Questioning Brian Coleman: Assaults, Hags and DisabilitiesPosted: September 21, 2012
I was travelling quietly back from law school on the train when I opened up my copy of the Evening Standard and saw two familiar faces peering back at me. I had heard that Cllr Coleman had been arrested for common assault earlier in the day. What I hadn’t heard was that it was a common assault on local campaigner and small business owner of Cafe Buzz, Helen Michael who is now at the local hospital with a torn tendon in her wrist.
(I’ve eaten a most excellent jacket potato with houmous from Cafe Buzz…wonderful value for money…but really I digress).
Coleman’s rather spectacular defeat to Andrew Dismore in the Greater London Assembly elections marked a turning of the political tide in Barnet.
What also marks a turning of the political tide is the Conservative administration’s recent refusal to explicitly condemn Coleman’s wholly disrespectful behaviour toward the electorate. Merely stripping him of his Cabinet post was not sufficient. There have been a series of confrontations over the past year in which Brian Coleman has shown utter contempt for the residents whom he is supposed to serve, and we have not heard a word from the administration against this behaviour. I can only infer that the administration itself is also happy to continue to show contempt for the electorate. Even now, as I write, the Conservative administration remains silent as their most prominent councillor has been arrested for criminal behaviour.
This is not the first time that Coleman has confronted and undermined Helen Michael – who led a fantastic grassroots campaign against Coleman’s car parking policies which are threatening the small businesses on Finchley High Street. The campaign included a petition to Barnet Council but also ran into a poster-based campaign to vote for ‘anyone but Coleman’ (‘ABC’) because of the devastation his parking policy had caused for small businesses and for residents. He had barged into shopkeepers’ shops, screamed at staff and demanded that they remove posters campaigning against his re-election at the GLA – for example. It goes without saying that if you don’t like what somebody is saying about you, you don’t abuse them.
This isn’t advice Coleman has been following. He’s recently shown a complete disregard for women who dare to protest at or question his bullying approach and tactics. Less than a week ago, he called Barnet blogger ‘Mrs Angry‘ – Theresa Musgrove, and the Chair of Barnet’s Age UK, Dr. Julia Hines ‘two old hags’. The Conservative administration refused to condemn this behaviour, and were filmed cheering and/or laughing as he made these deeply offensive, mysognistic and ageist remarks.
When I wanted to complain about this behaviour – I looked at the member’s code of conduct where one has to establish a breach. Because of the national abolition of the Standard’s Committee regime it is near impossible to investigate these remarks locally. I discovered, during the process of trying to complain about these comments that since March 2012, the Barnet code of conduct for councillors, astoundingly, had removed the requirement that members treat others with respect. There was no real recourse to complaining and the only complaint could be made internally to the Monitoring Officer and/or Leader who – unsurprisingly, would be unlikely to genuinely investigate a complaint about their own administration.
After these outbursts, I had also asked Coleman this week in his capacity as Chair of the Budget and Performance Committee (why did the administration let him continue in this capacity after his behaviour???) what the administration was doing to secure an Olympic and, especially, Paralympic legacy for people – particularly disabled people. He refused to provide a written answer to my written questions (I am partially deaf, so that made asking supplementary questions fantastically easy…not), tried his very best to get the question over with as quickly as possible as he read it out, and cut short my supplementary question when I asked it – refusing to brook discussion. In short, not the most inclusive approach to facilitating a democratic process. The meeting was a shambles for other reasons – namely that Coleman and the rest of the Cabinet appear to have lost the plot on their biggest policy – the ‘One Barnet’ outsourcing programme.
The point is that Brian Coleman’s dismissive, bullying, aggressive and contemptuous behaviour is a symptom of a completely rotten administration that seems to have lost the plot, lost touch with local residents, and lost any sense of where the ethical line in public life is. Each time, Coleman has been allowed to get away with unacceptable behaviour by his Conservative peers; and each time this happens, he crosses increasingly unacceptable lines. It’s evidence of a local government that is so far removed from its residents that it somehow thinks a councillor like Coleman in political office is acceptable, and is going to be tolerated by the public come 2014.
Coleman’s attack today was a symptom of a much wider ethical and moral vacuum at the heart of local government and local politics. It was a dreadful idea to dismantle the standards regime. It somehow communicates that standards for political members are not required – when, really, they set the tone for the culture and the delivery of good governance. It’s time for us to look again at the Nolan standards of public life and figure out how to properly embed them into the governance – for that is what it is, not a top-down dictatorial government – of Barnet.
Integrity, selflessness, honesty, openness, accountability, leadership, and objectivity.
These values seem to have fallen somewhere by the roadside here in the borough. The assault really is too far, and it should never have got to this stage. I’m calling for Coleman to step down, for the Cabinet to reassess their priorities, and for a return to a focus on public life and public service in local government.