Jews in north and south still harbour fears about antisemitism in Labour, focus groups reveal

Discussions convened by the JC and JLC in two key constituencies showed security worries remain top of the agenda


The focus group in Finchley and Golders Green (Image: Ben Castiel)

Jewish voters in the north of England see antisemitism as the most important issue in the general election and fear it could make a comeback in the Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer, JC focus groups have revealed.

All ten members of a focus group in Bury South – the Manchester suburb where Jews make up 10.1 per cent of the electorate – said that since the October 7 terrorist massacre they had felt intimidated and unsafe.

In the words of retired nursery manager Lorraine, 63, it is “as if we have to be looking over our shoulders the entire time”.

The focus group, convened for this newspaper and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) by research agency Public First in Bury South, praised Starmer’s efforts to detoxify Labour in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn but still feared that antisemitism could return to infect the party.

Members of a second group drawn from the Finchley and Golders Green constituency – which at 21 per cent has the country’s highest proportion of Jewish voters – also voiced deep concerns over the Jewish community’s security, citing what they saw as the failure of police and university authorities to crack down on extreme anti-Zionist protests.

However, they agreed that when they come to decide how to cast their votes, they would balance this with other issues, such as the cost of living and the NHS.

Members of both groups strongly criticised the Conservatives and polling suggests that both seats, though won by the Tories in 2019, are vulnerable to Labour. In Bury, the sitting MP, Christian Wakeford, crossed the floor from Tories to Labour in 2022. In Finchley, barrister Sarah Sackman, for many years a local resident and active member of New North London shul, is tipped to beat Tory challenger Alex Deane.

In Bury, Anita, a self-employed businesswoman, said she had voted Conservative at previous elections but viewed PM Rishi Sunak as “slippery” and incapable of giving straight answers.

“I will never vote Conservative again,” she said. “They’re all completely corrupt… Rishi Sunak he has got no comprehension of what real people are doing.”

Meanwhile in Finchley, lawyer Ollie, 31, described the Conservatives’ record in office as “absolutely shocking”. However, he said he also harboured “grave doubts” about Labour, and was considering not voting at all.

Some members of the Bury group said they had personally been abused because they were Jewish, and spoke of friends who had removed mezuzot from their front doors or stopped wearing Magen Davids as precautionary measures. All cited the anti-Israel protests which, as in London, have taken place almost weekly in Manchester since the massacre, featuring chants, placards and speeches calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Charity worker Joanne, 39, told of her distress at being forced to explain to her four-year-old daughter, a pupil at a local Jewish school, “why there were police and security guards” outside every morning and Palestinian flags in the windows of houses opposite. “Going into my gym, I’m seeing people with Palestinian flags pinned to their jumpers,” she said, “which is very uncomfortable.”

The group agreed that Wakeford had proven himself to be a staunch ally. “He does a lot for the community”, said Simon, 39, a financial services manager. “He’s always at synagogue events and he’s been on several missions to Israel.”

Simon said that he appreciated Starmer’s efforts to combat Jew-hatred, pointing out that the Labour leader’s wife Victoria is Jewish. But, he went on, “the core of the MPs who were there previously, they’re pretty much still there. So you could argue, how much has it changed? How can you evidence that it’s changed? I think it remains to be seen.” He said he was still not sure whether he could trust the party – and now was tempted to vote Reform.

Kippah-wearing freight manager Rafi, 36, told of his dismay when he raised the issue of the protest marches with a Labour canvasser who came to his doorstep. The activist told him that while he understood Rafi’s concern over antisemitism, it was important to protect “freedom of speech”.

The comment, Rafi said, had “made me scared of grassroots Labour… he said that to a visibly Jewish person”. One of his grandmothers had arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport, he went on, while another had fled from the Nazis in Poland via Siberia. “My wife was out there with me and we were just in shock.”

“Who can you trust over security?” asked Dorit, 33, a freelance administrator. “That’s the problem we face.”

All members of the Finchley group expressed anger at the policing of anti-Israel protests and at the failure of the government and London’s mayor Sadiq Khan to crack down.

Trainee lawyer Jasmine, 26, told the group: “Going into town on a Saturday on the Tube would scare me and does scare me. And it didn’t before… I definitely don’t feel safe as a Jew in London. I visited Israel a month ago, and I felt a million times more safe there in a war zone than I do here.”

Jasmine added that her brother was at university in Leeds, which was “not a very comfortable environment for Jewish students at the moment, because everywhere he looks, there’s an encampment or there’s a protest, and there’s a flag or graffiti about the IDF”.

Property manager Emma, 70, said she had attended Leeds in her youth, when “there was a total absence of fear of being openly Jewish”. But now, she went on, “universities have really allowed the anti-Zionist faction to dominate, without restraint”. It was vital, she said, that the next government got to grips with this problem.

Joanne, 51, who works in finance, said she had close relatives at Bristol and Birmingham who had to “walk past the demonstrations” and protest camps when going to classes, “and they see their friends in these demonstrations and then they’re sitting next to them in lectures. It’s a horrible feeling”. Being “safe and secure in my community is the hugest thing,” she went on.

But she said wasn’t sure which party might best tackle the problem. For the first time in her life, she was “undecided” which way to vote. “I think Starmer will be a very weak leader,” she said, but she also considered Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to have been “weak and dishonest”.

As in Bury, most of the Finchley group said they appreciated Starmer’s efforts to combat antisemitism. But Emma was more critical: “I cannot forget, nor can I forgive the fact that he sat for years next to Jeremy Corbyn.” He could have fought antisemitism within the party then, but “chose not to do that”.

In Bury, several group members said they feared that after winning the election, Starmer might be ousted by his party. “If Keir Starmer gets in, I don’t think it’ll be long before his Cabinet members gradually get him out,” said Lorraine, “and then we’ll get a more forceful person who votes for the Palestinians.”

Both groups said they were pleased that the government and the Labour Party had stood by Israel and its right to self-defence after the October 7 attacks. But they also expressed concern over later shifts in Labour policy, especially the suggestions that a Labour government might recognise a Palestinian state before the signing of a final peace deal.

In Bury, Rafi said he found the thought of David Lammy becoming foreign secretary “scary”, claiming he had “flip-flopped”. In Finchley, Jasmine commented: “Starmer might be showing support for Israel, but there are people in his party that make me worried me for the safety of Israel.”

In the same meeting, banker Freddie, 25, said there were “some horrible policies out there,” such as “stopping arms trades, sanctioning IDF soldiers” and he feared they might become mainstream following a Labour victory.

In both constituencies, some group members were critical of the Tories over issues affecting the broader electorate, especially over their record in health and education, what Finchley voter Emma described as “the state of the NHS, the state of our crumbling schools” which were “crying out for money”.

Neither main party, she went on, had been honest about the how much would need to be spent nor how it could be raised.

There were still traces of optimism, most notably in Finchley, about the eventual prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace and the hope that the next government could help bring this about.

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