I was a Jewish Labour councillor in Barnet – and I warned Jeremy Corbyn what was coming

On the doorstep I heard lifelong Labour voters say anti-Semitism was driving them from the party. When I told Labour HQ, I was ignored.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

We had 16 years of Tory council leadership in Barnet, where I was a Labour councillor until last Thursday.

That meant mass-outsourcing with failing Capita, parking screw-ups, botched regeneration projects which made hundreds homeless, local library changes resulting in very limited numbers of librarians and opening hours. Just months ago Barnet’s children’s services were declared inadequate by Ofsted.

The local Conservatives knew they were in serious trouble, and their time seemed almost up.

We were declared Labour’s number one target borough for last week’s local elections. The council had just gone into No Overall Control. Barnet was a former Tory fortress, about to be stormed. Momentum, to their great credit, bolstered our numbers and regularly brought in an army of young volunteers ready to take the crumbling Hendon Town Hall, via Childs Hill, Hale, Brunswick Park and High Barnet wards, whilst holding West Hendon (my former ward) and East Barnet.

Our manifesto was positive, upbeat and – crucially – had a vision for Barnet that was severely lacking from the Tories. And it almost worked.

Until a month ago.

I am Jewish. This is my community. But the national party has failed to address the concerns of Jewish voters. Throughout the campaign, in all of the wards that we were trying to win, candidates who knocked on doors met Jews and non-Jews who raised the anti-Semitism question.

We were asked what action was being taken and all we had to point to was the two-year-old Chakrabarti Report – which is widely thought of as a whitewash in Jewish community circles – and try to argue that a Barnet Labour Council would lead the way in fighting this sickness within the party.

We were asked about Jackie Walker’s views on Jews and the slave trade. We were asked about Ken Loach’s Jew-splaining. We were asked about Ken Livingstone’s Holocaust revisionism.

On the doorstep, one woman – in High Barnet ward, where Labour, in the end, lost by just one vote – wept as she told me “I’ve voted Labour all of my life, but not this time”, adding “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas” whilst pointing at her Mezuzah (a Jewish prayer-box traditionally attached to doorposts) on her front door.

Another, a primary school teacher living in Childs Hill ward, told me that he hates the Tories; Capita screw up his and his colleagues’ payroll regularly. But he said he could not, in good conscience, vote for a party that doesn’t understand anti-Semitism, let alone one that is failing to tackle it.

There are hundreds of similar stories from canvassers and candidates. Activists were shouted at in the streets. Called racists. Kapos. Anti-Semites. A colleague was almost attacked for simply handing out a leaflet. Our heroic Barnet Young Labour group pounded the streets, not knowing whether the next door they would knock on would accuse them of racism.

This tore me apart from the inside. Each time I spoke to a Jewish person who normally votes Labour but who said they couldn’t or wouldn’t this time, I felt wrong even trying to persuade them. I felt like I didn’t disagree; but more than that, I felt embarrassed for myself and other canvassers that we were put in the position of asking people to vote for a party that the community felt was racist.

Each time I saw a Mezuzah on a door, or a Jewish name on our canvass sheets, I sighed, knowing that I or one of the other candidates was likely to have a very tough conversation. This was especially emotionally draining for our Jewish candidates. I had a very real self-doubt on these doorsteps that I have never had before.

Even then, we thought that we would just about get ourselves over the finishing line and win the council. We almost did.

But we didn’t.

Labour were warned. Three weeks ago, I told Jeremy Corbyn’s office about the reception we were receiving on the doorsteps of the Jewish community and urged immediate action. Those warnings were completely ignored.

It became clear to me and many of my colleagues that something had changed after the rally on 26th March against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square. The Jewish community, after being given the runaround by the Labour leadership on this for three years, had said loudly and clearly that “enough was enough” with the inaction and hiding behind process.

If action had been swift at that precise political moment, then perhaps I would be writing a different piece today. But nothing changed.

That rallying call in Parliament Square for action, and the subsequent lack of it, told Jewish voters and those who stand with them that the current Labour leadership is indifferent to anti-Semitism on the left. It doesn’t understand it, and shows very little interest in trying to understand it.

When election day came, we lost in almost every target ward with significant Jewish communities, including my own ward of West Hendon, which has a 14 per cent Jewish population and had been held by the Labour Party for around forty years.

All these communities sent Labour a clear message on Thursday.

I and thousands of Jewish Labour supporters and members have begun to feel very uneasy, knowing that there is a serious problem in the way in which Jews are referred to and discussed within the context of the Labour Party – and more recently how our complaints have been handled by the party. We have felt even more uneasy about the reactions from many Labour supporters, both verbally and on social media.

Ken Livingstone’s repeated outrageous ramblings on Zionism, Hitler, the Holocaust and Jews – and the party’s lack of action – compounds the situation. The more I think of his words, the more I hear implication of what he says – which is that Jews were complicit in their own genocide. Nothing is more offensive than that. Surely that cannot be compatible with membership of the Labour Party?

On Sunday, at the Barnet Labour post-election commiseration-drinks, I spoke to some members of our local Momentum group who had taken a prominent role in the campaign. For a few of them, the penny had finally dropped. We have reached a moment where any further inaction will be read as an endorsement of racism.

Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet speak with such passion and eloquence about Windrush, which is a national disgrace. However, although he appears convincing in his fourth attempt at a letter to the Jewish community and in his piece in the Evening Standard, he is yet to show any of the same enthusiasm or understanding about fighting anti-Semitism on camera, or in meetings. He has not once mentioned the loss of the number one target borough, despite it making national headlines and being a catastrophic result, both electorally and morally. The very reasonable requests set out by the Jewish community are yet to be addressed.

This country is a tolerant country. It is the country that took in my family and millions of others. It won’t vote for a party deemed or perceived to be racist in its intent. To win the country, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in particular will need to prove itself and himself to the people of Barnet, especially its Jewish community. There is no viable route to Downing Street for the Labour Party without winning the seats that make up the Bagel Belt: Harrow East, Chipping Barnet, Finchley & Golders Green and Hendon.

Since we lost in Barnet, our Labour candidates have had lots of support from MPs, Momentum supporters, members and others who are desperate to fight anti-Semitism. However, there is a small but very vocal hard-left group within the party – certainly not the majority even within Momentum – within which this sickness festers, and it is to these people that Jeremy Corbyn needs to clearly state: this is not in my name.