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19 June 2024

Sarah Sackman: “My Labour values and my Jewish identity were in tension”

The candidate for Finchley and Golders Green reflects on the Corbyn era and how the party has changed since.

By Rachel Cunliffe

To call Finchley and Golders Green a place of contrasts would be an understatement; contradictions is perhaps more apt. The constituency borders London’s green belt to the north and is home to the Bishops Avenue (dubbed “Billionaire’s Row”), one of the wealthiest streets in the world. But it also contains pockets of severe urban deprivation, with 384,477 food bank visits made there in 2022-23. In between such extremes are streets and streets of the kind of suburban family homes sought after by generations of London’s aspirational immigrant middle class. For waves of new arrivals over the decades – from India, Romania, Iran, Cyprus, South Korea, Japan – a three-bed semi in Temple Fortune or Finchley Central has been symbolic of having “made good” in modern multicultural Britain.

The community most strongly associated with this corner of north London, though, is the Jews. The seat has the largest Jewish population in the UK and in Golders Green, the epicentre of British Jewry, you’ll find kosher delis nestled between the usual Turkish kebab shops and Chinese restaurants. In North Finchley, where I grew up, the signs weren’t quite so obvious, but they were there if you knew where to look: mezuzahs on door frames, a kosher section at the local supermarket.

Margaret Thatcher’s old electoral stomping ground, Finchley and Golders Green is a bellwether, its politics tangled up in the idiosyncrasies of the upwardly mobile diaspora class. It was red through the New Labour years, turning Tory in 2010 and represented since by Mike Freer, who has stood down for this election. The case for Brexit was roundly rejected here: almost 70 per cent of voters backed Remain. In 2019, facing a choice between Boris Johnson’s Brexit agenda and a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and mired in an anti-Semitism scandal, almost a third of constituents voted Liberal Democrat. The Lib Dem candidate was a Jewish ex-Labour MP: Luciana Berger, a former member of Ed Miliband’s front bench who quit the party in protest at Corbyn’s leadership. Freer won 43.8 per cent of the vote. Berger came second, pushing Labour into third.

A lot can change in five years. When I met Labour’s candidate, Sarah Sackman, in the house of a local party volunteer, I counted six “Vote Labour” placards in nearby front gardens. This isn’t Sackman’s first rodeo. She was Labour’s candidate here in 2015, five years into the coalition government’s austerity agenda. “We are a constituency of empty mansions and busy food banks,” she told me. “And that’s not the Finchley I grew up in.”

There has been, she said, a “massive mood change” in the decade since she last stood, as public funding cuts have blighted even supposedly well-to-do neighbourhoods. The symbols of broken Britain – litter, discount chains, boarded-up shop fronts – are there on the high streets I frequented as a teenager. Phone snatching and anti-social behaviour are major issues; there was a double stabbing in North Finchley last month. “That fractures community,” Sackman said, adding that this time around, “People can see the tell-tale signs… It’s on their doorstep. And they understand that that’s the product of a series of poor political choices that have resulted in a sense of economic decline – and of social decline as well.”

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In smart jeans and sturdy trainers, Sackman, 39, fizzes with energy as she prepares to go canvassing. She has been involved with the party since her student days. After studying history and then training as a barrister she volunteered, offering free legal advice, at Toynbee Hall, the east London charity that has long had a close relationship with Labour’s social reformers. “I was as a very young lawyer exposed to dealing with people who were facing eviction, or dealing with a rogue landlord who wouldn’t fix mould in their home, or debt – the kind of basic problems that so many in this country face.” She began to realise there was a limit to what she could achieve fixing individual problems: “The way you change the system is not law, it’s politics.”

Sackman’s canvassing team includes (along with the guitarist from a well-known rock band) two women who volunteered for her as teenagers, nine years ago. There are, one tells me, no “no-go areas” this time. Even in the most affluent, traditionally Tory patch of Hampstead Garden Suburb, Labour is getting a hearing.

The elephant in the room is two constituencies over, in Islington North. Corbyn, a Labour MP for almost four decades, has been expelled from the party and is running as an independent. The scars of the anti-Semitism crisis exposed during his leadership run deep in this constituency – and are borne by Sackman herself.

She did not stand as a Labour candidate during the Corbyn era: “I didn’t feel that I could ask my neighbours and friends to vote for me – to vote for Labour – in this place at that time.” Instead, she shifted her energies to the Jewish Labour Movement. She was vice-chair of the organisation when it brought its complaint against the Labour Party and its leadership via the Equality and Human Rights Commission. “It was a difficult period,” she told me. “It felt like two very key parts of my identity – my Labour values, my Labour Party identity and my Jewish identity – were being called into tension.”

Sackman hopes her candidacy can help dispel the doubts of those still anxious about putting their trust in Labour after Corbyn. “I understand why some people left the party at that time, but I think those who stayed and decided to fight have been vindicated. When I look at the transformation… the Labour Party of 2024 is unrecognisable from the Labour Party of 2019.”

Whether the residents of Finchley and Golders Green agree is up for debate. Despite the seismic swing towards Labour predicted nationally, a question mark hangs over the constituency. The Lib Dems’ second place in 2019 could split the anti-Tory vote, although Berger endorsed Keir Starmer and rejoined Labour earlier this year. The catalyst for Freer’s departure from politics also darkens the mood. He had received death threats and been targeted by David Amess’s killer, and in December there was an arson attack on his constituency office. “Mike and I should have been able to face each other at the ballot box,” Sackman said. “The circumstances in which he felt compelled… to stand down are absolutely appalling.”

Instead Alex Deane – a familiar face in Tory circles, though not local to the area – is the Tory candidate. He is similarly blunt in his condemnation of the threats against Freer: “Our democracy is served in the battle of ideas, not by creeping up in the dead of night and leaving a building in flames,” he told me. “We are going to argue robustly. But in the end, it will have been made clear that that which unites those in such debates is far stronger than what divides us – for the great divide is between all of us who believe in and stand up for democracy and those who think that violence is the right means to a political end.” He added of Sackman: “My Labour opponent is plainly a decent person. It is hardly her fault that so many on Labour’s front bench served under Corbyn and sought to make him Prime Minister.”

The 7 October attacks and the war in Gaza have exacerbated deep divisions within Labour, and in Britain more generally. In a diverse constituency, with so many different communities from around the world, strong feelings on all sides are inevitable; it is a difficult line for a Jewish Labour candidate to walk. Sackman tells me that at a recent pro-Palestine demonstration she felt compelled to report a protester to the police for referring to Labour politicians being “taken out” for their complicity in genocide. “You cannot use language like ‘take people out’ in a context where we’ve seen two MPs murdered in the last eight years.”

Does all this – the toxicity of the debate, the threats against Freer, the vitriol aimed at Labour figures over Gaza – worry her? “Anyone going into this goes into it with their eyes open,” Sarah Sackman replied. “I’m the mother of two young girls. I think about my safety and their safety all the time. But I also know that our democracy is too important to let the haters win.”

[See also: Dan Poulter: “I voted for policies that I would not now vote for”]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation