Simmering political tensions on display at Hertsmere local election hustings

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Simmering political tensions on display at Hertsmere local election hustings

Conservative Group leader Morris Bright and Labour leader Jeremy Newmark regularly clashed during hustings, with Lib Dem leader Paul Richards also speaking

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Local election hustings at Borehamwood and Elstree synagogue
Local election hustings at Borehamwood and Elstree synagogue

Simmering tensions between Hertsmere’s Conservative and Labour Groups were never far from the surface during an otherwise engaging hustings, held at Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue ahead of the local elections on 4 May.

Council leader Morris Bright, Labour leader Jeremy Newmark, and Lib Dem Group leader Paul Richards were asked to respond to questions on a diverse range of topics, including one on making sure the borough’s sizeable Jewish community were properly represented during Thursday evenings event, which attracted a sizeable audience.

All three leaders praised the fact that the community locally played a significant role in politics locally, at an event attended by government minister and Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden.

“The Jewish community is very important, but no community, and particularly the Jewish community, would ask for special favours or with to be treated differently than anyone else,” observed Conservative Cllr Bright at one stage. “But it is important to recognise exactly what an important part it plays.”

Newmark also noted how the community had played a leading role in civil life locally and said Hertsmere Labour had “a proud record of the supporting the local Jewish community” including support for Jewish schools and an eruv. He claimed also that the antisemitism issue that had dogged his party in recent years was now in the past.

For the Lib Dems, Richards, who said he was a “person of no faith and all faiths” unlike his two Jewish political rivals, said he “greatly concerned about the rise of antisemitism in wider society” but said that as an “anti-fascist all my life” he would ensure there was “no antisemitism in the local party.”

During the 90 minute long hustings, the three candidates attempted to spell out how they offered better local solutions on a variety of major issues, including the cost of living crisis, policing and the controversial ULEX scheme.

The hustings had been organised by the Hertfordshire Jewish Forum, with support from Jewish News, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies.

Oliver Dowden attends hustings

But tensions emerged in response to a question posed by a member of the audience who declared themselves to be a member of a local resident’s group, who raised concerns about the past conduct of local councillors, and urged all future local representatives to be made to sign up to the Nolan Principals on standards in public life.

The audience member also raised concerns about “the fake newspaper billboard by the station that gives a very poor impression of our town when you come into it.”

Lawyer Jason Braier, who expertly chaired the event, reminded the candidates that they had signed an agreement not to mount personal attacks on one another earlier this year as the election campaign began, before they answered the question.

Newmark said his candidates had been made to sign up the Nolan Principles “before they get elected”, but admitted there was “decreasing confidence in elected officials in politics” all over the country.

He then claimed planned meetings in Hertsmere had been held “behind closed doors” without reason, and accusing the council of failing to respond to freedom of information requests on occasions.

The Labour Group leader then said the billboard mentioned by the audience member was “owned by someone in this room” and then added it had been used “to stir up inter-community hatred, we don’t want that around here.”

Richards said the use of the billboard “was an example of how negative campaigning has taken over in the last couple of years. ”

The Lib Dem leader said:”The Nolan Principles are vital – one of them is lead by example. My heart drops sometimes when I speak to residents and they have given up on the democratic process. No matter which way they would have voted in the past they have just given up.”

For the Conservatives Bright said: “I was very interested in Jeremy’s answer, that is a classic example of how not to answer a question. Talk about obfuscation.”

He then said it was “very interesting hearing Labour talking about social media and personal attacks, and the advertising hoarding.” He then referenced Labour’s national attack ads on Rishi Sunak.

Bright added: “Why is it there’s one rule for national, and another for local. And talking about advertising, if it’s such a bad thing Jeremy, why were your party trying to get an advert near the retail centre for the last two weeks of the election? It’s hypocrisy.”

Newmark later responded: “Yes we sought to hire a billboard for electoral purposes. We know your rich businessmen friends prevented that happening.”

Bright also referenced the Nolan Principles as he continued his attack on Labour, adding that “not one of my 29 councillors have been charged by the police or found guilty of any crime, you can’t say that for yours.”

This was a reference to a Labour councillor Michelle Vince, not standing in next month’s election, who was found guilty of two public order offences in the Hertsmere Borough Council offices in July 2022.

Vince was present at Thursday’s event, seated at the back of the venue. As Bright gave his final statement, he again noted how the “lady at the back” had been amongst those laughing as he defended his party’s record as “protectors of the Green Belt” in Hertsmere.

Bright then noted the “lady at the back there” with her “recent criminal conviction.” Vince then stormed out of the meeting, apparently in tears, shouting:”My family has suffered enough.”

She later told Jewish News she believed Bright’s conduct was “misogynistic” and that he would not have acted the same way if she had been a man.

In a statement, Bright told Jewish News:”As I started my summing up she started to laugh and jeer at comments I was making intentionally to put me off stride.

“I briefly referenced the fact that it was unacceptable for her to do so and she should know better how to behave.

“This was the councillor who in recent months has been found guilty in court of abusive behaviour towards a female council employee and fined £2000 by the court. I referenced her conviction in just a few words. ”

Cllr Michelle Vince walks out of hustings

Next month’s elections take place in every single borough seat in Hertsmere which includes some of the most highly populated Jewish wards in the country, including Bushey Heath (40% Jewish), Elstree (39.3% Jewish), Aldenham East (36% Jewish), Bushey Park (30.2% Jewish) and Aldenham West (27.9%).

Hertsmere Borough Council – which covers Borehamwood, Bushey, Potters Bar and Radlett – has been controlled by the Conservative Group, with 28 councillors on the authority benches. The Labour Group is the largest party in opposition, with seven authority members, while the Lib Dems have three.

Back in January Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat group leaders in Hertsmere made a “no personal attacks” promise to one another, in recognition that tensions had become too great during previous elections in the borough.

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