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Hackney Council elections: All to play for in Europe's largest Charedi community

Labour focuses on housing issues but community stalwarts hope familiarity will stave off challenge

    Housing, planning and benefits have emerged as the key issues for North London's strictly Orthodox community (Photo: Getty Images)
    Housing, planning and benefits have emerged as the key issues for North London's strictly Orthodox community (Photo: Getty Images)

    A battle is raging for Charedi votes in one of the most heavily Jewish-populated areas of the country.

    With the strictly Orthodox community of Hackney, North London, centred almost entirely around three wards — Cazenove, Springfield and Stamford Hill West — the Labour Party believes it has a strong pitch to voters as it attempts to improve on its performance four years ago, when it won just one of eight seats in the wards.

    Those pounding the streets in red rosettes — bolstered by an influx of Momentum activists — say local Jews struggling with housing problems and benefits issues will find a natural home in their party.

    Joe Walker, running for Labour in the currently all-Conservative Springfield ward, pointed to his party’s support for social housing projects, as well as the Labour-run council’s ability to “ensure planning laws meet the needs of the local community”.

    A study seen by the JC earlier this month showed that in 2013, a semi-detached house in the borough cost nearly 12 times the median income of a local Jewish couple.

    For the growing number of large strictly Orthodox families, soaring house prices have restricted their opportunities to find somewhere to live in the area.

    Labour candidate Joe Walker (right) campaigns with Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville (left) and Rabbi Avraham Pinter
    Labour candidate Joe Walker (right) campaigns with Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville (left) and Rabbi Avraham Pinter

    Sam Pallis, a Labour candidate in the Cazenove ward which returned three Liberal Democrats in 2014, cited two property licensing schemes the local authority will introduce later this year. He said they would assist “disempowered Charedi renters”. Landlords will be required to hold a licence to rent out their properties.

    Those who fail to meet the conditions of the licence — as well as those who refuse to sign up to the scheme — will face a fixed penalty or criminal prosecution. They could also be forced to pay up to a year’s rent back to their tenants. “Serious offenders” could be served a banning order and be placed on the newly-introduced “rogue landlords database”, according to the council.

    Mr Pallis said: “A lot of people are living in sub-standard, often hazardous, conditions in the private rented sector. It’s a perennial problem and this should provide some much-needed protection for renters.”

    The new Tower Court development — a large-scale council-owned scheme complete with units specifically designed for the Charedi community — is something of a moot point, with both Labour and the Tories claiming credit.

    Labour say its leadership of the council is seeing the project over the line, while local Tory councillors — most notably Michael Levy — are considered to be “looking after it” on a hyper-local level.

    Despite Labour’s bold declarations and boots-on-the ground campaign style, dark clouds loom overhead.

    Levi Shapiro, director of a group of Charedi activists known as the Jewish Community Council, questioned why Labour consistently failed to field strictly Orthodox candidates when the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives do.

    “If they would put a Charedi person up for election, then we can see,” he said.

    While few claim the Charedim will only vote for other Charedim, name recognition is certainly a factor for long-serving councillors.

    Lib Dem councillor Ian Sharer, standing in Cazenove, has served for 22 years, while Tory Harvey Odze has represented the Springfield ward since 2004, albeit with a four-year gap from 2010 until 2014. His Conservative colleagues, Simche Steinberger and Mr Levy, are also community stalwarts.

    Mr Sharer said: “People know me. They know I will focus on local issues and if someone has a problem they can come to me and I will go straight to the council officers. Unlike Labour councillors I don’t have to go through so much party bureaucracy.

    “Local politics is different from national politics. Track record is important.”

    Liberal Democrat ward councillor Ian Sharer, who has served for 22 years (Photo: PA Images)
    Liberal Democrat ward councillor Ian Sharer, who has served for 22 years (Photo: PA Images)

    Then there is the spectre of allegations of widespread antisemitism within Labour, which have persisted since Jeremy Corbyn was first elected leader in 2015.

    Rabbi Avraham Pinter, principal of Stamford Hill’s Yesodey Hatorah School and a senior community figure, acknowledges there are “problematic” elements within the Hackney Labour Party, of which he is a member.

    Mr Odze also refuted Labour’s claims of widespread poverty in the community. Standing by his record as a ward councillor — and those of communal bodies Hatzola and Shomrim — he asserted that “no-one goes hungry”.

    “People are looked after by the community,” he added.

    Springfield Conservative councillors Michael Levy (far left), Simche Steinberger (third from right) and Harvey Odze (far right)
    Springfield Conservative councillors Michael Levy (far left), Simche Steinberger (third from right) and Harvey Odze (far right)

    But a surge in Momentum membership in the borough has worried local Lib Dems and Tories. Mr Odze admitted the three wards’ eight councillors could all be elected for Labour even if the party failed to win a single Charedi vote.

    While Hackney is home to Europe’s largest Charedi community, the strictly Orthodox represent between 22 and 38 per cent of the residents across the three wards.

    Thousands of Charedim are below the voting age, meaning the community is a relatively small share of the electorate.

    Mr Odze said: “If turnout is large enough it could happen — we could be voted out by the socialist state of Hackney. Momentum has thrown everything at it. If it can happen to Nick Clegg it can happen to us.”

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