Keir Starmer launched Labour’s nationwide local election campaign in Barnet on 8 April. The choice of launchpad is often an indicator of confidence: in 2014 Ed Miliband went to Redbridge, which Labour gained for the first time that year, and in 2018 Jeremy Corbyn spoke from Trafford, a Manchester suburban borough the Tories went on to lose. Starmer’s choice of Barnet, the centre of Britain’s Jewish community, also sends a signal about his determination to rebuild the Jewish Labour relationship after the rupture in the Corbyn years.
Labour has never won Barnet outright before. The borough has been under continuous Conservative control since its creation, except for two terms between 1994 and 2002 when Labour governed with the support of the Liberal Democrats, and even then the Conservatives remained the largest single party. The result in 2014 was extremely close, with Labour on 30 seats, the Conservatives on 32 and a single Lib Dem, but the Tories expanded their majority against the London-wide trend in 2018.
The strains experienced by both the main parties during the last few turbulent years in British politics have had their effect in Barnet’s council chamber. Labour’s losses in 2018 were clearly influenced by the party’s handling of anti-Semitism and the view shared by many British Jews that Corbyn did not have their interests at heart. It was a fraught, difficult electoral campaign for many Barnet Labour people, including a council group whose relations with the Barnet Jewish community had generally been good but found themselves in a painful position. The aftershocks continued: Labour councillor Jessica Brayne resigned from the party in 2019.
The Conservatives have had problems too, as Brexit and nationalism were not popular themes among their Barnet voters, who tend to the metropolitan and professional end of the Tory electoral coalition. One of their councillors, Gabriel Rozenberg, left them for the Lib Dems and earlier this month Helene Richman also left the Tories, denouncing them for “neglecting communities like ours”.
The 2022 results will show the extent to which these different political and ideological pressures have resulted in a realignment of the electorate. Will this Remain-voting, cosmopolitan and multicultural suburban borough follow Harrow, Enfield and Redbridge and become Labour boroughs in most years?
The swing Labour needs is not large – it is in range even with the least florid opinion poll numbers and the national situation looks promising for the party. It may also be that Barnet, having not conformed to the London-wide trend towards Labour in 2018, has some catching up to do this year and might produce an above-average swing towards Starmer’s party.
Both of the big parties have produced full manifestos addressing local issues that reflect pressures on local government more broadly (Conservatives’ here, Labour here). Development and densification are concerns here as they are in many outer boroughs. Barnet is particularly attractive for building because it has good transport connections and lots of space. The Conservative council has had to walk a tightrope between satisfying local Nimbys and playing a responsible part in housing policy. The Labour opposition has to keep on the right side of existing voters while calculating that new developments will tend to bring more of their voters into the borough.
In a borough with more than its share of major roads and concrete flyovers, Barnet Tories have always been inclined to support motoring interests against the pressure to reduce speed and traffic volume. In the early 2010s, the council was at the forefront of outsourcing, but with the mood changing in Tory politics and public administration they could be at risk of being seen as having yesterday’s solutions to current problems. The parties have sparred on rubbish collection, with the Tories talking about frequency of collections and Labour about food waste recycling.
Barnet voters are a discerning lot, differentiating between different sorts of election even on the same day. For example, in 2012 Boris Johnson won by 25 points on the mayoral ballot in Barnet while Labour’s Andrew Dismore won the local London Assembly constituency by 15. Ten years on, Johnson is a drag on the Conservative vote and, as in Wandsworth, the Tories are keen to stress their local credentials.
Labour has a decent chance of getting back to where it stood with the Jewish vote in 2014-15, when a fairly committed 20 per cent or so supported the party’s values and had reasonably liberal attitudes on Israel-Palestine. There was already a move away by the more Israel-enthusiastic floating voters at that time because of Miliband’s support for Palestinian recognition. But doing much better than this, and polling as well with Jewish professionals as Labour does with similarly educated and affluent minorities, is further away.
Will the Lib Dems capitalise on their council defections and Luciana Berger’s strong showing in Finchley & Golders Green in the 2019 general election? The party’s prospects are the easiest to quantify – they seem unlikely to win any seats. They are focusing on the Labour-held semi-marginal ward of West Finchley, which Rozenberg is contesting rather than Garden Suburb where he was elected as a Conservative in 2018.
As well as all the larger political cross-currents, the picture in Barnet is also complicated by the ward boundary changes resulting in the same number of councillors at 63 but an increase in the number of wards from 21 to 24, of which 15 will provide three councillors and nine will provide two. Most observers concur that the Conservatives got the grubbier end of the stick as far as these are concerned, although new wards are always unknown quantities until they actually vote.
The most strongly Jewish wards of Barnet have voted Conservative for a long time – fairly narrowly back in 1964 in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s time as a local MP, but very comfortably in the last decade or so. They are: Golders Green (which will return two councillors), Garden Suburb (also two), Finchley Church End (three councillors), Edgware (three) and Hendon (three). Mill Hill (three) has elected Libs Dems in the past, but they were running third in the last two elections and the Conservatives had a comfortable majority in 2018, even if their lead there was weaker than in the other wards in the 2021 London Assembly election.
The Conservatives are also solid in the rural-looking Totteridge Woodside ward (three) in the centre of the borough, though they face a determined Independent challenge for one of the Hendon seats from Franca Oliffe, who is opposed to the council and Middlesex University’s proposed Hendon Hub development. In all, the Tories can count on 18 seats out of the 19 up for grabs in the wards above. The parties are treating the new ward of Barnet Vale (three seats), which covers parts of High Barnet and the abolished Oakleigh ward, as likely to be Conservative. The Tories’ Barnet baseline is therefore 22 seats.
There are two clusters of wards on the safe Labour side. The Burnt Oak (Watling) estate, nearly a century old, is one of the earlier large developments built by the London County Council in what was then a greenfield site. Unlike some other big public housing developments in outer London (such as Harold Hill or New Addington) Labour dominance remains barely challenged. Sadiq Khan was well ahead there in 2021, for instance. Neighbouring Colindale, with a large estate of later vintage, is of similar mind. The populations of both are young and ethnically diverse.
Colindale has seen recent new development, which does not seem to have changed its politics. Resulting population growth means that under the boundary changes the Colindale ward has been split between Colindale North (two councillors) and Colindale South (three) which Labour will welcome. Along with Burnt Oak (three), there is a traditional Labour redoubt in the west of Barnet returning eight councillors altogether.
East Finchley (three) bordering Highgate, has gradually become safely Labour, and the party has developed support in neighbouring wards as the suburbs have become ethnically diverse and young people and professionals have turned against the Conservatives. Friern Barnet (three) – the successor to the old Coppetts ward – has swung strongly to Labour in recent elections, while Woodhouse (two) has gradually become safer. Labour’s safe seats therefore amount to 16 councillors.
Realistically, we can probably add West Finchley (three), which Labour has won every time since 1994 (when a similar ward was called St Paul’s), even though Rozenberg is standing there. If so, Labour can rely on winning 19 seats. That leaves 22 marginal seats where the final outcome is likely to be decided.
The new ward boundaries offer several possible pathways to the 32 seats needed to win control of the council. The easiest for Labour to gain is probably West Hendon (three). This ward was the Waterloo of the party’s hopes for a majority in 2018. The Conservatives gained all three seats, the only time since 1968 that Labour had lost the ward. This happened despite controversies over the redevelopment of the main council estate in West Hendon and owed a lot to the anti-Semitism issue (despite the fact that one of the Labour councillors unseated, Adam Langleben, was an outspoken anti-Corbynite).
The boundary changes look small, but they are important. West Hendon loses a segment of around 1,500 voters around Shirehall Park – a wealthy area which is 70 per cent Jewish (mostly fairly orthodox) and at least as heavily Tory. The new ward would have voted Labour in 2018. With continuing displacement from the estate redevelopment, there are still some demographic issues for Labour, but the ward is very much in the character of the scruffy urban high street of West Hendon Broadway. None of the Conservative councillors elected in 2018 are sticking around (except Helene Richman, who is now contesting the ward as a Lib Dem).
The new Cricklewood ward (two seats) is in the far south west near the Brent and Camden borders, and has a similar urban character to the revised West Hendon. Although Cricklewood looks Labour, it draws many electors from the previously safe Tory Golders Green ward. Labour’s campaigning dynamo Anne Clarke – whose win in Childs Hill in 2018 was the only Labour gain in Barnet at that election and who won comfortably in the London Assembly contest for Barnet & Camden in 2021 – is fighting Cricklewood, as is experienced (since 2002) Labour councillor Alan Schneiderman.
These two wards, which a more courageous forecaster would put in the Labour column from the start, take Labour up to 24 seats. I have also neglected to attribute Underhill (two) to Labour. This ward, slightly reduced in size, is based on council-built estates in the valley of Dollis Brook and the avenues heading uphill to the centre of Chipping Barnet. The Conservatives can be competitive here, and led by a couple of points in the 2021 Assembly election despite Labour’s 17-point lead in the borough elections. The ward returned split verdicts in 2002, 2006 and 2010 and its predecessor was close even in a strong Labour year like 1998.
Labour are also confident in High Barnet (two), having missed a seat there by an agonising single vote margin in 2018. The boundary changes probably help the party. No Tory incumbents are defending the ward. Labour councillor Paul Edwards is moving up the slope from Underhill to make a challenge.
The six seats that look the most likely to make the difference between control and opposition are in two wards which are to the east of the main railway line through New Barnet – Brunswick Park (three) and East Barnet (three). This is a uniformly suburban area either side of the gentle Pymme’s Brook. In a mostly Northern Line borough they are within the orbit of the Piccadilly Line.
The demographics of the two wards are similar: mostly owner-occupied and white but with a growing BAME community. Politically, East Barnet has a marginal history but Brunswick Park used to be safely Tory. Both produced split results in 2018 – Brunswick Park 2-1 Tory, East Barnet 2-1 Labour – which represented one Tory gain in each ward compared with Labour’s peak result in 2014. The Conservatives gained another East Barnet seat in a by-election in May 2021.
Although the boundary changes here are minor, an element of instability is added because only two of the six incumbents – Brunswick Park Conservative Lisa Rutter and East Barnet Tory Felix Byers are defending their seats. Assuming all the other wards fall out as expected, Labour needs four from these six to get to the winning post of 32 seats. It seems possible.
Labour are far from out of options among the remaining few wards either. The party is campaigning hard in Whetstone (two), despite never having treated the area as a target before – the predecessor ward of Oakleigh was comfortably Tory in 2018. The boundary changes may make it a little more marginal, but the Tories were clearly ahead in 2018 and two of their incumbent Oakleigh councillors are defending vigorously.
Another apparently long shot ward which the party is working is Edgwarebury (two), an inter-war suburban area north and east of the A41 Watford Way. It is a very loose successor to the old Hale ward. Labour could win seats in a good year (2014 the most recent) in Hale, but the new ward looks a lot more difficult. Labour also has some hopes in Childs Hill (three) although it loses both its best corner and incumbent councillor Clarke to Cricklewood.
The Conservatives’ principal hope in Barnet at this stage is probably that Labour has made a strategic error in devoting resources to some of these stretch targets and taken their eye off the ball in the more routine marginals like Brunswick Park, High Barnet and East Barnet. If Labour’s longer shots fall short, and the Tories can retain a few seats in the front-rank marginals, they might just eke out a majority. But for a path to victory to require the other side to have made unnecessary mistakes is never a comfortable or encouraging prospect. It seems more likely at this point that Keir Starmer will be heading back up the Northern Line on Friday 6 May, this time for a victory photocall with the Barnet Labour group.
Update 26 April 2022. This article originally mistakenly said that Gabriel Rozenberg is a resident of West Finchley ward. The error has been removed, with apologies. It has also been amended to report that Felix Byers is defending his East Barnet ward seat.
Photograph: Hendon Town Hall
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