Exasperated socialist Simon Vessey has had enough of Labour’s local election campaign lies and the resulting sham of democracy where entire communities of working class and marginalised people have no chance at true representation via the major parties
The truth about Barnet
In early April, Labour launched their local election campaign in Barnet at an event attended by Keir Starmer, Sadiq Khan and assorted grandees. The north London council is Labour’s top target in the capital and polling suggests they could win control next Thursday. As a lifelong resident of the borough, who has been involved with community and trade union campaigns, it troubles me to see how it is represented by the major parties and in the print and broadcast media. Barnet’s diversity is not reflected in its political representation or priorities. Whole communities are systematically ignored and marginalised in a local politics that is dominated by middle class interests and white supremacist parties that run colonial operations to keep others out of power. The Labour party is no exception to this.
A desperate need for drastic political change
Barnet has a long and ignominious history of right-wing politics. Margaret Thatcher was an MP here and New Labour Lord Peter Mandelson grew up round the corner from Hendon Town Hall where she gave her first speech as PM in 1979. It has been controlled by the Conservatives for all but a brief spell in the late 90s when there was a Lib/New Lab coalition that began the outsourcing and privatisation drive that would explode under their Tory successors. Since 2013 it is the home of the £225m over budget, mass outsourced “Easy Council” with Capita all but running local government. There has been scandal after scandal, local job losses and services have cratered. A 2 tier workforce has developed with 40% of workers now employed by the local authority trading company “The Barnet Group” and left fighting worse pay and conditions than those employed directly by the council. It is a contender for the worst local authority in the country, sitting diametrically opposed to Preston’s model of community wealth building. There is a desperate need for drastic political change but unfortunately the Labour opposition is also in a dire state.
Recent years have seen our area reduced to a prop in right wing narratives to attack socialists and minority groups inspired to participate in politics by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. We were told the party was too left wing and that antisemitism cost Labour a shot at overall control here in 2018 even though it was the local Labour party’s mismanaged campaign, with a strategy of “promise low, deliver high” (no, really!), which resulted in seat losses despite a rise in vote share. This narrative continues to be the focus of the party’s campaigning with Starmer, Khan and local candidates all regurgitating the same lines. These are not serious commitments to the challenges the area faces in local government or anti-racism.
There is a clear and explicit endorsement of Zionism and anti-Palestinian racism wedded to Labour’s approach to “combating antisemitism”. In the last 6 months Starmer has shared a platform with the genocidal fascist and apartheid representative Tzipi Hotovely at an LFI lunch where he gave a speech which promoted racist colonial myths, conflated anti-zionism and antisemitism and attacked BDS. He recently denied the reality of apartheid and now it emerges they have paraded the overseers of Israeli colonialism round Barnet accompanied by shadow cabinet members.
Labour cannot have a serious anti-racism commitment whilst it has transformed into an unashamedly pro-apartheid organisation. The conflation of Barnet’s Jewish population with Israel being made here by Labour is also blatantly antisemitic.
The dishonest approach to anti-racism and focus on a narrow and unambitious range of local issues such as potholes and bins obfuscates the reality on the ground, conceals abuses, divides communities and manages down expectations. It is a complete distortion that does the people who live and work here a disservice and obscures many of the serious issues of racism, inequality and abuse which remain unaddressed.
The lack of true representation
The obvious starting point for examining racism and bigotry in Barnet is representation. If the council’s own data shows nearly half the borough is “BAME” and half “white/white other” then look at the current crop of cllrs to see for yourself how unrepresentative they are. There are a number of communities that are drastically underrepresented in local government, most notably our black and Muslim communities (the latter has been the fastest growing demographic over the last 2 decades). Up to a quarter of councillors should now be from these communities and yet there are only a handful of representatives. In a borough where 60% of live child births in 2019 were to non-UK born mothers (higher still if you include 2nd gen parents) this is simply unacceptable. There is also a near complete absence of working class representation and council/social housing tenants.
Before this election Labour’s one working class councillor was also their one black councillor. He has now stood down from his safe seat in a core Labour ward so the number may fall to zero next Thursday. There is no shortage of cllrs with household incomes in excess of £100k and property worth of £1m+. Those who have tried via the Labour party have found themselves facing hostility from day one, ruthlessly blocked from greater involvement or labelled as “threats” by party right wingers precisely *because* they can draw upon support from marginalised minority communities in the borough and encourage their participation in politics. You have to be acceptable to the white supremacists in power to be let through heavily corrupted Labour selection processes. Given the way the vote has traditionally split between the major parties, this reflects especially poorly upon Barnet Labour.
There are too many instances of racism in our local politics to list here. Many Barnet Labour members made submissions to the “Forde Inquiry” in August 2020 about their experiences. The report has been delayed time and again and is yet to be published. There is a toxic culture behind thinly veiled “civility” most pointedly directed at black, brown and muslim members to discourage involvement after 2015. Local office holders and elected representatives have been involved in some of the worst instances. They have been protected and faced no consequences. In stark contrast with the common narratives about Barnet, there has been hardly any media interest in these incidents. Our CLP (Constituency Labour Party) Hendon was the smallest in the borough yet over 30 complaints were submitted. In the time since no action has been taken on any of them. Most have been closed despite being fully evidenced. Several of the respondents are standing as councillors for election next week. No action has been taken on any complaints about anti-black racism or islamophobia here. It was raised to the very top of the party and still ignored by General Secretary David Evans and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner.
Covering up Islamophobia
One incident from before the last local elections is instructive. The Barnet Labour group covered for a serial bigot councillor candidate and local grandee Julie Johnson who quit the party and joined the Conservatives with her councillor husband after what they described as a “smear campaign by far left activists”. In reality she had been reported for islamophobia, first to the local and then to the national party, by a left wing jewish woman. Barnet Labour remained completely silent whilst a racist former candidate campaigned against them for the Tories at a cost of 3 seats in West Hendon by a narrow margin of votes. Former West Hendon councillor Adam Langleben offered a belated and decidedly rose-tinted mea cupla upon the publishing of the Labour Muslim Network’s first Islamophopbia report in 2020. This sits juxtaposed with how Barnet Labour reacted to a member’s antisemitism on social media in 2017 which was reported to the party and then escalated to The Times months later. At the same time they were calling out Labour for failing to deal with antisemitism, they were actively covering up islamophobia in the party.
There have been a slew of other high profile Islamophobic incidents including the gaslighting of a young Muslim woman, who had already faced bigoted attacks for wearing a hijab and being Shia when she ran to be PPC in Finchley and Golders Green, and a longstanding local officer tweeting that the Muslim vote is used to control CLPs.
Whilst many members were supportive, that was not the case for councillors. Some even left local Facebook groups rather than express solidarity. Despite being an unrepentant islamophobia who helped to cost the party 3 seats campaigning for the Tories, right wingers in Hendon Labour paid tribute to Julie Johnson at a local party meeting in spring 2021.
Intentionally marginalised communities
The lack of representation and institutional racism, classism and bigotry impacts the priorities of the major parties and local government. There has been a distinct lack of interest in the immediate problems affecting many intentionally marginalised communities here. Months before the heinous police abuse of Child Q in 2020, there were protests on our largest estate Grahame Park over persistent violent police tactics and harassment of children. There was no involvement from representatives of any major party who prefer photo ops with police for election material than standing up for victims of institutional racism.
There has also been rampant social cleansing enacted by the Tory party with residents organising resistance themselves in Labour held wards. When a woman was driven to set herself on fire in the housing office it should have been a national scandal, not disappeared without a trace. In an interview with the Observer, the mother of Melanie Smith said, “This didn’t need to happen – that’s the thing that hurts.”
Bennett is also still waiting for answers about Smith’s final conversation with council housing officers. She went on to say, “No one has told me who spoke to her that day, or what was said. I don’t think anyone has taken on board that they could maybe prevent other deaths.”
Tenants were abandoned in buildings at risk of collapse from a gas explosion by the council’s LATC The Barnet Group which has senior Labour councillors on its board alongside Tories.
Labour representatives have said that they need a “better class of electorate” and that voters “need us more than we need them” and it shows time and again. When care workers were fighting unsafe working practices and for better pay and conditions, Labour elected reps engaged in racist smearing of them. Opposition to the consequences of the vast outsourcing has been led by a Barnet Alliance for Public Services, a group of cross-party activists frustrated by Labour’s long term failure to offer meaningful opposition.
Sham of local democracy
What we have amounts to a sham of local democracy where entire communities of working class and marginalised people have no chance at true representation via the major parties. To make it through their selection processes you have to adhere to the dominant ideology of white supremacy and middle-class priorities; nothing else will be tolerated. This toxic arrangement continues to wreak havoc on a borough where pre-pandemic child poverty levels were already at 40-50%. Barnet’s political parties have far more in common with each other than they do the majority of the people they are meant to represent. They are determined not to change. This top-down failure must continue to be challenged from the bottom-up, by Barnet’s grassroots.
Simon Vessey, exasperated socialist
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