Hampstead and Kilburn constituency is home to 78,500 voters — three-quarters of whom are firm Remainers in the battle of Brexit. And its sitting MP, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq, has pledged to continue that fight to stay inside the European Union (EU), while she runs again for what she affectionately calls “the oddball seat”.
But despite the fact she has a 15,000 majority, both her opponents – Matt Sanders for the Liberal Democrats and Johnny Luk for the Conservatives – are confident they have more than a sporting chance to unseat her.
Both men are buoyed by the fractious relationship between the Jewish community and the Labour Party, and Sanders, in particular, believes there is a following wind that could sweep the Lib Dems into power.
Sanders and his canvassing team are decked out not in familiar yellow Lib Dem colours, but instead wear huge EU badges, as his calling card, and that of his party’s leader Jo Swinson, is a pledge to overturn Article 50 if they achieve power.
And the Lib Dem candidate, a former special adviser to ex-Lib Dem leader Sir Nick Clegg during the party’s coalition with the Conservatives, says his seven years as a councillor in Camden’s Haverstock ward means he has a close relationship with the area’s Jewish community.
“There is definitely all to play for”, says Sanders. “There is a huge Jewish community here who finds itself not able to vote Labour. I don’t take joy from that. It’s extremely sad there’s a political party which has got itself to a place where huge numbers of people feel unable to vote for it because of their religion.
“It’s inexcusable in modern Britain to have a party that has behaved in that way on racism. My absolute pledge to the Jewish community is that I will fight for your rights, whatever happens. I will stamp on and criticise and condemn antisemitism wherever I see it; that is fundamental to who I am.”
Such questions about antisemitism, suggests Sanders, getting in an early swipe against Labour, are not just national but local. “It is not something Camden Labour can shrug off and say it’s nothing to do with us”, he insists.
“On the doorstep, the issue of antisemitism comes up all the time, unprompted,” he adds. “I’m not saying we as Liberal Democrats haven’t had our own problems with antisemitism, but we have taken swift action – perhaps not as swift as we should have done – and I think what’s happening in Labour now is a wake-up call to all progressive people everywhere, that if you give antisemitism an inch, it takes hold and it festers. We have to deal with it quickly and decisively, and you should judge a party by the action it takes.”
Meanwhile, Luk, a 29-year-old British-Chinese entrepreneur who is the Conservatives’ choice to fight the Hampstead and Kilburn seat, is just as confident that he can oust Siddiq.
The Tories came second in the 2017 election and Luk, although he voted and campaigned for Remain, now says he is working on “how to make the best of Brexit”. He says he has a “can-do” spirit and that such an ethos comes through on the doorsteps of the constituency.
Luk describes himself as “socially liberal” in the David Cameron mould, and speaks warmly of a visit he paid to Tel Aviv last year to support a British-Chinese friend in her conversion to Judaism and marriage.
“I got a really good taste of the incredibly inclusive culture in Israel,” he says, skating over the fact his friend needed to convert in order to participate in Israeli society.
Nevertheless, Luk suggests there is kinship and understanding between himself as “someone who has been the focus of harassment and fear, and the feeling of not being welcome in one’s own community”, and the Jewish voters of Hampstead and Kilburn.
“It’s very sad”, says Luk, “that we still have to have this conversation [about antisemitism] in 2019”.
He acknowledges that standing for Parliament is “extremely tough. I was not expecting the emotional and mental draining – I have even had a few death threats, from people who have never met me. But that just makes me more determined.”
Siddiq, who increased her majority from 1,138 votes in 2015 to 15,560 in 2017, says she is “never complacent about taking votes for granted. This is not my seat for life”.
Siddiq, who was brought up Muslim and is married to a Christian, sends her daughter to a Jewish nursery because, she says: “I wanted her to grow up the same way I did, in the heart of the Jewish community.”
Unlike Sanders and Luk, Siddiq grew up in the constituency and has warm friendships across the Jewish community. At the invitation of JW3, she now holds her advice surgeries in the centre, and is on good terms with the security patrol at the building. The offer was made, she says, in the wake of the murder of MP Jo Cox.
She is a staunch Remainer and, indeed, lost a job in the Shadow Cabinet because of her vote against triggering Article 50.
Siddiq was one of the MPs who originally nominated Jeremy Corbyn for leadership of the Labour Party, although she later backed Andy Burnham. She is only too aware of the “how can you ask us to vote for a party with Jeremy Corbyn as leader” question she will face on the doorsteps, but she says: “I would ask Jewish voters to judge me on my record.”
She adds: “It has been really hard to watch Labour become something Jewish people are scared of”, but says it is “counter-productive to go on TV and attack the leader, because he then won’t answer calls”. Siddiq, who is vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, and a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, says Corbyn takes her calls and that she has played a big part behind the scenes.
Asked about the decision of Luciana Berger to leave the Labour Party, Siddiq says she has “huge respect” for her ex-colleague, but is “disappointed” Berger joined the Lib Dems, because, she says, “in my opinion [they] have done enormous damage to working people in the community. They have been outrageous on policies, and they don’t get as much scrutiny as Labour and the Conservatives”.
Siddiq has been a trenchant critic of Israel’s policies towards Gaza, but says: “I share the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM)’s belief that it is perfectly possible to criticise the Israeli government fairly, while being robust in the fight against antisemitism.”