Ilford North, once home to London’s largest Jewish neighbourhoods, has faltered in recent years with four wards in Redbridge seeing their population contract by more than 40 percent. Schools such as Clore Tikvah and King Solomon have consequently take in more non-Jews. In the 2010 census 10 percent of the constituency was Jewish.
If Boris Johnson is to return to Downing Street with a commanding House of Commons majority on 13 December, Ilford North is the type of seat that the Tories should be eyeing up.
The east London constituency has swung back and forth between Labour and the Tories for decades. Held by the Conservatives since 2001, it switched back to Labour in 2015, and the incumbent MP, Wes Streeting, significantly increased his majority to almost 10,000 in 2017.
The race is expected to be closer in this election, although Streeting’s margin of victory last time around means that winning the seat back is a tough ask for the Tories.
Still, the Labour candidate is taking nothing for granted. He tells Jewish News that he is fighting a “proper local campaign” on issues including falling police numbers, cuts to school budgets, and growing hospital waiting lists under the Tory government.
His opponents, meanwhile, are trying to turn the debate to more national issues. Ilford North voted for Brexit by a narrow majority (53.3% backed Leave) but Streeting has been a vocal campaigner for a fresh referendum.
Defending his record, the Labour candidate says that giving the public the final say on Brexit is the right outcome, and points out that most people who voted for him backed Remain.
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“People might not agree with me but they’ll always know where I stand and that I would rather do the right thing by the community and by the country and risk losing my job than vote for people in my constituency and across the country to lose theirs, which is where I think we’re heading if we have a hard Brexit,” he says.
More than Brexit, it is the apparent unpopularity of his party leader that is causing a bigger problem on the doorstep. Streeting, who co-chairs the all-party parliamentary group on British Jews, has been one of the Labour MPs most critical of Jeremy Corbyn, and even in the midst of an election campaign is bracingly honest about the matter.
“There is always pressure in an election campaign to be unquestionably and uncritically loyal and to say things you don’t believe in the name of party unity,” he says.
“[But] I can’t pretend that I haven’t said the things about Jeremy Corbyn that I’ve said in the last four years. I can’t pretend that I have confidence in Jeremy when I voted no confidence in Jeremy, and I can’t pretend not to be one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal critics in Labour because there have been too many areas where the problem has been Jeremy’s leadership.”
There are around 6,500 Jews in Ilford North and Streeting says he has met many lifelong Labour voters who are now “agonising” over whether to support the party again because of fears over antisemitism.
“We’ve put Jewish Labour voters in an absolutely invidious position and I’m not just sorry but angry beyond words that we’ve put them in this position,” he says. “I’ve had to apologise to people on the doorstep for the fact that Labour has presented them with this moral dilemma.
“These people are lifelong Labour voters who now feel there is a conflict between being Jewish and voting Labour. That’s an appalling situation.”
Streeting says he is trying to reassure the Jewish community that his support is “unconditional” and that he will continue campaigning against antisemitism in Labour “even if the Jewish vote simply collapsed and even if not a single Jewish voter in Ilford North voted for me”.
Yet he accepts that, for all his efforts, the record of his party leadership means he will lose the support of many Jewish voters who previously voted for him.
“I just think it’s the inevitable consequence of failing to listen and failing to act in response to serious concerns about antisemitism in the Labour Party. There are too many cases, including high profile cases, where people have used the most appalling language or behaved in the most appalling way and are still members of the party. That is the litmus test of whether we’re taking it seriously and I’m afraid then when leading figures are saying ‘we have done all we can’, that is simply not true.”
So does Streeting actually want to see Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10?
There is a pause of almost 10 seconds before he says he wants to see a Labour government, but adds, tellingly: “When people go to the ballot box, particularly at this election, they’ve got to vote for the person they think would be the best MP.”
The local Tories, meanwhile, are doing their best to exploit concerns about the Labour leadership. Their candidate, Howard Berlin, is placing Brexit at the heart of his campaign.
He is a local councillor, a campaigner against building on the greenbelt and has lived in Ilford for more than 30 years. He is also a distant relative of Irving Berlin – his grandfather, he says, was the composer’s first cousin and grew up 18 miles away from him in modern-day Belarus, before Irving moved to the United States and made a name as one of the world’s great songwriters. Howard also has his riffs in order. Like Tory candidates across the country, he is promising to “get Brexit done”.
“Brexit is the number one issue,” he says. “Ilford North is a Leave constituency – 53.3% voted Leave. I voted Leave and we should respect the democratic decision, not just of Ilford North but of the whole country, and it’s not happening at the moment because the Labour candidate is blocking and has blocked for the last two years.”
Berlin is committed to backing Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, and says local people are “disappointed” in Streeting for not. “They use the word betrayal,” he says. “The people who are trying to block the democratic will of the nation should be listening to the people that won the referendum, not those that lost the referendum.”
That aside, he is reluctant to directly criticise his Labour rival, saying the two have pledged to have a “clean fight” and that he will “not have anybody bad-mouth” Streeting on the doorstep.
It is a different matter, however, when it comes to Corbyn, and he says the Labour leader’s record on antisemitism has been raised on the campaign trail by Jewish and non-Jewish voters alike.
“Wes is a decent guy, but his boss Jeremy Corbyn isn’t. I think he agrees with me on that… I don’t need to say on the doorstep that Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic, because people say it to me, and not just Jewish people. It’s incredible. Certainly the Indian community are very, very concerned about it. Jeremy Corbyn’s friends are terrorists. Whether it’s the terrorists in Kashmir or terrorists in Hamas or Hezbollah or the IRA.” Is Berlin confident of winning the seat back for the Tories? “It’s going to be close, but we’re enjoying ourselves. We’re the underdogs but we’ve seen in politics that the underdogs have won.”
The Liberal Democrats also insist they have momentum, although it would not be hard for them to make progress in a seat where they won just two percent of the vote in 2017. Their candidate, Mark Johnson, 25, works in advertising and is standing for the first time. He is hoping to benefit from disillusionment with the two main parties.
“In Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, you’ve got two men who are not fit to be prime minister,” he says. “I do think in this campaign in Jo Swinson we’ve got a leader who cuts a striking figure in comparison to them and would be good to leader.” He is warning voters about Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, saying that even if it is approved by Parliament, it could lead to “a damaging Brexit” if no trade deal is in place by the end of 2020, when the transition period ends.
He believes the Liberal Democrats will cause a few upsets, saying internal party polling suggests they are 10-12% higher than they were in 2017. “There’s a lot of momentum behind us across London,” he says. “The Lib Dems will surprise people around the country at this election.”