In November, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan described the borough of Barnet as one of the “crown jewels” Labour was hoping to capture from the Tories in the 2018 local elections. “If Barnet does not succumb, it will be a surprise,” wrote the London journalist Dave Hill in January. The following month, a source in the Tory government seemed to confirm his optimism by predicting a “wipe out”.
Yet in the early hours of 4 May 2018, around 5.50am, Labour activists at the count realised that the Conservatives had not only held the borough, but increased their majority.
So what happened? At about 15 per cent of the population, Barnet has one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. Labour is in the grip of an anti-Semitism scandal. Could the two possibly be linked?
Barry Rawlings, the leader of the Barnet Labour Group, thinks so. “I want to speak directly to our Jewish brothers and sisters,” he said in a statement after the result became clear. “I am extremely grateful to all members of the Jewish community who cast votes for Labour yesterday.
“But too many didn’t. It wasn’t because they disagreed with our manifesto, but because they felt the Labour Party has failed to deal with anti-Semitism at a national level. They are right.”
For Labour party activists who have spent the past months enduring rancid abuse online due to their campaign against anti-Semitism, this feels like vindication. While individual incidents of anti-Semitism have been stalking the party for years, frustrations came to a head in March after it emerged that Corbyn, while a backbencher, had defended a mural that used anti-Semitic tropes (Corbyn has expressed his sincere regret about failing to look more closely at the mural). The Labour MP John Mann tweeted: “Those who called anti Semitism a smear cost Labour badly last night. A Jewish member for more than 60 years told me on the doorstep he couldn’t vote Labour in Barnet yesterday.”
Under the headline ‘Barnet voters sent stark message to Jeremy Corbyn’, the Jewish Chronicle reported a “revolt” by Jewish voters. When Barnet’s individual wards are examined, it’s clear that those with large Jewish communities are backing the Tories. Golders Green and Garden Suburb, historically Jewish wards, both returned three Conservative councillors. Voters in Finchley Church End and Mill Hill, both home to a fast-growing Jewish population, also opted for the Tories.
It’s also worth noting that these wards returned Conservative councillors in 2014 as well, when Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was just a twinkle in John McDonnell’s eye. Take Golders Green. In 2014, the Conservative councillors won 60.1 per cent of the vote, and Labour’s candidates took 25.8 per cent. In 2018, the Tory candidates took a 67.7 per cent vote share, while Labour’s candidates took 24 per cent. Meanwhile, the fortunes of the smaller parties, the Greens and Lib Dems, changed over the four years: while the Lib Dems increased their vote share, that of the Greens dropped from 9.3 per cent in 2014 to 2.5 per cent – probably because the party only stood one candidate in the ward in 2018.
In 2018, the turnout was higher, and both Labour and Tory candidates received more votes – it’s just that the Tories were far more popular, increasing the number of votes they received by 46 per cent compared to Labour’s 20.9 per cent. The swing to the Tories was 20.95 per cent.
Labour also failed to win Khan’s other borough in the Crown Jewels: Wandsworth. There is probably some truth to the words of the victorious Tory council leader Richard Cornelius that, while there is deep and genuine concern about anti-Semitism, there are also issues “like potholes, the collection of their rubbish bins and keeping the council tax low”.
Yet Labour’s inability to put an end to its anti-Semitism scandals has made national headlines and infuriated those across the ideological spectrum who believe the party needs to act decisively, and move on. It’s clear that, shortly after these scandals emerged, voters in historically Jewish wards responded by voting in larger numbers for the Tories. In recent weeks, the party’s leadership has accepted there is a problem, but segments of its grassroots followers have taken the matter less seriously. After Barnet, both the leadership and the grassroots should be ready for a period of introspection.