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4 April 2005

Who would Great Aunt Gittel go for?

Linda Grant is trying to make up her mind between two Jewish women candidates

By Linda Grant

Here in the north London constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green, I am looking forward to election day as the clash of the Jewish women candidates. Our MP since 1997, Barbara Roche (Labour), is a familiar figure on the streets of Crouch End, as she walks to her office on Middle Lane, always with a slash of scarlet lipstick offsetting her cropped grey hair. Ms Roche took the seat from the Tories in 1992 with a small majority, which she increased in 1997 to 20,000. The years of the first Labour administration were good ones for her: first elevated to the Department of Trade and Industry, she next became responsible for the Asylum Bill. But I’m afraid it all went downhill a bit from there.

We’re not exactly a Jewish constituency; there’s a synagogue in Muswell Hill, but you don’t see too many Hassidim wiping knish off their beards in Florians, Crouch End’s northern Italian bastion of truffle oil and lobster ravioli.

Still, the newsagents take a news placard from the Jewish Chronicle and on Fridays, with a shiver, we hurry past those black letters: “Ken in race row with board of deputies”.

Now, I have to declare some personal allegiance here: Ms Roche is an old family friend from the days when she chaired the police committee on Hackney Council, where my sister laboured in the press office during the days of rate-capping and the “Baa baa black sheep” scandal. For those of you too young to remember the 1980s, it was a time when children’s nursery rhymes were interrogated by the Race Relations Committee under suspicion of colonialist deviation.

Meanwhile, the Asylum Bill had pushed new Labour too far for me, as the granddaughter of ethnically cleansed asylum seekers. So, in 2001, my hand shaking a bit, I put my cross in the box marked Green because I thought it would be a mitzvah to help them save their deposit (which they did). A few others evidently thought the same, and Roche’s majority was cut to 10,000. Now Hornsey and Wood Green is the number-one Lib Dem London target. We’re naturals for the Lib Dems: Hornsey and Wood Green marched against the war. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) flog Socialist Worker outside Budgens every Saturday. Posters saying “troops out” are plastered all over the place. Our Lib Dem candidate, Lynne Featherstone, is a stalwart of the Greater London Assembly, where she chairs the transport committee and was the leader of the opposition on Haringey Council, a body which takes £1,300 a year in council tax from me, in exchange for poorly executed refuse collection. It has recently introduced a policy of no more loft conversions in Crouch End, to keep down population density. So, believe me, it needs opposing.

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Like me, Featherstone has fallen out of love with Ken Livingstone, according to the blog on her website. “Calling a Jewish reporter, simply doing his job, a ‘concentration camp guard’ was not the action of a sensible person,” she writes succinctly, summing up that particular fiasco. Like most of her constituents, she was on the anti-war march. She gives a spirited account of the masses descending into Highgate Tube station and rising again at the Royal Festival Hall to meet the rest of the Lib Dem delegation, but was surprised by some of the banners. It would have been even better, she writes, if, “alongside the ‘Stop the War’ banners, the ‘Not In My Name’ banners, the ‘Make Tea Not War’ banners – one wonders what Donald Rumsfeld would make of those! – the ‘Free Palestine’ banners had included a ‘Safe Israel’ slogan as well”.

I was a bit worried about this remark; it displays a certain naivete about the Stop the War Coalition and its alliances, a common Lib Dem failing. I have seen Charles Kennedy speak on the subject of Israel-Palestine and – like many who come to the issue with an undimmed enthusiasm for solving complicated problems from the distance of 2,000 miles, by a new-fangled device of their own invention – he seemed to be not all that well-briefed.

In a perfect world, the two candidates would be opposed by the swivel-eyed Jewish anti-Zionist headbanger from the SWP who – with a severely limited knowledge of Israel-Palestine – manages always to lose his temper with you when you have the gall to disagree with him. But the Respect press officer just rang me back – they’re not putting up a candidate.

Being shallow, to a degree, I always judge the candidates on how they dress (it’s a good job I didn’t decide to vote Green until I got to the polling station), and both Ms Roche and Ms Featherstone have not let me down in that regard, so it’s down to policy, policy, policy.

Opposed to the Asylum Bill, a militant “don’t know” on the war, I’m between a rock and a hard place. Is it back home to Labour? Or do I teach the government the lesson it deserves, and help reduce its majority? If my mother were still alive, no doubt she’d invoke Jewish geography to find out which of them we’re related to: “Your Great Aunt Gittel, she had a sister-in-law who . . .”.

As it is, I’m trying to work out where each of them stands on the notorious speed bumps on Hornsey Lane.

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