For the Jewish News published May 11 2017
On a gorgeous late spring morning, Mike Freer is sitting on a bench in a lushly gardened Golders Green neighbourhood, almost entirely occupied by strictly Orthodox families.
This is Freer’s third election: he won the seat in 2010, following the death of Labour’s Rudi Vis, who had become the MP in 1997.
Freer is a familiar figure in the constituency, on closer than nodding terms with rabbis and communal leaders, highly involved in the Conservative Friends of Israel and spoken of – even by his political rivals – as one of the Jewish community’s best friends in parliament.
Freer highlights a number of proud moments in the last parliamentary term, such as lobbying for £11.5m additional funding for security as well as supporting the establishment of the new Rimon & Alma schools.
He says he will continue to support faith schools as long as they uphold British values and support social integration.
He was also an enthusiastic “Remain” campaigner in the 2016 referendum as to whether Britain stayed in Europe, something which, it turns out, was not in step with the opinions of many of the householders in this part of Golders Green.
But the pragmatic Freer is determined to make the best of Brexit and now hopes to get the best deal possible for Britain – and those whom he hopes will remain his constituents. “I felt we should respect the democratic view – and that if you ignore the vote [to leave Europe] it would corrode our democracy. Look at France and Germany: where people feel they have been forgotten, they turn to the extremes.”
He sighs when asked about the controversial decision of the Labour Party to stand two of the leaders of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) against him and Matthew Offord in the adjoining constituency of Hendon. Freer says: “I’m sure Jeremy Corbyn chose his candidates carefully. But it does make you think why Mr Corbyn didn’t ask Jeremy Newmark to stand in Bradford, or a seat outside Jewish areas, to ensure that the party is able to place candidates anywhere in the UK.”
No doubt, says Freer wryly, “Mr Corbyn has his reasons”, but he believes that “if you want to fight the fight for a particular party, you should be prepared to fight anywhere… and not stay in a comfort zone”.
Freer plays down remarks he made in the 2015 election when the Jewish barrister, Sarah Sackman, also a member of the JLM, stood against him in Finchley and Golders Green. It was suggested then that he believed he was better placed, as a non-Jewish friend of Israel, to make its case than someone who came from the community. Freer deprecates. It was not a huge controversy, he says, rather “two Labour councillors who tried to make a story. What I said was that if you look in the House of Commons, there are many MPs of all political sectors who are fighting Israel’s corner. Look at John Mann [the Labour MP for Bassetlaw who has spearheaded the fight against antisemitism]. Many of the doughty fighters on behalf of the community aren’t necessarily from the community, and sometimes that’s helpful. I wouldn’t say it was a controversy.”
Antisemitism, says Freer, is only raised on the doorsteps with him in terms of the Labour Party’s inability to tackle it. But he says it is important for organisations such as the CST to be well funded.
Freer lopes off on a whistlestop canvass of the local residents, his bright blue jumper and jeans a stark contrast to the almost uniform white shirts and dark suits of the householders who open the doors to him and his team.
But many of the residents both know and like Freer, some even asking him to pose for a selfie. There is scant time for prolonged discussion, but even on this quick door-to-door Freer is getting a good reception, with many people promising him their vote.
One of his canvassers says the Orthodox community has a record of a high turn-out on election days. “Many of these people are from families and places where being able to vote was of major importance, so they feel they have a civic duty. It’s part of their value system.”
Jeremy Newmark, the chairman of the Jewish Labour Movement, and his team, are setting up in the Labour Party headquarters in East Finchley, ready to go out on their first door-to-door canvass of voters since Newmark launched his campaign on Monday evening.
Although he is an observant, kippah-wearing Jew, Newmark’s campaign speech at his launch was notable for its lack of reference to the Jewish community, instead focusing directly on local issues.
If elected, Newmark would be the first Orthodox Jew in the House of Commons, but he makes little of this. Jews in the 21st century, he says, should be able to be represented anywhere, and participate in all walks of life.
He makes clear that his selection as the Finchley and Golders Green Labour candidate was the choice of Labour’s central office, not the local party.
He laughs at the suggestion that he and Mike Katz have been given Finchley and Golders Green and Hendon to fight as “a sweetener” by a leadership surrounded by allegations – not least from the JLM – of failure to deal with anti-Semitism.
“Anyone who knows the Jewish community would not say that being given a Jewish constituency to fight was any sort of a sweetener”. In fact, says Newmark, it is the reverse: “We have six hustings arranged in the next few weeks and five of those are in synagogues. But I think it is a wonderful thing that the Jewish community have an active interest in politics. The suggestion that our fighting these seats is part of a grand plan bears no resemblance to reality.
“There are very sound reasons for having members of the community engaged across all the political parties. I don’t think that Jewish community issues, or issues to do with Israel, should be politically partisan.”
He admires Mike Freer for his support of the community, he says, “but the idea that because someone is a supporter of the community or Israel, that they should get a free pass in this election, is childish and silly. I have worked with Mike Freer on a whole range of communal issues in the past – and I expect I will again, after the election.”
And he doesn’t believe in “communalist” politics – he thinks people get elected to parliament to represent a whole range of issues, not just the “narrow interests” of one community.
Though Finchley and Golders Green is not his local party – he is a member of Hertsmere CLP – Newmark is particularly happy to have been chosen for the seat because Finchley and Golders Green was the first CLP to speak up against antisemitism in the Labour Party.
It was also, he says, one of the first to call for Ken Livingstone’s expulsion — an issue Newmark is urging gets reinvestigated – “and it was one of the first to call for a support for JLM’s move to change party rules on dealing with antisemitism. So I’m standing with the backing of the constituency party which has made its position clear and I have been overwhelmed with the level of support I have had.”
Newmark is all too aware of the toxicity of his leader, Jeremy Corbyn, among potential voters in the seat, who he says has failed to demonstrate “sufficient understanding of the nature of contemporary anti-Semitism” and a willingness to act on community concerns.
But, Newmark says, when he launched his campaign: “I talked about a range of local issues and my politics. I did not talk about Jeremy Corbyn. There’s only one Jeremy on the ballot paper in Finchley and Golders Green.”
Much to his amusement, an unknown admirer has set up a Facebook group called “Jeremy’s supporters” – but it is drawing traffic from Corbynistas. In fact, not only is there “only one Jeremy on the ballot paper” but there is no sign of Corbyn on Newmark’s campaign literature.
Asked directly if he wants Corbyn as prime minister, however, Newmark gives a politician’s answer: “As the prime minister said, this is a Brexit election that will determine our country’s future, not just for one parliament, but for the next 50 plus years and more.”
He insists Jewish voters still have many friends in Labour and says the party can still be trusted, particularly in light of the cuts proposed by the Tories that would harm the community.
Out on the doorsteps of East Finchley, on a long, tree-lined road, Newmark and his team energetically knock on doors and are received with a general welcome. A few residents promise Newmark their vote. One woman tells him – in remarks likely to be echoed countrywide – “For the first time in my life I don’t know how to vote.”