The Labour Party “has to prove it is not institutionally antisemitic”, says its parliamentary candidate for the Jewish community stronghold of Hendon, David Pinto-Duschinsky. And he adds that the events of the last months in respect of antisemitism in the party “break my heart”.
Pinto-Duschinsky, who actually lives in Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington constituency, was perhaps a surprise choice by Hendon Labour Party when he won the local nomination last October. But the management consultant is no stranger to the inner workings of Whitehall and Westminster, having served as a special adviser to Chancellor Alistair Darling in the last Labour government.
He also has experience of challenging big beasts: in the 2015 general election he stood against the then chancellor, George Osborne, in his Tatton, Cheshire, constituency, not really expecting to win but actually coming a respectable second, and “giving Osborne a run for his money”.
Today, however, Pinto-Duschinsky has Hendon on his mind and is working assiduously to familiarise himself with the area, currently represented by Conservative Matthew Offord with a slender majority of just over 1,000 votes.
And the Labour candidate has quite a family story for the Jewish voters of Hendon. His father, the academic Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, is a long-time campaigner on behalf of Jewish slave labourers for the Nazis, a campaign born of his own turbulent history.
Michael Pinto-Duschinsky was born in Munkacz, Ukraine, in 1943. He came to Britain with his mother as a child after the war, and, adopted by distant relatives who were Sephardi, took on the “Pinto” part of his surname, one his son intends to keep. “My father was the first man on his father’s side of the family not to be a rabbi in seven generations”, says the candidate, adding that for his own sake, and that of his eight-year-old daughter, he believes it is “very important” to know where the family comes from.
He himself is a member of Finchley Progressive Synagogue and also of the Jewish Labour Movement.
It would be fair to say he is passionate about the Labour Party — but he acknowledges he may have a struggle convincing Hendon’s Jews. “The party has to prove it is not institutionally antisemitic”, he says. “It has a problem with antisemitism, and I have said so publicly. It has to do much more to address the problem, and it hasn’t moved as fast as it should have done”.
He said he welcomed the EHRC probe into antisemitism in Labour, and said that Jackie Walker’s expulsion from the party was “a positive thing” — although he felt it should have happened long before. “Labour has so much more to do on this, and it hasn’t done enough. But we are beginning to see movement — and some of the events of the last months have been a wake-up call.”
Optimistically, Pinto-Duschinsky says he “wants to build a Labour Party that Jewish people are proud to vote for. This country, and this constituency, desperately need change”. But, he says: “I don’t want to see a future where we have to choose between who we are, our identity, and our politics. That’s why I am staying and fighting”.
Though he says he “completely understands people’s reservations and concerns” about Labour, nevertheless he is working hard to get to know the constituency and to present a listening ear to the local electorate. To this end he has even started holding surgeries to hear what people have to say and do what he can to help, and claims to have had a few successes in localised campaigns, such as the saving of the Railway Tavern pub in Hendon. Moreover, Pinto-Duschinsky pledges that if elected, “I will always put the area first, and I will always speak out if the party is not doing enough”.
But the core problem for any Labour candidate in the so-called “bagel belt” seats is how to convince voters that by electing them, they are not also effectively helping Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. Pinto-Duschinsky is not immune to this dilemma. “I want a Labour government”, he says, “and Jeremy Corbyn is the head of our party…I’m fine with that. I think a Labour government will bring real change, and that’s what Hendon needs”.
He is doing his best within difficult parameters. He says, for example, that he was “completely gutted” that Luciana Berger left the Labour Party and says she was “bullied out by a small band of racist thugs. I don’t think the party did enough, very clearly”.
And, as a member of the Jewish Labour Movement, Pinto-Duschinsky says it would be “a complete tragedy” if JLM disaffiliated from Labour. “It would be very sad indeed if it left, as one of the original affiliates of the Labour Party it is a reminder that Jewish people built the Labour Party. These things are a wake-up call.”
He says he views Jewish Voice for Labour as “a fringe organisation who don’t reflect the views of the community. I don’t think they have much of a positive contribution to make and they have been used by people to legitimise their antisemitism”.
Away from politics, the candidate is an avid Arsenal fan — “both my crime and my punishment”. But there is the distinct sense that for David Pinto-Duschinsky, doing what he can to become MP for Hendon in the next parliament is a deeply personal campaign. We say goodbye and he is off to his next meeting — with a local rabbi.