Finchley and Golders Green, the rump of Margaret Thatcher’s former constituency, is shaping up to be an epic three-way battle with significance beyond the symbolic.
Two key things will be tested in this staunch Remain-supporting seat. Will Conservative remainers put Brexit sentiment above party loyalty? Will Jewish Labour voters defect amid concerns over anti-Semitism?
Luciana Berger, herself a Jewish defector from Labour over anti-Semitism, is the new Liberal Democrat kid on the block, seeking to win over both groups of doubters and overturn the majority held by Tory incumbent Mike Freer. In the 2017 general election, the Lib Dems mustered just 3,463 votes, 21,136 behind the Tories and 19,479 behind Labour, but a recent Survation poll has surprisingly put her in the lead.
Ms Berger is seemingly both the front-runner and the rank outsider. But what do voters say? The Standard joined all three candidates as they went door-to-door to find out. Berger, 38, in her newly acquired yellow coat, took us to wealthy Hampstead Garden Suburb, where the anti-Semitism debate looms large. Jacob Keene, a liberal Jew in his sixties, told her: “My wife and I are life-long Labour supporters but we are voting for you. We can’t support Boris and we don’t like Jeremy. If you hadn’t stood, I don’t know what we would have done.”
Ms Berger said: “I hear this a lot on the doorstep, people saying ‘I don’t know what’s worse, Boris or Jeremy?’ We offer a positive alternative.”
She believes the Jewish vote is significant, not just because it is 23 per cent of the local electorate but because a large number of people with Jewish neighbours (known as being “Jew adjacent”) are sympathetic to their concerns.
Mr Freer, 59, a Tory whip who styles himself as “a one-nation Conservative friend of the Jews”, is clearly rattled. “If Luciana wants to fight anti-Semitism, why doesn’t she go to Islington and stand against Corbyn?” he said.
On the doorstep in Golders Green, Mr Freer found support for this view among orthodox Jews. Danny Feiner, a businessman, said: “Berger thinks because she’s Jewish, she’ll get the Jewish vote, but she won’t. Many of us are angry with her for standing against Mike who is a friend of Israel and the Jewish community.”
Janet Gilbert, a Leave-supporting Jewish pensioner, added: “Berger is a complete opportunist. I worry about Corbyn getting in and that a vote for Berger allows Jeremy in through the back door.”
But Ms Berger, who gave up a safe seat in Liverpool, denied this. “As it happens, this is where I have a home and this is where my 100-year-old grandmother lived until she died a few weeks ago,” she said. “I am not expecting the Jewish community to vote for me just because I am Jewish. This is essentially a Remain constituency and the fact is, the Lib Dems are the only party of Remain.”
Ross Houston, 52, the Labour candidate, agrees that Brexit is the biggest issue on the doorstep. As he walked round the Strawberry Vale estate in the Labour heartland of East Finchley, he said: “The Lib Dem ‘revoke’ policy is anti-democratic and Johnson’s ‘let’s get Brexit done’ policy goes against the grain. Ours is the only credible position.” Jean Tono, 50, an MPhil student at Birkbeck, University of London, said: “Boris’s position is ruinous, the Lib Dems’ is irresponsible, I will support Labour.” Yet a few doors down, his neighbour, David, was scathing. “I prefer Labour’s policies, but I want nothing to do with Corbyn. He is a complete nutcase. If he wasn’t leader, it’s a level race. But as it stands, I will vote Freer.”
Mr Houston, a local councillor and housing officer, said he worried Ms Berger would cannibalise his vote and let in the Tories. “Yes, we have a job to do to rebuild the confidence of the Jewish community, but Berger and the Lib Dems have no base here. This is a race that only me or Freer can win.”
But Ms Berger was feeling the love as she walked down Golders Green Road, with voters clamouring to shake her hand. She is booked to do house meetings called “Luciana in your lounge” with over 40 scheduled. She added: “This is an election like no other where tribal loyalties are being put to one side. I’ve got a strong chance.”