Labour launches operation Barnet: Starmer’s charm offensive

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Labour launches operation Barnet: Starmer’s charm offensive

Has the fear factor finally vanished from the doorsteps of the capital's most Jewish borough? Lee Harpin takes a deep dive into Labour's bid to win back trust in north London

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Labour has made Barnet Council one of their top targets to win at next year’s local elections – with the Jewish vote viewed as crucial to their chances of success.

Party chiefs are “optimistic” that Sir Keir Starmer’s high-profile attempt to tackle antisemitism within his party has started to win back “significant numbers” of voters from within the community.

They have placed Barnet along with Wandsworth at the very top of a list of target councils in the capital, ahead of May 5 local elections across the UK.

Barnet Labour Group leader Barry John Rawlings believes the “fear factor” amongst local Jewish voters about the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is now disappearing on the local doorstep – largely down to leader’s efforts on anti-Jewish racism.

Barry Rawlings, Barnet Labour group leader

But Cllr Dan Thomas, the Conservative Leader of the Council, told Jewish News he believes antisemitism is “still rife within the local Labour Party.”

The Conservative Group has controlled the council in Barnet, which has a Jewish population of around 15 per cent,  since 1964, apart from brief periods of no overall control.

At the last local elections in 2018, Labour were 13 councillors behind the Tories. A massive revolt by Jewish voters against a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour handed the local Group their worst result in decades.

But ahead of the 2022 UK wide local elections on May 5, Jewish News has learned the Labour have has Barnet, along with Wandsworth, at the top of a list of winnable seats in London.

Under campaign plans drawn up by party strategists, Starmer will visit Barnet himself in the run-up to the election – with other high-profile Jewish Labour figures such as Dame Louise Ellman also expected to urge Jewish voters to back the party.

Labour leader SirKeir Starmer welcomes Louise Ellman to the Labour Party conference in Brighton. The former MP who quit Labour over its handling of anti-Semitism has rejoined following changes to the party’s rules on discrimination. Picture date: Tuesday September 28, 2021.

It was also no coincidence that last weekend Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow chancellor began a campaign to introduce policies she claims will help small businesses with a visit to Whetstone to speak with shop owners.

Locally, the Barnet Labour Group have also been encouraged by the reaction on the doorstep to approaches from party activists.

Labour leader Barry John Rawlings told Jewish News how in the run up to both the 2018 election, and the general election the following year, a mezuzah on a front door would typically signify a hostile response to requests to back a Corbyn-led party.

Rawlings said:”It is a relief to find that the fear factor over Labour has now largely disappeared from doorsteps across Barnet.

“I am optimistic that Labour could take Barnet on May 5 – but we are not taking any votes for granted and part of that is continuing to rebuild trust with the Jewish community.”

But the Tory Leader of the Council responded saying: “Starmer clams to be addressing antisemitism but it is still rife within the local Labour Party.”

Dan Thomas

“I was shocked when, just last year, members of the Chipping Barnet Labour Party criticised Starmer for carrying out the legally mandated recommendations of the EHRC.

“Rampant antisemitism was previously referred to by a Barnet Labour councillor as ‘whipped up’ and ‘weaponised’ and I believe this is still a view widely held in the local Labour Party.

Labour will complete selections for candidates to fight the elections next week.

One senior party figure said they believe that if Labour are 2 or 3 points ahead in the national opinion polls at the time of next May’s election they will take Barnet.

With opinion polls tied, as they currently are, they believe the Barnet result would “could go either way.”

A lead for the Tories in the national poll would translate into a win for the party in Barnet, it is believed.

It is understood at least 10 of the candidates will be Jewish – again reflecting a drift back to the party from within the community – with six of these hopefuls contesting wards deemed “winnable” by Labour.

Josh Tapper

On Tuesday night Josh Tapper, best known for his appearances on television with the Jewish family on Channel 4’s Gogglebox show, was selected as one of two Labour candidates in the Edgwarebury ward.

Edgware United Synagogue member Tapper joined Labour the day Corbyn stood down as leader, leaving his most recent job as a civil servant in the Cabinet Office to pursue political aspirations.

It is hoped Tapper can convince voters in the ward who had not previously voted Labour to switch allegiance.

Tapper told Jewish News he was confident Labour could now win in wards like Edgwarebury but only if they can convince previous supporters of other parties to switch.

Other Jewish candidates include Andrea Bilbow in West Hendon, Sara Conway in Burnt Oak and Rabbi Danny Rich in West Finchley.

Jewish Labour Movement members Ella Rose and Liron Velleman also face selection contests next week.

JLM ally members Emma Whysall fights High Barnet, and Anne Clarke stands in Cricklewood.

With conventional local issues returning to the top of most voters agenda in the borough – rather than fears around antisemitism – Labour insiders are predicting the Barnet Council result could revolve around five key battle areas, including East Barnet, High Barnet and Brunswick Park.

Ella Rose and Liron Velleman

Frustration with Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also believed to be increasing across Barnet, according to Labour.

They will attempt to capitalise on local concerns over the impact of privatisation of services.

There is also a view that Barnet Tories open support for the campaign to stop a mosque opening in Golders Green may have played out well among the party’s “base support”  but it also infuriated many in the Jewish community.

Cllr Thomas told Jewish News his Conservative administration is “a passionate believer in inclusion and tolerance, and I am proud of the work we do with the many faith groups in Barnet – from the Abrahamic to Zoroastrian. ”

He said hate crime was also not tolerated in the borough.

The 2022 election will also be fought in new election boundaries and will involve the election of 51 councillors across the borough.

Labour data, shared with Jewish News, shows that had the 2018 election been fought in the new boundaries, party chiefs believe the Tories would still have won by with a reduced majority of 37-27 councillors.

Map of Barnet, the most Jewish borough in the country

But without the “Corbyn factor” the party are confident they can now challenge in at least five wards, leaving the result in the balance.

They are confident of regaining wards such as West Hendon, and even believe there is an outside chance of success in Childs Hill.

Party strategists speak of renewed enthusiasm for Labour amongst younger Jewish voters living in new builds in Mill Hill and Cricklewood.

But they accept “more difficult conversations” are still found amongst older voters in the community – leading to what one Labour insider said was a “generational divide.”

The Liberal Democrats and the Greens will both hope to make a big impact locally.

Gabriel Rozenberg, the Barnet Lib Dem leader said the council elections “are our best chance to make gains on the council for more than a decade. ”

Councillor Gabriel Rozenberg (Credit: Twitter)

He said the Lib Dems were “level pegging with the Conservatives in the Finchley part of the constituency” and that the 2022 campaign is squarely focused in the area ” because we believe that Finchley has been let down by both the big parties over many years.”

“The Conservatives focus on Chipping Barnet and Golders Green, Labour’s heartland is in Colindale and Burnt Oak, but no one really cares about Finchley,” said Rozenberg.

On the doorstep he said “residents feel completely let down by Boris Johnson and his cheerleaders in Parliament.”

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