Friday, November 21, 2008

Iceland to Barnet. Think and unite globally, act locally!

AMONG the most interesting speakers at last week's very well-attended conference of the Labour Representation Committee was Ogmundur Jonassen, leader of the Left-wing VG party in Iceland. It was an inspired choice.

The Icelandic MP put his country's banking failures in context, describing how neo-liberal economic ideas similar to those which guided Thatcherism had overwhelmed Iceland's welfare state and social democracy, and elevated the financial sector . "We are in the same boat", as he said.

Jonassen also pointed out that whereas the British government had used anti-terrorist law to seize Icelandic funds, it had not been so quick to react to US bankers Lehman Bros who transferred $8 billion from London while filing for bankruptcy.

We might as well add that local government institutions which entrusted £1 billion to Landsbank and other Icelandic banks did not just do so after seeing an ad in the press. "As supposedly responsible stewards of public funds they took the advice of UK government-approved financial advisers, such as Sector Treasury Services Ltd. ..."
(Private Eye No.1221). Sector turns out to be a subsidiary of Capita, the accident-prone ubiquitous provider of privatised services to local and national government.

Among the delegates who listened and heartily applauded the comrade from Iceland were trades unionists from the London Borough of Barnet.
Their Tory-led borough council had just despatched a mission to Iceland to try and recover some of the £27.4 million it invested in 2006 and 2007.

Barnet had borrowed some £40 million for long-term plans to improve and rebuild local schools, but thought it could lend the money on to make more interest before putting it to use. It also reckoned it could repay its borrowings by selling land freed up by the school plan. Well, how could they know there would be a property slump?

Barnet council leader Mike Freer has said he never met the council's finance officers in the past two years to find out how the council's investment portfolio was doing. He did not even know they had money in Icelandic banks till he read about the banks' collapse in the newspapers.
Considering Mr.Freer has a post with Barclays Bank and used to run his own financial services company it's nice that he resisted the temptation to poke into details.

That's "arms length government".

But Cllr.Freer has other fish to fry, having been selected to try and win back Finchley and Golders Green, Thatcher's old seat, for the Tories.

As for Barnet's chief executive Leo Boland, he has resigned to go and help Boris Johnson with his expertise, becoming chief executive of the Greater London Authority (budget £3 billion). Up and up, and on and on!

Barnet still has problems with its care homes and services, handed over to Fremantle, which Labour councillors thought OK because it was a charity, but which uncharitably attacked staff pay and conditions, causing a long-running industrial dispute.

Nothing daunted by domestic troubles or getting its fingers burnt in the world of high finance, the council is discussing an even more ambitious privatising project called Future Shape. As revealed last May to council staff, this envisages getting rid of all those old-hat council services like schools and bin collection, putting everything out to the private sector, while the council itself will turn its mind to strategic issues like "obesity, climate change, etc".

I expect they could now add the world banking crisis to the list.
I don't know whether Barnet is going to see diet planners replacing dinner ladies, and signs going up on the Edgware Road "Welcome to Barnet, Climate change-free zone". I've occasionally sat around tables with people discussing strategic issues, and we even seemed near resolving them before the landlord called time and we heard "Can we have your glasses, please?" ("You should have gone to Specsavers!" shouts some wag). We didn't get councillors' expenses, mind.

Barnet Unison and other unions with members employed in local government and services are opposing Future Shape, and have briefed their members as well as holding public meetings, calling on research and analysis from experts like Professor Dexter Whitfield of the European Services Strategy Unit


Barnet trades union council has called a lobby of the council's cabinet committee which is due to deliberate on Future Shape at its meeting on Wednesday December 3.

The trades council says "Bring your banners and wrap up warm. Council unions and Barnet trades council will be lobbying the Council Cabinet meeting that decides the future mdel of service provision in Barnet. They call it 'Future Shape'. We say: keep it in-house; protect the quality of services, democratic accountability, and jobs, pay and conditions of service".

The details are Rally: 6pm; attend council meeting: 7pm Barnet House, 1255 High Road, Whetstone, London N20 0EJ (nearest tube: Totteridge & Whetstone/Northern Line)

Barnet TUC website:

Barnet UNISON:

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