So much has happened since the snap election was called that rows over Labour and antisemitism might seem in the distant past. That isn’t so, as Jeremy Newmark, Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green confirms. “It’s OK,” he says, hearing a note of apology as I drag the matter up less than a week before polling day. He laughs: “It’s nice to have a bit of a buzz, you know.”
There is a buzzing all around us as he speaks. It will be tough for Newmark to win this constituency, with a Conservative majority of 5,662 to overturn, but the optimistic chatter of volunteers fills his campaign office in East Finchley. The buzz Newmark refers to, though, was of a different and discordant kind.
The seat he’s fighting is one of three in the London Borough of Barnet, a large, suburban authority in the north west of the metropolis, whose northern border is with Hertfordshire. Barnet is home to around 54,000 Jews. They comprise about 15% of the borough’s population and over 20% of the entire Jewish population of England and Wales. Golders Green, one of the seat’s main centres, is synonymous with Jewish London. The 2011 census found that 7,661 Jews live in the Golders Green ward, making it, as the Institute for Jewish Policy Research has put it, “the most Jewishly populous neighbourhood in the country”.
Newmark is national chair of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM). He grew up just north of the area (he’s chair of Hertsmere CLP) and says that “for a Jewish boy like me, it’s just a huge privilege to stand in the seat with the highest Jewish demographic in the country”. But for others, Newmark’s candidacy is controversial. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle a month ago, Daniel Finkelstein observed that “respected community leaders are about to set about trying to persuade other Jews that it is all right voting for a party whose leader calls Hamas friends.”
Finkelstein, a Conservative peer, argued, “as a Jew”, that unless Corbyn falls to “a gigantic defeat” on 8 June, he will survive as Labour leader, which would be “an utter, complete, ghastly disaster for Jews”. Also in the Jewish Chronicle, barrister and former Conservative candidate Jeremy Brier directly attacked Newmark and JLM national vice chair Mike Katz, who is contesting the neighbouring Barnet constituency of Hendon. Brier alleged that by running for Labour while Corbyn leads it, Newmark and Katz are “propping up a party led by a ragtag of Jew-baiters”. His bruising sign-off? “With friends like these, does the Jewish Community really need enemies?”
But from another media quarter, came a very different argument. David Hirsh, a lecturer at Goldsmiths College and author of a forthcoming book entitled Contemporary Left Antisemitism, described Newmark as “the driving force” behind “a fightback against the Corbyn faction in the party”. Hirsh was complimentary about Mike Freer, the former leader of Barnet Council who has been MP for Finchley and Golders Green since 2010, saying: “He gets how it [antisemitism] comes packaged with hostility to Israel.” However, Hirsh is unhappy with Freer’s compliance with the government’s stance on Brexit, characterising its approach as “dangerous for Jews” as it “encourages the rise of xenophobic and racist politics” and “risks crashing the economy, which will strengthen the politics of resentment”. For Hirsh, Newmark’s candidacy is not colluding with Corbynism but, on the contrary, continuing a Jewish challenge to it within the party.
Newmark himself could hardly agree more. “I do think we’ve managed to move the dial on this, albeit far too slowly,” he says. “Two years ago we were in the territory of Jeremy talking about being friends with Hamas and Hizbollah. Now we have him consistently reiterating his support for a two-state solution on national media every time he’s asked the question. We’ve moved from a situation where people in the Labour Party were getting away with some of the most outrageous antisemitic social media postings to one where people are being suspended and disciplined for it within hours. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we have seen evidence that by working assiduously within the party, by demonstrating that the Labour Party can still be a safe space for Jewish activism, you can get change. Ultimately it’s about political education”.
Does he believe that Corbyn has failed to comprehend antisemitism in the more recent forms he describes, or has something more troubling been at play?
“I don’t think, historically, that he has understood contemporary antisemitism in the way that most British Jews have understood it,” Newmark replies. “The kind of anti-semitism that often manifests itself in discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict; that doesn’t manifest as jackbooted, skin-headed Neo-Nazis but often appears on the Left or in the Islamist world.”
He recalls Corbyn during a leadership contest hustings giving what he describes as “an almost perfect answer” to a question about antisemitism, speaking with feeling about Nazi Germany and his mother’s involvement in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, a totemic event for that section of the Left. However: “The answer stopped at Cable Street, whereas antisemitism continued and morphed into different forms. I tried to encourage him and some of those around him to publicly recognise that.” Newmark regards as “a really important step forward” Corbyn’s recent endorsing of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance‘s definition of antisemitism. Like many others, he warmly praises Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, for her recognition of past errors and subsequent attempts to enlighten fellow Muslims about Judaism. “Forgiveness is very much a Jewish value,” he says.
In Newmark’s case, it seems, that value could in principle be extended further. He recalls knocking on the doors of Jewish voters in 2004, when Ken Livingstone was seeking election for a second term as London Mayor, though standing as a Labour candidate for the first time. “So many of them said they felt disenfranchised,” he says. “They’d had generations of Labour support in their families, but they felt they couldn’t vote Labour that time or could only do so holding their nose.” More recently, Newmark explained to Labour’s antisemitism inquiry why Livingstone’s notorious comments about Hitler in April 2016 had crossed a line. And yet: “The tragedy of Ken Livingstone is had he just said sorry, it would all have gone away very quickly.”
What doorstep reception is Newmark receiving from Jewish voters in 2017? “It’s very mixed. Some of them understand that this is a long term process. Others are a bit more impatient. There are some who think this election is their opportunity to cast a protest vote against everything that’s gone on in the Labour Party over the past couple of years in relation to these issues, and there are others who think they are sending out that same signal by voting for a candidate like me. Some of them have said, ‘Who is more worried about you potentially becoming a member of the parliamentary Labour Party, Mike Freer or Jeremy Corbyn?’ That’s quite an interesting response.”
The territory being worked by Newmark and by Katz in next door Hendon has had a very blue look to it lately. Barnet Council, Conservative for all but eight of its 52 years, became a London Tory flagship from 2009 due to its controversial outsourcing programme. The borough’s third parliamentary seat, the rather rural Chipping Barnet, is firmly in the grip of Tory lead Leaver Theresa Villiers. The other two were Labour targets in 2015, yet in the end the sitting Tories were untroubled. Finchley and Golders Green was always going to be hard to steal, but Freer’s majority hardly fell at all while in Hendon, Matthew Offord’s rose by 7.5% from almost nothing. In 2010 he had taken the seat from Labour’s Andrew Dismore, now London Assembly member for Barnet and Camden, by just 106 votes. With Labour advancing in 2015, the experienced Dismore had seemed bound to get it back. Instead, a stark Tory consolidation. Labour’s line on Israel, even under Ed Miliband, was seen by some as a significant factor in these results.
Yet there are countervailing trends as well. In the 2104 council elections, pre-Corbyn of course, Labour in Barnet came close to turfing the Tories out of the Town Hall. Part of the job Newmark and Katz are seeking to do is help build Labour strength in advance of the next borough vote, in May 2018. When I met Katz for a chat in St Pancras three weeks or so ago, he listed three goals: one, building for next year; two re-casting the relationship between Labour and Jewish voters; three, as you would expect, getting the best possible result for his party in Hendon, which he described as “a bellwether seat” for the future.
He was realistic but upbeat about his chances of doing well, stressing how strongly pro-Remain Barnet is: just over 62%, which is slightly higher than Greater London as a whole. Jewish voters are broadly Remainers, he thinks. Katz spoke too of Barnet’s increasing ethnic diversity, a trend that generally tends to help Labour. He said he was looking forward to engaging with that mix, joking about possible time problems: “How can I get round something like six big mosques on the same Friday?”
Barnet’s close association with Judaism can mean its particular manifestation of multicultural London being overlooked. Its has a substantial black and Asian population and close to 9,000 Chinese Londoners live there too, notably in Colindale, the largest number in any of the 32 boroughs. There are around 150,000 Christians, 21,000 Hindus, over 19,000 Muslims and roughly 3,500 Buddhists. That range confounds a hovering stereotype which owes something to Barnet’s greenery and rows of prosperous, well-tended semis and something else to Margaret Thatcher having represented the old Finchley seat from 1959 until 1992.
Jeremy Newmark describes the part of Barnet he’d like to represent in a very different way. “A deep-seated sense of the need to build an open, tolerant society,” is embedded there, he says. He believes this was shown by a vote to Remain, and that this also expressed “a fear of a politics of despair.” The seat includes areas as varied as Hampstead Garden Suburb and housing estates in the Clitterhouse area close by the North Circular, but Newmark says there is “a common thread of value-based politics that runs through the constituency regardless of socio-economics.”
We met on Sunday afternoon, the day after the London Bridge attack. Newmark acknowledged an “emerging anxiety” about Islamist terror, but also a matching “singularity of purpose” to resist it. That morning, he had paid a low key visit to a community event in Whetstone, along with Emma Wyshall, Labour’s candidate for Chipping Barnet (the event location was on the border between the two seats). “I thought it was important after last night’s brutal events was to be at a community event. The poignancy was palpable. There was something in the air that said people were coming together in defiance. The stall the local police had, with kids putting on police helmets and so on, had extra meaning to it. You push back against hatred by building communities.” Recalling the broad-based opposition to neo-Nazis’ attempts to march through Golders Green two years ago, he added: “That’s not new for this area.”
Newmark is full of praise for Sadiq Khan’s response to Saturday’s atrocity, describing the London Mayor as “inspirational”. Khan won plaudits during the election campaign from Jewish commentators, and Newmark expresses pride that as part of the JLM he worked for his election triumph. “As a Labour politician, he will go on a walkabout on the streets of Hendon or Golders Green and receive the warmest possible welcome from the Jewish community, the Muslim community, people of all faiths and none. As an individual he epitomises London and what it’s all about. He is almost tailor made for the era in which we are living.”
A campaigner against Islamist extremes since he was a student and John Major was Prime Minister, Newmark urges political leaders of all parties “to take a step back and win the politics of this as well as having the security debate. We need to be very clear about the fact that we are not facing just some global, violent criminal gang. We are fighting an ideology here. We need to win that battle”.