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Battle for Barnet intensifies as Labour eyes possible council election victory

With the council currently under no overall control, Labour now has an opportunity to take the most Jewish borough in the country

    Barnet Labour activists on the campaign trail

    In Golders Green, two coun­cil election can­didates live next door to each oth­er. One is stand­ing for Labour, the other for the Green Party.

    It is a perfect example of the nature of local politics. As one councillor told me: “Most people only seem to care about what happens in the 100 metres in front of their house.”

    Labour is expected to sweep across the capital, toppling a number of tra­ditionally Conservative councils. But there is one borough where the out­come is far less certain: Barnet — the most Jewish corner of North-West Lon­don.

    Since the creation of the borough in 1963, it has never been run by Labour alone. Although there have been peri­ods when the authority was under no overall control, the Tories won it in 2002 and held it for the next 16 years.

    Until this year. In March, one Tory councillor switched to become an independent and the Conservatives lost their majority. Ahead of polling day next month there are 31 Conserva­tive councillors, 30 Labour council­lors, one Liberal Democrat and one independent.

    Labour activists believe there is a real chance to win control.

    But more than 15 per cent of Barnet’s residents are Jewish — the largest Jewish population of any borough in the country.

    Labour’s current dif­ficulties in combating antisemitism among its membership has led to a sharp drop in support from British Jews in the past two and a half years and Labour’s relative success in the 2017 general election notably failed to include Barnet. The three Westminster constituency seats covering the bor­ough were all held by the Conserva­tives.

    Emma Whysall, Labour’s 2017 candi­date for Chipping Barnet, stated une­quivocally last month that concerns about antisemitism “cost us the three seats”.

    Could the same worries cost Labour the chance to win the council — or will local issues be at the forefront of vot­ers’ minds?

    “Without a majority at the moment, it couldn’t be any closer,” says Rich­ard Cornelius, the Tory leader of the council. “We don’t take anything for granted and we’re working very hard.”

    The Barnet Labour team is expending max­imum effort, pounding the streets in pursuit of victory.

    “We’re knocking on doors to get every single vote we can,” according to Adam Langleben, a Jewish Labour councillor in the West Hendon ward.

    “Across the borough, from Chipping Barnet to Golders Green, we’re making the case that after 16 years, now’s the time for change.”

    The Liberal Democrats held all three seats in the borough’s Childs Hill ward on the edge of Golders Green until 2014. Now they hold just one — their only council seat in the borough.

    “The Tories and Labour are throw­ing everything at our ward, as they did last time,” says councillor Jack Cohen, that lone LibDem voice on the coun­cil. He was first elected more than 30 years ago.

    “I think all eyes are going to be on Childs Hill, because that’s probably where the borough’s power is going to be decided.”

    Mr Cornelius identifies policing as an issue regularly raised on doorsteps and which is “rising up the national consciousness.

     “We don’t get our fair share of offic­ers from the Metropolitan Police — we pay more than any other borough towards the police and yet we get fewer police per capita than any other bor­ough,” he says.

    “That’s something we’ll be pushing the Mayor of London to deal with.”

    Mr Langleben emphasises that “the housing crisis is something we’ll be looking to address on day one” if Labour wins control of the borough.

    He argues that under the Tories the council has “received far lower amounts of affordable housing com­pared to other boroughs, because they’ve let developers get away with blue murder”.

    Both he and Mr Cohen identify the condition of Barnet’s pothole-heavy roads as being a real problem.

    Mr Cornelius also points to it as a key issue, saying “we’ve put a lot of money into the highways and pavements, but this winter seems to have done for them and we’re going to have to put a lot more in over the next few years to get them back to a reason­able state”.

    But it is the council’s out­sourcing of its services — particularly to firms such as Capita — which is criticised most strongly by both Labour and the Lib­eral Democrats.

    Mr Cornelius argues that “Capita provides a reasonable service at a very low price. We’re grateful for that, that’s a big sav­ing for the taxpayer”.

    But Mr Langleben counters: “It used to be that when you called the council with a problem, you had local staff who knew exactly what you were talking about and what the local issues were. Now you end up speaking to someone in another part of the country who has no idea about your local area.”

    The issue of antisemitism cannot be ignored, though. Although Mr Cor­nelius says the Conservatives prefer to stick to local issues for the campaign, he does call Labour’s inability to deal with Jew-hate “extraor­dinary”.

    “How can any party regard itself as fit for government with a problem like this that’s unresolved, either nationally or locally?”

    Mr Cohen says anti­semitism has long been an ever-present reality even in the country’s most Jewish bor­ough.

    “With my name, I’ve experienced antisemitism ever since I was first elected as a councillor,” he comments. “I was the subject of vitriolic antisem­itism because I supported the eruv 100 per cent.”

    But he adds: “What is new is that Her Majesty’s Opposition appears to have more than ‘pockets of antisemitism’, which the leadership doesn’t appear to be doing anything about.

    “The electorate — and Labour voters — must bear that in mind.”

    Mr Langleben, who is a prominent member of the Jewish Labour Move­ment, does not shy away from calling out antisemitism among Labour mem­bers.

    “Throughout the last ten years, since I’ve been involved in the Labour par­ty, there have been a number of inci­dents,” he says. “And each and every time something has happened, the Barnet Labour party has been on the right side of history.

    “We are really proud of the r e l a t i o n ­ships we have built with our Jewish community and other commu­nities — and Jeremy Corbyn could learn a lot, perhaps, by coming to see how we relate to our Jewish community.”

    He dismisses suggestions the Barnet Labour group could be taken over by far-left supporters of Mr Corbyn if it wins control of the borough as “scare­mongering, without any grounds.

    “I would say take a look at every sin­gle one of our candidates and see if you can honestly make that judgement. In order for such an event to happen in Barnet, it would require similar people who have been selected in Haringey to have been chosen to be candidates in Barnet, which has not happened.

    “At the last leadership contest, only two sitting councillors voted for Jer­emy Corbyn.

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