Labour wins Barnet – will there be change?

Fred Leplat reports on the issues facing the new Labour administration in Barnet and asks will there be meaningful change after nearly two decades of Tory rule?

 

The local elections of 5 May returned a Labour majority in three London boroughs: Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet, although Harrow was lost. London is becoming more and more a “red wall” city with its large young, cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse working class.

Labour in Barnet has now 41 seats on the council, while the Tories have 22 councillors losing 16 seats. Labour got 43% with 46,070 votes and the Tories 35% with 37,608 votes. The Labour majority in Barnet hides the weakness of the victory. The Tories lost 12,732 votes in the 2018 elections, while Labour gained just 1,911 votes. There was a swing of 4% to Labour, but there was also a swing in 2018 when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour party leader, despite the attacks on what he stood for. The Green and Liberal Democrat parties also made a strong showing, each polling just over 10,000 votes, but failed to have any councillors elected. The undemocratic first past the post electoral system is hiding an erosion of the two main traditional parties. Like elsewhere, the Starmer “bounce” was weak as those who want real change voted for the Green party which increased its share of the vote by 3.6% in Barnet.

During their time in office, the Tories privatised a majority of the services, placing most of them with Capita. The current cost of the Capita contract has spiralled upwards. So far Capita has been paid £586 million, £225 million more than the contracted sum. The poor financial control and auditing of the Capita contract were highlighted by a massive fraud carried out by a member of Capita’s staff, stealing over £2 million. The fraud only came to light after the fraudster’s bank alerted Barnet Council.

Care homes were outsourced and this has been a disaster. The Apthorp Care Home was outsourced to Catalyst and run by another company Fremantle. The care offered was appalling and rated inadequate by the CQC. It was closed at the end of 2021 with little notice given to the residents, five of whom died in the two months following the closure.  

Libraries have been decimated allegedly to save money, and the right of residents to address committees and the provision of information for public scrutiny has been curtailed. The council tax has been raised despite claims to the opposite. Massive housing developments have been allowed with too few “affordable” homes let alone social housing

Barnet is a broken borough. While it is one of the least deprived boroughs in London (there are 6 branches of Waitrose), it has many areas of high deprivation with too many people in poverty who have to rely on the 15 food banks in the borough.

Labour won Barnet because the Tories’ supporters stayed at home rather than because of a wave of enthusiasm for real change and the rebuilding of public services. Despite knowing the reason for Labour’s lacklustre performance, the priorities for the new administration will do little to show that there will be real change.

The first key pledge of the new Labour council is to pay back the money raised from the 1% hike in the adult social care council tax precept, which was added to residents’ bills by the Tories before the election. Labour believes that the refund, which would put around £2million back in residents’ pockets, would help local people with the cost-of-living crisis. Yet this refund is regressive, as residents in the higher council tax bands – such as the billionaires in Bishops Avenue – will receive more cash than those in the lower ones living in the poorer areas such as Burnt Oak. Instead, Labour should use it for what it was intended, i.e., adult social care which is a crucial service, for increasing the number of free school meals, or for grants to those on Universal Credit and to food banks. The targeted use of this money would help much more those most affected by the cost-of-living increase.

Barnet Labour group’s top five commitments to Barnet are to rebate residents this year’s 1% council tax increase; Protect and enhance green spaces and declare an immediate climate emergency; Invest in more CCTV, better lighting and community safety hubs; Protect weekly bin collections and bring back the community skips service; Stand up to developers for more affordable homes and against tower-block blight. All of these five priorities could be supported by Liberal Democrats and probably many Tories. It is straight out of Starmer’s cautious new watchwords for Labour: opportunity, family and security (not even equality). There is no vision or ambition for real change.

Absent from Labour’s priorities is ending the contract with Capita, the most critical problem for the borough. Labour committed itself in its manifesto only to “work to bring privatised services back in-house and in the meantime ensure contractors deliver on their promises”, but Capita is not mentioned at all. The new Labour administration can end the contract as it is due for renewal in August 2023, but it must give 12 months’ notice. The last scheduled full council meeting is on 26 July when a decision could be taken to give notice. Will Labour give in to Capita and the council officers who will argue that it is too complicated? Or will the councillors have some backbone and demonstrate that they can take some small steps that show they are different from the Tories?

After nearly two decades of Tory control, running down the council, privatising services, and attacking the workforce, a Labour Barnet should herald a new beginning. But a real break from neoliberalism and for a government which works for the many and not the few is not on Starmer’s agenda for Labour. There is no choice for the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, Barnet UNISON and the Trades Council but to continue with their campaigning.


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