The first London by-election of 2023 took place yesterday in Barnet’s Golders Green ward. It was caused by the death of Conservative councillor Melvin Cohen, who had been the borough’s longest-serving member and had two terms as its ceremonial mayor.
Cohen, a solicitor, first elected for Golders Green in 1982, was respected by all parties as a wise presence in local affairs. At a celebratory meeting marking his fortieth anniversary as a councillor the new leader of Barnet, Labour’s Barry Rawlings, paid tribute to Cohen. ‘I’ve always found him to be a hugely respectful and hardworking councillor,” Rawlings said. “He has worked diligently for his community and continues to do so.” The late councillor’s son Dean Cohen represents the same ward.
Ward boundary changes that came into effect last year mean that Golders Green ward is effectively Golders Green North. It comprises a curved slice of suburban territory just inside the North Circular Road between Brent Cross and Henley’s Corner. Golders Green station, the prominent war memorial clock tower and most of the town centre are in the neighbouring Childs Hill ward. The boundary change reduced the size of the ward, as it lost everywhere west of Hendon Way to the newly-created Cricklewood ward. It now elects two councillors rather than three.
Golders Green is well known as a centre of London’s Jewish community. Figures from the 2021 Census reveal that this is the most Jewish electoral ward in England and Wales, with 57 per cent of residents who told the survey their religious affiliation identifying as Jewish. The Temple Fortune area and Golders Green Road are centres of Jewish social, retail and religious institutions.
There are around 18 synagogues in the ward ranging from the Alyth Reform temple to Hassidic houses of worship. The Jewish community has many strands and the predominant one in Golders Green ward is Orthodox – not ultra-Orthodox but religious, observant and conservative in liturgy, dress and social attitudes. It is usually Conservative in politics as well. The new, more compact Golders Green ward is more Jewish and even safer for the Conservatives than the old version. It is the safest Tory ward in Barnet. Melvin and Dean Cohen polled 65 per cent last year compared with Labour’s 20 per cent.
There are, of course, other communities in Golders Green despite its mainly Jewish flavour – east Asian people, Iranians and the customary London mixture. If you want Kosher sushi in London – and without it no city can really call itself cosmopolitan – you can find it on Golders Green Road (admittedly just outside the ward boundary).
The by-election was the first in Barnet’s electoral history to take place with the council fully under Labour control. The borough was one of the party’s top targets in the 2022 elections and they won it easily, taking 41 seats to 22 for the Conservatives. Barnet was sometimes a controversial council under Tory rule, particularly because of its enthusiasm for outsourcing services. But so far the Labour administration has played it safe and not moved too fast to change things.
The biggest political row since the election has been over Labour’s campaign pledge to refund to residents the one per cent council tax increase introduced by the Conservatives for the financial year 2022/23. It emerged in October that Labour would not keep that promise during the financial year in question, saying the refund will take the form of council tax for the forthcoming financial year, 2023/24, being one per cent lower than it would otherwise have been. They maintain that this is a more economically efficient way of keeping the promise.
Local Tories have also been campaigning against Sadiq Khan’s planned London-wide expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), although this policy will have more impact further out in this large borough, as the Golders Green ward is entirely within the existing ULEZ boundary.
The Golders Green by-election campaign was perfunctory at best. Five candidates stood for the vacant seat, with the main four London parties being joined by former Tory MEP Brendan Donnelly standing for Rejoin EU. Gabrielle Bailey, an experienced young activist and prospective parliamentary candidate for Hendon, stood for the Greens. Liberal Democrat James Goldman had previously stood in Woodhouse ward in Finchley. Labour’s Sue Waller also contested Golders Green ward last May. A strong supporter of the Jewish Labour Movement, she praised the whistle-blowers who complained about her party’s earlier mishandling of antisemitism.
The Conservative candidate in this safe Tory seat was Peter Zinkin, who chaired Barnet’s Conservative group on the council until he lost his Childs Hill seat in 2022. Zinkin, a former planning and development director with construction firm Balfour Beatty, is a well-known figure in Barnet politics, the chair of Golders Green Synagogue and active in public life beyond the borough, including as a Birkbeck College board member. He won comfortably with 1,623 votes (67 per cent) to 547 for Waller (23 per cent), the margin representing a very small swing to Labour since May 2022. Donnelly led the other candidates home with 99 votes, to 94 for Bailey and 65 for Goldman. Turnout was a low 27 per cent, down from 37 per cent in the full borough elections.
The Conservative win and the lack of change are easily explained: Golders Green has been a Conservative stronghold for decades due to the ingrained loyalty of many of its Orthodox Jewish voters who identify with long-standing Tory themes about Thatcherite economics, conservative social values, patriotism and support for Israel. Labour does not have much of an “in” with this community as it does in more liberal Jewish areas like Finchley and Hampstead. Zinkin’s return to the council will be welcomed by the Conservative group, as he is one of their most effective operators. Even political opponents rate his intelligence and charm.
On Wednesday Labour nationally emerged from Equality and Human Rights Commission special measures imposed following its inquiry into antisemitism in the party when under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. On the same day, current leader Keir Starmer announced that Corbyn will not be a Labour candidate at the next general election. However, the Golders Green by-election result tells us next to nothing about the progress of Starmer’s efforts to heal the rupture between Labour and the Jewish community.
The 2022 Barnet elections already reflected Labour’s recovery from a relatively poor local showing in 2018 during the Corbyn leadership, while the standstill by-election outcome reflected long-term patterns in the ward. It should not need saying, but the British Jewish community is the opposite of monolithic and local elections are often mostly local affairs in which candidates and organisation matter more than national headlines.
Photograph from Barnet Council.
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