Bob Blackman is taking nothing for granted. The Conservative candidate for Harrow East at today’s election has represented the area since 2010 but says he is fighting much harder this time than in previous elections.
The marginal seat is a target for Labour, which is focusing significant energy on winning it. The Tories are forecast to hold on, despite a majority last time of 1,757, but a good night for Labour could leave the result on a knife-edge.
“We’re working hard,” Blackman tells Jewish News during a break from campaigning. “We’re doing substantially more work than we did in 2017 and before polling day we will have knocked on every single door in the constituency in the last five weeks.
“It was closer than it should’ve been last time and we’re not leaving anything to chance. Plus, Labour are throwing everything at it – bussing people in from everywhere…But the response on the doorstep is much, much better than it was in 2017, and better than in 2015 as well.”
He says the campaign has also been “nastier” than before and accuses his rivals of spreading “all sorts of terrible smears” about him.
The row centres on allegations of Islamophobia. In 2016, Blackman shared a tweet by far-right activist Tommy Robinson about Muslim violence against Hindus in India. He deleted it after realising who the original post was from. He also previously apologised for the offence caused by what he called his “error” in posting an article on Facebook headlined “Muslim Somali sex gang say raping white British children ‘part of their culture’.”
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Blackman rejects any suggestion of Islamophobia and accuses Labour of “trying to deflect from their own problems”.
“There’s been so much about Labour’s antisemitism problem that they’re now going on about Islamophobia, in a ridiculous way which doesn’t help anyone, particularly when it’s not true,” he says. “It’s just a joke, frankly.”
Blackman is determined to shine a light on what he sees as Labour’s own failings, and says many voters are doing it for him. “Jewish people are saying that when Labour people come round, they just point at the mezuzah and say ‘Goodbye’. It’s that sort of feeling – they’re not even interested in talking to them.”
The Tory candidate contrasts this with his own record, saying: “I have stuck up for the state of Israel and for Jewish people in general and will continue to do so, so I’m a known commodity. I have been solid with that position over the last nine and a half years.”
Blackman says he is also benefiting from a row about Labour’s position on Kashmir. A motion was passed at the party’s conference in September that the region be given the right to self-determination – a move that has gone down badly in Harrow East, where 28 percent of voters are Hindu.“We’re saying very clearly: Labour is anti-Indian,” Blackman says.
“The fact is they passed a motion unanimously at their conference attacking India and then they tried to wriggle out of it. [Among] the Indian population in the constituency the word has gone out: don’t vote Labour.”
More widely, he is telling voters he will help deliver Brexit, insisting that most people “want to get it over and done with”. He is also focusing on concerns about Corbyn’s leadership. “We’ve said your choice is Corbyn or Boris, at which point everyone goes, ‘Well it’s not a choice.’ ”
This argument, he says, is made easier by the fact that the Labour candidate, Pamela Fitzpatrick, was endorsed by John McDonnell, who said she was “the sort of principled socialist the Labour Party needs”, and had Corbyn turn up to help launch her campaign.
Fitzpatrick, a Labour councillor in Harrow since 2014, has worked in the voluntary sector for 25 years and runs a charity that gives legal support to people in the borough. She says it was the issues she found herself dealing with in this role that prompted her to go into local government and, if things go her way on 12 December, national politics.
She is campaigning on poverty and public services, arguing that years of Conservative-imposed austerity have been devastating.
“There’s so much need in Harrow,” she says. “People don’t really think of Harrow as being an area that’s disadvantaged at all but it so is…
“I’ve never seen things as bad as they are now. There’s no real safety net for people. In Harrow we have families sleeping in cars. It’s dire.” She also says people are waiting three weeks for a GP appointment, hospital waiting lists have worsened and a local walk-in centre has closed. “There’s such a need for investment to change things and Labour will do that. It’s a message of hope rather than negativity.”
She says “a surprising amount” of former Tory voters are switching: “The Conservative policies have impacted on so many people that it’s driven a desire for change. Labour is the only one that is going to deliver that.”
As elsewhere, though, Labour is suffering from concerns among some minorities. Fitzpatrick concedes that the Kashmir issue has caused problems. Last month, the party leadership was forced to clarify that a Labour government would not take a formal position on the dispute.
Then, of course, there is antisemitism. Fitzpatrick says the initial response to allegations was too slow but insists that matters have improved since Corbyn ally Jennie Formby was appointed general secretary last year.
“Suspensions have increased fourfold – they are being dealt with quite rapidly now,” she says. “Any suggestion of antisemitism would be dealt with immediately, but we need to reassure people and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
One man hoping to benefit from voters’ doubts about both main parties is Liberal Democrat candidate Adam Bernard, a north London Jew who works as a software developer.
The party came a distant third in 2017. His main message now is about Brexit: “We’re the party that actually wants to stop the whole thing, not just push it forwards another step and let it go on for potentially decades.”
He says: “There’s a certain amount of hostility from Jewish voters to Jeremy Corbyn but there’s also generally a sense that the Conservatives and Labour are plumbing the depths of how appallingly they can conduct themselves.
“I have limited respect for the Conservatives crowing about antisemitism when they have … systemic issues about how they treat Muslims and how they treat foreigners, and immigrants in particular….Unless you’re opposing all bigotry and all violence and hatred against all minority groups, you’re doing it wrong.”
“While I’m glad in some respects that we’re sometimes the beneficiary of that, it’s quite a depressing landscape.”