services that have been fragmented and refashioned out of all recognition: day care for adults with disabilities, for instance, is now handled by a new “local authority trading company”, and has been taken out of purpose-built centres into local church halls. When I asked Cornelius’s office about this, their reply ran thus: “the council with its partners has been modernising and improving day opportunities to move away from a buildings-based service to supporting people to get involved in their community and use mainstream resources in line with each individual’s needs and preferences. This is in line with best practice.”

Reasssuring, that.

What’s happening in Barnet goes back to the absolute fundamentals. This is a local story with terrifying national significance. People here are fighting for their most basic of rights. Once One Barnet is rolled out, so-called commercial confidentiality will smother service delivery, and contracts will have to remain in place for a decade, irrespective of which party wins elections. Put simply, democracy is close to being snuffed out.

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