LONDON – By right, the British parliamentary constituency of Finchley and Golders Green in north-west London should be a safe Conservative seat. This relatively affluent area encompasses well-to-do neighborhoods like Hampstead Garden Suburb, where the average house price has hit $1.8 million. Former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher represented Finchley from 1959 to 1992. In 2010, current MP Mike Freer took the seat with 46 percent of the vote and at one point in the current campaign, he had been given a 66% chance of being re-elected on Thursday.
But going into election day on Thursday, Finchley and Golders Green looks set to be one of the closest and most exciting contests in the country. In a two-horse race between Freer and his Labour opponent, Sarah Sackman, Labour has managed to come from a position of finishing twelve points behind the Conservatives in 2010 to having a two point lead, according to a Lord Ashcroft poll taken in April.
What adds to the interest in Finchley and Golders Green, the most Jewish constituency in the United Kingdom, is a dynamic where a Jewish Labour candidate is seeking to oust a markedly pro-Israel non-Jewish sitting Conservative MP.
Some 25,400 Jews live in Finchley and Golders Green, which is 10% of the Jewish population of the UK and 21.1% of the population of the constituency itself. Jews constitute the largest minority here and there are more Jews living in Finchley and Golders Green, the constituency the Institute for Jewish Policy Research said Jewish votes may matter most, than all other minority groups combined.
The deciding factor of the Jewish vote affects both candidates, but especially Sackman. The most recent national poll found that 69% of Jewish voters plan to vote Conservative and only 22% Labour. Only 13% said Labour leader Ed Miliband would have “the best attitude” as prime minister towards the Jewish community; fewer trusted him on Israel.
With the race as close as it is, the competition for Jewish voters is intense.
“If you look in Parliament, many of the most fervent and strongest advocates on issues such as Israel and anti-Semitism are often Members of Parliament who are not necessarily Jewish,” Freer told The Times of Israel after a husting (town hall debate) at the Modern Orthodox Central Square Minyan on Wednesday. He’d been asked why he was better placed than Sackman to represent the interests of Jewish residents of Finchley and Golders Green.
“That’s not to say my Jewish colleagues don’t argue forcefully, but many of us at the forefront are not Jewish and we gave that a force because we’re coming at it with a different perspective and a belief that we are fighting discrimination for our allies,” said Freer.
Freer drew the comparison between the Jewish and LGBT struggles, noting that Stonewall – Britain’s leading gay rights organization – “recognizes that having allies from outside the community can often make a very powerful contribution.”
This is not the first time Freer has made the point that he could better represent his Jewish voters as a non-Jew. In a mid-April interview with London’s Jewish News Freer said, “A non-Jewish MP is able to represent Jewish constituents more forcefully as I can’t be accused of any vested interest.”
Sackman spoke by phone with The Times of Israel the day after the husting (the third husting at a synagogue that week) and couldn’t believe Freer had repeated this idea.
“I hope to represent people of all faiths — and no faith — equally. I would never question Mike Freer’s ability to represent his Jewish constituents. But he is wrong if he thinks that a Jewish MP would do so any less effectively,” Sackman said.
Sackman’s Conservative opponent feels that Ed Miliband and his views on Israel is one of her weak spots. Freer said at the Central Square husting that Labour had “abandoned” Israel, while noting he resigned from government to vote against unilateral recognition on Palestinian statehood. The other problem is the mansion tax, a Labour proposal to levy additional property taxes on residences worth more than $3 million. The Conservatives including Freer oppose this, labeling it a “tax on aspiration.”
In reply to Freer, Sackman said at the husting that the vast majority of properties in Finchley and Golders Green would not fall under the mansion tax, while adding that the tax was a necessary part of Labour’s proposal to fill the hole in National Health Service funding.
“Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden. That’s progressive and it’s why I’m in the Labour Party,” she said.
‘To criticize Israeli government policy does not make a party anti-Israel’
On Israel, Sackman acknowledged the concerns of the community, including the idea that elements on the hard left of the Labour Party were anti-Israel. But she added, “to criticize Israeli government policy does not make a party anti-Israel.” (In our phone conversation, Sackman said she would have voted against her party on unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.)
Sackman disagreed with her party on unilateral measures, arguing at a husting at the Masorti New North London Synagogue in Finchley that “the only way to secure a safe Israel is through negotiations. But don’t misunderstand the Labour leadership as anti-Israel. We only disagree on the means, not the ends.”
Sackman framed the question of Israel as a personal one. Growing up as a member of the Jewish community meant feeling close to Israel in myriad ways.
“I have three cousins who live in Jerusalem. I travel to Israel on a yearly basis. I worked in the Supreme Court as a foreign law clerk and my grandfather was an Israeli ambassador. The issue of Israel is something that is deeply personal and emotional,” she said.
Sackman is currently two points ahead and projected by the Guardian and the New Statesman to take the seat. One factor in her lead is the weakening of the Liberal Democratic vote, down from 17% in 2010 to a projected 5% in 2015. Another is the strength of the Sackman campaign’s ground game. In the Lord Ashcroft poll, 60% of voters in Finchley and Golders Green said they had heard from Labour in the past few weeks, compared to 34% for the Conservatives.
But it is also true that, within the British Jewish community, Israel is less important than people think when it comes to voting in national elections. At the husting at the New North London Synagogue, attendees had to be actively encouraged by the moderator to ask a question about Israel or community interests. Jewish voters there were far more concerned about housing, crime and policing, immigration and the deficit, than they were about Israel. Not to say that Miliband’s support for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood hasn’t lost Labour votes in the Jewish community, but at least in Finchley and Golders Green, domestic concerns trump foreign policy.
In Finchley and Golders Green, domestic concerns trump foreign policy
Indeed, it is on home affairs that Sackman is able to exploit weaknesses in Freer’s campaign, including affordable housing. A recent Guardian report highlighted how Conservative-controlled Barnet council recently hiked public housing rents from 30% of market value to 80%, meaning a family in a two-bedroom council flat in Golders Green currently paying $715 a month would instead pay $1,610 a month, a 125% increase.
Within the Jewish community, and particularly among Orthodox Jews, the idea that young adults, unable to buy or rent in Finchley and Golders Green, might be driven out and away from family and communal infrastructure is a pressing concern.
What Sackman also has that her opponent cannot replicate is the personal touch. When she is able to speak in the first person about growing up as part of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, being part of a Zionist youth movements, or tikkun olam as a motivation for getting into politics, Sackman is advantaged because her words are compelling and sincere.
This sincerity, coupled with her qualifications and history of community activism, might push her over the top on Thursday.