General Election 2019: Who’ll win Herts and minds?
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General Election 2019: Who’ll win Herts and minds?

Tory hopeful Oliver Dowden says he takes nothing for granted, as he looks to keep hold of his majority in a seat which includes Bushey, Borehamwood and Radlett communities

Jenni Frazer

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Oliver Dowden, Holly Kal-Weiss, and Stephen Barrett,
Oliver Dowden, Holly Kal-Weiss, and Stephen Barrett,

Behind the bland, catch-all title of Hertsmere’s leafy hedges lie some of the largest Jewish residential neighbourhoods in the country: Bushey, Borehamwood and Radlett.

And incumbent Conservative – and minister, Oliver Dowden – has set his Labour and Lib Dem opponents a steep mountain to climb, nursing a nearly 17,000 majority from the 2017 election. But Dowden, like his opposing candidates, says he takes nothing for granted, and has been out in all weathers soliciting votes in
the constituency.

Labour came second in the 2017 election in Hertsmere, but this time have picked a different candidate, the Chicago-born Holly Kal-Weiss, a special needs teacher who joined the party after Ed Miliband lost the 2015 election. She has been a British citizen since 2006, so only voted for the first time in 2010.

“I joined because I had become very much involved in fighting homelessness in Barnet, and wanted to do something about it,” she explains.

Many would-be MPs do a stint as councillors first, but Kal-Weiss’s council said she did not have enough experience and sent her away. Now, she says, laughing, “I’m getting experience.”

And as a Labour hopeful in a climate so fraught that one local synagogue has declined to host a hustings because of the fear of abuse – primarily against Kal-Weiss and her party – she certainly has a struggle on her hands.

She already has vast personal experience of diversity. “My husband’s from Zimbabwe. His brother’s in Cape Town. My brother’s in Chicago, my dad’s in LA, my sister’s in Israel – so flying round the world is our life. I come from one of those families where we talked about politics all the time, and my extended family are politically active.”

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She says her policies “are of the left – but I don’t think they are particularly radical. If, for example, it’s radical to suggest a young person should be able to rent a flat rather than a room, then it’s radical, but I don’t think it is.

“I don’t think it’s radical to say we should have a decent transport system that actually works. In Hertsmere, if you want to get a bus from Radlett to Potters Bar, you couldn’t do it. You have to drive. So how are we going to tackle green issues if we don’t tackle transportation?”

Kal-Weiss, 54, is certainly enthusiastic – and a joiner. In alliances that may perplex some, she has joined Momentum, the Labour Party, the Jewish Labour Movement and Jewish Voice for Labour. She is also an active member of Finchley Reform Synagogue. “I like to know what it’s all about,” she says of her various memberships, but has scaled back and now says: “I just want to be in Labour.”

Labour hopeful Holly Kal-Weiss, left, is an active member of Finchley Reform Synagogue

She has never called herself a “Corbynista”, she says, believing that “it is dangerous to pin everything on one person. I’m part of a movement of people”. But she is, nevertheless, happy to say that Jeremy Corbyn is “perfectly fit to be prime minister”.

Kal-Weiss says she thinks about the antisemitism issue “all the time”, but adds she has never experienced antisemitism directly herself. “When people say the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic, that hasn’t been my experience.

“That doesn’t mean individual people in the party have not overstepped the mark, and we need to deal with that. But racism in general is on the rise, and it has started to bubble up everywhere. The mood in the world has changed.”

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She admits she has had some social media abuse from the Jewish community, including an allegation that she has “Jewish blood on her hands”. But, one week into the campaign, she is confident and enthusiastic that, at a minimum, she can persuade the voters of Hertsmere to dent Dowden’s majority, if not to topple him outright, if she explains policies clearly and sincerely.

Stephen Barrett, the Lib Dem candidate, is equally confident – although with different reasons. He, like other Lib Dems, is buoyed by his party’s good results in the May European elections, and has an interesting weapon in his appeal to the Jewish voters in Herts – his agent is former Board of Deputies treasurer Laurence Brass, once himself a candidate.

Lib Dem Stephen Barrett is unfazed by the mountain he must climb in the constituency

Barrett, just 28, belies his youthful looks with his work as a school business leader – the person responsible for everything that takes place in a school except for the teaching. For Barrett, a district councillor in St Albans and a native of Birmingham, that means dealing with 157 staff in his present school and a £16 million budget.

“I see the impact of my work on the kids,” he says. “I know I can make a difference to people’s lives.”

Making a difference is what Barrett aims to do in Hertsmere, and he is unfazed by the low vote for his Lib Dem predecessor in the 2017 election, who could only manage a rather woeful 2,794 votes – compared with Dowden’s 31,928.

His confidence comes from the peculiarity of this particular election. “This is the most extraordinary election we have ever faced. All the normal voting conventions are completely out of the window, and people are abandoning their usual party loyalties in such waves that it’s incredible,” he explains. “There is a strong Lib Dem surge happening, and people are crying out for something new and fresh.”

Out of the three main candidates, Barrett clearly knows the least about the Jewish community, but says he is “learning very quickly”. Out canvassing, he identifies readily the Jewish households and says his views “align naturally with those of Jewish voters” on key issues such as faith schools, security and shechita.

He has been invited to meet the sixth form at Yavneh College and has joined the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel. He has not visited the Jewish state, but says he would “relish the opportunity” to do so.

Hertsmere’s Conservative incumbent Oliver Dowden, pictured at the Western Wall

On Brexit, Barrett says the reaction he is getting is “please stop this madness”, and is “absolutely convinced that it can be stopped”.

But Dowden, 41, former special adviser and deputy chief of staff to David Cameron, though himself once a Remainer, believes the opposite. He says “the overwhelming feeling from all my constituents is that we should get Brexit done”, and that the task now is “to ensure we leave the EU in a smooth and orderly fashion”.

Dowden is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Jews, and reels off a list of his Jewish-related input: “a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, lobbied against the flying of Hezbollah flags, involved with Mitzvah Day, lobbied for a new primary school for Yavneh College, attended the Enough is Enough rally…”

In other words, Dowden, held by many to be an astute political operator, has done his homework and has engaged closely with the Jewish community. Although he says he takes nothing for granted, Dowden sounds confident that on 13 December he will be the MP for Hertsmere.

 

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