Life & Culture

The unlikely friendship between a Jewish Labour councillor and Lib Dem political rival

The lives of Jewish Labour councillor Sheila Peacock, 91, and Christian warrior against antisemitism Justin Hinchcliffe have intermingled since he was at primary school


They are an unlikely pair: Sheila Peacock, a Jewish Labour councillor who at 91 is one of the oldest councillors in the country, and the former Liberal Democrat councillor Justin Hinchcliffe, a Christian who fights antisemitism, aged 42.

But having met at school — when Sheila was headmistress at Justin’s primary — their lives have intermingled.

Both were born and bred in Tottenham and until recently (when Justin lost his seat in the 2022 elections) both served on Haringey council. The two have become good friends.

Sheila on Justin
After my five children were grown up, I stopped being a dinner lady, and started teacher training at the same time as my daughter.

I met Justin when I was headmistress of Earlsmead Primary School. I already knew his grandparents while his mother worked with my daughter at the Gestetner factory in Tottenham — we were a community.

At that time Tottenham had many secular Jews like me but now it is mainly Charedi — about a third of my ward is Jewish. I even helped change the planning laws to ensure less overcrowding in the Tottenham houses — families are allowed to build up, which isn’t allowed in most places.

I like to think I remember all my pupils but Justin did stand out. He knew I was a Labour member and even then, he was quite the opposite — he once brought me a signed photograph of John Major and he wanted me to put it up in my office.

I liked that he was interested in politics though and, partly inspired by him, before the 1992 election I staged an election in school with ballot papers and everything. Justin was the Tory candidate — he got one vote; his own.

But our deputy head was a Tory and she used to take him out campaigning with her.

Labour and fighting racism have always been in my blood. I was once arrested for rowing with the National Front and we had a real problem with them in the borough in the Seventies.

I also recruited Bernie Grant to the party; at the time it was controversial as he had been a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party. But I knocked on his door, we started chatting and that was that. When he became MP, I was his agent. I was also David Lammy’s agent and I’ve been mayor of Haringey four times.

Because my surname is Peacock — my second husband wasn’t Jewish — many people don’t realise I’m Jewish. But my son and lots of my family, including five of my grandchildren, live in Israel and I go there every year.

I tried to not take too much notice when the Labour antisemitism row was at its height but a few things surprised me. When there was a discussion about passing the IHRA definition of antisemitism, some of my own side walked out rather than vote on it. And when we had meetings on Zoom, whenever an anti-Israel topic was brought up and I wanted to speak, I was put on mute. I wasn’t the only one. It wasn’t very pleasant.

I love being a councillor and being able to make a change in people’s lives. The other week a local resident called me because he was at rock bottom. He was someone in a wheelchair but was in a property with lots of steps.

The only furniture he had was a bed. In the kitchen there was no stove, no fridge. I fired off emails left, right and centre and I just heard from him; he said he’s going to be rehoused and be given furniture. It was wonderful to hear.

I like to be busy: I set up the Haringey Holocaust Memorial in Tottenham and when the council stopped funding an International Women’s Day event — celebrating the borough’s unsung women — I started to fund it myself.

I’m behind Haringey in Bloom and organise our Memorial Day Events —– every year we have ten schools from across the borough at it. Outside of the council, I run the biggest pensioner’s action group in the country. I worry about who will organise these things when I am gone.

Justin on Sheila:
When I was at school I remember having a “vote Labour” sticker thrust onto me and I wanted to play devil’s advocate by becoming a Tory and it kind of stuck. Within ten years, I was chair of the local Conservatives.

Sheila was a very special headmistress; she took all the classes for PE and did things like starting lessons for people with autism, which was unheard of at the time.

Both of us are passionate about politics. For a while we really were rivals as I was running the Tories in Haringey and Sheila Labour, but I think she went a bit softer on me with I moved to the Lib Dems over Brexit.

We were still in groups together — for example the Tottenham Civic Society — and so we would see each other on neutral territory.

Sheila was always to the left of the Labour Party and could be quite tribal but when Corbynism and Momentum came along, suddenly she looked quite moderate.

When I became a Lib Dem councillor we started to talk a lot. She’s an incredible woman. If someone contacts her with a problem she’ll ask, “What’s your address? I’ll come round.”

You’d be lucky for an average councillor in any party to even respond within a timely manner, let alone go and visit them. She wears a necklace saying “Bubbe” and I think she’s the bubbe of Haringey.

When I had an issue with the council and wasn’t getting a response, I would go through Sheila and within seconds I got what I needed. If you’ve got a problem and you need help, it doesn’t matter about your politics: Sheila is always there to help you. She’s done so much for Tottenham and for our borough that it is easy to forget all the battles that she’s fought.

I feel like we have a lot in common even if we disagree politically. She is an inspiration because she’s instilled in me the importance of giving something back to society.

We are campaigning to get her some sort of award. We have a WhatsApp group called

‘What would Bubbe do?’. She’s done so much for people and I would like to think that I will carry on some of her work when she isn’t with us any more.

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